The phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ rears its head every now and again. It’s understandable in some ways. Publishing has been for years a very white, very middle class industry, and the gatekeepers of publishing often reflect the world they know. There are exceptions. to this, and there are those who pay lip service to equality. Janetta Otter-Barry has been a leading light in children’s publishing when it comes to diversity of authors, texts, etc, not just for a commercial fast buck, but because she has a passion for story, and doesn’t judge a book by its colour, if you know what I mean.
Hamish Hamilton have such an amazing list of writers. Exit West buy Mohsin Hamid still haunts me long after the book has been closed, and I have moved on to others.
Anyway, trying not to wander off the path here. A few days ago I was talking to a friend about Blodeuwedd. I’ve been working on her story, a friend who is a glass artist also has, and another friend is playing with the Mabinogion, and Alan Garner wrote The Owl Service. All 4 of us have one thing in common. We aren’t Welsh, but the source of the story is. And my friend said she had a problem with this as it steps on the toes of cultural appropriation.
I’ve also been hearing stories about editors being afraid to commission stories from other cultures if the authors do not share the ethnicity of the stories. One author was asked if she couldn’t pretend to have an Inuit cousin when she was writing a book about the far north. ( Yes, that did happen, and really, you couldn’t make it up)
This is dangerous, short sighted. And, who are they afraid of? A few bloggers, mostly in USA, have been very vocal in their outrage about cultural appropriation. ( editing this would be wrong. I’m leaving it in, because I said it, but I now think I was wrong to say it. It’s more than a few bloggers, it’s an issue that does need debating, which is why I entered these shark infested waters, and I’ve already learned from those who would challenge me. My previous comment was too dismissive. ) I can understand this, when it comes to naming helicopters after First Nation People, cars, beer, baseball teams, prancing round in ceremonial war bonnets at parties. It’s disrespectful. But stories?
As a species we are hard wired to learn through story. As a species we have always learned from each other. Stories flowed along the Silk Road like water.
My counter argument is simple.
We are all human.
Human culture is what we are talking about.
Stories belong to the tellers of tales.
But I would say that wouldn’t I. Because look what I have coming out soon.
The Ice Bear is about the beginning of shaman people. It travels back to a time before the world was divided by lines imagined by the small minded across the earth. It’s from a time when the Bear People, The Raven People, Fox People and Owl all lived in a harmony. It’s roots are deep down in the stories of the First Nation people whose stories I first read as a teenager in the Midlands of England, and whose stories spoke clear to a place inside me that was troubled with the things I was taught at school about how man was given dominion over the animals by God in the garden of Eden. These stories broke through the arrogant walls of humanity, cut through to a place where trees, birds, insects has souls, YES. And the world began to make sense again. It’s not a traditional tale. It is an imagined story, for the imagination is perhaps the sharpest tool I have at my disposal.
For more about The Ice Bear have a look at The Guardian website.
I found the story in the sound of ravens wings.
Another book, publishing again in its new edition is The Snow Leopard.
I found this story in a desperate desire to paint these glorious creatures. I still remember what the head of sales at the publishers said. “The thing is, Jackie, snow leopards just aren’t interesting as tigers. Everyone knows about tigers, but snow leopards. Really?” Fortunately Janetta could see the beauty of the animals, and loved the story, so the book was published. Now it’s returning in a new and improved edition, with beautiful paper. I painted it from my studio in Pembrokeshire, chased the story on the wind and the wings of birds, in the eyes of a leopard held captive in a cage. I trapped the story with my pen, words on paper, writing of a powerful spirit cat, guardian of a valley. Later, when researching place and people I discovered the shape shifting Mergichans, one of the many uncanny things that have happened in my working life.
I am not Inuit. I am not Nepalese. I am human. I have an imagination, and my craft is to use coloured water, ink and paper to tell stories.
I’m not Welsh, but I am a woman, and I love trying to learn, understand the story of a woman made from flowers, turned owl.
We learn about each other through stories and we need to learn to listen, to each other. And yes, we need more diversity in publishing, yes yes yes yes. But we also need to understand each other, and speak up for those who are voiceless, and craft the stories that make our souls sing.
There’s human culture, but there’s also wild culture. Don’t be arrogant enough to think we are alone in our culture, just because we fail to understand the culture of others. Trees have a culture. I am hoping to work on a book with Nicola Davies about whale culture. Whales have language. Whales have culture. Culture isn’t museums, galleries, stories alone. It’s more. So much more.
So, I won’t be limited by the expectations of others. I will only be limited by my own imagination. And I will keep on listening to the ravens and feeling those stories that flow like a river of inspiration through my dreams. And I will keep on trying to make sense of the world through the medium of story. And I will keep on trying to reach out to those people who want to see the world in a different way.
And to those editors who are afeared to commission storytellers who perhaps do not share the dna of their story I would say, come one now, one nation under the sun. If a tale is well told, get it out there.
( The Ice Bear and The Snow Leopard are both publishing with Graffeg in large format editions in Sept. There will also be an ‘Artist’s edition of each, signed and numbered. These will differ by having no title on the covers, nor any type at all. Just the image.)