Inspiration vs. Appropriation

Recently, J.K. Rowling, the author of some popular book(s?), came under fire from the Native American community… Wait, let me restart.

At least one blogger  has spoken out about a recent addition to J.K. Rowling’s “Pottermore” website.  I’m sure more than one person was upset about this and said something, but since I only read the one blog from a single blogger of Native American descent, I’d rather err on the side of honesty.

It’s always hard to tell these days how realistic any controversy is, isn’t it?  Like, is it really controversial? Or is it just being portrayed that way to bait the clicks?  Whatever the case, I feel like this particular issue (if not this particular incident) deserves more attention.

About a decade ago I relocated from my home in the Pacific Northwest to the Hawaiian Islands.  Prior to that the only thing I knew about Hawaii was Hula, surfing, grass skirts, coconut bras and poi.  Hawaii was a place of myth, a tropical paradise that people talked about but no one had actually seen.  It wasn’t real and it wasn’t treated as such. Coming here and being surrounded by the actual living place and people changed my outlook significantly and I’ve found it’s heavily influenced my writing.

I noted a few weeks ago how living in Hawaii and being surrounded by the history, there’s this sense that there’s magic just beneath the surface.  It’s a quality I’ve tried to infuse into a lot of my stories even the ones which don’t draw on the imagery surrounding me; the feeling that everything is maybe not quite as it seems and there’s just a hint of the mystic, the speculative, or the spiritual.

That all seems pretty benign, you say, what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?

Well, my current, big, project draws a little more explicitly on native Hawaiian and Polynesian influences. Where in other stories I was merely trying to catch a vibe, an ambience, here I’m trying to keep that but also incorporate an aesthetic.  I have no inclinations of stepping on anyone’s ancestral toes, but in my efforts toward due diligence, I often find that divorcing a look from a tradition is more difficult that it appears.

Thankfully, J.K. Rowling stepped up to be the punching bag, giving me a sort of case study to learn from.  So, let’s take a look at that a little more closely. <– Click that for source text.

So a quick cursory glance through my Colonial American lens doesn’t really show me a whole lot of problems.  My people have already turned every aspect of what little culture I have into pop-culture memes and young-adult romance novels.  But if I put on my culturally sensitive critical thinking cap there’s some pretty glaring problems.  I’m going to pick one paragraph because it highlights some of the big ones which I spotted right off:

“The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.”

Ok, so, I’m going to try to keep this brief so I can get on to other things.

Thing 1: The simple phrasing of “The legend of the Native American “skin walker’” implies the existence of a universal Native American culture; as though there weren’t hundreds of distinct populations on the American continents stretching from the Klondike to Cape Horn.

Thing 2: Even a cursory glance at Wikipedia can tell you that she’s got the Skin-Walker concept all wrong.  I’m not going to pretend to understand it in detail, but it’s pretty easy to see that the Skin Walker is regarded as an evil creature with a significant place in its associated mythology.  Rowling’s take on the creature turns it into a victim.  Just a batch of good-hearted witches and wizards being persecuted.  She’s turned the entire myth on its head.

Thing 3: The implication of fraud and/or inferiority among “No-Maj medicine men.”

There are more, perhaps greater, issues with the rest of the text (read it! See if you can spot them!); but that’s a really good example to me how one can do a lot of things wrong in very little space.

Now, I realize that she was simply making an effort to take existing mythology and fit it into her own narrative.  She was trying to be inclusive and not “leave out” the presence of indigenous magic and mysticism; probably for fear that someone would call her out on it if she did.  A pretty classic Catch 22.  So, what could she have done differently?

The first thing is simple and a little shameful.  Frankly, it was just lazy writing.  She could have done a speedy quick Google search and tried to identify the specific group to whom the Skin Walker myth belongs; Wikipedia says Navajo.  That was easy.

The second actually precludes the first if handled correctly.  If you’re going to generalize, stay general.  Instead of using a specific named creature, from a culture which is not yours and then get it all wrong, maybe create something different? Maybe try: “One Native American tribe has a legend of an evil shapeshifter…”

Tada! Now you’re not calling anyone out, telling anyone their mythology is wrong and you can build whatever the hell you want on that foundation.  Hell, you can even make a new name, a new lore, and a new culture to assign it to.  Say the (fictional) tribe was scrubbed from existence by colonists or something. Whatever…

And the third; just don’t do that.  There was no reason to imply that traditional practices were somehow inferior, or worse, fraudulent when placed side by side with the fiction you created.  That’s just rude.

Ultimately, you can’t just take an existing culture, especially a culture which has been so terribly suppressed and persecuted and rewrite it fit your particular worldview.  Drop the red pen, step away from the narrative; nobody has to get hurt here.

Now, a friend of mine beat me to the punch on his blog post following a conversation we had about this exact issue.  One of the points which I think he and I differ on is the idea that certain topics are “off limits” to certain cultures.  I completely see his point; that if we only allow specific people to write about specific subjects, you’re going to lose a lot in the way of variety. There’s already way too much heroic-white-guy-saves-the-day fiction. And if the options I’m allowed for composing fantasy literature were reduced to Elves, Dragons and Christian allegories because that’s my culture; well, I probably wouldn’t be interested in writing.

But at the same time, when you’re writing about a culture which isn’t your own, you need to do your research, you need to be respectful, and you need to at least run it by someone who does understand said culture and at least entertain their feedback.  If they crumple it up and throw it back in your face, that might be a sign that some rewrites are in order.

I fully support a free and respectful exchange of ideas; but if someone says, “No man, you can’t write about that.”  Then maybe it’s time to consider being little more creative… You are a fiction writer after all.

Now, in interest of full disclosure, and poorly rendered self-promotional judgement; I do have a story posted right here on this very blog which might very well violate the above rules I’ve set out for myself moving forward.  I understand that.  I wrote it a few years ago when I had less attention on this issue and I still really like the story for what it is.  However, if someone reads it and wants me to take it down, just let me know.  I will.  No complaints.

I’ll just be happy knowing that at least one of my stories got read.

–A. Stephen Getty