How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation

This thread comes from the ‘Writing Ethnically Different Protagonists’ thread and concern I have from a reviewer.
I have a character in my work, Ruth, who is a North American Native woman from Saskatchewan. She is abused. I am neither a woman nor native. An artist friend who is reading the draft suggested I could be called out for Appropriation of Voice with this character.
I have done some research and found the Canadian Author Margaret Atwood was accused of the same thing with Pauline and Surfacing.
I don’t want to change her background, her culture or her history. She plays an important role in the story and as a metaphor for our Canadian society.
But I want to be empathetic to the Aboriginal culture, history and concerns. Does anyone have any thoughts on how to avoid the charge?
thanks

 

Book review of Frances Itani’s Tell

I recently finished reading Tell as a NVCL Book Club book. I was underwhelmed. In fact, I had to force myself to complete the novel.
I had trouble visualizing the characters. Tall, short, dark, fair, I couldn’t see these people, the descriptions were lacking. But that was only the beginning of my issues.
The story revolves around secrets that are kept in the small town. I grew up in a small southern Ontario town, so I thought I could relate. Not so much.
In truth most small towns are full of busy-bodies who love to talk about each other. That these secrets could be kept for decades was a little dubious. But reading fiction involves a suspension of disbelief, so I will give the author that. That the secrets were only revealed at the end felt a little forced.
The ice rink. If it was a metaphor for something, I missed it. Maybe the big snow wall. But there was too much description of building the rink for my liking. As above, I lived in Southern Ontario, I get it.
Too often I wanted to take the characters and bang their heads together. Just speak for god’s sake.
But the final killer for me was that the novelist showed a lack of caring and empathy. The main female character Maggie cheats on her husband Em. Neither Itani nor Maggie showed any thoughts to the pain they were inflicting. Not a second thought. My idea of a good writer is one who has empathy for the world, and shows it in their work and their characters. Itani failed at this.

Danny

Consenting to Learn in Public

“Consenting to Learn in Public”

I am beginning a journey.
A flag was raised when I had my first draft of a fictional story reviewed. A major character in that story is an aboriginal women named Ruth. She is a North American native from Wood Mountain Saskatchewan. She is abused. And a reviewer suggested I drop the native character as I might be accused of Cultural Appropriation or Appropriation of voice.

I don’t want to change her story or her background, or make the issues invisible. Native people are a real part of the Canada I love and call home. I do want to be empathetic to the real concerns of the community. I don’t want to steal anything. What to do?

The plan is to do some research. To read. Books, web sites, blogs. And to speak to the people I know who have a Native background.
To look for organizations that can teach me, inform me, educate me.

So the journey begins.

I might make some mistakes. I may ask some really dumb questions. I may publicly show my ignorance. Please forgive me in advance.

 

#Consentingtolearninpublic

Anais Nin’s letter to the collector

I had never read this letter until today. It’s wonderful. And puts into words what so bothers me about sex scenes without emotion, passion, love.

“Dear Collector: We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its colour, flavour, rhythms, intensities.

You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it. Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional. This is what gives sex its surprising textures, its subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements. You are shrinking your world of sensations. You are withering it, starving it, draining its blood.

If you nourished your sexual life with all the excitements and adventures which love injects into sensuality, you would be the most potent man in the world. The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion. You are watching its little flame die of asphyxiation. Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine.

How much do you lose by this periscope at the tip of your sex, when you could enjoy a harem of distinct and never-repeated wonders? No two hairs alike, but you will not let us waste words on a description of hair; no two odours, but if we expand on this you cry Cut the poetry. No two skins with the same texture, and never the same light, temperature, shadows, never the same gesture; for a lover, when he is aroused by true love, can run the gamut of centuries of love lore. What a range, what changes of age, what variations of maturity and innocence, perversity and art…

We have sat around for hours and wondered how you look. If you have closed your senses upon silk, light, colour, odour, character, temperament, you must be by now completely shrivelled up. There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.”

 

Anais Nin

A Month of Critique Circle

I have been a user of Critique Circle http://www.critiquecircle.com for a month now. I want to record and share my experience, thoughts and feelings about the last month.
I had been trying to put together a group of people who could meet once a month or so. It just wasn’t working. I kept writing but I didn’t share.
There is a monthly ‘Dare’ program here as part of the North Shore Writer’s Assoc, but it is really just a chance to read your work. You don’t get more feed back than ‘I liked that’ or ‘Where do you see the story going?’
I needed real criticism.(And not from my mom.)
I have taken some writing courses, and have received that sort of ‘Single-threaded’ critique where the Prof gives his feedback. One person every week or so. I needed something better. And more.
Then I found a web link that pointed to a dozen good sites for writers. I decided to try Critique Circle.
I joined and began to work through the check list. I read a few critiques and then tried my hand at a few. I did four over a two week period before I posted my first piece.
Giving critiques I found harder than I expected. First I had to read 3 or 4 pieces for each one I wanted to critique. Some I didn’t like and some I thought were such poor quality I didn’t know how to tell the writer that. I wanted to say nice things, because I want people to say nice things to me. Or so I thought.
I asked a couple of questions on the forums and got good friendly responses. I read quite a few critiques, trying to get a feel for how to criticize professionally. And I found some great critiques. I so liked one critique I saw, that I wrote the critter and asked him if he would be willing to crit my work when it came up. I wasn’t sure if this was out of line. I was afraid I was committing a CC faux pas but really liked this guy’s critiques. He told me not to worry, most people here are pretty friendly, and that he would be happy to crit my work.
So then I took the plunge and posted a chapter from a novel I am working on. (In hindsight a mistake.) And held my breath. The next week was exhausting.
It took a day or two to get my first critique, during which time I feared getting no feedback. Did people think my work was so bad they wouldn’t give it the time of day? Did I write crap? Should I give it up now and go back to ditch digging, or whatever. (Writers can be brutal on themselves I learned.)
And then the morning I got my first crit. I’ll admit, I was excited. I opened it up and it was about commas. A whole critique on commas. I had too many, not enough, in the wrong places and missing from the right places. That was it. WTF? Alice through the looking glass I thought.
File that one away and wait. I had to wait two more days. I would compare it to waiting for a child to be born, but that would be a stretch. But I was on edge for two days.
And then someone smiled on me. I opened a crit the third morning and it was just what I was looking for. No sugar coating. She pointed out spelling mistakes and grammar errors. (I thought I had read the piece 10 or 15 times. How had I missed those?) But the critter also made suggestions that I instantly knew were right. ‘How about saying this instead?’ Yes I thought. ‘I am not sure that sounds natural, how about this?’ Yes, your right, that is better. Every suggestion was good. I looked at my work and realized I could make it better. A lot better.
Then another crit came in. Same pointing out the spelling, grammar and formatting errors. But helpful suggestions. And questions about the story. ‘What is the MC thinking?’, ‘I don’t understand why she did this”, and I realized I had not been clear enough. I thought things were obvious but I know the piece too well.
The week became a bit of a roller coaster ride. Up to get a critique at all, down to have the same spelling mistake pointed out, up to have a helpful suggestion.
Then I got the critique I had solicited. Ouch. But in a good way. I realized I have way too many spelling, formatting and grammar errors. I want feedback to help me with the story, the plot, the feel, the characters, the themes, the experience of a reader. But my critters kept seeing these ‘table steak’ issues. I realized I need to submit work that is as close to perfect as I can, so that the critters can move past the spelling errors and get to the real substance. A light came on.
And then I got what I thought was my best critique. (Although I rated three perfect). Questions or comments that probed right into the story, the characters, the motivations. Echoes. And a comment about POV and breaking the story flow. Showing vs telling.
I ended the week exhilarated. I spent as much time re-writing my 1,500 words as I had spent on all the editing I had done in weeks before. I was motivated. I was encouraged. I was inspired even.
Five of the Six critiques I got were gold. Solid Gold. I was a little overwhelmed at times. I am now looking at the larger work and realize I have a ton of work to do. A mountain of work. And just that thought exhausted me. I need to do to those 60K words what I have done to the 1,500 words this week. And I am not done with the 1,500 yet.
Exhausted and Exhilarated. But happy. I have found what I was looking for, what in my heart and head I know I needed. What my writing needs.
Thank you.

Danny Aldham

Vancouver Maker Faire, So Great

A good friend invited me down the the Vancouver Maker Faire at the PNE yesterday. I am so glad I went. http://makerfaire.ca
I was impressed by the people. I am a techy from way back, so the robots and 3D printers and laser cutters were right up my alley. But what I was really impressed by was the energy of all the people. Every booth was staffed by people putting their hearts into things. Real enthusiasm. There were electronics & robots, beside furniture makers & hand spinning wool exibitions. There were rocket launchers & jewelry makers, Lego machines & Hack space providers, Bee keepers & Sailors, Universities and the Boy Scouts.
But the most impressive thing was the people. These were bright energetic people putting their hearts and passion into whatever they were showwing. I spoke to a few and evesdropped on a dozen more conversations. It was worderfull to find such a large space full of so many positive happy people. I know it is hard work, my friend told how long it took to setup on Friday night, and I am sure it will be just as much work to break it down and take it home. Plus all the long hours staffing the booth. They all do that. But you could see they loved what they were doing.
Go for the crafts, the tech, the learning. But savour the dozens of interesting, passionate people. It is good clean fun. A really great event.

http://makerfaire.ca

Review of ‘All the Light We Cannot see’ by Anthony Doerr

I read Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ in about 4 days. It was one of those books I didn’t want to put down. It is truly wonderful. The best book I have read in at least a year. Superb.
The main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, are wonderfully developed. You care for them, you worry about them, they light up the book.
You see characters act with courage in fightening situations. The huge scope of war with armies moving across Europe tosses all the characters about. So many show goodness and compassions, and some show greed and malevolence. As in real life.
I give this book 5 stars. I wish I could write this well.

Book review of Station Eleven

I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s ‘Station Eleven’ this week. Really enjoyed it. A dystopian novel with some nice people.

There are 4 or 5 main characters that are tied together through 20 years, tied back to the night it all began. And St.John Mandel does it really well. Little clues like the name of the dog, Luli. What are the chances? The intersection of Kirsten, Jeevan and Arthur. It held the book together.

I like books with characters you come to like, or at least come to care about what comes next for them. This book has that.

And I like books with a positive message. This book sort of has that. As compared say to Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. Finishing that book was painful.

I didn’t understand howTyler could go so bad, and I would have liked to know. But then I am not sure how the good characters went and stayed good.

And a few of the plot elements didn’t quite work, like believing that nobody at the airport was exposed to the flu. Or that such a devastating flu could not be caught, like ebola or Sars was before it. But never the less, I enjoyed it. Well worth a read, and I will look at reading other books by the author.

Book review of ‘The Sun Also Rises’

I finished reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises last night.
Spoiler alert: I am going to discuss the plot, characters and themes as though I have read the book. And I didn’t like it.
About half way through the book I nearly put it down. The characters are mostly horrible people. I was struggling to find a reason to keep reading. I actually read a couple of reviews, and they raved about this as Hemingway’s break out novel and that it was a novel that came to epitomize that ‘Lost Generation’. So I stuck with it. I was hopeful the nihilistic characters would learn, would grow and would become better people. It doesn’t happen.
I worked in a bar while in University. I learned about myself that I don’t really like being around drunks if I am not drinking myself. Well this book was about being around drunks all the time. They were either drinking, planning on where to drink, getting over the affects of drinking or behaving poorly while drunk. One character, Jake, calls Brett, the woman he loves, ‘a drunk’. They are all drunks.
But worst than drunks they are terrible people. Lady Brett has sex with every main character. They use and abuse others. They toss people aside like disposable possessions. None of them display any empathy or even decency.
I suppose the elite that like this book find it thoughtful and edgy. But just as Mike tries to be edgy by being mean and rude to Cohn, so most of this book is just rude.
Why the narrator, Jake, was made to be impotent has me scratching my head. He certainly lacks self awareness. But at least he has a job. Most of these characters are unemployed bums.
I am at the point where I read books as a writer, looking for what the writer does and how she accomplishes things. The prose is nice and tight. Some of the descriptions are beautiful. A lot of the action they observe is great. But they just observe, they never engage. And I found I got sick of how ‘Swell’ everything was.
A while ago I re-read Hemingway’s short story ‘Hills like White Elephants’. It is a wonderful piece. But the man in that story could be one of the characters in this book. He probably is. And he sucks.

Review of ‘The Empathy Exams’ by Leslie Jamison

It is not often I don’t finish a book. If this had not been a NVCL book club book we reviewed as a group March 2nd, I would have dropped it.
I found the book a little bewildering. What exactly was the point? It wasn’t about empathy so much, as pain. Did the author want to share her pain, bare her soul? Well she didn’t. She shared a few times she was hurt. And shared the same experiences more than once. But I never felt empathy. Her writing didn’t work to do that, if it was the point.
The part I liked. The Immortal Horizon, about the Barkley Marathons. Not incidentally, the essay where Jamison most steps back and doesn’t find a way to make it about her.
Other essays I couldn’t understand. The Lost Boys, as much as I read it I couldn’t understand the facts of the case, why they were found innocent so much later. Like it wasn’t important.
The academic language. “I am just so tired of Sylvia Plath”. That stinks of ivory tower elites who are so much better than you and me. And Jamison exhibits a bit of that intellectual arrogance herself.
The foul language of the final essay. Blood, menstruation, wounds, abortions, self pity, Steven King’s ‘Plug it Up’. I can’t say I understand women any better for having read this.
And then I was asked ‘Why do you think she wrote this?’ To exercise some demons? To really try to understand empathy? To explore pain and sympathy? To tell us all about her personal experiences?
My thought was more cynical. This was an academic exercise. She told us many times she was at Harvard & Yale. Her career needed a book. She dusted off some old essays, and without even editing them to remove the repeats of stories and events, she pushed it out as a book. She is in that ‘Publish or Perish’ environment and this is what she pushed out.
A swing and a miss.