The Week's Conversations: #AppropriationPrize, MMIWG Inquiry, Current Reads, Soccer under Assad, The National

A weekly conversation between friends.

#AppropriationPrize Sheds Light on the Hypocrisy and Relevance of Canadian Media

Electric Circus was a fixture in my home for much of the early 90s. On most Friday nights, my parents would turn on MuchMusic while making or eating dinner to catch sweaty people dance up and on each other to C+C Music Factory, Haddaway, La Bouche, and Culture Beat at 299 Queen Street West in Toronto.

My parents, immigrants from India in their mid-40s at the time, didn’t appreciate the music or the dancing, which, to be clear, was phenomenal. That’s not why they were watching the show. They watched for Monika Deol, the exuberant Indo-Canadian woman hosting Electric Circus.

Deol was confident, charismatic, and to my family, represented a mark of achievement for Indo-Canadians in Canada. In an era where people of colour were rarely seen on Canadian television, here was Deol hosting the coolest television show in the country.

It was a milestone that filled my family with pride, and ensured that as a child, I was more familiar with the catalogue of Crystal Waters and Martha Wash than Rafi or Fred Penner.

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Electric Circus is what comes to mind when I think about the importance of media representation in Canada. The events of the past few weeks concerning #AppropriationPrize are a clear indication that while the makeup of this country has changed dramatically over the past three decades, the people who occupy key positions in Canadian media and journalism do not reflect the population. The episode also reveals that those in these positions of power seem uninterested in genuinely attempting to eradicate barriers that women and people of colour face within the industry.

The most recent iteration of this long-standing discussion stems from the 'call to pen' issued by Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, a magazine published by the Writers' Union of Canada, to white writers to actively appropriate the experiences of others, including Indigenous peoples in Canada. Niedzviecki later apologized, and admitted that his piece was 'tone-deaf' for not considering the history of white male writers appropriating the experiences of people of colour, and in the process excluding their voices on these topics. But the apology didn't stop a cadre of elite editors and journalists coming to Niedzviecki's aid, and doubling down with the creation of an #AppropriationPrize that would be awarded to what would ostensibly be the white writer who best ripped off the experiences of non-white people in Canada.

After raising approximately $3,500.00 in a few hours, the expected transpired: others in the industry, particularly people of colour, called these men out for their hypocrisy. On one end, the organizations these editors and journalists headed committed to including more diverse writers and perspectives in their ranks, but at the same time they were personally sponsoring a prize that encouraged the exclusion of the same diverse voices. Apologies followed, including from the likes of Steve Ladurantaye, whom I used to admire, and hope to do so again.

Others continued on with the exceptionally lazy argument that this was all political correctness run amok, with writers regularly borrowing from the experiences of other people and cultures. Some even ventured into the territory that criticisms of Niedzviecki amounted to the suppression of free expression, undermining the underpinnings of our society.

Murad Hemmadi deftly cuts down this argument in his Maclean's piece, which is the best I have read on the episode:

The response is just the kind of willful misunderstanding that suits the anti-PC crowd so well. Writing about another race or identity group is not necessarily itself cultural appropriation. Rather, it’s when those ideas are cut wholesale out of context and then presented as the taker’s own. And it’s particularly when the taker is rewarded for something the taken-from wouldn’t be. An “appropriation prize” is literally the ultimate example of this—giving a writer a reward specifically for taking ideas from Indigenous people and people of colour who are systematically prevented from profiting from their creations or cultures themselves.

In this section, Hemmadi critiques Jonathan Kay's response to the critics of Niedzviecki by glibly calling for Harper Lee's body to be exhumed "to castigate her for appropriating the experiences of African American men?” (Hemmadi goes on to catalogue Kay's poor track record when it comes to encouraging diverse voices in Canadian media, which we have commented on theread before. Over the weekend, Kay resigned as Editor-in-Chief of the Walrus).

The fatuous response of Niedzviecki, Kay, and others senior figures in Canadian media questions the place of Hemmadi and other minority journalists relative to their white counterparts. But, it goes even further, as the episode pulled back the curtain and revealed what these individuals actually think about the diversity initiatives of their respective organizations.

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A friend of mine who works as a freelance journalist recently told me about the response an editor provided to a pitch he made earlier this year. My friend writes primarily on health and social issues around addiction. He had heard about the high rates of alcohol and other substance abuse-related deaths among relatively affluent Indo-Canadian men in the Fraser Valley, and considered this to be a story worth exploring. The editor turned down the pitch, asking why the average reader would care about addiction issues within a specific ethnic community in the Abbotsford/Mission area. The editor advised my friend that he would be more successful if he wrote about addiction issues impacting mainstream communities.  

As a reader rather than a journalist, I don't understand the editor's hesitation. I make a point of buying what I read, and would read an article on addiction issues among Indo-Canadian men in the Fraser Valley. Just as I have consumed all the works of Mordecai Richler chronicling Jewish life in Montreal. Or actively seek out articles documenting the challenges Vancouver's Chinatown faces with each new luxury condo development and high end restaurant opening. Or how Indigenous peoples and communities are asserting their rights and place in Canada in this “era of reconciliation”. These are all important stories in the Canada I live in, regardless if I belong to these communities or not.

At its core, journalism is about helping people understand their world. The fact that these stories all involve minority communities shouldn’t be the reason not to cover them. Instead, that should be the very reason why the media should cover these stories. Stories like this help us better understand the extremely diverse country we live in and the people we live in it with. And, as someone whose intercultural competency is tested daily, this is valuable journalism that is worth my money.

The Canadian media landscape is in the midst of a transformation: revenues and readership are declining, and everyone is preoccupied with figuring out how to make journalism work in the digital age. My advice is to tell the stories that are relevant to Canadians — all Canadians. Hire the people who can best tell these stories and shed light on what’s happening, rather than advocating appropriation as a preferred method. In simple terms: ensure that those telling the stories, and the stories themselves, reflect the audience that they are seeking to inform.

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Canada Continues to Fail Indigenous Women and Their Families

The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) has announced it will delay meetings with family members until the fall (with the exception of one meeting scheduled for the end of May). CBC has good coverage of the Inquiry, including outreach to the families of MMIWG and the groups representing them. They report that while the Inquiry spokesperson attributes this delay to requests from families wishing to spend the summer hunting, at least 23 families that CBC spoke to said they had never made any such request, and further, that 70% of cases involving MMIWG occurred in urban areas, where communities don’t necessarily shut down over the summer months.

Laurie Odjick, whose daughter, 16-year-old Maisy Odjick, went missing from Kitigan Zibi in Quebec in 2006, also sits on the advisory circle. She said she is disappointed with the commission's decision to postpone the hearings. "To see everything unfold, they're not even listening," Odjick told CBC News. … "It's just time for us to be vocal about this. Because this is not our inquiry, it's not a 'family first' model whatsoever.”

We reiterate that it is extremely disappointing to see this process be bungled, as Indigenous women and girls remain at higher risk of violence.

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What We're Reading Right Now

I’m reading Don’t Say That We Have Nothing by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien. It’s a sprawling, intergenerational novel that charts the history and lives of a family of poets and musicians scattered across China and eventually Canada.The story focuses particularly on the political upheavals of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

Thien’s prose is lyrical, but without flourish. It reminds me at times of Murakami’s IQ84, and of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude at others. The story is detailed, ambitious, and frightening in its depiction of authoritarian control and paranoia.

“Should any doubt remain, Do Not Say We Have Nothing will cement Madeleine Thien as one of Canada’s most talented novelists, at once a successor to Rohinton Mistry and a wholly singular stylist,” writes David B. Hobbs in a review for the Globe. In 2016, the novel received the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

This week, I also started Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by the late British historian Tony Judt. Published in 2005, the book is Judt’s ambitious and controversial attempt “to expound the sum total of Europe since 1945 in a seamless narrative.”It’s like 800 pages, and I just started it, but there are already some interesting things going on. One argument that sticks out so far, is the rather heavy assertion that Europe’s stability over the past half century stems partly from the campaigns of ethnic cleansing and the forced movement of populations that took place during and after World War II, which created a continent of more or less neatly ordered ethno-national states.

Europe’s tendency to forget or ignore its own recent history, Judt seems to argue, helps to explain the continent’s current instability, and its struggles to integrate new waves of immigrants and refugees:

“The new presence of Europe’s living ‘others’ — perhaps fifteen million Muslims in the EU as currently constituted [2005], with a further eighty million awaiting admission in Bulgaria and Turkey  — has thrown into relief not just Europe’s current discomfort at the prospect of ever greater variety, but the also the ease with which the dead ‘others’ of Europe’s past were case far out of mind. Since 1989 it has become clearer than it was before just how much the stability of post-war Europe rested on the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated were then laid.”

Yikes.

— Richie

This week I read Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter. It’s written in a sardonic, self-deprecating style that I used to think was cool, and now am somewhat bored of. And while she’s a deft writer and the essays are well paced, none of the personal stories yielded anything I found profound. Nonetheless, one must appreciate the diversity in this collection, with essays on Indian weddings, immigrant nostalgia, schoolyard racism, twitter harassment, drinking as a woman, insecurities regarding body hair, and letting go of toxic friendships.

Koul has an easy way of sketching out characters which makes this collection a companionable one to spend time with, if nothing else. My favourite part is the author bio written by Koul’s father (“I am almost certain she has presented me in a very poignant and loving way. Or again I could be delusional. If I am presented as crank or an Indian version of Archie Bunker then my revenge would be complete because I named her Scaachi with silent C.” (Grammar is true to the bio since as Papa K says: “punctuation… is elites trying to keep bourgeoisie like us down.”)), my second favourite part is the chapter-closing text exchanges between Koul and her father, and my third favourite part is her conveyance of the mundanities that sustain a close-knit family.

Verdict: good for the subway, but doesn’t merit a quiet, uninterrupted afternoon of reading.

If you have read Koul’s book and liked it, then may I suggest the art of Jen Mann, which another theread editor discovered this week. A documentary about her, The Self Practice, perfectly encapsulates an artist in her 20s, and Toronto, and white feminism, and also (the dangers of?) introspection. (Seriously, props to the filmmaker, it’s well done.) In Mann’s words: “There’s definitely cynicism in my work, and humour, and maybe something comforting, but also something off-putting and painful. There’s a slickness and a beauty to it that kinda draws you in, and then there’s something maybe a little painful when you eventually look into the image and you connect with it, kinda like draws you in to just hurt a little bit but then makes its all better by making you laugh at yourself or making you laugh at me.” This sums up One Day as well.

I have just started reading Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, which interrogates the concept of conservation and its assumed aim of returning nature to a pristine, pre-human state, and Dan Pearson’s Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden, a collection of his gardening columns published over the past 10 years. Pearson is the Nigel Slater of the gardening world, his sensitive depictions of even the most common plants send one drifting off into daydreams that are actually achievable, in the same way that Slater can elevate a basic 4-ingredient meal into something you want, and will, and do eat immediately with more enjoyment than you would have had you thought of the idea independently.

— Amy

I recently read Vivek Shanbhag's brilliant novella Ghachar Ghochar. Originally written in Kannada, a language spoken by approximately 50 million people in India (making it the language of a minority linguistic group in the country), it was soon translated to Hindi, and then English, which resulted in glowing reviews by The New York Times Book Review, New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and others.

At a little over 100 pages, Ghachar Ghochar chronicles a Bangalorean joint-family that navigates the new economic order in India to escape its lower-middle class existence and find money, power, and influence, shedding some aspects of its humanity in the process. With comparisons to Chekov, Shanbhag is a master of conjuring up a sense of dread and uneasiness through his sparing prose.

— Avi

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"A bloody, violent fight for the soul of soccer in Syria"

The World Cup, like the Olympics, is a tournament that seems exceptionally prone to scandal. The 2015 FIFA corruption crisis and the use of “modern-day slavery” in the lead-up to Qatar 2022 are just a couple of examples. It’s also stage for symbolic geopolitics — Germany and Japan were not permitted to compete in the 1950 tournament, and South Africa was banned from the tournament from 1966 until 1992 for violating FIFA’s anti-discrimination charter. In some cases, the ‘beautiful game’ can become  a conduit for violence, like the time the Colombian national team’s captain was murdered after a tournament-ending own goal in 1994, or when the players for North Korean national team were allegedly subjected to a six-hour excoriation for "betraying" the communist nation's ideological struggle in 2010.

In recent years, the World Cup’s political drama has shifted to the Middle East.

Following seven months of investigative reporting, ESPN has published a heartbreaking longform piece on Syria’s beleaguered national soccer team, which, despite extraordinary circumstances, has managed an incredible run at its first ever World Cup appearance.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago, the national soccer team has become a battleground between the followers and opponents of Bashar al-Assad, who has sought to leverage the team as a symbol of national unity — the “benign face of a ruthless dictatorship.”

Many of the country’s elite players who oppose Assad’s regime are faced with an almost impossible choice: join the team that ‘represents’ the brutal dictatorship, or boycott the team and abandon their country’s quest for international glory. Those who boycott are often forced to flee the country, and accused of aligning themselves with ISIS or al-Qaida. The decision carries risks either way:

The Syrian government has shot, bombed or tortured to death at least 38 players from the top two divisions of the Syrian professional leagues and dozens more from lower divisions... At least 13 players are missing. Although opposition forces have killed soccer players on a smaller scale -- Ammo attributes four such deaths to ISIS -- the Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded that the Assad government has "used athletes and sporting activities to support ... its brutal oppressive practices." Soccer stadiums have been used as military bases to launch attacks on civilians. From the beginning of the war, according to players, teams were essentially forced to march in support of Assad, sometimes carrying banners and wearing T-shirts with the president's image.

Despite the clear political interference by the Syrian government, FIFA has refused to interfere, stating only that the situation was “beyond its control”. “Backed by FIFA's tacit support,” Steve Fainaru concludes, “Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria has woven soccer into its grisly campaign of oppression, tearing apart a generation of players.”

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"The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness", Whatever That Means

True to their name, The National seem to have a knack for capturing the prevailing political mood in America. “We’re half awake in a fake empire, mumbled vocalist Matt Berninger, nearly a decade ago, when George W. Bush was still in the White House. A couple of years later, “Mr. November” became a rallying song for the Obama campaign, galvanizing a a generation of hipsters from Brooklyn. Back in the carefree days of 2010, the band even managed to write an anthem about the challenges of debt for the middle class.

We’re in a different kind of thing now,” Berninger points out, which sounds about right for 2017. “All night you’re talking to God.

“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is the first single off the upcoming Sleep Well Beast, the band’s first album since 2014’s excellent Trouble Will Find Me. In a recent interview, Berninger describes the song as “a hibernation—the dark before the dawn sort of thing… [It’s] less about relationships than it is more of the strange way our world and our idea of identity mutates—sometimes overnight, as we’ve seen recently. It’s an abstract portrait of a weird time we’re in.”

Musically, the track is predictably stellar — for the past decade or more, The National have been one of the most consistent bands in rock or alternative music. Like many of their best songs, it is at once moody and uplifting, featuring a conglomerate of instruments and motifs — in addition to the 4 piece band there are horns, strings, pianos, and a choir — all kept at bay by the metronomical brilliance of drummer Bryan Devendorf. It’s also got a wicked guitar solo, which may be a first for both the band and music in general in 2017. If I was to use a single metaphor, I would liken this song to the feeling one gets after drinking ¾ of a bottle of wine.

The only bad news is that the album doesn’t drop until September.

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The B.C. of B.C. Elections

The B.C. election was last week, and we still don’t know the final outcome. Seriously. Absentee ballots can give the B.C. Liberals a slim majority, or even grant the NDP a plurality, and even a majority. This election isn’t over, and any sort of dissection is premature.

But, there are some interesting storylines emerging, including the rural and urban split in British Columbia, and how the NDP managed to win suburban ridings across the lower mainland.

This rural /urban split is not unique to British Columbia, and is in fact reflected in most jurisdictions in the country, both nationally and in other provinces. Suburban communities seem to be the battleground, swing ridings, with the party carrying them likely the one that becomes government.

The same might be true here, but we won’t know until May 24, 2017.

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Links From This Week's Thread

Just a few weeks ago, the American author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon passed away. This week, The Atlantic published an incredibly sad and moving posthumous essay he composed titled Lola’s Story: A Story of Slavery in Modern America. “She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.”

Award-winning journalist Javier Valdez, who started his own independent newspaper to pursue stories on Mexico’s drug cartels, knew intimately the dangers he faced in dedicating his life to exposing crime and corruption associated with the drug trade. On Monday he was dragged from his car and shot dead. Read more on Valdez from the BBC or for an overview of recent violence against Mexican journalists turn to The Guardian.

Just two years before the start of World War II, Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King traveled to Berlin to meet another world leader that he greatly admired: Adolf Hitler. Writing in the National Post, Tristin Hopper retells the story in all its wacky details. “King went into obsessive detail about Hitler’s background, his vegetarianism, his love of nature, his alleged religiousness. He remembered every detail from the meeting: How Hitler positioned his hands, what he was wearing, his “knowing smile” and his “smooth” skin.” (As Paula Simons noted on Facebook, King was an anti-semite in his own right, responsible for many of Canada’s pre-WWII anti-semitic policies).

In Our Midst: what separates friendships from factions?

How reporting on a murder trial stirred memories of Lucas Meyer’s brother’s death.

A Murderous History of Korea:  "How does a puffed-up, vainglorious narcissist, whose every other word may well be a lie (that applies to both of them, Trump and Kim Jong-un), come not only to hold the peace of the world in his hands but perhaps the future of the planet? We have arrived at this point because of an inveterate unwillingness on the part of Americans to look history in the face and a laser-like focus on that same history by the leaders of North Korea."

The return of indie rock continues: Fleet Foxes have released a lovely new track titled “A Fool’s Errand” — their first new material since 2011. How I missed these harmonies.

This is neat. Back in 1984, the Japanese department store Muji commissioned the artist Haruomi Hosono to compose in-store background music. The results are pretty wild. Do not listen while driving long distances.

Nina Simone: Her Art and Life in 33 Songs, featuring conversations with Cat Power, Maxwell, and Esperanza Spalding: “That revolutionary Nina feeling runs like a high-voltage current from her earliest American Songbook covers through her Frankfurt School battle cries, folk lullabies and eulogies, blues incantations, Black Power anthems, diasporic fever chants, Euro romantic laments, and experimental classical and freestyle jazz odysseys. It is the signal she sends out to tell us that something is turning, that we may be closing in on some new way of being in the world and being with each other, or we are at least reaching the point of breaking something open.”

Alexis Madrigal on changes to the web over the last 10 years: “Nowadays, (hyper)linking is an afterthought because most of the action occurs within platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and messaging apps, which all have carved space out of the open web. And the idea of “harnessing collective intelligence” simply feels much more interesting and productive than it does now. The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated. And the portrait of humanity that most people see filtering through the mechanics of Facebook or Twitter does not exactly inspire confidence in our social co-productions.” (Don't worry, theread remains dedicated to keeping the hyperlink alive...)

Bless Caity Weaver and her celebrity profile pieces (you may remember her from this gem on Bieber or this one on Kim Kardashian). This time she takes on The Rock and asks the two-part question: how likely is he to a) run for president and b) win. “When Dwayne Johnson meets you (and I can assure you, he would love to), the first thing he will do is ask you six thousand questions about yourself, and remember the answers forever. If you are a child, good luck getting past Dwayne Johnson without a high five or some simulated roughhousing; if you're in a wheelchair, prepare for a Beowulf-style epic poem about your deeds and bravery, composed extemporaneously, delivered to Johnson's Instagram audience of 85 million people; if you're dead, having shuffled off your mortal coil before you even got the chance to meet Dwayne Johnson, that sucks—rest in peace knowing that Dwayne Johnson genuinely misses you.”

A dinosaur fossil recovered from a Suncor site in Fort Mac is so well preserved scientists will likely be able to identify the colour of the scraps of flesh stuck to its scales.

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Amy Sanderson