We love hearing the unvarnished truth, for a change, so long as it’s not about anything or anyone we love. Unless it’s outright propaganda or boosterism, real stories about real people are always going to piss some people off, even if they’re written by members of the community being depicted. Mordecai Richler is a case in point. We too often forget that, before he was celebrated, Richler was hated, indeed shunned, by much of Montreal’s Jewish community. Why? Because he told his community’s stories to outsiders. He was brutally honest, and, at times, not particularly flattering. The same is true, to some extent, of Leonard Cohen and Tracey Deer, creator of the wildly successful television show Mohawk Girls. Nobody likes to have their community’s dirty laundry aired out in the open for all to see. The truth hurts. But, as the Andrew Potter Affair made clear, the lie hurts more. Having an outsider get you horribly wrong can be profoundly alienating. It’s like you’re a ghost. It’s like you’re not even there. It’s like you’re just a screen onto which they can project their fears and fantasies.
I remember listening to Robert Ludlum, the dude who wrote all of the Bourne novels, talk about how much money writers like him, who specialize in spy thrillers, spend on consultants (mostly retired military, CIA, FBI, etc.). They spend tens of thousands of dollars on these people with insider information. And they do years and years of research to get every little detail right. If white writers worked that hard to accurately represent their non-white characters, I doubt there’d be much of a problem. What seems to sting is that they get it horribly wrong so often. White writers can still write about whatever they want, only the most extreme would say otherwise. But they’ve gotta step up their game big time if they wanna write about people and cultures far outside of their lived experience. Because those people and cultures are listening now. You’ve gotta get it right: can’t bullshit your way through, counting on the fact that your audience doesn’t know any better.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) was all the rage in Paris when we were there in 2004. Although the novel is set in Paris, Brown gets so much of the city’s geography wrong that the French translation had to be seriously revised before publication. Readers familiar with Paris would have found Brown’s errors laugh-out-loud ludicrous, just as indigenous readers, familiar with the landscape of their own culture, find the glaring misrepresentations found in CanLit classics laugh-out-loud ludicrous. As a Cree friend put it: “I read Farley Mowat much as Parisians might have read the original, uncorrected version of The Da Vinci Code.”
The name of our country—“Canada”—is derived from the St. Lawrence Iroquoian word “kanata”, which means “village” or “settlement”. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were the native people of Montreal, the first people to settle in this region after the glaciers of the last ice age receded, and the waters of The Champlain Sea subsided. The St. Lawrence Iroquoians were exterminated by European settlers and other native groups (especially the Mohawk) during the wars that ravaged this place in the decades leading up to The Great Peace of Montreal (1701). The St. Lawrence Iroquoians are all gone (as in, no living descendants at all). And their language is extinct. Yet their name for this place lives on. Indeed, it’s the name for the whole country! The sticky power of names is astounding! Perhaps this is what John had in mind when he famously proclaimed: “In the beginning was the Word.”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2017)