Joseph Boyden controversy sheds light on community and belonging

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I found Joseph Boyden's interview Wednesday on CBC -- in a word rarely called for -- unctuous. He surfaced three weeks after saying he wouldn't deal with questions about his Indigeneity publicly but only in a "speaking circle." This after filling what he calls "airtime" for 10 years on every form of media.

Now he's back out there on CBC and in the Globe, though solely with "acceptable" interviewers. APTN, which started all this with a cautious, respectful piece by Jorge Barrera on Boyden's claims, called it a "PR push."

Boyden's language was strikingly vague for someone who writes literary fiction. He talked about stories told in his family but gave few examples, instead repeatedly calling them "beautiful" and "amazing." He said Holy Mackerel and Ohmygosh. He denied making things up but host Candy Palmater didn't push very hard. As she said, they're friends and "I know it would be a different conversation if we were alone over a glass of wine." As troublemaker Robert Jago bracingly tweeted: "Candy Palmater. WTF?"

Regrets, he had a few, but mostly for being so famous. He said he'd been "too much of a go-to guy" on "pan-Indigenous issues" and "taking too much airtime." He "should be allowing others" to speak. He was voluntarily pulling back to make room.

So he apologized, but not regarding the basic challenge. The issue wasn't really airtime, though it's been mentioned. Or Aboriginal identity. That's a complex subject being handled within the community on which there's lively, informed debate, as Terry Glavin noted in the National Post. The rest of us can listen and learn. Nor was it over "appropriation of voice." (For what it's worth I think all fiction is ipso facto appropriation of voice.) The core issue was: did he embellish, misrepresent or lie? To that he basically said, "No."

It was frustrating and bogged down in platitudes ("I care about my past and my past is fascinating ... ") versus confronting precise criticisms. It would've been far more valuable for Boyden to accept an APTN invitation to appear there (where things first got rolling). It's pretty clear why he chose not to.

I'd also like to reflect on these topics from the standpoint of being non-Indigenous and, in particular, Jewish.

  • I would say efforts by non-natives to put things into perspective haven't been useful and can be embarrassing. I'm thinking of Jonathan Kay in The Walrus and on CBC, paternalistically drawing lessons from 20th-century history, e.g., "attacking a man's racial composition is never an entirely benign exercise." By never, he means Europe in the 20th century. I don't think a 500-year genocide against native peoples in the Western hemisphere needs to be set in the frame of relatively recent atrocities in Europe. If anything, lessons could go in the reverse direction. But really, it's not a competition.
  • Enthusiastically discovering or claiming hidden roots isn't confined to Indigeneity. Everyone now knows about Grey Owl and others but I'm stunned at how impressed people can be by the revelation of some Jewish genealogical connection. ("Wow, that explains how smart you are, and why you're such close friends with X") This fascination too is an old pattern. Disraeli used it to build his career in Victorian England. We remain surprisingly excitable when it comes to haphazard genetic linkages.
  • When this controversy first began I didn't think questions and markers like "Where are you from?" or "Who are your people?" had much to do with my own Jewishness. But that's only because I took them so for granted. I grew up at a synagogue, in a Jewish area, had a bar mitzvah, went to Jewish summer camps, lived in Israel, attended a seminary, then left it -- I may have felt my recent conflicts within my community somehow obliterated those ties but really you can't be disowned or disclaimed, if you aren't already owned and claimed.

What makes you part of a community is those concrete connections, known to you and acknowledged by others. It isn't the stories you hear or tell, pace Boyden ("My family told me: You are the stories that we've always known ... I am my stories ... ")

The basis of community isn't storytelling. The basis of community is community, in which stories make sense -- not the reverse. Any claim that stories are the basis of it all, is just self-promotion by the writer class.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Peter Wolf/flickr

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