It was my husband, whose own cultural heritage includes the Depression in the United States, who first told me the story of the hobo and his stone soup. As the story goes, the hobo turned up at someone’s home and asked if he could light a fire in the yard so that he could make himself some soup. The lady of the house who had agreed given him permission became curious when she observed the cooking preparations – a pot over the fire, containing nothing but water, and then a carefully lowered in a smooth stone.
“Is that all you eat?” she asked the hobo. “Surely you can’t survive on it?”
“Oh yes,” the hobo replied. “Of course, I add other things when I have them – a few vegetables added in thicken the soup.”
She fetched an onion, some cabbage, a turnip, and carrots, and gave them to him. He solemnly thanked her and cut them up into the water.
“This will do just fine,” he said. “Sometimes I add a bit of meat – just for flavor – but of course that isn’t at all necessary…”
She got him a piece of chicken, and he cut that up and put it in the soup too. He mentioned that a little salt would make it more tasty and she brought both salt and pepper.
When the soup was done, he invited her to try it, and she was astonished at what she was offered.
“Why, it’s so good!” she said in wonderment. “And to think that it all came from a stone!”
Here’s another story
Back in 2000 I wrote down a page of thumbnail character sketches; my husband (the same one of the stone soup story fame) asked what those were, and I said, my next novel. He said, I hate you (he always says that when I snatch a novel out of thin air). And then he asked what it was about. I said I didn’t know, yet.
A short while later a friend sent me a link to an article about nushu, the women’s written language of China, taught for generations from mother to daughter – the women’s language, the women’s country, the women’s culture and all that went with that. The article was about the last living user of that language who had learned it the traditional way – at mother’s knee – dying at age 90+, after which the language would become a relic, a memory, a dream of women.
My nameless, countryless characters on that list of thumbnail sketches sat up and said, oh yeah, that’s us.
I began writing a historical fantasy of a mythical country inspired by China, a country I called Syai (to be honest and revelatory about it, the name is a transliteration of a word in my OWN language which literally means “shining”; it was my own Easter Egg in the story, known to me but not to anyone else.)
I created a story about a women’s language, inspired by the real-life nushu, and a legend of a far-reaching sisterhood of women not bound together by class or status but only by an unbreakable vow to each other.
I was NOT writing about the real China. I used the idea of the women’s language of China as inspiration for a story all of my own and set in my own world of Syai.
That the inspiration was real, never doubt. I wrote “The Secrets of Jin-shei” at white heat, producing almost 200,000 words of nearly perfect first draft in less than three months, a feat I had never done before – or since.
This story was a gift, and one I received with humble gratitude… and that I believe I did justice to. One woman came up to me at a reading and asked if I would sign the copy of the book she held to her adopted Chinese daughter, which was tribute enough, except that she then said, “I will give it to her when she is old enough to understand, maybe when she is 15 or so.” I asked how old the child was now, and the mother said, “Four.” I cried.
At another reading an elderly Chinese woman with timeless features and neatly pinned back gray hair, told me she loved the novel and wistfully added that part of her wished that I was Chinese. I took that as an enormous compliment.
The book flew – it was translated into more than a dozen languages, around the world; eighty thousand people bought its Spanish HARDCOVER edition in the space of the first six months of its release.
It was stone soup – EVERY story ever told is stone soup.
In this instance, the stone in the soup was those ten character sketches which didn’t know what to do with themselves. But add in the metaphorical vegetables and a bit of meat for flavor – and you get something rich, and nourishing, and unlooked for.
A Twitter exchange
Fast forward to a recent tweet by somebody who posted a photo of her notes – and she was learning nushu.
I re-tweeted, with real joy. The idea that the language still lived, was still taught, was still being learned, made me happy – and I have always had a certain amount of pure sheer gratitude to it, for providing me with the absolute best ingredient and inspiration that I had ever had for making a pot of stone soup.
Instant replies included the question “Yes, but do you support the right of Chinese women to tell our own stories.” I said yes, absolutely and without any reservation. But I was suddenly in one of those conversations where I was cast as the villain of the piece without any further ado. I was told to read up on “colonial history” and “Chinese grave robbing” before I went any further.
I had dared trespass beyond my own little cultural ghetto. And for some people I was instantly in the wrong.
I bowed out of the no-win conversation. It was one of those “cultural appropriation” segues to which there is no response. But accepting the extreme view of some of my critics would leave me sitting in a roped off corner of the world with only enough space to sit with my knees drawn up into the circle of my arms, surrounded by areas fenced off with barbed wire; and signs that scream “keep off” and “no trespassing” and “here there be landmines”.
What, then, am I permitted to write, without being accused of colonialism and grave robbing?
I grew up a nomad, living in seven countries and four continents before I was 35 years old. What am I permitted to write about? ONLY about the country of my birth, which I left when I was ten years old? Because I clearly don’t “belong” to any other country in which I did my growing up or pursued my education. I am, then, from nowhere – from no-man’s-land – and I can claim no heritage or history or context as my own? I learned about the world at a young age – the whole entire world – and I was that world’s citizen. But now, if some critics would have their way, I and other authors would be locked in a iny space and told not set foot beyond it.
If I – a white woman – write a story that includes a man, or a person of any other race, am I appropriating? Is a male writer appropriating if he writes a woman? Is someone who is a Christian or an agnostic appropriating if they include a Jewish character into their story world?
If a white person includes absolutely no people in their story who aren’t milquetoast white and “regular” according to those known tropes – they might be accused (and rightly so) of whitewashing their world. But if they try and include anything else, they can be told to tote the bale of the colonial sins of the white race as a whole and to stop writing about any culture they had touched or burned,
Yes, cultural appropriation is a real and insidious thing. You saw it rear its head when no less than J K Rowling – the creator of the mighty Harry Potter – attempted to carelessly translate her magical universe onto a North American canvas, and did so without paying overmuch attention to what she was taking, and from which cultures, and how she was bending it so that it fit her own purposes. That is using other people’s worlds as window dressing for your own world, not as inspiration to build something original around but as a cover-up, as camouflage, as flimsy stage-sets. It was thought that she had gained no knowledge by research and by implication had used her ideas without heed, without thought, without respect. She was taken to task for it, and understandably so.
It is wrong to “dress up” as an Indian chief or a cartoon Mexican or in a national dress like a sari or a kimono to which you have no cultural claim – to wear such things, such identities, as “costumes” for a fun Halloween prank, for instance. And yes, that is cultural appropriation and cultural mockery – and people really should know better. It is just as wrong to steal a story that is not yours and present it as though you owned it.
But in many cases, most cases, that is not what a writer does – a writer who had delved deep and researched into a story that called to her, that asked to be told. For example, I read 37 books as part of my research into the culture of China for writing Jin-shei – EVEN though I was writing a fantasy set in my own world of Syai, not a history of an aspect of China that had inspired me.
Stories are cross-pollinated. The best stories are told by people with a wide knowledge base, not someone who knows and understands only a single issue, a single viewpoint, a single worldview.
Writers need to write – of things that show up in their minds, in their imaginations, and demand to be written. You cannot demand that a writer write only of their own back yard. To do so would destroy worlds. Are all new worlds to be simply pale copies of the writer’s own reality, no more, no less?
Let us take the fantasy genre. Fantasies that are “non-Europe-specific” – you know, the classic quest type fantasy of a group of people who appear to exist in a nebulous European medieval milieu and blunder about eating stews in cute country inns along the way – are welcomed, sought after, demanded. But are writers who happen to have “Europe specific” roots, in terms of such fantasy, then not permitted to write anything OTHER than that particular trope?
Yes, the history of the human species is egregious. Yes, people were – and still are – suppressed, and marginalized, and dismissed, and bullied, and much worse (we won’t go into pogroms, or genocides, or calculated eradications of inconvenient people who happen to be in the wrong place or the wrong time or just IN THE WAY of an incoming and much stronger invasionary horde). But are we to muzzle and shame every writer who ever stepped foot outside their own permitted square inch of cultural space and time? If they if they blunder, or if they deal with things with ignorance and disrespect – OF COURSE they should be called on it. But equating it to “graverobbing” is absurd rhetoric.
In answer to that Twitter question – YES, I absolutely support, encourage, eagerly anticipate and otherwise back any aspect of people from within a certain geographical, historical, and cultural milieu telling their own stories. They can. They should. The world will be the richer for the presence of those stories.
YES, people who steal stories and pass them off as their own, or write them badly and disrespectfully, should be pulled up on it. YES, people who make errors should be corrected. But they should not be accused of “grave robbing” just because they dared to explore their world. No-one has the right to decry a story simply because they feel that that person is the wrong person to have written it.
If some human moieties feel – and some feel so with damn good reason – that they are being silenced and ignored – does the whole world, then, have to sit in silence, waiting for the perfect voice to tell each perfect story? Leonard Cohen said it – ring the bells that you can ring – forget the perfect offering – there is a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.
If there is a way I can help let the light in through a story, I will. I cannot tell only the stories that someone thinks I should. Nobody should have to defend the stories they have told on the mere fact of having told them.
If the stories are told badly or wrong and you have issues with them – bring them – any writer worth their salt who has erred will learn from their mistakes and do better next time. That, you can ask – that you can demand. But you can’t tell a writer to tell only the stories that are pre-approved. It doesn’t work that way.