Working these days on an article about speculative fiction author Vandana Singh, I tried to find an American-born, white woman author to whom I could compare her case. Singh was born in Delhi but lives in the USA since the late 1980s, where she works teaching and researching Physics. The collection by Singh I am examining –Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018)– has been published by Small Beer Press, an independent publisher, and I found among their books one that appears to be the perfect comparator I need: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012). Johnson, a white Iowa native born one year before Singh, has a higher reputation, based on her having received more nominations and awards and having published novels. Yet, this is also useful as I am looking into the causes why Singh is not better known. I was not looking specifically into the thorny question of cultural appropriation but it has surfaced, hence my post today.
In three stories of her collection –“Fox Magic”, “The Empress Jingu Fishes”, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”– and in her novels The Fox Woman (2001) and Fudoki (2004) Johnson uses ancient Japan as her background though she has no direct personal link to this country. Scholar Joan Gordon (white, American-born) defends her choice on the grounds that “Rigorously researched historical narratives enable [Johnson] to avoid trivializing or exoticizing the complexity of another view of the world, and it may be that casting one’s narrative into the remote past, as Johnson’s stories do, avoids some of the difficulties of power inequity”. However, I came across a review in GoodReads by Minyoung Lee, an American female reader of Korean descent, who has a very different opinion. She is deeply offended by “The Empress Jingu Fishes” because, Lee claims, Johnson’s research is inadequate, and this leads to serious mistakes in the representation of still unsolved, complex conflicts among the Korean, the Japanese, and the Chinese.
Apparently, Lee even exchanged letters with Johnson about this but far from feeling appeased her impression that outsiders “not immersed in the subtle nuances” of the foreign culture they describe will inevitable offend insiders was confirmed. Lee wonders why anyone would “write about another person’s culture and history that you only superficially know about when you have a rich and fulfilling story of your own that cannot be told in the fullest by someone else?”. This suggests that rather than speak of cultural appropriation perhaps we should speak of cultural depletion in the case of white authors who feel no strong attachment to their own cultural background and use parasitically other cultures. Just an idea. I didn’t expect, however, to come across a case of (possible) cultural appropriation within the context of the Native American cultures of the United States…
On Friday I finished reading Jack Fennell’s edited volume Sci-Fi: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2019, https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Fi-Companion-Genre-Fiction-Companions/dp/1788743490) to which I have contributed an essay on the aliens in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. The book has an article called “Indigenous Futurisms” (by Amy H. Sturgis), which was a total eye-opener, for I know nothing about Native American literature beyond having read a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. Sturgis deals among other authors with Rebecca Roanhorse and what I less expected is that I would meet her the following day, Saturday. She was a guest of honour at the ‘Seminari de Gèneres Fantàstics I’, beautifully organized by Ricard Ruiz Garzón of the Associació d’Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” was offered as a souvenir in the excellent Catalan translation by Miquel Codony. Independent publishers Mai Mes presented the Catalan version of Trail of Lightning (as El raster del llamp), the first translation into another language of Roanhorse’s first novel. Later, I had lunch with the author, an activity which as you know from a previous post is a ‘necessary encounter’, and I learned a few things, for which I am very grateful.
Rebecca Roanhorse (https://rebeccaroanhorse.com/), born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, is the daughter of an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo mother and an African-American father. She lives now in New Mexico, together with her Navajo/Diné artist husband, Michael Roanhorse (https://www.truewestgallery.com/michael-roanhorse), and their pre-teen daughter. Both were present in the seminar and the ensuing lunch. I was very much surprised to read that Trail of Lightning has been criticized as a very negative example of cultural appropriation by Saad Bee Hozho, the Diné Writers’ Association, mainly on two grounds: Roanhorse is not Navajo herself and the values presented as Navajo in her novel are not acceptable as such because her work is violent whereas Diné culture is peaceful. The extensive open letter published online created quite a controversy, extended to other websites, mostly siding with the critique.
I was, therefore, very curious to see how Roanhorse would approach the matter in her talk with interviewer Alexandre Páez. When he asked about cultural appropriation, without alluding to this episode, Roanhorse simply replied that this kind of accusation is inevitable and one must face it as best one can. However, since she had not explained to the audience that she is part of the Navajo nation by marriage but not by birth her reply somehow suggested that the problem was white authors’ appropriation of Native American heritage. To be honest, I was not very happy with her reply and, although I feared very much stirring a nest of hornets, I was getting ready to ask the really uncomfortable question I had in mind when Catalan author Víctor García Tur asked Roanhorse again about cultural appropriation. Only then did she explain how she connects with Navajo culture, noting that about 30% of the readers were fine with her choices, 30% had criticised her and the rest had problems to make up their minds. She did not allude to the Navajo authors’ letter.
My personal opinion is that writers should be free to explore any topic and culture they feel germane to their interests. However, I think that they should make their own position as clear as possible (why not write a preface or a note?), and I certainly believe that respect for the culture visited is fundamental. Also, impeccable research. What was worrying me in Roanhorse’s case is that she was not clarifying her position before the audience and, so, most were assuming that she is Navajo. For me this is the equivalent of, say, someone from Catalonia writing about Extremadura and concealing this vital information from a foreign audience meeting someone from Spain for the first time. This type of nuanced information is very important. Authors, whether they write fiction or academic work, should avoid any misconceptions about who they are and must totally avoid, in my humble view, speaking for a whole collective to which they do not belong or only are members of in part. This can be a bit ridiculous, if you see it that way, but in my own article about Vandana Singh I have included a paragraph detailing my own position (colour, gender, nationality, age, occupation) so that readers know from which position I speak. Even so, I think, there is a world of difference between Johnson’s choice of ancient Japan, which is exoticizing no matter how lovingly done, and Roanhorse’s choice of Diné culture, which she knows through her personal experience. Or maybe I’m wrong.
I asked Roanhorse about something completely different also on my mind these days. If you read academic work on non-white authors (how I hate this adjective!…) it might seem that they are progressing following traditions isolated from white authors’ work. In Vandana Singh’s case she has often referred to Ursula le Guin as a mentor, writing in her tribute following le Guin’s death that “it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote”. Le Guin not only personally encouraged Singh to publish her first story, she also provided her with crucial instances of non-white characters she could identify with. Indeed, in le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), there is not any white character, a point often missed. During the seminar there was some comment about whether le Guin could get away with this choice today, or would she be accused of cultural appropriation… Anyway, Roanhorse noted that Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) was a major influence for her as a writer. I asked her how she connected with other white male writers, whether they read each other and so on, and she explained that fellow New Mexico resident George R.R. Martin had helped her very much, and so had John Scalzi, possibly the most popular SF author right now. Scalzi, she told me, is particularly generous in promoting the work of non-white authors. Other white male authors, Roanhorse added, are going in the right direction in their fiction by being more inclusive (paying no attention to cultural appropriation issues…) or placing women in the role of the protagonist. I must say that this is what I missed in the Sci-Fi Companion: an overview of what the ‘white boys’ are up to these days. For they are still there, dominating sales and pleasing readers –including non-white women.
Allow me to recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/), an uncomfortable story that has plenty to say about cultural appropriation and what it is like to be a dispossessed Native American (man) today. Don’t miss the readers’ comments! I have not read The Trail of Lightning (yet) but I’m told it is an exciting novel. You may not like its hero, Navajo monster-slayer Maggie Hoskie, whom Roanhorse herself describes as an “unlikeable woman”, but what is there not to like in the opening up of fantasy and science fiction to as many cultures as possible?
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