Friday, 29 August 2008

On Researching Another Culture - Katherine Langrish


A couple of years ago when I was preparing to write ‘Troll Blood’, I spent months in the Bodleian Library (I live near Oxford) happily burrowing through 16th century accounts of Jesuit missionaries in early Canada, and 19th century volumes of ‘The American Anthropologist’ and ‘The Journal of American Folklore’.
For the new book I’d decided to send my two main characters, a Viking age boy and girl called Peer and Hilde, over to Vinland (North America) on a Viking ship. In the two earlier books, ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, rather than using myths and legends about Norse gods, I’d drawn on Scandinavian folklore concerning trolls and nixies and other such creatures. Peer and Hilde and the other characters are ordinary people who live in what to them is an ordinary world. It just so happens that, as well as wolves and bears and storms and other natural dangers, there are also trolls and water spirits and ghosts – all things that people of that age firmly believed to exist.
It seemed to me that it would be fascinating if, on the characters’ arrival in Vinland, they were to meet not only Native Americans – whom I based, for reasons too complicated to go into here, on the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – but also some of the creatures which we in the Old World would term supernatural, which may have been part of the belief systems of the Native Americans of that time (the early 11th century).
Note my careful language. I realised from the beginning that it might be a ticklish business to approach a culture so distinct from my own. I can claim Scandinavian roots; and in any case European legends and mythologies are so diffuse, so interpenetrative, and so widely-used already that no one of European stock need feel shy about incorporating one myth or another in a modern story. It was a different matter when I considered trespassing upon the sacred ground of Native American cultural stories, many of which have been lost, misappropriated, or misrepresented by early missionaries, amateur anthropologists and modern writers alike.
And in trying to research these stories – I use ‘story’ here in preference to ‘legend’ or ‘myth’ which are words carrying a freight of possible meanings including ‘untruth’ – I soon discovered the frustration of coming across vaguely attributed ‘Indian Legends’ without any sources or any indication of where and when – if anywhere, ever – the stories belonged.
One online site, for example, calling itself ‘Algonkian Legends’ mentioned a creature called an ‘Oonig’. It was, according to the site’s author, a water spirit: half red and half grey, with one eye. Wonderful! I could well imagine incorporating such a creature into my book. But – the site gave no reference. Could I find a source for the story? Could I hell. For all I know, the author made it up. And yet it’s sitting there online, claiming to be a part of ‘Algonkian’ folklore.
I decided from the outset that any creature I mentioned in ‘Troll Blood’; any custom, any belief I attributed to my Native American characters would have to be referenced. In the US edition – unfortunately not in the UK edition – there’s a long appendix in which anyone interested can see exactly where I got the information, and, if they wish, go and check it out for themselves. And I preferentially used 19th and early 20th century accounts of interviews with named Mi’kmaq people. In that way I could be fairly sure that the accounts were trustworthy.
Even so, there were pitfalls, some obvious, some less so. One 19th century collector of Mi’kmaq folktales used them to attempt to justify his theory that they had been influenced by Norse mythology brought over by the Vikings. In his eyes the stories were ‘superior’ to other Native American stories, and ‘therefore’ must have been affected by European influences.
But even after all efforts to sieve out the worst offenders, mistakes were easy to make, as I found out when I had the manuscript vetted by a prominent scholar in the field. I had frequently used the word ‘spirits’ in describing the Native American ‘supernatural creatures.’ She explained to me that the word was inappropriate, that the spirit/body dichotomy was not a Mi’kmaq concept, and neither was the concept of the supernatural. Instead, stones and trees, plants, animals, people and what we would think of as supernatural entities are all seen as natural. I couldn’t use the word ‘spirits’. I had to use the word ‘persons’ instead.
I was glad to comply. I found the whole experience of learning about the Mi’kmaq culture profoundly interesting. It wasn’t a matter of political correctness. It was more like taking off my shoes when entering a mosque. It wasn’t my culture: nobody asked me in: the least I could do was to try my utmost not to misrepresent it.
Did I succeed? I hope so. Should I have tried? I think so, although others will disagree. I wanted to write about the interaction of the Vikings with the Native Americans – which we know occurred – and to do so, I had to try and understand both cultures. Should I have written a historical fiction without any ‘fantasy’ elements? Again, perhaps – but ‘history’ without any suggestion of the belief systems of the protagonists is hardly history at all. Like writing a book set in the Middle Ages without any references to Catholicism, saints, elves, devils etc.
Watch this space.

12 comments:

asakiyume said...

It's good you were extra careful about legends--on the Internet, bad information can get repeated as frequently as good information, and if people don't cite their sources, you really have to wonder.

The solution of using the word "persons" is brilliant; you've definitely got me wanting to read the book, too.

Nick Green said...
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Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks! I really wish my UK publishers would have published the list of sources too. If you do read the book I'd be interested to know what you think!

Lee said...
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Lee said...

Katherine, I'm going to disagree with you, though entirely cordially. A culture is not 'owned' by anyone, and the descendants of an earlier people may be as foreign to that time and place and ways of thinking as those who don't share a blood tie. In fact, there is something almost racist - or at least patronising, to use someone else's word - in a hands-off attitude. I respect your desire for sensitivity and historical accuracy, but personally I feel perfectly at liberty to use both golem (from my own Jewish heritage) and Inuit legend in my fiction, and in fact to mix and match them as I see fit.

Lee said...

@ Asakiyume: I'm not entirely convinced by the use of 'persons', but of course it depends on context. This reminds me of the problem of translation - how to convey the essence of the original without too much distortion. 'Person' carries very little or no spiritual overtones. Perhaps this is not true for Mi’kmaq culture, but my long exposure to Shona beliefs, and my readings in shamanism, have shown me that the spirit realms are not, for many cultures, precisely identical to our natural world. (And in any case, the mind/body dichotomy is beginning to lessen with the new insights from neuroscience!)

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes: everybody has to approach this in their own way: but I do think one has to be at least aware of the pitfalls. In this case I was persuaded to use the term 'persons' because in Mi'kmaq terms it was a more accurate word - and because of the eloquence of my mentor, who has spent her life amongst Mi'kmaq people - who told me bluntly how in the first half of the 20th century Mi'kmaq children were still being taken away from their families and placed in orphanages where they were punished if they spoke their own language - and this is why in many cases, the modern Mi'kmaq have been deprived of their heritage to the point where even words from the language which were recorded in the 'twenties are now lost and no longer understood. In such circumstances feelings run high, and you can see why! And so I bent over backwards to be as accurate is I could. One of the points for me about writing the story, in fact, was to give a wider audience a glimpse into this truly fascinating and remarkable culture!

Lee said...

Would it have been feasible to use a Mi'kmaq word? Sometimes I find this the best solution, and when used a few times, becomes clear from context. Of course, it can also be a clumsy or overly artificial, even patronising choice ...

Katherine Langrish said...

In fact I did use several Mi'kmaq words, with a glossary - but it wasn't feasible to use them in all circumstances.

But there you go - one does the best one can...;-)

Lee said...

I'm going to have to read this one as soon as possible now!

asakiyume said...

Just checked back--what interesting comments!

@lee: the issue of translation of terms is definitely vexed, and what works for some people won't for others. When Arthur Waley translated The Tale of Genji, he wrote in all sorts of furniture that the Heian Japanese didn't use, as a way of making it accessible to his readers, but by the time Seidensticker and Tyler were making their translations, they didn't feel the need to do that. Waley's translation is an interesting record of the era in which he made the translation.

I love your Inuit golem notion! I wrote a poem about a Chinese golem recently... so I don't mind mixing cultural ideas :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

I really really want to read the Arthur Waley trans of 'Genji'! Read the Penguin edition some years ago and loved it (can't remember who the translator was) but I remember seeing the Waley edition in Foyles years ago and not being able to afford it. Hmmm. Maybe time to look at abebooks.com!