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This report is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.

Letter From Canada:Whose Voice is it, Anyway? Roger Burford Mason

Peace-keepers have taken up their positions, and an armistice has been signed in Canada's long-running literary debate about the appropriation of voice.

The debate, which had smouldered for several years, concerned the thorny notion of who could write what, about whom, and more specifically, whether white, Anglo-Saxon, usually male, writers could be permitted to make imaginative use of the experience, history, culture and ideas of other races.

Though many writers of all colours and ethnic backgrounds had been uneasy about the way white writers 'appropriated' the voices of other experience (a tactic which non-white writers never, apparently, espoused in any form) the debate burst into life when the distinguished white, Mennonite writer and University of Alberta profesor, Rudy Wiebe, took exception to the use W.P. Kinsella made of Canadian Indian history and culture in his novels and short stories.

According to Wiebe, Kinsella - whose best-selling novel, Shoeless Joe, was made into the film, Field of Dreams - not only made cynical use of Indian history and culture in his novels and short stories about the Indians of the fictional Hobema reserve, but rather abused that history and culture, winning literary praise, and financial success, by holding Indians and their way of life up to ridicule and contempt.

He was not, Wiebe's criticism suggested, entitled to imagine nor imaginatively to portray, aspects of human experience which he had not directly experienced. He was engaging in cultural imperialism.

Of course ...

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