In | Appropriate. Gordon Hill Press
The Diary of Dukesang Wong. Talonbooks , and
This essay reviews two books—The Diary of Dukesang Wong: A Voice from Gold Mountain and In/Appropriate: Interviews with Canadian Authors on the Writing of Difference—side by side, as they both concern the micro-histories of under-represented populations, seeking to voice marginalized people themselves and restore their individuality, humanity, and honour.
The Diary combines Dukesang Wong’s diary before and after his immigration from China to Canada with David McIlwraith’s commentaries on the text. McIlwraith divides Wong’s diary into two parts: “The China Diary,” about his life in China, and the “Gold Mountain Diary,” about his life in Canada. Wong lived in late Imperial China and was well educated in the Confucian tradition. His father, a magistrate, was poisoned and died. Then the father’s “glorious banner,” symbolizing his social status, was taken away, and the family house was confiscated by local officials (Wong 25). Soon the family was further dishonoured. Wong’s mother died by suicide a year later. She was not buried in the family graveyard, but in a common one (a source of shame in Chinese culture). One of Wong’s sisters became a man’s third wife, causing disrespect and disgrace. In his diary, Wong laments that his good days were forever lost. He chose to write a diary to help overcome his sadness and confusion, and the habit lasted over fifty years.
The second half of Wong’s diary serves as the “only primary source” (McIlwraith in Wong 3) concerning Chinese workers constructing the Canadian Pacific Railway, who faced underpayment, racism, exploitation, deprivation, and humiliation. They were “fast disappearing under the ground” (McIllwraith in Wong 72) due to maltreatment and lack of medication.[i] Wong tried to use wisdom, empathy, and poetry to help himself and his peers to overcome sadness, violence, and tragedy. The later part of Wong’s diary depicts his roles as tailor, teacher, husband, father, and grandfather in a relatively optimistic tone. After more than half a century, Wong’s maternal granddaughter, Wanda Joy Hoe, translated a major part of the diary for a sociology assignment at Simon Fraser University. The seven notebooks containing the handwritten diary were destroyed in a fire in the Wong clan office, as if to confirm McIlwraith’s comment that a “first-person account of the Chinese workers who built railways across the North American continent is not supposed to exist” (4).
The other book under review carries out, in the form of interviews between Kim Davids Mandar and Canadian writers of fiction, a collaborative exploration of such important issues as the impact of fiction on social and political reality, the function of artists in society, connections between arts and politics, racism and anti-Indigeneity, the appropriation of Indigenous cultures and identities, the (mis)representation of marginalized populations, and so on. The book is conversational in tone, yet the topics are profound and meaningful.
Both books are phenomenological documentations of marginalized people’s lives and representations of their states of mind, contributing to the re-emergence of the silenced and absent histories of marginalized populations.
When discussing social reality, the Diary is more critical in tone and more pessimistic in mood than In/Appropriate. Wong’s miserable life in China and Canada contributed to the profound disappointment evident in his writing. For marginalized workers on the CPR, Canada was a Gold Mountain in their imagination and laborious work in daily reality. In Wong’s time, it may have seemed legitimate (to some) to have white voices represent people of other ethnicities, and to use Western standards to evaluate other populations, despite some fights for the rights of ethnic minority groups. In comparison, the contemporary authors interviewed in In/Appropriate generally enjoy relatively better circumstances and to some extent can have their concerns and needs heard and addressed. Today, respect for multiple voices and perspectives has become increasingly widespread and accepted. Determinations of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a certain ideology, text, or viewpoint are, to some extent, relative, historical, situated, and subjective.
Adhering to art’s supposed independence from external factors—art for art’s sake—is a reaction to contemporary social reality, especially in its refusal to connect the arts to political, moral, and didactic purposes. As Daniel Heath Justice observes in the introduction to In/Appropriate, practitioners of art for art’s sake “were rebelling against the dominant values of their time, but they brought their own biases, cruelties, and limitations to their arts as well” (in Mandar xvi). Or as Mahak Jain notes, “Writers don’t live in a void” (in Mandar 16). Art—whether the art of words, painting, voice, or performance—can never fully get away from social realities. Arts-based research provides a methodology for the application of art in the social sciences and humanities. Non-fiction, fiction, and other works of art may not be the driving force for social change, but they open people’s eyes, provide crucial perspectives, and equip people to think differently about their experiences and the world.
Regarding cultural appropriation, the opinions that appear in In/Appropriate span the full spectrum, from the views of those who deny the very existence of cultural appropriation to the perspectives of its strongest opponents, who suggest that white writers stay away from under-represented cultures so as to avoid the possible reinscription of patterns of dominance and inferiority and the “disregard” of “the diversity amongst Indigenous cultures and nations” (Waubgeshig Rice in Mandar 135). Contributors to In/Appropriate generally discourage white writers from representing marginalized cultures. The interviewees point out that marginalized populations are represented in a stereotypical and one-dimensional way, and sometimes depicted incorrectly by white authors. According to the interviewees, white authors should start by writing from their own perspectives if they really want to write about under-represented populations because there are nuances that an outsider may not be able to understand and represent well, and because seeking permission from an under-represented community is not realistic. Authors from under-represented populations hold the advantage of writing from an insider’s perspective, and their works are multi-dimensional and representative at the same time. However, authors of colour are not as numerous as white authors, and “there still seems to be an unspoken sense of quota within publishing” (Ian Williams in Mandar 88). Furthermore, authors from marginalized communities simply write about their personal truth; they do not necessarily represent the whole community, people, or nation. Jael Richardson visited her father’s birthplace in Ohio, and then wrote the novel Gutter Child. She comments: “mining that experience of what it’s like to grow up with little choice and little power is a way for me of coping and asking questions and coming to terms with who I am” (in Mandar 10-11).
In her introduction to The Diary of Dukesang Wong, Judy Fong Bates reminds us that people of colour were marginalized in social activities and forgotten in broader histories (xvii). For some people, this is racism and injustice; for others, it is a consequence of a type of self-centredness in which any opinions and experiences that are different from one’s own are gauged and treated according to one’s needs and understanding of the world. Mainstream authors and authors from under-represented populations all seek to have their own voices heard and their concerns addressed; the former group has been practising this for years while members of the latter generally have a better understanding, as insiders, of their own cultures and peoples. The negotiation and confrontation between the two groups demonstrate conflicting viewpoints, ideologies, and social and political interests. As Justice points out, the “issue of voice is inextricably connected with that of power and resources” (xv).
Mandar encourages people to accept differences, to reach the essential oneness of humanity, and to seek the human core, or the unification of the human species. This point of view echoes many scholars’ thinking, including that of Stephen Hawking, as a solution to conflicts among people of different identities. However, it takes time to accept that we all partake in the essential oneness of humanity. In cultural and educational processes in both the West and the East, children are not taught to accept a global common culture. For instance, Bates comments that in Canada she was systematically educated in Western history, but was not even introduced to Asian countries. Any overlapping or conflicting historical or cultural events are taught differently in different countries. For example, Bates was taught in public schools in Canada that the Second World War lasted six years, but she acknowledges that the duration of the war was eight years according to the Chinese educational system (xix). Wong wrote in his diary in 1879 that he might have dishonoured his traditional Chinese education, as he had an unorthodox thought that Christian teachings are just another way of understanding life. Such long-established, nuanced, and deep-rooted cultural and historical disparities curb the realization of the essential oneness of humanity, and effective efforts should be exerted to break biases, misinformation, and obstacles to the unification of the human species.
The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are blurring. Though some fiction is research-based, writers of fiction have more space and flexibility in their work, as they can generally include invented characters and scenes, and the creative combination of different realities. Yet fiction authors try to give their writing verisimilitude by using details that exist in reality. Besides, “readers positively want to suspend their disbelief. They want to believe that what they’re reading is reality, and they will believe that fiction is reality even when what they’re reading goes against what they know to be the truth in ‘real life’” (Wayne Grady in Mandar 35). Arif Anwar suggests that non-fiction writers can arrange their material in a certain way and intentionally lead readers in a certain direction, and that in some ways fiction is a more effective vehicle for truth than non-fiction. Some fiction writers even argue that fiction has a deeper impact than non-fiction. Angie Abdou admits that fiction is “made up” (in Mandar 94), while Chelene Knight comments that “in fiction we hold the assumption that everything is made up, but I don’t think that’s true” (in Mandar 157). Still others think that fiction can contain elements of truth, consist of truths that are pieced together, or accommodate the choice of not including any truth in it. These varied opinions can be respected, although they do not necessarily agree. Yet I do not want to argue with the above-mentioned writers in this regard. Instead, I refer them to the common challenge faced by all writers, who must contend with the relation of truth to fiction.
Eden Robinson admits that “fiction has less of a social impact than it used to” (in Mandar 152) and comments that authors should consider the younger generation’s needs and the world’s new social circumstances. In our digitalized and multimodal world, traditional reading activities, such as reading fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in print, are declining (National Endowment for the Arts). Reading now takes place in varied forms. Regarding the interaction and interconnectedness of writing and society, we should extend our discussion to include whether traditional writing should adapt to new communication channels such as online writing platforms and image-based media, and whether traditional authors should cater to contemporary readers’ newly developed reading habits, such as multi-tasking, skimming, and so on (Fitzpatrick). In the age of social media, Alicia Elliott thinks that “a lot of people are, yes, intimidated, but also aren’t really sure what their responsibilities are” (in Mandar 50).
In light of this situation, authors of fiction and non-fiction collaboratively have to defend a common front line for writing. Grady mentions that “it was Shelley who said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind” (in Mandar 37). In ancient times, an author was a superior authority and could exercise power that was not only secular but also divine. Now, the urgent issue is to make writing more suitable and representative in the contemporary world, and this needs to be explored in depth in further and more extensive conversations like the ones in Mandar’s book. Authors should consciously and proactively enhance connections between writing and social reality, and make writing “more accountable to the communities from which we write and speak” (Cisneros 97).
The influence of writing goes beyond borders, while the drive to write comes from within. Some authors write about personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Others do not even have their readers in mind when they compose their works. Writing is spontaneous, yet artificial and manipulative. This can be represented in a subconscious way by the author. However, writing reflects the writer’s understanding of social and cultural dynamics. “Writing is an act of empathy, and reading is an act of empathy,” according to Ayelet Tsabari (in Mandar 3). By writing from a place of empathy, writers can become stakeholders and insiders in a culture, although if they have not experienced others’ lives, they may not be able to represent other members of the community satisfactorily.
“We’re flawed human beings. Our artistic output is also going to be flawed,” observes Abdou (in Mandar 105). Some may think of criticism as censorship, but actually it is a perspective and attitude. “Everyone is going to make mistakes, but you have to be humble when you’re writing about a community that’s not yours, and open to criticism, because that’s ultimately going to make you a better writer,” according to Elliott (in Mandar 57). After getting one’s work critiqued and revised, one can improve one’s abilities and become stronger.
Exploring the interconnectedness of, and interaction between, the word and the world (Freire and Macedo; Leggo) is a significant human endeavour. Written and published in Canada, The Diary of Dukesang Wong and In/Appropriate reveal the mistreatment of marginalized populations in Canada (admittedly, the maltreatment of under-represented people is common in other countries as well). The books embody the open-mindedness and self-reflection of Canadian culture and Canadian intellectual circles, too. In addition, the books echo Mikhail Bakhtin’s belief in the power of language in terms of liberating alternative voices, and exemplify how authors can initiate, advance, and lead campaigns and projects to write differences and promote respect and equality between the mainstream and the marginalized. In reading and writing under-represented stories, we have “a role in not maintaining the status quo” (Farzana Doctor in Mandar 124). We “grow beyond those stories” and “emerge stronger” (Amanda Leduc in Mandar 180–81), realizing our abilities and our unique existence. Finally, we exert our influence on our communities, societies, and the world.
Cisneros, Josue David. “Free to Move, Free to Stay, Free to Return: Border Rhetorics and a Commitment to Telos.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 2021, pp. 94–101.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Reading (and Writing) Online, Rather Than on the Decline.” Profession, 2012, pp. 41–52.
Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo P. Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Leggo, Carl. Sailing in a Concrete Boat: A Teacher’s Journey. Sense, 2012.
Mandar, Kim Davids, editor. In/Appropriate: Interviews with Canadian Authors on the Writing of Difference. Introduction by Daniel Heath Justice, Gordon Hill, 2020.
National Endowment for the Arts. To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. www.arts.gov/impact/research/publications/read-or-not-read-question-national-consequence. Accessed 29 July 2021.
Wong, Dukesang. The Diary of Dukesang Wong: A Voice from Gold Mountain. Edited by David McIlwraith, translated by Wanda Joy Hoe, Talonbooks, 2020.
 Here McIlwraith cites an article in the Yale Sentinel (1883) that documents the plight of Chinese railroad workers. McIlwraith finds the citation in Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885.
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