In some ways it is forbidden text, given the sensitivity we now have for Aboriginal people. But what we're doing is ignoring the issue rather than talking about it.
The troubled legacy of W.P. Kinsella
A secure place in the pantheon of great Canadian writers is anything but certain for the creator of "Shoeless Joe."
By GEOFF McMASTER
It’s one of the most acrimonious feuds in Canadian literary history.
The sparks began to fly when the University of Alberta’s own Rudy Wiebe, two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and professor emeritus of English, accused popular author W.P. Kinsella of ridiculing Indigenous people—and misappropriating their voice—in his “Hobbema” stories.
Wiebe went so far as to urge the community, now called Maskwacis, to sue Kinsella for misrepresenting its people as “asses, fools and buffoons.”
Kinsella’s reaction was vitriolic. He called Wiebe an “idiot” and “a petty, jealous, academic drone” who has “no idea what successful writers actually do.” He accused Wiebe of creating the controversy to ride the coattails of his own success. The two even faced off in a now-famous segment on CBC’s Morningside with Peter Gzowski.
“Fiction writers can write about anything they damn well please,” said Kinsella. “Basically, I don’t give a f--- for the whole writing establishment, but when someone attacks the way I make my living, then I’m mad.
“I wasn’t going to write any more Indian stories. Now I sure as hell am. If I can annoy someone like him, I’ve got motivation.”
If you consider only sales figures and movie deals, Kinsella is arguably the most successful author Western Canada has ever produced. Born and raised in the Edmonton area, he’s known chiefly for his 1982 magic-realist baseball novel Shoeless Joe, which was later adapted into the Hollywood movie Field of Dreams.
The phrase, “If you build it, he will come” is now firmly entrenched in the common lexicon. Last month, the novelist and short-story writer died at the age of 81.
Now that he’s gone, the question is, will people continue to read his work or will he be remembered only for his cultural transgressions? Will his humour and his capacity to entertain redeem him? And will his stories at least be appreciated for what they reveal about white projections and stereotypes of a bygone era?
"I have a feeling that his day is likely yet to come, because of his readability and humour,” said U of A English professor Albert Braz. “It wouldn't surprise me if, once there is more distance, he becomes more accepted, because his writing is unique.
“He was trying to make a living as a writer, as opposed to someone who teaches at university or has some other job, so his writing is different for that reason."
Kinsella was hugely critical of writers in the academy who had full-time salaries and wrote fiction on the side, said Braz. “He felt they were not interested in readers and were writing for other academics, and I think there is something to be said for that critique."
Braz admits he wouldn’t dare teach one of Kinsella’s books in the current cultural climate. “I'm sure students would protest, and colleagues would be surprised if you included him on a course. So it's hard to do him justice, especially now, because of the whole idea of cultural appropriation.
“But my fear is he is being judged without being read. It was just the idea of a white author writing about Aboriginal people and being funny about it. And had he been more politically engaged (and less defensive), the reaction to him might have been different.”
Reaction to Kinsella from the First Nations literary community has been mixed. The most searing critique, called “Stop Stealing Native Stories,” appeared in a 1990 Globe and Mail editorial by Ojibway author and journalist Lenore Keeshig Tobias, who argued there was simply no excuse for Kinsella’s cultural thievery.
“The Canadian cultural industry is stealing—unconsciously, perhaps, but with the same devastating results—native stories as surely as the missionaries stole our religion and the politicians stole our land and the residential schools stole our language,” she wrote, adding that Kinsella and other white writers do not have the right to tell those stories without permission.
On the other hand, Wayne Arthurson, writer-in-residence at Edmonton Public Libraries and a Cree author and journalist himself, has a more measured take on Kinsella.
“I respected his work ethic as a writer and mostly enjoyed his work, especially his baseball stories,” he said. “His novel Shoeless Joe is a great book, not just about baseball but about writing and father/son relationships.”
The Hobbema stories were admittedly “silly, in a stereotypical kind of way,” he says, but when he first read them as a younger man, he found them “relatively harmless. Some of my cousins who lived on the Rez enjoyed them.
“I also found it funny that, during the whole appropriation controversy, it was two middle-aged white writers who were arguing in public about who had the right to tell stories from an Indigenous point of view,” said Arthurson.
There was also a certain irony in the fact that Wiebe himself wrote about, and on behalf of, Indigenous people, most notably in his 1999 collaboration with Yvonne Johnson, Stolen Life: the Journey of a Cree Woman. He was accused of doing many of the same things for which he upbraided Kinsella, yet arguably in a more serious and respectful tone and in the spirit of collaboration.
In the end, said Braz, the only way Kinsella will be properly judged is if people actually read his work and make up their own minds rather than jumping to conclusions.
"Given the reaction when he died, I feel almost tempted to revisit this kind of text,” even putting Kinsella’s stories on a graduate course, said Braz. “In some ways it is forbidden text, given the sensitivity we now have for Aboriginal people. But what we're doing is ignoring the issue rather than talking about it.”