WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Fictional Rights

By on March 15, 2016

Cultural appropriation, sensitivity and the right to write.

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JK Rowling explains that Navajo Skin-walkers do not exist in her fictional world.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – While I completely disagree with just about everything the Republican candidates are putting forth, I can, on some level, recognize their gripes regarding political correctness. The current generation can be extremely sensitive when it comes to classifying or defining different cultures, particularly in progressive first world countries. As we humans move forward in our quest for acceptance and eliminating generalizations, we can’t seem to stop tripping over the thrown stones of past conflicts. The challenge is deciding whether we recognize those stones and step over them, or go out of our way to remove them from the path altogether.

The latter is admittedly an incredibly ‘yuuuge’ undertaking. How do you build a blossoming society of acceptance and anti-discrimination when its foundation is weakened from centuries of divergence? How do you erase the mistakes of the past?

I’ve attempted to tackle that subject in my own fiction. My unpublished young adult novel, “Blade of the Outlaw,” deals with a revisionist history of the American Indian tribes of Wyoming. In a planned five-book series, I have the intention of rewriting the birth of our nation with the inclusion of Indian voices in that development, not just those of white men. After hours of research, I’ve established a story that, I believe, is a realistic alternate history that imagines a new United States.

But, who am I to write this story?

JK Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame recently penned a four-part tale called “A History of Magic in North America”, in which she expands on her magical world by including Native American wizards.

The backlash that has erupted from this story is massive. The American Indian/Indigenous/Native American community (the classification varies depending on preference) has accused Rowling of cultural appropriation and writing about a subject about which she has a complete lack of knowledge. One Twitter user, @nativebeauties, wrote: “You must be outta your mind if you think we should sit idly while a renown white author uses us as props in her fictional work.”

That same Tweeter also described that Rowling’s Native American wizards were apt with “animal and plant magic,” playing into the age-old stereotype that all Native characters are “mystical” and decisively in-tune with nature.

At the time of writing this column, Rowling has yet to respond to allegations that she lacks the knowledge or neglected to do proper research on the culture she has now added to her fantasy canon. Another user, @NativeApprops, stated: “You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalized people. That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

Admittedly, this situation makes me want to withdraw my book from agent submissions. Perhaps I should work on a book solely about white gay male characters from Wyoming that are born of Austrian parents, because ultimately, that is the culture I come from.

When I visited the Wind River Reservation in spring 2015, I met with Robin Levin, a librarian at the Fort Washakie School who helped me with my research for “Blade of the Outlaw.” She was incredibly helpful, but warned me that I would face challenges. She told me that I should expect that one day, a tribal elder would come to me, take me by the elbow and ask, “Why do you think it’s appropriate for you to change our history?”

Shit, right? This paranoia of backlash has drastically impacted my writing, both in positive and negative ways. Ultimately, who are any of us to write about anything? What am I trying to say with my story, and why am I writing from the perspective of a half-breed horse wrangler—a character I have so little in common with?

Perhaps because, like JK Rowling, I write fiction. Stories come to me, not because I’m trying to make a statement or trying to reclassify indigenous tribes, but because it’s a story that I believe is worth telling. I do my research. I recognize those thrown stones, I learn about the history and traditions, but I refuse to ignore writing about other cultures just because I happened to be born white, or other genders just because I’m male.

Would a Native American writer be better suited to write my novel or JK Rowling’s story? Sure, but an artist’s imagination should not be regulated by fear of being accused of cultural appropriation. Be mindful, but be creative. PJH

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