As you know, I’m writing a historical fiction novel — the Jigonsaseh — which will focus on the Iroquois perspective of a conflict that took place between the French and the Five Nations in the 17th century. Although I worked in the Aboriginal law field for decades on the First Nation side, wrote a non-fiction book about Aboriginal legal history and have a doctorate in the area, I’m sure some people will argue I’ve appropriated another culture’s voice.
Here, my writer pal (and publisher of Bundoran Press) Hayden Trenholm blogs about his views on this kind of issue: you can check out his blog — it’s always interesting. (Hayden, by the way, was going to write a guest blog for GP but among the many hats he wears, one involves working for a Canadian senator. And things, as you can imagine, are a little crazy there these days.)
Last weekend, I attended SFContario in Toronto. I had a fun time though I didn’t sell many books. We hosted a little party – rated one of the best of the weekend – and spent time with old friends and made a few new ones. I participated in three panels. Science and Politics was fun though pretty one-sided; most politicians, it was concluded, don’t understand science and most corporations can’t be trusted with it. As Derek Künsken said, ‘people are evil and dumb.’ I suspect some of us might have been hung-over. SFContario Idol was, as usual, a hoot as four dyspeptic editors gonged out various stories and lectured (usually humorously) on GOOD writing. Sandra Kasturi of Chizine was particularly vehement on the tendency of female characters to sigh, blush, faint, cry and generally not take control of things.
The most vigorous discussion took place at the panel, Mythology in SF and Fantasy. It sounds harmless enough – almost fusty – a topic for librarians and classicists, perhaps. However, it was, in fact, fraught – symbolic of much that is controversial in the field these days. Issues of race and gender, cultural appropriation, inclusion/exclusion, the borders between sacred/secular and private/public mythos were all open to debate, especially once the conversation moved from the predominantly white middle-aged male panel (there was one white woman among the five panelists) to the much more diverse audience.
It was, largely, a polite and sincere discussion. It undoubtedly helped that practically everyone in the room was aware of and sensitive to the issues of diversity and exclusion that have troubled the SF field over the last few years. There were moments of humor, too. The next time someone opens their panel presentation with: ‘I’m not sure why I’m on this panel’ you probably won’t go wrong by yelling from the audience: ‘Because you’re white, you’re male and you’re middle-aged.’ It’s even funnier if you, too, happen to be a white, middle-aged male.
Cultural appropriation may not be the most difficult matter under discussion but it is certainly one of the oldest. It involves the appropriation of ideas, symbols, artifacts, image, sound, objects, forms or styles from other cultures. In the context of our discussion, it refers to the practice of writers of one culture (frequently though not always western European) to write stories where the main characters, the political and social setting, the myths and beliefs are taken from another – often colonized – culture. An extreme example was Grey Owl – an Englishman (Archibald Belaney) who, as an adult, recreated himself in Canada as an Aboriginal, writing numerous articles and books in the 1930s as an Ojibwe conservationist. Modern views of Belaney are ambiguous. No one disputes his significant contribution to the conservation and parks movement in Canada and the United States but questions continue to be raised about the authenticity of some of his expressions of Aboriginal values. Belaney, whatever his flaws, almost certainly tried to be genuine on one level at least: he lived for years among the Ojibwe and married a Mohawk-Iroquois woman who was his chief advisor. While he undoubtedly profited somewhat from his writing career, he is nothing like John O’Loughlin who sold ‘Aboriginal’ artwork painted by non-Aboriginal artists for significant profits; he was convicted of fraud in 1999.
While appropriation – the borrowing (stealing) of cultural elements for profit or self-aggrandizement – is generally viewed as colonialist, cultural assimilation or even synergy is another matter. Here the exchanges and benefits flow both ways and, generally, are viewed as positive. Appropriation can become synergistic and inclusive. Take, for example, rock and roll. In the 1940s, Afro-American rhythms, melodies and lyrics were used, often without attribution or payment, by white producers and musicians to create rock and roll. Within a decade or two, however, black musicians and producers reclaimed the field so that the next wave of new music – reggae, hip-hop and rap – was black-led. Interestingly, many of these musical forms were then borrowed and adapted by Aboriginal and other oppressed cultures to express their own independence and importance.
The fight against cultural appropriation can itself take extreme forms. I’ve been told that, as a white male, I can only legitimately write about other white males. No women, no people of colour, no non-western cultures and, I suppose, no aliens of any kind. The latter is particularly tough for a science fiction writer. Oddly, if I were to say I was only interested in reading white males writing about white males, I’d inherit a whole world of pain.
I don’t believe this is true or even useful; fortunately, I have heard it less and less. The point of writing and reading is to get into other heads, other value systems, other ways of knowing. The power of human imagination and empathy is not insignificant. The ability to learn about others and identify with them is one of our great hopes for the future. And, of course, diversity is a much deeper and more beautifully complex idea than can be expressed in the simple categorizations of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language or whatever other marker we use to describe people. To talk about Aboriginal culture or European culture is to denigrate those we are talking about – assuming that all members of those cultures are identical, as if diversity within cultures isn’t as great or greater than diversity between cultures. We may defined by our culture, language, race, religion but none of us are limited by them. Disputes arise within cultures over what is truly authentic, what is sacred and must be kept private and what is public and can be joyfully shared.
Like all relations, those between cultures and the individuals within them are a delicate dance, whose steps must be negotiated on an equal footing. The answer to cultural appropriation is simple: tear down the barriers that prevent people from telling their own stories. In a field where inclusion and opportunity rule the day, the fight over whose story is it will cease to have much resonance.
The discussion at the panel had an interesting footnote. The next event in the room was a book launch for Douglas Smith’s The Wolf at the End of the World, a novel that incorporates significant Aboriginal myth and characters. Doug described how he carefully researched the book, how he traveled to a northern Ontario First Nation to understand what life was like there and to talk to leaders and elders in the community. He shared drafts with Aboriginal experts. He still felt ‘nervous’ about it, which he explains in an afterword where he gives full credit. What struck me – other than the approving looks of Aboriginal members of the audience – was when Doug described the horror of what he had learned about the oppression of Aboriginals in Canada, especially the terrible damage of residential schools. He was visibly overcome with emotion as he told how that had changed him. Which is what learning about the other is supposed to do.