Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Empty Chair in the True North Strong and Free is Still Empty

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In yesterday’s post about the empty chair at the IFOA reserved for jailed Iranian writer Nasrin Sotoudeh, I put forth the position that writing is first and foremost a political act. This is not a fashionable position here in Canada, ironically except when examining countries other than our own.

While some writers of literary fiction agree that a modern Canadian novel, if simply by virtue of what in includes and excludes, is just as political as one from any other part of the globe, there is also a large body of Canadian writers who espouse an apolitical badge-of-honour stance, openly claiming their work has no political content at all, as if such distance and inoculation were proof of its (and their) literary worth. This really bothers me. I’ll call it short-sighted incongruity and you can decide if it’s hypocrisy. Whenever I hear it, I write it down. Consider the following, all public quotes by Canadian authors that I’ve written down over the last calendar year alone:

“ I’m not here to proselytize, a political novel is the most boring thing in the world.”

“A story writes itself, you are just the vessel. The minute you interject yourself and your beliefs you become a preacher or a soap box stumper, but you cease to be an artist.

“Yes, I’m aware that I write about comfortable white middle class Canadians but so what, that’s universal too.”

"In Canada we have far too many rights and freedoms to worry about those who have yet to understand them. Complainers don't make good literature."

“It’s time to move past the narrow confines of political correctness, time to admit that if a man can write in a woman’s voice, or an aboriginal voice, or a disabled voice then all that matters is the artistic integrity of that voice, and of course he can do that well, so why shouldn’t he?”

Why shouldn’t “he” indeed? I hardly know where to start.

First of all let’s clearly acknowledge that while these comments purport to be individual, personal statements, they in fact total to exactly the opposite. They reflect a clear and consistent collective political stance. One that is right-leaning, smug, self-satisfied and more reflective of the 1950’s than modernity. One that is solved, that dismisses the question, that decides that questions of political art or of appropriation of voice are passé, yesterday’s black that no fashionable Canadian writer would ever consider wearing.

And in many cases they’re preaching to the choir, to audiences disproportionately older and white, wearing too many designer shoes. Such an audience looks in the mirror and nods at the eloquent notion that there is nothing wrong with White Middle Class Men, and the odd gifted middle class woman, being the Guardians and Dispensers of Canadian Culture as long as they do so with some grace, some compassion, and a modicum of good research. When Canadian writers dismiss the question of appropriation of voice as little more than a a buzzing gadfly or a whining joke, the audience of Gucci smiles.

Since I cannot possibly sum up several decades of scholarship on the question of appropriation of voice here, let me speak only from my own limited experience. As a disabled writer, as a particular kind of disabled writer, one who can almost but not quite pass in the able-bodied world, it is not a question of how well any able bodied writer might write about me. They might do it very well. It would be patronizing not to admit that. But the more important question is this: why is someone else getting to write about me? Why can’t I read novels by people like me? Why do I have to settle for someone else getting to write for me? Why am I fit to read about only via able-bodied translation? Am I not worthy of representing my community and writing about myself?

Aren’t we much richer as a nation by having authentic voices as well, voices of lived experience, voices who have faces of colour, or speak from wheelchairs, or walk with canes and who then come up on stages like the IFOA as role models of the diversities of the Canadian experience?

In other words, even if a middle class white man CAN write convincingly in the voice of any marginalized person, the question is SHOULD he? The question is, and always has been, whose voice gets heard? Why should “he” a tourist, be considered an expert on every country “he” visits? Why value second hand expertise when first hand lived experience is longing to be heard?

There is only so much air time, only so much print space, and if “he” uses it up with his impersonation of a marginalized person, we will never hear from marginalized persons. We will never know by just how much we have been duped and short changed. Even by good intentions and good research. I wonder for a second how many white men would sit idly by if Canadian publishers announced that the only writing about white men would now be done exclusively by black women? I can only imagine the mutiny! Because in our hearts we know the difference between authentic and imagined.

As a disabled writer the nuances of my language, the colours and shades of my inhabited country, cannot be fully seen or heard by tourists, even expert tourists. Simply put, no, it is not acceptable to argue that even the best intentioned able-bodied authors should get to be the voice of disabled experience. They can’t speak as authentically as the multiplicities of disabled authors can. They cannot serve as role models. I wouldn’t trade any healthy man writing about how a disabled man might see the universe for Stephen Hawking.

So back to that empty chair. Unless a true disabled voice gets heard, unless a disabled body is seen and heard as the author of a body of writing, then I see myself as relegated to the Canadian version of that empty chair. In our casual brutality, we don’t kill or torture our political writers, we simply let the market place and the ready chorus line of political distancing do our dirty elimination work for us. If we are considered irrelevant and unnecessary, that is exactly what we become.

Silencing occurs by more than a beating or a bullet or a jail cell. It occurs in countries that are not “elsewhere.” As writers, as readers, as audiences, it’s time for some humility and some gratitude, time to acknowledge that we are sitting in a writer’s chair purchased with the blood, sweat and toil of Canadians who knew the first struggle for freedom is the right to be seen and heard.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page