Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour
This is a still too common fictional device usually referred to as the ‘White Saviour’: when a native population (of whatever provenance) is saved by the intervention of a hero or heroes foreign to it, but with whom the average white Western reader can readily identify. And I was prompted to think beyond this question by the death back in mid-March of the great Australian children’s writer Patricia Wrightson, and consider a related problem which has been simmering away in the back of my head for several years – the question whether it’s ever appropriate for a writer to ‘use’, as fictional material, the myths and legends of a culture to which he or she does not belong.
Since Narnia does not in fact exist, no group of real people is being insulted, but there is still a danger when parallels can be drawn, even subconsciously, between fiction and life. In the recent movie ‘Avatar’, the hero Jake isn’t one of the blue-skinned Na’vi, the native people of Pandora. He’s human, one of us, and we see the new world through his eyes and from his viewpoint. Eventually of course he saves his new friends from his own kind. They are dependent upon his intervention. And we, the audience, don’t identify with the ruthless and selfish corporation RDA, we identify with Jake: and by doing so, exonerate ourselves. Yes, aspects of our own civilisation are exploitative and mercenary – but we aren’t personally tarnished with all that. In such a situation, we would be the good guys. Of course we would!
This is why I am uncomfortable with some Holocaust books such as Roberto Innocenti’s admittedly beautiful picture book “Rose Blanche”, and John Boyne’s children’s novel “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. In each instance, the protagonist is a young and innocent Aryan child who shows instinctive generosity and compassion towards Jewish concentration camp prisoners, and ends up ‘sharing’ their fate. Little Rose Blanche takes food to the children on the other side of the wire, and is eventually shot. Bruno, in “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, befriends Shmuel, and finally disappears with him into the gas chambers. Leaving aside the question of plausibility, to me both stories – well-meant as they are – are fantasies in the worst sense: the sort of wish-fulfilment in which one daydreams of behaving improbably and heroically well in terrible circumstances. Bruno and Rose Blanche are not White Saviours so much as little white martyrs, avatars for ourselves. Isn’t there something distasteful about the way they are thrust to centre stage? Isn’t it a way of letting ourselves off the hook? Don’t they effectively allow us to pretend that, in the same circumstances, we too would be brave and true and self-sacrificing to the death? And maybe we would. But much more likely, we wouldn’t.
Why couldn’t these books have had Jewish children as the main characters? Or gypsy children, or handicapped children, or any group which was in fact targeted by the Nazis? It’s not that I object in principle to Aryan German protagonists. Leslie Wilson has written two brilliant YA novels from the ordinary German child’s point of view during the Third Reich. ("Last Train from Kummerdorf" and "Saving Rafael".) Her books are the more valuable because they deal realistically with the kinds of danger that did threaten such children – including protecting and losing Jewish friends – but without the emotionally dishonest switch-around that focuses the tragic spotlight on the Aryan child.
Is it possible, though, that a non-Jewish writer who wants to write a Holocaust book, feels awkward about creating a Jewish character? Does it seem like taking a liberty? Or is it laziness, an unwillingness to undertake the research, obtain the moral permission? Is moral permission even necessary? Aren’t we novelists, isn’t it our job to be able to create and imagine other lives from the inside out, to think ourselves into other people’s shoes? Isn’t this business of creating imaginative fiction a worthwhile effort at empathy? Don’t men write about women, and women about men?
I’ll leave those questions unanswered for the moment, and just say that I don’t believe any subjects should be out of bounds for any writer. If you feel the creative urge to write about the Holocaust, you should be able to do so. The way in which you do so, however, is important.
Patricia Wrightson, the Australian writer whose death prompted these thoughts, wrote some exceptional children’s books, many of them ‘fantasies’ - in a loose sense - rooted in Aboriginal legend. As I child I read and loved “The Rocks of Honey” and “The Nargun and the Stars”. John Rowe Townsend, in his classic study “Written For Children” praises her for ‘never [using] anything resembling a formula’ and for the sense in her books that ‘ “reality” is not enough; that there is more to life than common sense can take account of.’ Wrightson won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1986. But, in later years, her books fell out of favour in Australia as examples of cultural appropriation: she was judged as a white woman who had taken the precious lore of a culture not her own and used it in ways that were neither traditional nor appropriate. Knowing little of Aboriginal stories or culture, I cannot say whether the accusation was justified, but from my recollections of her books, they were certainly not intentionally disrespectful: it was clear Wrightson delighted in the Aboriginal material she was using. In his recent obituary in the Sidney Morning Herald, the Australian academic Maurice Saxby recounts how the Aboriginal poet Jack Davis defended her at a literary conference, and adds, ‘It was not that Wrightson annexed Aboriginality for literary purposes, but that she believed passionately in what Aborigines themselves – speaking for us all – call “country”; not simply the physical environment but the deeply inherent force of the human mind.’
But, in the socio-political environment of later 20th century Australia, this was not enough. The indigenous population, which had suffered so severely at European hands, was finding a voice, and educators were paying attention. Today, the Australia Council for the Arts has formed a set of protocols for the use of Indigenous material in writing, which can be found on their website www.australiacouncil.gov.au, and includes obtaining permission from and working in conjunction with the traditional owners. While I find it terribly sad that Wrightson’s books were shunned, I can see also that when so much has been stolen, people are going to feel strongly about ownership of their own stories. Stories are the signature of a culture. And sometimes stories are all you have left. Marilyn Carpenter of Eastern Washington University discusses this in an article called ‘Fairy Tales – Zero Tolerence?’ on the blog Worlds of Words, and asks, ‘Should we have zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in a book? Or, should we tolerate minor inaccuracies when only a few books about a culture are available?”
For me, this issue became of personal importance when I began to write the third and last in my series of ‘Troll’ books – fantasies set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, in which the human characters co-exist with creatures out of Norse folklore such as trolls, nisses and ghosts. In a way, I was writing ‘history with the beliefs put back in’: people in the 10th century did believe in the existence of trolls, just as much as in physical dangers like bears and wolves and raiders.
While I’d tried from the beginning to be reasonably true to the Norse way of life, it’s fair to say the books became more historically accurate as I went on. In the third book, ‘Troll Blood’, I wanted my hero and heroine to sail across to Vinland in a Viking ship – as the Norse actually did – and there they would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was either that, or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet what seemed to me important – was that I wanted also to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. A belief in trolls is part of one people’s way of describing the world and its perils, which helps define them and their differences from another group, for example one which believes in satyrs and nymphs. (Trolls are rougher-edged, with snow on their boots.) If you understand a folklore, you will have a better understanding of the men and women who made it. I wanted to use stories from Native American folklore because without some such dimension, without some reference to the belief systems of the people I was writing about, I didn’t think they would be ‘real’.
The whole thing was immeasurably complicated. I doubt I would have had the nerve to set out from scratch to write from the point of view of a Native American boy; but here was a situation in which my Norse characters would have to meet Native Americans, and it was important that the latter should have a voice. ( I don't have to worry about writing about Norse legends. Partly because, as I am European, any European folklore feels like a common heritage and partly because the Vikings, the Greeks, the Romans are not examples of colonial repression. If anything, they were the oppressors. We need hardly feel we are exploiting them.)
I spent at least six months – it was probably more – doing the research, going through ancient copies of the Journal of American Folklore in the Bodleian, tracking down primary sources wherever I could, especially verbatim stories from named individuals. Even so, compromise was the name of the game. Nobody today knows or can know what stories, what beliefs, were current among the Native American people the Vikings encountered in the early 11th century. The first preserved accounts were written down by Frenchmen visiting or living in the New World in the 17th century: some of the best (and the first stories collected, as opposed to mere ethnographic accounts) were preserved by a Recollet priest living in the Mirimachi/Restigouche area of New Brunswick, named Chrestien LeClercq. Later on Silas Rand, a Baptist minister, collected many stories. Many had their axes to grind; all were subject to accidental misunderstandings. One thing I decided early on was that every story, custom, belief or – in our terms – ‘supernatural’ creature would be referenced. And in the US edition, this was done. Anyone who cares may look in the index and find out just where I found my information about the jenu, for example, the wiklatmuj’ik, or the belief that you should not tell stories in summertime.
Then I had the manuscript checked over by a scholar of Mi’kmaq studies (for reasons I won’t go into, it was the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on whom I decided finally to base the Native American characters in the book). She put me right on a whole load of things which in spite of my care, I had got wrong. One fundamental mistake came up in the very first sentence, which originally read ‘The Mist Spirits are busy, crouching on wave-splashed rocks out in the gulf, blowing chilly whiteness over the sea.’ ‘You mustn’t use the word ‘spirits,’’ she told me, explaining that the body/spirit dichotomy (so familiar to Europeans we hardly even notice it as a construct) is foreign to the Mi’kmaq, as is the idea of the supernatural. Instead, everything is natural – but some things are also persons, including some plants, some rocks, some trees. The sentence was therefore changed to ‘The Mist Persons are busy…’
On another occasion, I wanted to describe some diminutive creatures named in an account collected in the 1920’s as ‘the hamajalu’. This came back corrected to ‘the wiklatmuj’ik’ – which I viewed with dismay as a far more difficult word to pronounce. ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘after all, the word ‘hamajalu’ is there, written down in a verbatim account.’ ‘Because,’ she said, ‘there is no ‘h’ in modern Mi’kmaq, and this word is obsolete. The word used today is the one I have given you.’ I wanted to be sensitive, yet felt I had to express surprise. How could it be that a word used so freely in the 1920’s – there were several stories about the ‘hamajalu’ – could have died out? Back came the passionate response: ‘You would not find it so surprising if you were aware that, during the course of the 20th century, generations of Mi’kmaq children were taken from their parents, put into homes, taught European ways, and punished – beaten, shut in cupboards, thrown down stairs – for speaking their own language.’
Sometimes you have to listen to the emotion. I accepted her correction - though it's good to be able to point out my doubts here. Was it the right decision? Not everyone has the privilege of visiting a major library like the Bodleian. For many ordinary Mi'kmaq and other indigenous peoples whose word-of-mouth culture has been almost erased, the only way of discovering their own heritage may be via a modern European filter such as my own writing. This is why referencing sources is important. At least, then, if it's important to someone, they can go back to the primary sources and make these decisions for themselves.
The Mi’kmaq characters in my book are not the main protagonists, because the protagonists were already established in the two earlier books of the series. But they are, I believe, strong and attractive. I would imagine that no one these days would portray Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages? But I did not wish to write them as victims: you can tell from the sagas that the original inhabitants of Vinland stood up extremely well to the aggressive but small number of Viking settlers who landed on their shores. Neither did I want to fall into the trap of portraying a band of peace-loving tree-huggers. Native American nations were not politically different from other human nations: they made treaties and alliances; they also fought wars. The characters in my book show restraint and mercy to the small Viking boy left in their hands: but they go to war against the aggressors when that becomes necessary. They are, in fact, grown-ups who make their own decisions. (My adolescent young Viking hero Peer does not affect the course of events; he does not save them; he is saved by them.)
This did not stop one reviewer writing approvingly about the way I had contrasted the warlike Vikings with the ‘peace-loving’ Native Americans. Sometimes, readers’ own assumptions get in the way.
There will be people who will feel I should not have written ‘Troll Blood’, that I had no right to create a speculative fiction about a culture I have no personal knowledge of or connection with. They have a right to their opinion: and I would agree that it is always a question open to discussion. My own feeling is that we need to understand one another, and rather than forbidding writers to stray beyond the boundaries of their own culture, we should be encouraging a better awareness of the sensitivities involved. A tremendously helpful blog dedicated to eradicating ‘racist, biased and outdated information’ in literature is Professor Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children's Literature: as she says, ‘there is no point in laying blame…the point is to start doing things differently.’
The Australia Council for the Arts may have got it about right, for the moment. Ask permission where you can, get the work vetted by someone who knows what the subject is all about and can warn of the pitfalls and clichés and traps: write with care and respect. And whatever you do, avoid the old cliché of the White Saviour, rushing in where angels fear to tread.