I want to say something about the fear of not “getting it right.” It’s a very real fear. It’s the fear we all face every time we start a story and every time we finish one. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story about our own family or a story about medieval England, either. The important thing to remember is that there is no one “right” way. The experience my nephew had growing up as a mixed race Inupiaq boy in Seattle is different than the experience my son had growing up a mixed race Inupiaq boy in the village, which is a different experience than my husband had, growing up as an Inupiaq boy at a parochial boarding school in Indian country in the 60’s. And cultures are fluid, always realigning themselves in relationship to the other cultures they come into contact with.
Here’s a story, to illustrate what I am saying. In my region, people are by and large devoutly Christian. One time a well-educated Inupiaq woman who had been raised in the lower 48 and married to a white man, returned to the village of her mother’s people. She was presenting a workshop in her field of study and I was there to help facilitate. We were given a tour of the village by an Inupiaq man who had many stories to tell. In the course of the conversation, he spoke about the Inupiaq naming tradition and about the belief that part of a person’s spirit is attached to a name, such that when a child is given a specific name, the child assumes the spirit of the person they were named after. The person is said to have been “brought back” through the name. This would appear to imply a belief in reincarnation and the visiting woman, knowing the prevalent Christian beliefs, said, “ah but of course the people no longer believe this.” The tour guide looked at her.
“We still believe this,” he said.
“But don’t these two beliefs conflict with one another?”
I knew from my own experience that this was true. My husband’s grandfather was a Presbyterian preacher whose life work was the translation of the Bible. My oldest son is named after him and ever since he was an infant, people have be commenting on his behavior and telling us that certain things are to be expected because he’s Ahmaogak—not because he is named after Ahmaogak, but because he is Ahmaogak. If I were an anthropologist or a psychologist, I might be trying to figure out the mechanics of how these two apparently disparate beliefs can coexist. But I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and even if I were, my interpretations would still be colored by my own cultural orientation. As it turns out, I am a writer and all I can do is paint life as I see it, tell the truth as I understand it, filtered through my own filter...and (this is the important point) understanding that that’s is what I am doing. All any of us can ever do is to look at things through our own eyes, afterall. Marion Dane Bauer, in her book, A Writer’s Story From Life to Fiction, says, “If I am going to write someone’s story, I must look out through that person’s eyes, hear with his ears, think with her thoughts, feel with his feelings. And there is only one person whose eyes, ears, thoughts and feelings I have ever experienced in this world. That person is I, myself.”
I’d also like to add a few words about fantasy. We got excited about the idea of Native-based sci-fi and fantasy. Natives in space! How cool is that? A word of caution though—Cyn Smith says it in her interview at the Tu Publishing website: “remember that a lot of what the mainstream categorizes as “myth” is part of traditional belief systems and should be afforded the same respect as other faiths.
There is a tendency to talk about Native legends as though we are talking about Paul Bunyan or something. We aren’t. I am working on an Inupiaq “fantasy.” It’s a story I’ve been working on, in one incarnation or another, for over ten years and I am just now to the point where I am able, casually, to refer to it “fantasy.” But it’s not, you know. It’s based on very real cultural beliefs and to call it fantasy, or even magical realism, grates a bit. I’m gonna go with it, though, because I’m actually doing a riff of my own in this piece which is pretty much fantasy. I want people to remember, though, something writer Jewell Parker Rhode said: “…the magic comes from my African American cultural traditions; it's very much a part of these traditions. My grandmother was magical; her sense of teaching us to look for signs in the world was magical.”
It’s not really fantasy. It’s part of a very real and very complicated belief system, which goes back to the whole fear of not getting it right.
And finally, I would like to say something about cultural immersion. I’ve had two opportunities within my lifetime to be totally immersed in a different culture. The first was when I went to live in Norway and it wasn’t a totally different culture. It was my heritage culture and so I was really open to the idea of being immersed in a new language and a new/old way of looking at things. And because of this experience, I was open to the idea when the opportunity presented itself again and I found myself at home in an Inupiaq community. I continue to be fascinated by the differing worldviews one encounters and I am sometime surprised by the fact that people who have never experienced it assume, for example, that everyone in the world counts kin in the same way. Teachers in our schools want to, and sometimes do, correct our kids when they say of one of their classmates, “He’s my uncle.”
All reading is an immersion experience and writing, done right, gives people an opportunity to be immersed in the worldviews of many cultures, cultures they may not otherwise experience.
And an aside: I totally love the idea that there are, “nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth. (quoted from Earl Shorris, “The Last Word”)
So I offer this complementary quote, from linguist James Crawford: “Each language is a unique tool for analyzing and synthesizing the world, incorporating the knowledge and values of a speech community. …to lose such a tool is to forget a way of constructing reality, to blot out a perspective evolved over many generations”
As writers, heck as human beings, this should concern us greatly. Native languages are dying almost daily. There should be endangered language legislation—legislation that really has some teeth in it.
I have lots more to say…but thanks for joining us. This conversation has opened some doors, I hope. It has, I know, touched on sore spots. I think recognizing where the sore spots are and why they are there is the first step towards healing.
AND LISTEN TO THIS SPEECH. RIGHT NOW. Uma Krishniswami posted it on her blog, from Julia Larios. Thanks.
An excellent place to start exploring the issues we have been discussing is at Debbie Reese's blog.
Typos in this post are all mine...running off to the day job, Debby.