Who is allowed to tell humanity’s stories?

One of my lush historical fantasies, ‘Empress’, is rooted in Byzantium – which is something tightly woven with the whole vexed “write what you know” question because I grew up as an Eastern European child. My new historical fantasy (in process) is deeply rooted in my own Balkan history. My industry moniker, ‘Duchess of Fantasy’, is born of historical truth because one of my ancestors was a Balkan Duke many centuries ago; I am not just Slav, I am a Slavic aristocrat.
Now, here’s the thing. My going there is precisely aligned with those who will tell me to go write about ‘my’ stuff and stop ‘appropriating’ anybody else’s background/ culture/ ideas because doing so closes avenues that might be open to authors from those cultures.
And then I came across this article at Tor.com, An Insider’s Guide to Slavic-Inspired Fantasy (*link at end) and this is what it says:
New variations on Slavic themes provide us with a unique opportunity to see how the rest of the world reflects upon us and our centuries of folklore and literary traditions. … But above all, it is an opportunity for our often ignored, stereotyped, and misinterpreted cultures to receive attention and (re)consideration from a new audience of readers and fans.”
So, then – it’s an opportunity for an arguably silenced cultural sphere to be heard by a “new audience”. This is already sounding … well … let’s go on:
An outsider cannot be as easily accused of being biased and favoring one Slavic nation over the other, and isn’t likely to be labelled a Polish/ Serbian/ Russian nationalist. Above all, foreign writers can bring a fresher perspective.
‘Cultural appropriation’ has been the Big Bad for many years now – but this article appears to be cultural appropriation turned on its head.

This a lose-lose situation.

Writing about your own particular background with native knowledge and insight makes you a potential ‘nationalist’, and what you write cannot therefore be trusted because it’s too close to the bone and potentially propaganda, or something. But that particular paragraph goes on: “foreign writers can bring a fresher perspective… free from the strictures of cultural or linguistic backgrounds…they interpret our cultures in ways that might be unexpected to us – sometimes funny – sometimes flattering – sometimes inaccurate – always intriguing”.
So it’s really a GOOD thing for someone not from inside a culture to write about it?

Illustration The Stories
Photo by Elaine Howlin on Unsplash

What then must we do? Only ever write about ‘things we know’ and things that can legitimately ‘belong’ to us”? But then we are in danger of being accused of being proselytisers, propagandists, nationalists, and thus easily dismissed by those who don’t want to spend any time thinking about the fact that every story ever told had more than one side to it?
Or do we take this particular article at face value, and dare to explore a culture not our own, so long as we do it WITH RESPECT, so long as we do it WITH RESEARCH, so long as we do it with the understood idea that there ARE things we could get wrong – but that we aren’t out to “get” anyone if we do? Again – lose-lose.
And what of people like me, who were born into one geographical and cultural sphere and who were by force of circumstances brought up and educated in other such spheres?
I am genetically a “pure” Slav, if such thing is possible in our much travelled neck of the woods where genetic injections from other peoples were not entirely unexpected. I was born in a country which no longer exists, so does that wipe my cultural heritage clean?
I was ten when I left Yugoslavia, by that stage still extant, and I haven’t lived there since, although my heritage was never extinguished for me not only because I was old enough for it to have ‘taken’ and the cultural/racial memories and worldviews already implanted in the lush fertile soil of a child’s mind, My early childhood was built on a EUROPEAN and Slavic-sphere mindset where I read European writers on European themes and I read Russian literature and I spoke an entirely different language to those things in. Then I was whisked away.
I grew up in various iterations of Africa, and THAT grew inside me, too. I was educated in England, and THAT came in – I travelled the world and assimilated many other points of view and aspects of the human soul – I lived in the Antipodes for more than six years of my young(ish) adult life, and I was curious and intrigued and enchanted enough to immerse myself in the stories and the mythology of Aotearoa, as its people call New Zealand, and of Australia. And I spent the last two decades of my life in the United States, with its own rich cultural cauldron.

So where do I belong, then? What belongs to me?

What is a writer allowed to write?
The Tor article does put the never-ending cultural appropriation argument in a new light. Or is it just the SLAVIC culture that it’s OK for foreign authors  who “write in English” and have a “fresh insight” and can “reach new audiences”, to mine for story fodder?
I am all for reaching new audiences. I applaud that. But in order to do that, must we all not be allowed to tell the stories that call out to us?
If a ‘foreign’ writer telling or retelling a Slavic story – if they do it the hard way or the easy way, if they research it and do an in-depth worldbuild or whether they just file off the serial numbers and the ‘difficult’ names and call it fantasy and call it good – is doing a good thing by presenting that particular story and that particular culture to a “new audience”… then WHY can’t a writer from ANY culture write a tale inspired by ANY other culture? Where are the boundaries of this blessed cross pollination? What are we permitted to say? What are we not permitted to utter? Which areas are no-go areas and why are those areas forbidden while equivalent trespass in others is now not only permitted but lauded?
I believe stories are a common heritage of mankind. The more they are told – to ‘new audiences’ – the more valuable they become, in terms of putting in metaphorical windows in the walls that we build between ourselves, and letting people look into an undiscovered country. I am not saying that there isn’t a culture in publishing where certain voices are simply not heard enough. But if you call everything ‘sacred’ you ensure that nothing really is – people are just fiercely guarding a small pile of artefacts which they can lay claim to as ‘MINE!’.
In the context of this article I’m referencing, as I said at the beginning of this essay, I am Slav. I am a Slav aristocrat. I DO reserve the right to pull people up and correct them if they’re just using that culture and that background as ‘scenery’ for whatever it is that they’re too lazy or too ignorant to properly research and do due diligence on.
But if a writer is inspired by a Slav story and does an incandescent job with it – I’m looking at American Catherynne Valente and “Deathless”, which is a book I, someone who grew up on Russian fairytales, treasure – that’s an enrichment, not malice. Valente did not set out to STEAL the story of Koschei. She wrote a story inspired by him, and we are all the richer for it. What would have happened if she had not been PERMITTED to write it because – you know – it wasn’t ‘hers’ to write?
Like the Tor article said – she wrote in English, and she shared the story with a much wider audience many of whom had never heard of Koschei before her book. She gave it her own spin, her own voice; she took a thread from a storyland not necessarily her own and she made it exquisitely her own.
The possibility always existed that she might have mangled something too badly to be borne. She did not; she trod a fine line between sounding almost eerily ‘Russian’ and not sounding ‘Russian’ at all, which gave the story an edge. It was borrowed. It was worked on with love and care, and talent. It was not stolen. And in no way did she muzzle anyone else or somehow deny them the opportunity to tell the exact same story, in their own words, for their own audiences. The two stories should compete on their intrinsic quality, on their perceived value, and not on the identity and the cultural ‘qualifications’ of their authors.
Speaking for myself, I am clay that has been worked on by many ‘hands’. If I am to interpret certain diktats literally, then nothing is mine, and I belong nowhere. I can claim NO stories to tell, because I am not a deeply rooted part of them. At least that has been the playbook so far.
Are we seeing a wind change? Are people now saying that writers ‘foreign’ to a culture ARE in fact allowed to claim to have been inspired by that culture, and are in fact perceived to be bringing a ‘freshness’ and a ‘new insight’, not to speak of a ‘new audience’ if they choose to tell their stories? Is it okay for non-Italians to write fantasy based on Rome, or non-Greeks fantasy based on Mount Olympus? Is it okay for non-Scandinavians to delve into Norse mythology? (just remember, if Tolkien hadn’t done that, we would not have had ‘Lord of the Rings’.)
Is it okay for non-French people to write about Paris, ever, and is it okay for non-Spaniards to write about the lore and history of the Iberian world? If Guy Gavriel Kay hadn’t done this we would never have had ‘Lions of Al-Rassan’…)
Is this confined to European cross pollination? Are Americans allowed to write about any of it at all, or is their own cultural backyard fenced off by the period in which they have been the United States? What are Canadians supposed to write about? Are modern-day Australians only permitted to write about the days when their ancestors there were either convicts or jailors? Is a Japanese writer only ever allowed to write about samurai? Who writes about a swathe of history that includes Genghis Khan – or do we leave that to people like The Hu to sing about (not in English, I might add…)?
What of stories that well-read and educated English-using non-native writers with every good intention may trip about which originate in Egypt, or South Africa, or China, or Indonesia? Must we all stay silent on things like the historic eruption of Krakatoa, for instance, because our particular ancestors did not live directly under its cloud, at its feet?
What about issues that are potentially more fraught than that, even? Should a Jewish writer even be allowed to write about Jesus at all… even though he was in fact Jewish, he did become the iconic embodiment and foundation of a whole new faith, so should he now be out of bounds to Jewish writers – or if we’re to enact rigid ownership policies should Christians be allowed to write about Jesus since he was in fact Jewish?
Should ANY faith be permitted within shouting distance of another – should I know nothing about Buddhism, about Shinto, about the Hindu pantheon and mythology, about Judaism, about Islam, to the point that my ignorance only permits fear and mistrust of the people who profess those other faiths? Should I turn my back on Scheherezade because she was Muslim?
Should the only option be ownership, or silence?
What, then, about the ‘fresh eyes’ and ‘new insight’ and ‘new audiences’? Are they to be encouraged, should the inspiration some stories stir in some writers be gently blown upon until it blooms into something that might be richer and stranger than anything anyone expected, because of that hybrid vigor?
This article appears to urge that. I would urge that. I am not in any way espousing a position where someone can just wade in and take what they want and leave wreckage in their wake – but is inspiration, cross-pollination, following one bright butterfly out of a particular garden and into a wilderness where the one who follows it must blaze their own path, is that always and intrinsically bad? Is that for EVERY culture…?
Or – and I ask this again – is it just the Slav culture that’s the exception to this ‘only write your own stories’ rule? Yes, there is interest in these stories – just as there is interest in many other stories, from many other places. What’s the consensus here – should we be in the business of telling stories, as well as we know how, to as many human beings as we can reach in terms of a ‘new audience’ – or should we be huddled in our own separate little corners, arguing furiously about who is either “genuine” and culturally anointed enough to tell a story… or who is a “foreigner” who brings fresh eyes and fresh insight and possibly a steaming heap of misinterpretations to the table?
We are tellers of stories – that is what human beings have always been. That concept of past-present-future, the idea of history and heritage, the sense of being part of something that defines you, the parameters of which are building blocks of yourself – the ability to release our imaginations and let our dreams take wing – that is what makes us human. All of us. Together.
If any of us make mistakes, or use those stories that are ‘foreign’ to them, with disrespect, or ignorance, or malice – damn right they should be called on it, and corrected, by those who might know better. But as a Slav aristocrat…do I have the right to demand that everyone who does not carry my blood should cease and desist forthwith from telling any of the stories that are ‘my’ heritage? How can I? Those stories do not belong to me – I belong to THEM. They are not mine to hoard, to pile in a heap beneath me, to protect them with fire. I am not a dragon. I am a teller of tales. And the value of a story doesn’t lie in its being bogarted. It lies in being shared.
You may never know the riches a story familiar to you to the point of banality might have on somebody who has never heard it before. But both you and that other are made bigger and wiser by its sharing.
Here’s a possible rule. If you do not trample, bulldoze, devastate, burn, pillage or even just basically take it for granted… you are permitted to walk on my sacred ground, to bring flowers to lay upon the place where you think something precious may be buried, and you may take inspiration from it. But to expect me to haunt you if you raise misshapen or malevolent or even just purely ignorant ghosts in your passing. You are not stealing the air that you are breathing in above that hallowed ground… and when you exhale, you may be returning the gift, your breath being a new life that make old things new again.
***Read the whole Tor article HERE


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