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Memo to the BBC’s diversity head: Identity is more than what you eat and who you socialize with
Drew Hayden Taylor
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published April 21, 2021 Updated April 21, 2021
Last week, Miranda Wayland, head of creative diversity at the BBC, offered some thoughts on the character the charismatic Idris Elba plays in the popular British television series Luther. When the show first came out, she said, “everybody loved the fact that Idris Elba was in there – a really strong, Black character lead. We all fell in love with him. Who didn’t, right?” But eventually, she reasoned, “you got kind of like, ‘okay, he doesn’t have any Black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.’”
You learn something new every day. We in the Indigenous community have been wrestling with the concept of identity for a while now, and we never guessed it could be figured out so simply.
Now if that’s the accepted way of measuring something like this, I believe that quite probably would make me Black. Yes, I will say it, some of my best friends are Black. And to seal the deal, I eat Caribbean food.
Same principle could be said with Chinese (probably more Cantonese than Mandarin). Definitely Indian (the subcontinent kind, not the feathered kind). And Greek and Italian and so on. My point being I find such criteria – who is in your social bubble and what your Skip The Dishes dinner order contains – a limited way to evaluate a person’s connection to their ethnic heritage or race.
I am by no means an expert on African-Canadian, African-American or simply African cultures in general. If I am to read the subtext of the diversity person’s statement, there is only one kind of Black person on the planet. And they all hang out eating rotis and jerk chicken. If this is so, I have greatly overestimated the variety of Black cultures in the world.
I say this respectfully because, as a First Nations member, I am no stranger to this peculiar thread of logic, and it irks me greatly. Many people make the same assumptions with Indigenous cultures. We are all one mass of Indigeneity – dripping in leather, dreamcatchers and feathers and smelling of salmon rolled in baloney.
Once, back in the 1980s, a white producer I was working with on a documentary told me to my face that he didn’t consider me very “Indian” (as we were known at the time) because I knew too many statistics about Indigenous people., i.e. how many reserves there were in Canada, ratio of Native to non-Natives in the general population. Evidently he felt real Indigenous people didn’t care about such things. We only wanted to skin something.
A thousand years ago I was working on a documentary in Northern Ontario. The crew was following the life of an Indigenous woman trapper and her little girl, who had moved into the wilderness. The little girl, not really believing I was Native due to my eyes and complexion, asked me if I wanted some tea. Busy at the moment, I declined. She immediately cried in victory, “See! You’re not Indian. All Indians drink tea!” Had I been outed, I pondered. I wonder if Luther drinks tea.
When it comes to the varied and amazing world of Indigenous cuisines, there is probably more Indigenously specific food I have not eaten than I have eaten. To explain, I have had my share of bannock in most of the 10 provinces and a few of the American states. But I have not had any elk. I quiver deliciously at the thought of tasty corn soup, but I have not consumed East Coast eels. You cannot swing a dead cat on practically any Indigenous community without consuming moose stew/chili/burgers etc. (and no, we do not eat dead cats), but I have never tried caribou. Manoomin (wild rice) is a standard in my community, but I have never had the opportunity to devour oolichan oil (fish oil). And the list goes on.
Evidently, by this standard, I am not a very convincing Indigenous person. I do, however, have many Indigenous friends, which seems to be an important criteria, but I would hate to have my Indigeneity measured by who I may borrow money from or ask to feed my cat. So I relate very much to Idris Elba and his character’s dilemma.
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Full disclosure, I have never watched the series Luther, and as a result, I don’t know how relevant his skin colour is to what he does and who he is. But for the head of diversity to comment on it, it must be pretty damn important.
I believe Luther is a cop of some sort. I am a playwright/filmmaker of some sort. Frequently I work in a predominantly non-Native environment. It’s the nature of both jobs. I am also aware that Luther is a fictional character and, in theory, I am a real person. But in this post-Joseph Boyden/Michelle Latimer era, it unnerves me to hear people passing judgment on who may or may not be what they may or may not be, be they real or not real. Make sense?
Identity is so complex.
Now I must inform my family that I just may be Black.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
1. Absurdism is a kind of humour that employs the use of bad reasoning as its source of new reasoning. How does Taylor use absurdism to springboard his discussion on race?
2. What are, to you, his most effective examples or points?
3. Beneath any humorous social commentary is a rather trenchant message. What, behind the jokes, is he really commenting on?
4. Who, in your opinion, would either not understand this, or dismiss it outright as silliness (meaning it is irrelevant)?
5. What is the danger of the above attitude?
The lost art of the perfect sentence
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published December 18, 2018 Updated December 18, 2018
Every year a small press called Tightrope Books publishes an anthology called Best Canadian Essays, in which articles that were published in magazines are collected. For the past eight years this series has been overseen by the poet Chris Doda; he engages a new guest editor every time to make the selections. This year the guest editor is the philosopher Mark Kingwell, who writes in his introduction something rather scandalous: “I am not much fetched by personal-voice narratives unless there is some underlying logic to my being there in the first place. … I don’t pay a lot of attention to bio lines or bio notes. … I want to hear intelligence, wit and suppleness of expression.”
One of these very essays continues this bold idea – that “what an essay is about is less important than how it is written” – even more explicitly: “The Future Is the Period at the End of a Sentence” by Peter Babiak is a rant against his students’ linguistic laziness and a furious paean to the power of the perfect sentence. Babiak dismisses “creative expression” as “easy” – it’s grammar, he says, that is “the deep structure of language … the root of all that they dream, think, say and write.”
This kind of aestheticism is, as they say, “problematic” these days, as the aesthetic itself is notoriously divisive, and of course one’s bio is important to prove one’s level of privilege. The idea that elegant and playful writing is better writing privileges those with a certain kind of education, who have the luxury of detachment and defavours (or “erases” as the overwrought contemporary scholarly jargon has it) the true and powerful experiences of the marginalized. Surely a story that exposes an injustice or gives voice to the oppressed is more important than something clever and entertaining?
The thing is, once one is addicted to the stylish one can take little pleasure in the lumpy, no matter how serious the subject matter. The serious is done no favours by an earnest style. Furthermore, to say that this aesthetic interest occurs only in conservative or privileged educational systems is to suggest that writers who do not come from privilege are incapable of being witty, and that is rather condescending.
I don’t think this argument is so present in other countries – especially in Europe, where being clever or funny or even maintaining a certain stylish hauteur is not seen as a moral liability. This is Canada, where we still reward the virtuous over the witty. The vast majority of Canadian novels and short stories lack wit, and they rarely experiment with style that is highly economical or even faintly oblique. There are still so many awkward expository passages that are so obviously an authorial point of view (“They had first settled here in 1956, before the New Families Act of 1958 drove down commodity prices …”), so many clichés (“They had grown up in crippling poverty,” “She felt frozen with fear,” “He had a chiselled jaw”), so many redundant dialogue tags (“’Don’t go in there,’ she warned”), so many exclamation marks!
In fiction, I look for great sentences above all else. And in Canadian fiction these are difficult to find. Publishers are still rewarding lifeless novel-writing if they feel a story is “important.”
The award nominations this year were, on the other hand, pretty good at picking good line-by-line writing.
I think of Patrick deWitt’s gleefully preposterous dialogue: “The customs agent was flummoxed. He asked Malcolm, ‘She is sick, monsieur?’ / ‘She isn’t sick.’ / ‘She does not die?’ / ‘Never.’ / ‘She must not die here,’ the customs agent warned Malcolm. / ‘She’ll die somewhere else,’ Malcolm promised. / The customs agent looked back at Frances. ‘No dying in France.’ He stamped their passports and waved them on.”
I think of Kathy Page’s clever descriptions: “… a tangle of stockings of various thicknesses and similar hues, which looked like the cast-off skins of a large nest of beige and tan snakes.”
Sheila Heti’s febrile and poetic philosophizing: “I resent the spectacle of all this breeding, which I see as a turning-away from the living – an insufficient love for the rest of us, we billions of orphans already living.”
Lisa Moore’s vernacular-inflected stream-of-consciousness: “And your co-worker with his sunrise hair, the winding rosebush tattoo tucking under the sleeve of his employee-issue Shoe Emporium T-shirt, still high from whatever all-nighter and foxy eyes, whose grandmother was the leading expert in cold-water sea cucumbers, no joke, at the Marine Institute and who [Marty] is not even bi but straight-up gay for gosh sakes, like definitely that end of the spectrum, according to him. Sea cucumbers.”
Paige Cooper’s minimalist satire, as spare as haiku: “She gave me a piece of black leather with words stamped in serif. Surgeon. Sensei. Colonist. I left her bill, which was insane, on Moe’s desk.”
Writers like this can make any story interesting, even if it is implausible or frivolous.
So my plea for the new year is: Can we publish more of the stylish, please, and fewer of the workhorses?
1. What is the political element of this article (the parts that speak about an issue such as class or race)?
2. What is the author’s thesis?
3. What parts do you not understand?
4. How important is presentation to you when it comes to a message?
5. Look at the sentences the author gives as examples of stylish writing. What stands out to you?