My Cultural Standards for Fiction

Two weeks ago, the Canadian literary scene got quite the shaking-up. (If you somehow missed this, start here and just keep clicking on links.) My students are wondering about it, talking about it, trying to solve this problem so it doesn’t inhibit creativity and multiculturalism but still considers people’s feelings when it comes to theft.

I have also been reading about this. As a fiction writer, I don’t want to inadvertently stomp on someone’s cultural heart. It’s not in anyone’s interest that I remain ignorant. I also believe it’s my personal responsibility–not an editor’s–to make sure that I don’t cross the line.

I think I’ve come up with an idea. It came to me while reading Robert Jago‘s On Cultural Appropriate, Canadian’s Are Hypocrites. He uses Harry and the Hendersons as an example of how cultural stories get taken out of context and badly used. I’ve never seen Harry and the Hendersons. Even when my kids we small and we were watching some rather terrible movies, we didn’t sink that low. Why not? Because it’s clearly crap. I don’t want to waste hours of my life deliberately partaking of total crap. There’s enough of that I can’t avoid.

So, how do I avoid total crap? There are certain filters or lenses one might use to determine crap levels. Part of it’s personal perspective; another part is something I picked up during my brief foray into academia. When writing non-fiction, there are certain standards for fact-checking and attribution to which one must adhere. One will not be taken seriously if one writes an academic paper that has no citations or uses “I once heard” as a resource. Primary sources are required; lack of citation is plagiarism.

I think I’ll apply the same criteria to my fiction.

  • If I haven’t used primary sources wherever possible, I can’t publish that story. (I, myself, count as a primary source, but I have to be ready to back that up with some sort of evidence.)
  • If I haven’t been able to come up with a minimum of three primary sources, I can’t publish that story.
  • If I’ve used something without permission, I can’t publish that story.
  • Anything that I’ve “made up” is to be clearly made up, not thieved. (I’m thinking about monsters and space aliens here.)
  • If I use someone else’s idea/tradition/culture and make money off it, a good chunk of that money (50%?) should go to a charity that supports said someone. My primary sources will be able to guide me to appropriate charities.

Fiction writers are still working with the making-up-stories-by-the-fire approach. Whatever one heard was fair game for pre-radio-era entertainment. Sometimes it was possible to trace the origin of the story; other times, it would be beyond the story-teller’s means/ability to do such a thing. Back then, there was some reason to just “borrowing” a story.

That’s not the state of things now. I have several libraries at my disposal, Google on all my electronic devices, and access to every country/culture on Earth through social media. I have no excuse for not getting a) the accurate story and b) permission from the appropriate people.

Not, of course, that this will save me from crap writing. What it might do is save my (few) readers from crap writing, and then the only thing they have to worry about is their personal opinion of my writing–including semi-colons.

Thieves are so annoying….

I’m Not Doomed, and I Won’t Doom Others

The only thing worse than one gender telling another gender what they are is–seriously, must I finish this sentence? In this day and age, yes, apparently I must object to a woman telling me what it’s like to be a woman.

I’m not “second-class”. I’m not “doomed”. Hilla Kerner of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter tells us women are both these things. I reject her definition; I’ve always rejected it and will always reject it. We have to get over the idea that women are weak and unequipped to live in society. Our lack of Y chromosome does not define who we can be, where we can go or what we can do.

We have human rights. One of those rights is to be something other than a victim.

Because I’m not second-class, I would like to suggest that allowing someone else the same rights I have will not take away any of my rights. I can share. I can be compassionate and attempt to empathise with someone who might have had a slightly different experience from mine. To me, the basic shared experience is more important than the gender of the person who experienced it. (Actually, I can’t think of any social situation where the other person’s gender would be relevant at all.)

If we’re ever going to do something about sexual violence, we have to get over this ridiculous head-in-the-sand, hetero-normative approach to it.

Women rape women.

Women rape men.

Transgendered people are raped.

Non-binary people are raped.

By asserting that only men rape women, the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter is offering to kiss the boo-boo better while ignoring the blood surging from the artery. Though I haven’t been there, this shelter does not seem like a very safe place at all.

Passing Bill C-16 is a good start to sexual safety for everyone.

 

 

On Ostracism and Other Words

Activity Being Avoided: editing a story that’s not really working
Music In My Head: listening to a homemade playlist entitled “JMMV
Tea Being Drunk: none. I’m between students, filling time. There’s no good tea here.
Books Being Read: The Pier Falls — Mark Haddon

Epigraph

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
― Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)

I’m not much of an activist. Truthfully, one might say I totally suck at being an activist. You really do not want me as your front man, regardless of your cause. It’s just not my thing.

That said, I can certainly stand up for something I think is important. Today, I’m standing up for words (which, of course, relate to actions and thoughts.) We’ll have a vocabulary lesson.

Let’s start with this word: ostracism. Here’s part of the spiel thieved from Etymonline:

ostracism (n.) Look up ostracism at Dictionary.com1580s, a method of 10-year banishment in ancient Athens, by which the citizens gathered and each wrote on a potsherd or tile the name of a man they deemed dangerous to the liberties of the people, and a man whose name turned up often enough was sent away.
A similar practice in ancient Syracuse (with banishment for five years) was by writing names on olive leaves, and thus was called petalismos.

 Here’s another word, teach, the etymology of which is taken from the same dictionary (which is certainly serving me well today):

teach (v.) Look up teach at Dictionary.comOld English tæcan (past tense tæhte, past participle tæht) “to show, point out, declare, demonstrate,” also “to give instruction, train, assign, direct; warn; persuade,” from Proto-Germanic *taikijan “to show”…

The usual sense of Old English tæcan was “show, declare, warn, persuade”…

These are some rather definite words. If one were to put them together, i.e. ostracise someone to teach them a lesson, the tone is hostile. This is not something we would do to express affection, love or respect for a person.

Here’s a third word: bigot. Again, let’s follow that with the wisdom from Etymonline:

bigotry (n.) Look up bigotry at Dictionary.com1670s, from French bigoterie “sanctimoniousness,” from bigot (see bigot).

bigot (n.) Look up bigot at Dictionary.com1590s, “sanctimonious person, religious hypocrite,” from French bigot (12c.), which is of unknown origin… Sense extended 1680s to other than religious opinions.

As I am not a journalist, I do not have to be objective; thus, this last word is to voice my opinion.

As a mother and a teacher (as well as just an ordinary human being), I know that kicking people out of a group does nothing to teach them how to behave within that group. While it might make some of the people feel as though the problem has been solved, it’s just been swept under the rug–and under the rug is a good place for things to fester.

Here’s a better word, one that might be more useful, all around: educate.

educate (v.) Look up educate at Dictionary.commid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanish educar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead,” from PIE root *deuk- “to lead.”

While considering these words, I (finally) signed this petition because I don’t think being ostracised will do anything to teach the police a lesson.

Allow Police Services to March & Be Present In Uniform at Toronto Pride

Leading and training: that might  help solve the prejudice that’s such a problem in our society.

These aren’t the cops you’re looking for.

 

Chicken Soul Soup: WTF Colonialism in Literature

In which there is a local school that requires an updated perspective of their job, and it really has been one of those weeks….

Student: I need help with this essay. In Native English Lit class, which is taught by some white guy who says it’s still okay for us to read Joseph Boyden’s books in class, I have to write about post-colonialism in Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. But the teacher didn’t teach us anything about post-colonialism–and I’m not white!

 

Chicken Soul Soup: Best Effort

In which the reader learns what kind of a week Sheila is having.

Me to student: If you’re going to cheat, at least put the effort into cheating well.

Chicken Soul Soup: Troll Commas

In which the comma saga continues.

Student: Of course I abused the commas! They sent me threatening messages and said they were going to beat me up! I could either delete them all or abuse them. Those were the only choices they left me!

Slowly, But Surely

This Varsity article was written by a kid I used to know–who, obviously, is no longer a kid. (Incidentally, his mind was never that of a kid, even when his elementary-school-aged body was tearing around the church graveyard like a crazed chicken. I’m still enjoying the duality.)

Slowly, but surely

During the toughest of times, a student works to rebuild his faith in the kindness of friends and the world around him

By Stephen Warner