Contemplating Cultural Appropriation

Early Concept Art for Elan and James

Early Concept Art for Elan and James

The Bright and the Gloom – formerly known as Poguri and the Land of Nou – is a speculative fiction novel that I’ve been working on for the last six years, half of which takes place in the “real world”, or what I call the Wake, and the other in a parallel world called Nou.

One of the main characters is an Indigenous Australian boy – Wiraduri specifically – named Elan, living in New South Wales in the 1930s.  For the part of Elan’s story that takes place in the Wake, I am borrowing from accounts of the Stolen Generations, from first hand accounts taken from the landmark Bringing Them Home Report, released in 1997.

As I’ve continued writing, however, I’ve gotten to thinking about cultural appropriation in fiction, and I came across this article by Nisi Shawl, which talks about how to classify the appropriator – as either invader, tourist, or guest:

Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

Tourists are expected. They’re generally a nuisance, but at least they pay their way. They can be accommodated. Tourists may be ignorant, but they can be intelligent as well, and are therefore educable.

Guests are invited. Their relationships with their hosts can become long-term commitments and are often reciprocal.

I actually wrote to the Miss Shawl and she advised me to do some outreach to members of the “host culture” from which I am drawing:

You are only an invited guest if someone at home in the culture in question invites you into it.  Doesn’t sound like that has happened here.  I am in no position to tell you if you are a tourist or invader.  Again, that is the call of those at home in the culture in question.  So I suggest you do some outreach along the same lines as you’ve done with me, but in that direction.  My only other helpful tip is that tourists engage in some form of exchange with their hosts, which is much less the case with invaders (though colonizers and exploiters offer unequal exchanges for the good they appropriate, too).

I intend to take her advice, but the trouble is that I do not even know how to begin this process of reaching out.  It would be awfully strange for me to try to contact some random Indigenous Australian and ask questions about cultural appropriation.  The questioning itself would seem to me to foolishly ignore individual experiences and divergent perspectives, the existence of disparate groups beneath the umbrella term “Indigenous Australians”, and impose upon any given individual some responsibility to represent an entire group of people.

I have searched the internet for online Indigenous communities with little success, many of them outdated or riddled with spammers.  Others are closed non-profit or community groups that I feel I would be rather self-important in approaching, as they are preoccupied with real concerns, and would not have time to respond to some random would-be author from the States.  There seem to be a few possible leads on Facebook, but I remain skeptical about who started those communities and for what purpose.  So I’ve decided to write this post as a way of putting my questions “out into the ether”, so to speak, for anyone to weigh in.

I am not looking for permission to write my story.  Instead what I hope for is some feedback on the appropriateness of drawing from people’s real-life horror stories and placing them within a fiction novel.  Of course all fiction draws from real life, but I’m wondering if I’m crossing some line between simply re-telling the story and co-opting it for my own purposes.  People do it all the time with reckless abandon and without any concern for the sensibilities of the host culture.

And I don’t want to do that.

In my story, I am not delving too deeply into the particulars of Wiraduri culture, but more the experience of a forceful distance created between Indigenous Australians and their families, livelihoods, and heritage, by this period of reprehensible government policy.  Where my fantasy elements overlap with Australian mythology, it is coincidental, as I am actually drawing more from the psychology of Carl Jung and Gnosticism.  However, there are common – maybe even perennial – themes that move through different cultures, and where I found synchronicity with Australian mythology I was thrilled at the coincidence, given that I had chosen an Indigenous protagonist.

There is nothing particular to the Stolen Generations experience that I must use.  I am using those accounts without going into any of the lasting effects, the political ramifications, any of that, instead taking them in a vacuum as pure examples of human cruelty.  Still, I did choose an Indigenous Australian character for specific reasons.

First is that the Stolen Generations story is one that is not too well known outside of Australia.  Second is that I am insistent that my protagonist be a character of color, not only for the fact of inadequate representation of people of color in fiction, but an intentional rebellion against Western sensibilities and standards for what makes a “worthy” or “identifiable” protagonist.

I would be especially interested in corresponding with Wiradjuri people, given that I have chosen to make my protagonist a member of that particular group.  But truly, any serious feedback would be appreciated and taken under due consideration as I continue my writing.