The Joseph Boyden Affair and the San Miguel Writers Conference
I just came back from the San Miguel de Allende writers conference in Mexico that the local writers group organized for the thirteenth year. As I was deeply affected by events, I want to write about it and let others have a peek into this experience.
The first time I attended—last year—I carefully dipped one toe in the water of this ocean of creative talent and their admirers in this balmy enclave of predominantly Anglo attendants, and only picked a small number of events to attend. This year, I selected all the workshops, forums, readings, and presentations I was interested in, and also spoke with two literary agents to test their interest in my latest novel.
I had purchased books by the authors of my interest in advance, Joseph Boyden and Emma Donoghue—both Canadians—who were scheduled, among others, to give evening keynote addresses—generally the highlight of the day. Unfortunately, Emma Donoghue cancelled due to a death in the family.
Prior to the conference week, the locals of San Miguel were offered a special event: a reading and discussion group on Joseph Boyden’s novel Through Black Spruce, with a reception and the opportunity to meet the author. I contacted the organizer of the event and inquired if there was any chance to participate on line, but that was not offered. I only planned for the conference week (costs being the main reason) and did not attend this event.
In tandem with this readers’ event, a second discussion about cultural appropriation and a movie presentation open to the general public took place. Angry Inuk by Canadian filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s would be shown, to bring awareness about another group of indigenous people to the local community and to aid in a discussion about how to survive & maintain cultural integrity within an encroaching western culture. I was alerted by my Twitter feed that the filmmaker Arnaquq-Baril was not informed of the showing and was not invited to be present at the discussion—a prime example of actual cultural appropriation: using a product of another culture for your own purpose, and not involving the maker.
Once arrived in SMA, I attended the multicultural forum, titled Co-Cultural panel: Our Cultures, Ourselves, with authors John Valliant, Rita Dove, Jorge Volpi, and Joseph Boyden on the panel. The questions asked by the moderator were to the point, but in my view rather superficial. In the Q&A minutes the public’s questions were gentle, except one Mexican reader, who charged that Volpe, as a Mexican author, did not write about Mexicans and the troubles in his country. On the question from a reader how the authors felt about writing about a culture that is different than their own, each author’s answered that they felt not part of one particular culture, but of at least two, or more, and that they could write about the various cultures they had experienced by living for a number of years submerged in it, even if not born into it. Boyden literally addressed the elephant in the room and mentioned he would talk about that later in more detail.
Joseph Boyden gave his keynote presentation on the second-last night of the conference, titled: “Creation Myth: One Writer’s Life in Three Simple Steps”. He moved me to tears with his eloquence and his vulnerability. He had selected an excerpt of a story about his suicide attempt as a 16-year old for his readings—tearfully himself—and explained how he uses this story in his work with Indigenous youth, to encourage them to live. His explanations of his family of origin and his multi-ethnic background with predominantly Irish and Scottish heritage and some great-grandmotherly First Nation heritage, was the same he always has provided. He talked about his relationships with Indigenous people in his life and the honorary titles given to him, such as nephew.
He talked about the struggles he has faced in the literary world lately, without going into details what exactly that was about, assuming he was before an informed audience. His defiance was clear to his listeners, as well as his obvious pain, and how unexpected the attacks on him had been to him. It was clear to me that this wounding has led him into a crisis of faith in himself and in the literary world, which is already so very small in Canada; a writer needs every possible supporter.
Boyden obviously is strongly identifying with our Indigenous population, whether sanctioned by the literary community or not. He expressed great compassion for the members of First Nations. He wanted to show his audience the troubles Canada faces—to our shame—and has allowed to linger on, such as the suicide rates among the Indigenous youth, and the murders on women and girls.
He talked about his friend Gord Downie and what his collaboration on the Charlie Wenjack story meant to him. For those who followed Gord’s “Three Day Road” in his last year before the brain tumor got him, the images of Gord and “The Hip” on their goodbye tour as televised by CBC flashed before our eyes. I imagined that, like me, by the end of his address most Canadians in the ballroom were moved to tears, and many others as well.
I am a beginning writer and have reflected on how I must deal with the issue of Boyden’s fall from grace in the Canadian world of writers. I am conflicted and would like to restore my faith in the literary world, for my own sake. To say you need a thick skin is an understatement. As a writer one would need a blindfold and a mask, as well as a clip on your nose against the bad smells, and tiptoe through the world of appropriateness. One mistake and you crash in the fiery pit of condemnation.
Cultural appropriation is an ugly concept and projects a picture of colonialism and exploitation. On the other hand, the development of what is appropriate to write about changes as society changes. What was allowed a century ago, is not anymore. To be an Indian was not a desired status. Nobody wanted to write about Indigenous characters. First Nations’ writers were considered niche writers and didn’t reach the mainstream readers. They were not interesting, not relevant, and white Anglo-Saxon culture was king. Thirty years ago when I lived in northern Alberta, it broke my heart to hear my fellow student say he was ashamed of being an Indian. My classmates showed me they had an uphill battle being taken seriously by mainstream Canadians on all fronts.
Boyden touched on the sore spot in Canadian society by talking about First Nations—Canada’s true founding fathers. I want to give Boyden credit for taking on the subject and for exposing the underbelly of our society: Canada’s treatment of our First Nations. I can forgive him for over-identifying with the subject. Unfortunately, the cultural appropriation issue came alive and it overshadowed the material issues he wrote about.
“I feel like I am standing at the precipice,” he joked, standing on the steps of a sunken living room, prior to facing the discussion group. He is indeed. How is he going to pick up the pieces, and will Canada let him?
Does Boyden even need the approval of the Canadian literary world? I don’t blame him for seeking support for his writing wherever he can find it, even at this weird and unique conference of (mostly) retired “gringos” in Mexico. His books are marvellous and his intentions are good. What more do we want from a writer? I am looking forward to his next novel.