I recently had a conversation with Moscow Poet Laureate, Tiffany Midge, about cultural appropriation in writing. While she, a Native American, decried the act when white authors wrote Native American point-of-view characters, she claimed it was acceptable for her to plagiarize the work of Luna Leigh, a white woman living in England. Then she went on to berate Terese Mailhot, a Tecumseh Postdoc Fellow at Purdue University, who brought the plagiarism to light. It seems that theft of language, culture, and ideas is only a bad thing when it happens to you, and not when you do it to others.
What Ms. Midge refused to understand is cultural appropriation goes both ways and has been occurring since man first learned to walk upright. Evidence of it is everywhere. It’s human nature, and it’s not going to change.
I stumbled across a blatant example of cultural appropriation at Saint Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho. The nuns host a workshop on understanding Sacred Celtic Landscapes. I could point out that the sacred Celtic landscapes they reference predate the coming of Christianity by hundreds, if not thousands of years, that Celtic religious life originates from the Indo-European religious traditions, not the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that by appropriating those landscapes they have deprived a people of their heritage. Instead, I decided that the post-Christian Celtic narrative is just as important as the pre-Christian narrative.
When cultures collide, both are forever changed. When Rome controlled Gaul and Britannia statues which previously would only be inscribed with the name Mars started becoming Mars-Camulos, Mars-Lenus, and Mars-Vorocius. The Celts stopped wearing breeches and started wearing kilts, whose design was modeled after the garments worn by their Roman occupiers. Later, when the Christians converted the Celts, even more of their religion, traditions, and oral histories were lost. But, Christianity changed, too. Candlemas occurs at Imbolg, Lammas directly correlates to Lughnasad.
Culture and religion, like language, is not static, but ever-changing. Christianity evolved with each new group it encountered. For proof you need look no further than your Christmas tree, a Pagan tradition expressly prohibited in the Bible.
Jeremiah 10:1-5 essentially reads,
Do not go into the woods, cut down an evergreen, lug it home, set it up in the living room, and decorate it. The Pagans do that bull-shit around the time of the winter solstice and it’s bad. Love, God.
The Benedictine Sisters will continue to claim that the sacred three refer to their holy trinity, not the triple goddess Brigit, the three craftsman gods, Goibhniu, Luchta, and Creidhne, or the tripartite structure common to Indo-European societies: priests, warriors, and cultivators. Whether they claim that the endless knot is a representation of Christ’s undying love or the mark of Satan, it will not change the fact that the knot existed long before Christianity.
I’m sure it was very un-American of me not to make an ass of myself by insisting on “setting them straight” and demanding an apology for centuries of abuse and oppression at their hands. But, unlike 80% of Americans, I am a reader.
Several years ago I read a book by a Canadian author in which the events in every chapter were recounted from three separate points of view. If you think this would make for tedious reading, you’d be wrong. It was among the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. The three point-of-view characters were a Jesuit Priest, an Iroquois Chief, and a 10 year-old girl who had been taken as a slave.
POV #1: The Priest is shocked by how barbarous the country is and that all forms of decency are lacking. The girl, a wanton child, deliberately undresses and lies before him in an attempt to seduce him. He prays vigilantly for God to fortify him so that he will not succumb to the sexual temptations she readily displays. The Iroquois Chief and his brother accept the child’s offer, and the Priest worries that they might request that he join them.
POV #2: The Chief is disgusted that the Priest was so stupid that he sat idle rather than taking action to keep the child from dying when she undressed and bedded in the snow. Commending himself for the good deed he accomplished by killing her parents and taking her as a slave, the Chief wraps her in a blanket and forces her to lie between him and his brother for warmth. He believes she is better off with the Iroquois because they will teach her not to do foolish things like sleep in the snow.
POV #3: The girl disrobes, glaring at the cowardly priest, who refused to take up a rifle and just prayed as the Iroquois slaughtered her family. Now he is a prisoner like herself. Grief stricken at the loss of her parents and brother, she lays naked in the snow in hopes of joining them in death.
The passage made me acutely aware that the Priest’s narrative does not reflect poorly on the Iroquois or the child. It only reflects poorly on the Priest. Each point of view is necessary in order to have a complete story and only reflects on the nature, morality, and mental state of that character.
So, back to the misguided nuns. I have stayed at the monastery and supped in silence with the Benedictine Sisters. They are warm and welcoming women, eager to share their religion, who intend no malice. I don’t need to read them the riot act because they are not stealing my narrative. They are offering their own, and what they say does not reflect on me, my culture, religion, or beliefs. They provide another perspective, which completes the story.
History cannot be a one-sided narrative. Christians have always offered an idealized version of themselves. No doubt, the pagans of ancient Europe did not share that vision. After-all, it’s easier to raise children in the Christian faith after killing their parents for practicing “witchcraft.” Self-idealization is not limited to Christians; others do it, too. The Tuatha de Danann are heralded as the sacred race that settled Ireland. I have no doubt that the previous inhabitants of Ireland had other descriptors for the invading Celts, and I’d wager ‘sacred’ was not among them.
This is why we are free to write whatever we like and can lay aside worries about cultural appropriation. When we put pen to paper, those words reflect back on us as authors, not on those who we portray in our writing. Rush Limbaugh can host his inflammatory radio show and when he says outlandish things it is a reflection on him, not the group he is attacking. Michael Moore can create equally biased documentaries and when he over-reaches to make a point it is he who looks silly, not his target. That’s how freedom of speech and expression work; that’s how we complete the story.
Recently, I’ve seen a rash of religious, racial, sexual orientation, and gender based groups claiming that authors are stealing their narratives, even when it comes to fiction. Fiction, by definition, is not real. When an author labels something a work of fiction they are proclaiming that the words expressed their-in are not factual, therefore, they could not be stealing anyone’s narrative.
When someone claims minorities cannot write white characters, straight people cannot write gay characters, and Christians cannot write non-Christian characters, they have moved into the realm of absurdity. Insisting that authors only write about characters similar to themselves is almost as absurd as the stories dreamed up by fiction writers.
If someone wants to write a story about what would have happened if the South won the Civil War they can do that in fiction, precisely because it’s make believe. Muslims can go raiding with Vikings. Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler can be lovers and call a cease-fire after a tryst in Paris. Intergalactic battleships can be launched from top-secret subterranean Martian colonies. Loveable cockroaches can have deep and meaningful conversations with rodents of unusual size. Boys can ride dragons. That is the beauty of fiction.
The same author can create stories full of Christians burning witches at the stake and Romans feeding Christians to lions. Placing such items in a book does not mean that the author believes public killings should be legalized any more than Douglas Adams believes putting a penny in his bank account now will enable him to afford a meal at the restaurant at end of the universe. And it does not mean that the author stole the narrative of either group anymore than Richard Adams stole the narrative of bunnies. It’s fiction.
So, when someone has their panties in a bunch over a work of fiction, they should take a step back and remember it’s not real. Then refocus those energies somewhere in the real world, where they might be able to do some good.
When it comes to non-fiction, remember that the world cannot be constructed solely from our own set of biases. Whenever cultures collide we must be willing to hear both sides. Failure to do this will mean that humanity will forever be caught off guard by the next set of cultural invasions. If you refuse to listen to those who are not like yourself, you will never know their minds. You will never know the whole story.
3 thoughts on “Guilt-free Writing”
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I am revisiting this today because of a great news story that NPR aired as part of their American Anthem series. The story talks about the song La Bamba.
“Through Slavery, Segregation And More, ‘La Bamba’ Has Been The Sound Of Survival”
This song blends African umbamba beats with the Spanish lyrics of an old Mexican folk song. Alexandro Hernandez, an ethnomusicologist at UCLA, puts it this way, “It is that Afro-Caribbean connection that’s been there for hundreds of years, mixed in with a little bit of Español and first nations.”
Then a modern twist was added: 1980’s American rock. In August 1987, the song reached No.1 on the American singles chart. It’s an amazing form of cultural blending, an American rock version of Mexican folk music with an African beat. And yes, even Nazi’s dance to it.
(Start at 3:00 min)