Where's the line? by Sandra Horn

Some years ago, my late and very much lamented friend and brilliant children’s author Henrietta Branford and I went to hear a talk by Lynn Reid Banks. Among other things, she mentioned having had adverse criticism for her book The Indian in the Cupboard (which went on to be highly successful and became a series).  I later learned that the criticism (racist, stereotypy) was for her use of the word ‘Indian’ rather than Native American, and that her Iroquois hero spoke a kind of Little-Black-Sambo broken English. Fair enough, then.  At the time, however, Henrietta, who was writing White Wolf, was bothered by the thought that she too had borrowed aspects of the lives of some of the North American Native tribes. Was this acceptable?  She dealt with her anxieties like this, in the book:
A Note From The Author
‘A few more passing suns will see us here no more’ comes from a speech made by Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Indians. His speech begins: ‘The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the dust and blood of our ancestors.’
The Crow people did not live on the coast, like Sings-the-Best-Songs* and Drums-Louder* and the people of the Wolf Clan, but I have lent Chief Plenty Coups’ words to Sings-the-Best-Songs because they are more beautiful and more apt than any I can invent.
For the same reason I have lent him some of Chief Seattle’s words as well.  It was Chief Seattle who spoke about the memory of his tribe becoming a myth among the white men.
For the rest of it, I’ve tried to take a little from several of the peoples of the north-west coast – Kwakiutl, Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth and others. I cannot claim to know enough about their rich heritage to have drawn them, any of them, accurately.  In any case, this is a work of fiction.  But it is dedicated to them, and to the wolves whose hunting prowess they respected and admired.
** characters in White Wolf
So, she is saying, yes, I borrowed stuff, and I changed some of it, but it seems to me to be a sensitive and respectful acknowledgement.  It’s a great story and was widely and enthusiastically reviewed.  I haven’t found any criticism of it.  It reminded me that we as writers are like magpies, picking up bits from here and there. We need to be very careful about not stealing (unlike magpies: bad analogy) but otherwise stories and the components of stories go round endlessly and forever. The African Anansi stories are a case in point, and The Gruffalo is rooted in an Indian story about a tiger.  My picture book Nobody, Him and Me borrows elements from Homer’s Odyssey – the part where Odysseus tells the blinded Cyclops his name is Erewhon (Nobody), from stories of my Sussex childhood and from my own three children’s response to ‘Who did that?’ (Nobody, it was Him, it wasn’t Me). 

I took the seal-people legends and adapted them for The Silkie.  My Hob and Miss Minkin stories owe a passing nod to Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. I rewrote Babushka, as others have done – and a day spent in the British Library with the help of an Eastern Europe specialist demonstrated that it never was a Russian folktale anyway; that idea seems to have been a literary device.  So far, so fine.  But then, there was some rather anguished correspondence in the Scattered Authors Society group about the wrongness of using material from other cultures – specifically, if I remember rightly, tribal cultures.  At the time, I was up to my ears in the joys and challenges of reading The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, compiled by Elias Lonrot from ancient stories and songs.  It’s wonderful, powerful, poetic and in places almost incomprehensible.  I longed to write a version of the Creation from it  - the Sky Maiden deciding  to see what things were like down below, being made pregnant by the wind on the way down, struggling to give birth for 70 years and finally borning a grey-bearded old man, etc.  I couldn’t do it anyway – but if I’d been able to, would it have been pc? 
More lately, I came across a collection of tales of Creation by the Indigenous Peoples of Australia in Bruce Chatwin’s fascinating book ‘The Songlines’.  I was hooked again by the poetry of it.  I wrote a playlet for the children of Southampton Friends’ Meeting to perform, based on the idea of spirits dreaming up the world and everything in it.  My daughter wrote leitmotifs for all the creatures for her Music GCSE.  It went very well.  Over the intervening years, I’ve taken it out, dusted it off, revised it a couple of times – and then a few weeks ago, lent it to the very talented songwriter I’m working with on Nobody Him and Me the Musical, to produce with his infant classes.  I think it has potential, so I want to go on and publish it. That’s when all the angst about borrowing stuff came home to roost.  I wrote to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies, to ask if it would be OK, with a brief outline of the plot.  The answer was quite clear – to paraphrase, ‘we’d rather you didn’t, this is not a myth but a real and ongoing part of peoples’ lives. You could find out who owns what you want to use and ask them, but basically, please don’t.’  So I won’t, of course. 
The odd thing is, the response from AIATSIS has been absolutely liberating.  I’ve rewritten the play, taking out reference to The Dreamtime, and the spirits now sing and play music to create the world.  I think it’s going to work.  I’m happy with it. 
This brings me back to where I started – where’s the line?  


Dennis Hamley said…
I had a slightly similar experience a few years back when I first delightedly discovered Maori myth. I thought of retellings for British kids and asked the advice of a Maori librarian. Her answer, though kind, was unequivocal. To the Maori, myth and folk tale are still living allegory and not just memory, however creative and still with meaning today for those who look for it, as it is for our European cultures. I would have been trsepassing and now I know a lot better.
Susan Price said…
I have little patience with this idea. It saya, 'Every culture is so unique, and so beyond understanding by any other culture, that they all must be kept separate. Walls must be erected around them.' This is the message of apartheid. 'Equal' - but very definately kept apart and separate.

Can no Maori child or Torres Strait Islander child be told an English urban folk-tale, then? Because urban myth is a living part of our culture, which reflects and reinforces our national identity. Sharing it with Maoris or Torres Strait people would sully and spoil it - they couldn't possibly understand it because they just aren't the same kind as us - so we refuse all Maori authors to retell The Choking Doberman or The Ghostly Hitchhiker. Or King Arthur, either, or Robin Hood. They're ours.

The idea that stories somehow 'belong' to a particular group of people is nonsense. Read some of the ancient Hindu myths, and you find motifs from Greek, Egyption and Norse myth - and from many, many folk-stories from all over the world.

I'm sure you know, Sandra, that the motif of telling some 'monster' that you're name is 'Nobody' is found, not only in Greek myth, but in Scottish bogle stories. The selkie is Norwegian as well as Scottish - and that very similar creature, the mermaid, is found throughout Europe, even in freshwater lakes. She's a water-spirit, after all.

Not only have these stories migrated all over the world with their tellers, but they spontaneously arise in dreams and in new tales because, well - story-tellers are human. Their minds work in much the same way. They want, fear, love in a similar way, which gives rise to similar imagery and plots. Myth is the psychology of the human race.

If a story is attached to some special place, if it has some central meaning to a culture - then tell us. But don't forbid the story to be told. How is there to be more understanding between people, world-wide, a better appreciation of our essential sameness, if we build walls and put up 'trespass'notices that forbid access to the very things - our stories - that might increase that understanding?
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Sue - how wise. I feel much better now! I'll give it some more some thought.
Jan Needle said…
i'm with sue all the way on this. culture is a catch-all that can lead to all sorts of things, some fine, some deeply spurious. many british asians reckon my book, my mate shofiq, is just the job - it's even been called 'important.' others call me a racist because the word 'paki' is used exactly as it is in the normal day to day of certain people (or cultures, even.) and what about the screaming absurdity of people referring to 'the n-word' as if the word itself is like a knife, a gun, a weapon? it's a word. and what about fgm, as performed in many african cultures still, and now rife in europe and britain? are we to tell a woman who's lost all sexual feeling to be pleased and proud about it, because it's her cultural entitlement? beware of agendas.
Nick Green said…
Susan, it's eerie the number of times I agree with your every word... Clearly we must not be related.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes I'm totally with Sue, and Jan, here. Are we not supposed to eat Indian or Chinese food either? World culture is a buffet we can all share, imo. If you ask permission from some organisation (which will have its own political agenda most likely) you are giving them the power to censor your creative work - you need not ask. (Of course when you write it, anyone is equally entitled to attack you verbally for it.) One of the weirdest consequences of this new tendency is to cede 'ownership' of a culture to one person on facebook who lectures you on what is or is not ok, or one organisation - can they really speak for everyone of a particular culture? Cultures are pretty mixed anyway as Sue says, sailors and travellers ensured this long ago, and certain motifs crop up naturally in the human psyche. If you take it to the logical extreme, you shouldn't write about anyone but people exactly like yourself, and Shakespeare should have left it to a Danish prince to write Hamlet!
Susan Price said…
Oh, exactly, Valerie!
And Nick - I'm proud to be not related to you at all.
Lee said…
If a writer owns his stories, why not a culture? I reckon you can see where I'm going: copyright is a flawed concept.

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