Colonizing the Story

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I begin this by acknowledging my places of privilege and power, and the intersection of my life and identities. I write this piece as a queer, cis-gender White woman of lower-middle class who grew up in rural Northern Minnesota in a family of learned racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

This morning, I came across a post on Facebook paraphrasing part of a conversation from Canada Reads. If you're unfamiliar with this, it is an annual "battle of the books" hosted by the CBC. Five books, five Canadian celebrities, five days of debate before one book is determined to be the year's book that all Canadians should read. This year, the shortlist includes books by an Indian-Canadian woman, an Indian woman living in Canada, an Indigenous Canadian woman, a Canadian man born in the United Kingdom, and a Canadian man born to Black and white immigrant parents from the United States. 

The group debating the book (each defending one title) is equally diverse: a Canadian former WWE wrestler, a Canadian former Olympian and world traveler, a Canadian businessman born in Trinidad, a Canadian man of Indian descent, and a refugee woman of Indian descent born in Uganda. I share all of this information to accurately describe the group having a conversation about one of Canada Reads finalists: Birdie, written by Indigenous woman Tracey Lindberg.

During today's debate, a conversation was had by the panel about the narrative structure and arc of Birdie. One panelist, with a background in the film industry, complained that the book doesn't follow a logical story arc and therefore is not accessible to general readers. Other panelists nodded in agreement, but the man tasked with defending Birdie made a very specific and clear argument: 

Indigenous people are descendants of nomads. They don’t look at time the same way that we do. They map out their time based on places and the way they felt.

So for you to read it and expect a linear story as the script is colonizing the book. You’re trying to make the book respond to how you want it to respond. 

FULL STOP

 

Colonizing the book? For a few moments, I could barely breathe. Here is a man defending the structure of a book written by an Indigenous woman as specifically authentic to the culture of the author, and calling out another for attempting to colonize the story because it doesn't ascribe to a traditional, linear Western story arc.

In all my years of writing, I have seen this kind of story policing from various sources. In academic writing programs, in small presses and major publishing houses, in public k-12 education systems. For centuries, the dominant culture (or the invading culture) has articulated the how and why of written work. The adage that history is written by the invaders is entirely true, as evidenced by every single book and newspaper. White (European, British, colonial, invading) stories are the dominant stories, and as such they determine the narrative, dialogue, and even the form in which stories are heard. 

So how is it that we acknowledge the colonization of literature, and how do we mitigate the effects of this experience to honor diverse voices and storytelling processes?

We acknowledge that it exists. 

As dominant white culture, it is our duty to make space for other voices to be heard. When the loudest voice in the room is silent, it perpetuates the status quo. When the loudest voice in the room says "Hey, let's listen to someone else for a while," other voices get to speak. 

We also have to listen. 

When we are accustomed to privilege, not being the loudest/biggest/strongest voice in the room can feel like we are the ones being oppressed. But I assure you -- this is not the case. Centuries of dominance have given us the perception of privilege being the same as equality. But when we sit down, step aside, and shut up to hear the voices of those truly oppressed, we discover what diversity and equality really look like. 

We stop "correcting" ways of storytelling, writing, and sharing history.

If we stop policing how a story is told, we open the world to a new possibility -- that an individual's story could be told by them, exactly as they desire to tell it, and that it is valid and authentic. When we look at "canon" and the same books that are being read in schools across the globe -- the things we call "good literature" -- we discover they are the same stories told in the same ways. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the same old stories. I want to read work that is new, different, unexpected, and challenges me in ways large and small. I want to think about what I'm reading, not just enjoy it. I want to be inspired to ask questions and open space for dialogue. 

We begin publishing new, diverse works -- and we defend the space they take up.

This is the biggest one for me. As part of In Her Room, I am consciously inviting guests of all backgrounds. The show is about building and sustaining women's writing community, and this includes all women. Those who say yes and join me in conversation are adding to and taking up their rightful space in this community. As I begin sending invitations to potential Season Two guests, I am consciously asking more and more women of backgrounds different from my own because I want to be pushed, challenged, and inspired by everyone who puts words to the page. 

When we allow space for stories to be told in an authentic manner -- in the voice, style, and cadence of the storyteller -- we are committing to a new way of being in literary community. We are pushing our own edges and asking hard questions of ourselves as members of the dominant culture, and we are stepping aside to listen and honor the stories of oppressed, colonized people. This is how we make change in our communities. Not by speaking up louder, but by quieting our voices and handing the microphone to another. By valuing their experience and their humanness as we value our own. By breaking down the walls of other and sharing what it means to live in the culture that has been created -- and by dismantling this culture to discover a new way of living in community.