Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To Foxessa

The work you do in nonfiction -- or the real world, as we might call it -- is wonderful and valuable. And if you find an alternative to Blogger, please tell me about it. This format is going to make me crazy. They now tell you who has read your blog. No one read this today. There are some things we are not meant to know.

More on Culture

An earlier post was picked up by the Twin Cities Daily Planet. I tried to add a comment there and failed. (I have a lot of trouble with commenting. By the time I jump through all the hoops to prove that I am a human being, my comment has vanished.) Here it is:
I should add that I was writing in the context of an ongoing discussion of cultural appropriation in the science fiction community. When can we use other cultures in our writing? When borrowing shows contempt for other people or supports stereotypes, when we turn people's lives into products, then we into something bad. The example I just ran across was Urban Outfitters selling a hip flask as part of a line of so-called Navajo products aimed at groovy young white people. This kind of thing is pretty obviously offensive. The Navajo Nation sent its lawyers after the company.
On the other hand, I just learned that Pendleton robes were aimed at the Native market and the Pendleton Mill consulted with Native people and worked to produce a product that Native people would like. The article I read said 50% of Pendleton robes are still bought by Native Americans.
I should also add that Navajo silversmithing can apparently be traced back to a specific Mexican called Nakai Tsosi or "Thin Mexican," who taught the first Navajo silversmith. So I was in error saying silversmithing was learned from the Spanish. The Pueblo people apparently learned it from the Navajo.

Monday, April 23, 2012

More on Natalie Goldberg

I have continued to read Natalie Goldberg and think about her writing practice. I may be working my way to a real insight, or I may be wasting my time. I do a fair amount of unproductive mulling.

I have a strong feeling that I don't write the way she describes writing. I am not sure a need for self-expression drives me. Instead, I love stories, and I love to tell stories. I told stories to my brother before I could read and write. I don't think I was motivated by a desire to understand and express my inner self at the age of five. I think I wanted to tell stories, because I loved hearing stories.

Obviously, writers draw from their own experiences and emotions. But they also draw from the huge, long history of tale-telling. Like a child imitating its parents, I imitate folk tales, fairy tales, legends, Icelandic sagas, English language novels, all the science fiction and fantasy I have read...

As far as I know, all human societies tell stories. Why? I suspect to understand the world. The modern-day interest in psychology and self-expression is not universal and may come from the individualism and alienation characteristic of bourgeois society.

Having said this, I remember there are some pretty interesting psychological portraits in the 13th and 14th century Icelandic sagas. The best portraits are of people you would not want as neighbors: the great outlaw Grettir Asmundarson and the great viking Egill Skallagrimsson. Fabulous characters, but not good members of society. As Njall said in the Njals saga: "By law the land is established and by lawlessness laid waste."

The great question of the sagas is not "who am I and why do I feel the way I do?" but "what happened to the Icelandic republic? Why has the society established by the settlement of Iceland been destroyed?" Part of the answer was people like Egill and Grettir. The sagas describe how the republic's legal system was broken by greed and arrogance, individualism and a primitive sense of the family loyalty. Njall, the great lawyer, struggled to maintain the rule of law; but even his own sons turned against him in this struggle.

Nowhere in the sagas do we get a good sense of the author. We think we know who wrote the Egils saga, though not because it's signed. None of the sagas are, and almost all of them have no known author. Their style is so impersonal that it was mistaken for history or folklore until fairly recently. I use the saga style in my hwarhath stories. Any time one of my stories begins "There was a man (or woman) named..." it is an imitation of the traditional opening of the sagas: "Mathr het... A man was named..."

In the end, story telling is about other people, the audience that listens and all the folks -- living and long gone -- who have told good stories. I feel far more comfortable with this than the idea that story telling is about me.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I think I don't like the new blogger format.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reading Natalie Goldberg

I have been reading Natalie Goldberg's books on how to become a writer. One of the things that amazes me is -- she describes how her writing students are driven to tell their personal stories, record their lives. I have always wanted to describe what doesn't exist. I can't imagine anything more boring than writing down my life. I mean, I'm living it. That's as much commitment as I want to make. But the possible or impossible -- those are enticing. Those open the mind.

I've decided what I like about Natalie Goldberg is her enthusiasm for writing. For her it's life saving, transforming, the best thing ever, ice cream. I spent too much time around avant garde artists as a kid, and I picked up their angst. For them, art was not a way to make their lives better; their lives were a way to make their art better. And the process was not always pleasant for them or the people around them. But boy were they interesting; and their art was often breathtaking in its beauty and gutsiness.

I'd like to have Goldberg's enthusiasm, her joy in writing, and her relentless drive

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cultural Hoo Haw

The longer I thought about it, the more I wondered, "How does one distinguish between borrowing/sharing/influencing and appropriation? "Appropriation" means (among other things) taking without permission. But who can give permission for a culture? All at once I think of Disney protecting its copyrights and trademarks.

The Buddhist art of Afghanistan was influenced by Greco-Roman art. Major west-east trade routes went through ancient Afghanistan, and Greco-Roman bronzes have been dug up at Afghan archaeological sites. This Buddhist art -- Gandharan art -- it's the same word as Kandahar, the city now known from war reporting -- influenced the Buddhist art of northern India, which in turn influenced the Buddhist art of China, Korea and Japan.

As far as I know, no one along this line of transmission asked for permission to borrow.

The French Post-Impressionists were influenced by Japanese prints. Early 20th century European artists, such as Picasso, were influenced by sub-Saharan African sculpture.

Ojibwa bead work got its floral patterns from European fabrics, brought by the voyageurs.

Contemporary Native American art is full of borrowing -- from white culture and from many different Native traditions. Jingle dresses, used in powwows all over the country, are Ojibwe. Dream catchers are Ojibwe. I have a lovely bracelet made by a Lakota silversmith who lives on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He studied in New Mexico, and the bracelet looks like Pueblo or Navajo work to me.

All of this seems like acceptable borrowing to me.

But Patrick points out a problem. There are white people who decide they really are Native American and end lecturing other people, including Native people, on Native culture. This becomes creepy. This is unacceptable borrowing, I think. It's also lying or a delusion. If you geniunely think you are a reincarnation of Princess White Plume, then you are a bit nuts as well as culturally inaccurate.

Anyway, a fuzzy topic. I think the core issue is disrespect. If your borrowing is a way to diminish other people, then it is not a good idea.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Culture and its Uses

I thought I had a brilliant insight into cultural appropriation yesterday after Minicon. But Patrick says it is not brilliant and not an insight. Ah well.

The idea seems mighty fuzzy this morning. The political point about cultural appropriation -- made on many con panels -- is a good one. One should not go in like a band of Vikings and misappropriate other people's cultures; though I have to say it worked well for my Viking ancestors and for later generations of Icelanders who borrowed their writing and grammar from the Anglo-Saxons and their medieval and modern cultures (in good part) from mainland Europe. But sorting out cultural appropriation from cultural assimilation, cultural diffusion and cultural borrowing can be difficult.

And there is also the question of what is a culture? I had a moment of blazing insight yesterday in which culture -- at least my cultural identity -- seemed to be a construct. That I made up who I am out of bits and pieces of different cultures available to me when I was young. I don't know how common this experience is. Fairly common in fandom, I suspect. In so far as the US is still an immigrant culture, it must be common. In so far as the world is full of rapid change and the fluid exchange of cultural information, it must be common for many people. When you are given a choice among cultures, then who you are begins to be a matter of decision, not inheritance. All of this is pretty obvious. But I think it's important to not think about cultures as separate and unchanging. In reality, they are all happily exchanging information like microbes exchanging genes.

This thinking may be useful, because I'm currently writing about a young hwarhath man who is trying to become his own person in a very rigid society. There may be good arguments for building your own cultural identity. The culture around me when I was a kid was the white bread Midwest of the 1950s, the era of the Cold War and Joe McCarthy. I did not want to assimilate into that. I remember the horror I felt at the options available for women. I didn't want to be a wife and mother. I wanted to be a writer and maybe a space cadet.