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?