Borrowing, adapting, paying homage?

In recent years, the arts and academia in particular have been challenged by the notion that we should not presume to portray or talk about the people or experiences of communities other than “our own” (however that may be defined). In particular, members of “majority” communities may be thought to participate in the oppression of those who have been colonized or otherwise subjugated. Commonly thought of as “cultural appropriation”, this view extends as well to other areas, such as food and costume.

I find this development not easy to navigate. Recently, @KevinChong1975’s “Remix or revisionism?” in The Globe and Mail (“Why diverse retellings of the classics are essential readings for today“, July 27, 2018, online) led me to think about this issue again in a variety of contexts.

“Retellings” means rewriting a story written by another author using characters and places that reflect a different experience, described by Chong as “serv[ing] as a counterpoint to the issue of cultural appropriation”. As Chong explains, his own retelling of Camus’s The Plague locates it in Vancouver and addresses “plagues” such as inequality or the opioid epidemic, and brings balance to the identities of the characters.

Rewriting existing stories is not considered plagiarism (unless it is) or appropriation (unless it is). Rather, Chong explains, “writers from minority communities ‘borrow’ from the towering works of the Western canon to create new writing that both affirms the universality of the original and expands its field of imaginative vision”. (Alternatively, a writer might take a minor character from a “classic” and make them central to the viewpoint of a new story, sometimes enriching the portrayal of a character on whom the original writer failed “to imprint humanity”.)

Certainly, there are are so many (although very many) themes around which to write a novel and these original stories, even if subject to copyright, cannot encompass all that can be said or portrayed about a theme. In the realm of popular literature or television shows, we may see the same broad concepts or storylines reproduced time and again. As an addict of police procedurals/detective stories, I am sometimes surprised to see the same device appear, somewhat altered, in a subsequent series, say someone of English nobility turning his hand to solving crimes (Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley); of course, there are differences between these two, one an amateur detective and the other a salaried detective on a metropolitan police force, among others. Nevertheless, to the reader that core element appears to have been copied in the later one from the earlier one.

While my mind is on detectives, I also think about Sherlock Holmes, the original, penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, having repeatedly popped up in different forms. To name two in comparable format: the television programs Sherlock (English) and Elementary (American), both capturing the eccentric personality, brilliance and foibles of the original and accompanied by modern day Watson’s (in Elementary, portrayed by a woman of Asian heritage). We have Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and an increasing population of (primarily blond) women in different professions (owner of an antique store, a renovator, baker) who are amateur sleuths, stemming from Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. (One of the more interesting of these was Miss Fisher from Australia who in fact did not have a profession and was not blond, but in a common pattern,  the real police officer involved, although initially sceptical, eventually came to admire her uncanny abilities to solve crimes). These are all fun, very easy to watch at the end of a tiring day when little attention is available, and are not meant to be sombre lessons, but to this reader and viewer they seem remarkably like copies of one another.

But back to “serious” literature. Chong ends his Globe opinion by telling us that he sees himself “photobombing a classic novel”. “Photobombing” is often defined as spoiling a photograph by inserting oneself as a joke just as the photo is taken (Oxford Dictionaries). I prefer to think of this as disrupting rather than spoiling, and I hope that is what Chong means, too.

At the bottom of Chong’s opinion, there is an illustration that is said to have led Camus to centre the plague in his novel. Its caption includes the following question: “How many modern readers see themselves truly reflected in his classic work?” Using this illustration as a reference point, I should venture to say just about no one. I do not see myself in this picture, but I do not need to to appreciate The Plague (which I grant, I read many years ago). As Chong (quoting Sadia Shepard, who in turn is relying on a third person’s defence of her Foreign-Returned, which Shepard openly describes as a close reading of Mavis Gallant’s The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street), in reading, we superimpose our own experience on a novel.

I think that is correct, but I also think that one benefit of reading is to learn about others. In short, one does not always have to turn inwards — how can this look like me? — but also outwards — what does this tell me about others? Are there experiences that we share, even if not taking the same form? How do our experiences interrelate, either directly or at a systemic level? This is the premise behind both Chong’s adaptation of The Plague and Shepard’s of The Ice Wagon (as both are described by Chong). In both, the authors do not ask the readers to superimpose their own experiences on the original; they undertake that task for them.

I see nothing wrong with this. In both cases, it seems, the authors give credit to the earlier works, in Chong’s case in a critical way to let us know what is missing from The Plague (possibly, he would say that we are not learning accurately about the experiences of certain characters because Camus did not develop them adequately) and in Shepard’s in perhaps a friendlier way, because when she first read The Ice Wagon, it spoke to her of her own experience, although very different in location and people.

In this critical age of cultural appropriation, we have to ask what gives these authors the right to take these earlier works, written within and from the perspective of a different culture in each case, and put their own stamp on them? What gives Chong, who is not Arab, the right to use the treatment by Camus of Arabs as the jumping off point for his own treatment of minority characters? Why is he in a position to write to achieve “gender balance”?

(A short detour here: A recent analysis of the novel and film Crazy Rich Asians suggest having a certain identity is no guarantee that others who may be of somewhat similar background are able to provide “appropriate” representation: Jeffery Chen criticizes both the novel and film as “made for the Western gaze”, reflecting particular stereotypes and tropes, even though Kevin Kwan, the author (who was apparently very involved in creating the film), is himself Chinese born in Singapore and says the book/film is based on real-life stories.) As I suggested, it’s all very complicated.

Literature asks — requires — us to step outside ourselves. Authors must, if they are to write about the real world, that is, the world around them, and not only the narrow world they inhabit, stretch outside themselves. It would be almost impossible, except as a literary device, to write fiction based only on one’s own experience (to pull an example out of the air, an aging white woman with remediated impaired sight, from a working class background but benefiting from upward mobility into the middle class, having enjoyed professional occupations in teaching and public service). It would be necessary to introduce some other characters, major or minor, and well nigh impossible to do so without some of those characters not sharing (all) those characteristics. Some writers do that well, others not so well.

When can we represent others outside our immediate environment without criticism? When would we be criticized for not doing so? Chong implicitly criticized Camus because  his major characters are Frenchmen, despite the Algerian setting: he should have made more of an effort to represent others relevant to that setting.

As I said, literature isn’t the only art in which this issue of representation/appropriation has arisen. Recently, Robert LePage faced condemnation for mounting a show in which mostly white singers sang African-American slave songs and a future show addressing white-Indigenous history without Indigenous actors. These two shows, at least at first glance, raise two different issues. One might argue that the songs have become part of the world of universal music, just as opera by Italian composers have. Is there a difference? Of course, African-American slave songs have a significant history that resonates today, particularly in the United States, while, as far as I know given my limited knowledge of the genre, nothing analogous is true of opera. It is not clear to me, though, why non-black performers should not sing these songs in homage or should they be restricted only to descendants of slaves? Is it appropriate if there are singers from different backgrounds, as long as they include Black singers? This is a more ambiguous issue than a show portraying white-Indigenous relations. I fail to see how, today, one could portray this history using only white performers; furthermore, the show needs to be developed by both white and Indigenous creators and the failure to do so seems especially egregious since the purpose is to further reconciliation.

There is, of course, much more I could say about the arts other than these examples that came quickly to mind. Let me turn to academia and the question of who can teach what courses. Years ago, the teaching profession was composed primarily of white men; gradually, women were accepted into the academy and more recently, the professoriate has become more diverse in other respects, as well . However, recognition of the need to ensure that women’s interests and then the interests of other excluded groups are reflected in teaching preceded the entrance of individuals from these groups into universities.

I took an Aboriginal law course from a white male professor, well-known in the field (a white female professor was teaching about women and law) and when I joined the Faculty of Law at the University of New Brunswick as the Chair in Women and Law, a white man was taking the lead in raising “women’s issues”. Many years ago, during a job interview, I was asked whether I was still writing about Aboriginal issues by a white male faculty member who had been an early researcher and teacher in the area; I replied that by that time I thought it was not likely a white woman would be welcomed. (I also made it clear that he remained highly regarded in the area — he still is — but that times had changed.)

Recently, Mount Saint Vincent University became the centre of a controversy over whether a scholar in First Nations History should be assigned to teach a course on residential schools because she is not Indigenous (and is referred to as “a settler scholar” by at least one person). This isn’t a simple issue, however. Who should teach the course – only someone whose family member was in a residential school? If the course is about Indigenous history in the Atlantic provinces, should it be taught only by an Indigenous professor from the Atlantic provinces? Furthermore, as one Indigenous professor at The Mount indicated, Indigenous professors do not want to be slotted only into teaching Indigenous courses. I admit, I would find it strange to see a course relating to women’s rights being taught by a man, but I also would not want to think that a female professor would be cajoled into teaching a women’s rights course if that were not an area she had defined for herself. (Somehow having to teach a contracts course even though that is not one’s own area of research is different from being required to teach a women’s studies course only because you are one of few woman on faculty.)

I struggle with these questions, as I struggle with the related question of what we do with the statues of historical figures who have turned out to have feet of clay (or always did, but it is only now that those who suffered because of them are saying so) or how to address revelations of sexual harassment or assault by hitherto fore successful artists, performers and others as a result of the #MeToo movement’s latest emergence and, equally important, how to recognize those who, concerned about these issues, have different views about them. The subjects of future musings, perhaps.

It seems to me, though, that these are more complicated issues than we sometimes want to think, although I recognize that may be easy for me to say. Nevertheless, it is rare (although granted, sometimes it seems to be the case) that a situation is so one-dimensional, or hasn’t a context that forces us to confront some uncomfortable “truths” and realities, that quick and absolute conclusions foreclose the opportunity for growth in how we move forward and how we shape our society.