Cultural Appropriation

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.)



About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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17 Responses to Cultural Appropriation

  1. Jamie says:

    We do like to make lines, don’t we? Ours. Theirs. Us. Them. But there’s stardust in us all, and we have to give it back in the end. I’ve also heard these words thrown down about historical appropriation in a similar way. About “doing things wrong” because someone is not faithfully copying (often inaccurate) historical accounts of a mythology or spirituality.

    It makes me smile, on the inside. I like to think about how those people hundreds or thousands of years ago might have considered these arbitrary divisions, or even how little they matter to your ravens, to the snow leopards, to yew trees, caterpillars or cats.

    I think it comes of being afraid of disapproval, or of ‘doing things wrong’. Perhaps it’s instilled in us by a flawed education system, or by authoritarian parents or governments. It’s perhaps a blurry line between sharing and stealing, but I think intent and permission are quite easy things to show.

    I personally believe the story of Blodeuwedd, and the other branches of the Mabinogi predates the notion of Wales as we understand it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating or understanding Brythonic culture through a different language or – shock horror – if you’re descended from the English! We share far more than we are divided.

  2. Andy Evans says:

    Nicely put.
    I spent 27 years mixing with other cultures, European, Middle Eastern, North American and Southern Hemisphere.
    I consider myself lucky to have lived, worked and broken bread with so many peoples.
    Exchanging ideas, upbringing, history, traditions, manners and beliefs has expanded my mind far beyond a White, Anglo Saxon point of view. I hope I made positive impact too.
    This feels good.
    Reading folk tales from other cultures helps broaden my perspectives even more.
    This too is good.
    Relating a folk tale, illustrating a folk tale AND informing the reader where it has come from originally is NOT appropration, it is education. It makes me want to learn more, read more and see more.
    In a perfect world I could buy cultural stories in English, written by representatives of that culture easily.
    Its not always easy. Probably for loads of reasons I can’t fathom. ( lack of profit for someone ?)
    So, THANK GOODNESS for folk who bring to me stories of different lands. Carefully written and thoughtfully illustrated keeping in mind the culture they are trying to represent.
    I read them with children, discuss them, look at maps, draw, relate, compare, find correlations and differences. Maybe find more stories from that place.
    I endeavour to Inspire them to take an interest outside of our little island, to want to meet other peoples.
    Does it matter who broadens our horizons as long as it happens ?
    Don’t we need a global view as a species to survive the next millenia ?

    Finally ( If you are still reading my burble) to those publishers who are worried about a few haters’ opinions : GET A GRIP !
    Take a risk and support foreign authors and illustrators or back our homegrown who are trying to spread humanity.

  3. Cecilia Hewett says:

    When stories from other places, or ideas imagined from them, are used with kindness and wisdom, as you tell your stories, Jackie, there can be no wrong in it. The opposite is the case! I wonder how many people have been inspired by your work to go through the door which it opens into other worlds, animal and human, to find out more about them, to care about them more deeply. It is only when ideas are taken and used inappropritely and inconsiderately, as you say above, that it is an insult to other cultures, human and animal.

  4. R Coldbreath says:

    My understanding of the issue is that the problem is that minority voices aren’t getting their authentic stories/art published but are carrying the burden of being a minority, yet white/western authors are essentially telling borrowed stories (or rather a curated and often insultingly exoticised version that the white/western majority will buy) and are getting published, without having to shoulder any of the burden of actually BEING the culture they’re writing/arting about.

    Does it apply to you – I don’t know. Probably not.

    But is it a real thing that shouldn’t be brushed off as the blithering of a few unreasonable people miles away with blogs? Definitely. We are all humans engaged in the wriggling struggle to survive & it seems wise to honour those who live and walk and breathe a connection – because they have no choice, it is what they are – over story. That’s probably not the answer you’d want, but it’s the only answer I can give.

    • Jackie says:

      I think I need to reword my original posting.
      I am very much of the opinion that there should be more diversity in publishing, in government, in all walks of life.
      What I am trying to state is that there are editors who are frightened of looking as if they’ve done something wrong by publishing a story that doesn’t share its DNA with the author.
      Yes they should also be publishing the wonderful authors from diverse background.
      I would challenge that these cultures are minority cultures. Surely white Europeans should be classed as a minority. They just seem to be not so because for years they have been the people in power. I look at the government in the UK and see a wall of white. Publishing is dominated by the white races. And yet, if you step back, off the earth and look, white is a small gene pool, mixed with so many many other races. As with borders and boundaries these ‘classifications’ we place on ourselves, on each other are abstract.
      I’ve no idea what my national background is. I’ve not delved into my family to see where I come from, always being more interested in where I am. I feel a bond with those who create. These are my people. The shapers of words, and crafters of beauty and they are many, diverse and I don’t know where they all are, but these are the people I would call family.
      Recently someone said “I will not be defined by the few feet of geography on which I was born”. Sadly not a direct quote, but it spoke so loudly to me.
      Yes, minority voices ( though I question that we should call them minority, as to do this is to diminish, and they are the majority, the 99%) are not being heard. I have such a hunger to hear their stories. Not as a vampire, to use, corrupt and change.
      People say that there should be more diversity in publishing as it is important for people to see themselves in stories. Yes. In East of the Sun, West of the Moon I wrote the main character as a refugee child. This was a few years before Syria blew the refugee crisis into sharper focus. I’ve been told how important this was by teachers as children found themselves in a book in the library.
      This is important.
      For myself, always, from the earliest age when I have looked into the deep pool that is the library it’s not my reflection I was looking for, but the diversity of life that is in the pool, to try to understand, to read, the lives of others.
      Does that make sense?

  5. Charlotte says:

    One of the deepest joys of being a teacher is to share our stories. My class has children from Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Britain, Ireland. There are Chinese, Polish, Ukrainian, Jamaican and Arab across the school. How could we not share and celebrate their stories and mine. And I story tell (old fashioned sat on the floor) story tell, I read from books and I share books from as far afield as I can. We tell stories of our families, we tell traditional tales and we write. It is the thing that keeps me in the classroom at a time when I sometimes wonder if my role is truly valued.
    Stick to your guns Jackie, we need storytellers. You are the message in the bottle that lets out the djinn; the bear that runs east of the sun.

  6. Barb Rogers says:

    Well put, Jackie, and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings. Many of my wiccan and pagan friends, or just about anyone who follows an “earth centered tradition” and does rituals in the honor of life and earth, have dealt with these matters. And most of them make personal decisions to honor any tradition that seems true to them. Some will not perform certain rites because they (leaders) don’t represent those who currently identify with them. In the US often this is Native Americans.

  7. Spike Deane says:

    Hello Jackie,

    Who is the glass artist? Interested as Blodeuwedd has been in my mind for a glass piece for a while too. It’s a hot topic over here in Australia (cultural appropriation not the Mabinogi). Lovely book.. -Spike.

  8. Stuart Hill says:

    Different cultures have exchanged ideas ever since people have had the opportunity to make contact with other groups. This practice is so old and venerable, there’s even some evidence of cultural (as well as genetic) exchange between Neanderthals and so called modern humans. Taking ideas and influences from diverse groups is the power house of cultural development!

    I would imagine that at least some of the people who coin phrases like ‘Cultural Appropriation’ probably use the English Language as the means of disseminating their theories. A wonderful irony when you consider the fact that the English language itself is a superb example of Cultural Appropriation. The root of the language may be Germanic, but the wonderully diverse wealth of the vocabulary we have available to us today, has been drawn from almost every other linguistic group across the human family. A wealth that continues to grow, and long may it do so.

  9. Ellie Bartleman says:

    This is a really interesting subject. When it comes to the Welsh issue, how do we know that we’re not in some small way Welsh? Or Scottish, Or Indian?
    My father was abandoned as a small child, was raised in Liverpool, and believed he was English. However he developed a passion for and a connection with Scotland so strong that he moved us there and raised us in Ayrshire, living there until he died. It was only 20 years later, and I was researching my family tree that I discovered that he was in fact Scottish and I have traced his family in East Lothian right back to the 17thC. I sometimes wonder if there are reasons we develop connections with other cultures. It sounds fanciful I know – I am normally very down to earth, but some places just get to my heart and others don’t.
    When it comes to my artwork, I am a magpie. I nick ideas from many cultures and incorporate them into my work. When researching, some images and ideas speak straight to my heart, others, even though the images are beautiful and accomplished, are not right for me. I can take ideas from Indian, Scandinavian, European, Russian sources. But African, Oriental, South American, although I love the art, craft and culture and am interested in it, it does not connect to me in an appropriate way and I feel that it would be wrong to use it, no matter how tempting it might be. When I have tried to, it doesn’t feel honest. Other artists I know adore Oriental and African art and take much inspiration from it – they have deep relationship these cultures even though they themselves may be white British with no connections to these places or cultures.
    We have to be sensitive to different cultures, of course, but I think there is a danger in attempting to ban other cultures from using aspects of our own. When it comes down to religion, the fear of the ‘watering down’ a belief system, leads to extremism which can become violent and dangerous.
    I can understand a certain amount of indignation in the area of literature where someone is writing in the person of someone of a different culture or race, particularly if it isn’t done well. But when it comes down to folklore, myth and fable, I believe that we should all be able to share these – they are universal and have been handed down from generation to generation to tell stories and help people to understand the meaning of life on this earth. They were told to share and enjoy. And from my experience, they all have a wisdom and understanding of the world that ignores boundaries and continents.

    • Jackie says:

      Thanks Eleanor. At the end of the day, bad writing is just bad writing. There has to be knowledge AND imagination and especially heart and soul for things to sing.

  10. tonka uzu says:

    I have similar feelings. Every story should be approached by authors and illustrators with respect and willingness to do in depth thorough research and nobody should be intimidated or silenced because of their background. This attitude is as paradoxical to me as that of the adoption agencies which would rather leave children in homes than let families from a different background provide them with a loving home. Publishers are driven by the market and if the readers ask for authenticity, they will get it. They can help indivuduals become avid readers from childhood by providing them with quality books. They can also encourage authors from minority backgrounds to tell their stories. My impression is that often the tendency is to create a polished universal text that could work in many languages and won’t offend anyone rather than look for authenticity and sense of place.

  11. Bernie Bell says:

    Kind-of along similar lines – I sent this to someone, a while ago………..

    “I’m reading a book called ‘Stories from the Other Side’, by Gordon Smith. Gordon Smith is an exceptionally gifted Medium. He writes of a meeting with Shane MacGowan (lead singer with a band called The Pogues). I’ll transcribe what’s in the book……

    “Next came an Irish poet from the Victorian era who said he had been with him (Shane) in spirit during his days in Kent. ” I was born in Kent”, said Shane, which surprised me because I regarded him as a quintessential Irishman. “Yes, I was born in England, and I hated England!.”
    “Nevertheless”, I said, “this man was guiding you and you had psychic visions of him and this guy actually gave you songs, he pointed you in the direction of his poems which you have turned into songs”. This, he (Shane) said, was all true.
    Later the journalist told me that she had often come to the house and Shane had locked himself in the bathroom to write the very music that went with the words of the nineteenth-century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan who gave voice to Irish nationalism before and during the famine years and, ironically, was melancholic, alcoholic and almost certainly addicted to opium.”

    Shane MacGowan is a gifted man, but an alcoholic, and melancholic, and who can blame him?
    How much inspiration comes from us, and how much is given to us?
    I thought you might be interested in this example of artistic transference.
    Best wishes

  12. Hannah says:

    The issue for me is that within my lifetime people have had their culture forcibly torn from them (indigenous Canadians and residential schools being a prime example) where their languages and stories were banned and they were forced to assimilate into the dominant settler culture. The violence done is being continued by an industry that would far rather print white versions of their stories than own voices. ‘All stories are human stories’ belittles that oppression and also negates the pain of those who are struggling to reclaim those aspects of their personal and cultural history. For me cultural appropriation is separate from issues of diversity (which, yes we need far more of) because of the violence inherent in it. For me it’s something I am trying to sit with, and consciously examine, my own place in. I am actively seeking ‘own voices’ authors and stories that don’t just speak to me but also speak for the author – if you see what I mean. It’s hard to find them, especially in children’s books. None of this is a specific critics of you or your writing but you’re asking for thoughts and these are mine 🙂

    • Jackie says:

      Thanks Hannah. The more voices the better. I guess in a way I am naive. But I see the culture of humans as being something small in the world, and human culture as a whole perhaps breaking down barriers, being less divisive. One ‘tribal’ culture being of no greater or lesser value than another. And perhaps they are different issues. There are so many myths in publishing. I was told that to put a black character on the front of a book would be to kill the sales dead. ( The book was called Journeys Through Dreamtime FFS. Centred around Australian First Nation culture, songlines etc. What did they want on the cover?)
      Recent dominant settler culture is for the most part utterly shameful and it feels almost as if there’s an attempt to write it out of history. I grew up thinking America was the home of the free…. then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
      The older I get, the less I wish to be human.

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