The Geography of Storytelling

I was in Toronto today, to scout some more sights in The Night Girl and to do some more writing. I managed to do 2,600 words, most of it “without a net”, so to speak; which is to say, writing new material, rather than rewriting material from a previous draft. I think I’ve figured out a significant plot point in the latter half of the story. My greatest fear at this point is that things may be getting too talky. Here’s a brief sample of what I wrote today:

“The discovery of a new species that has been hiding under our noses?” said Dr. Bulmer. “No way Stockholm’s going to say ‘no’.”

“He’s a goblin!” Perpetua shouted. “He’s a person, he’s not a separate species!”

He shrugged. “I’d have said ‘sub-species’, but I thought you’d object on P.C. grounds.”

The rewrite of The Night Girl now stands at 48,400 words.

And now for other news…

Storytelling Centre

The photo to the right, incidentally, is entitled International Storytelling Centre - Jonesborough, TN and is by Meredith. It is used in accordance with her Creative Commons license.

In other news, Rebecca writes about an online discussion about the use of race in science fiction and fantasy known as RaceFail 09. As you can well expect, in a discussion about the place of race in writing among writers, a lot of ink got spilt. Rebecca in particular talks about the presumption of author Patricia Wrede in crafting Thirteenth Child, a fantasy story set in an alternative version of North America where European settlement occurred on a continent that had not seen the arrival of native Americans. Here’s some of what Rebecca had to say:

I share Pat Wrede’s stated dislike of the usual stereotypes about Native Americans (i.e. either bloodthirsty, warmongering “Injuns” who threaten the white settlers as in the old Westerns, or mystical Earth children from whom the whites learn New Age spirituality and ecology a la Disney’s Pocahontas). I can understand Ms. Wrede’s desire to avoid either one of those traps**, and imagine the weary feeling that might well have come over her at the thought of getting tangled up in race issues and historical wrongs, when what she really wanted was to talk about things like magic and mammoths, and do it in a setting that was not (huzzah) the usual western European quasi-medieval fantasy default.

So to avoid all that by proposing a world in which North America was never settled by Native peoples—I can see why it might seem like a tempting way out of the problem, with no racial prejudice or offense consciously intended. (After all if the Native people weren’t exploited and abused by the white settlers because they were never here in the first place, doesn’t that sound like a good thing?)


“But”, indeed. Sami deconstructs the problems with Wrede’s logic and choice of words here, Rebecca adds her thoughts here, and I don’t have much to add on the subject, except to say that if the wording that has been ascribed to Wrede was actually used by Wrede, she didn’t so much as put her foot in her mouth, as she shoved it up her left nostril, sideways.

Rebecca’s post does call to mind an interesting experience I had back in the summer of 2006, however, when I restarted work on The Night Girl by attending the Brantford Book Camp organized by Marsha Skrypuch and others. This was a wonderful event that united authors and aspiring authors, both adult and teens alike, in a setting that celebrated creativity. It was the perfect place to recharge my creative juices. We had workshops. We shared the stuff that we’d written on the fly with each other. We met with representatives of the publishing industry to learn what editors were looking for in submissions. And we met with authors and storytellers to hear their inspiring tales about their own creative process.

One such guest was a first nations’ storyteller who talked about the importance of storytelling within her culture and, more importantly, the importance of the story. For her, the tale was as important as if it were a living thing; it had to be treated with respect, given the history and the culture it connected as it was passed down, generation after generation. A good story can unite, or even define, a people, she said. The author should serve the story rather than the other way around.

Afterward, we had a chance to meet with this person one on one, and I mentioned to her the story I was working on editing at the time, which was Fathom Five. Those of you who have read it know that it’s a story about a dying race of sirens populating a parallel world connected to the cliffs and coves of the Bruce Peninsula. As many of you know, there are no actual siren legends in these waters, despite the huge number of shipwrecks in the area, and despite the fact that the area has been likened to a “Bermuda Triangle of the Great Lakes.” The sirens of Fathom Five are there by authorial fiat. I asked her what she thought of this, in spite of the fact that I could already guess what her reaction would be.

She was very polite, but she was, at heart, a purist. In her view, the story has a place, a home, that is critical to its soul. Legends about an area should be born in that area, and not imported across the Atlantic Ocean from Greece. In her view, she likened what I had done to the arrival of the zebra mussels in the Great Lakes — something foreign that, conceivably, risked pushing the native legends out.

I respected her. I respected her opinion. I finished Fathom Five anyway, and got it published.

The thing is, writing as a non-aboriginal Canadian, of Scottish, Irish, English, Swiss and Chinese descent, I think I would have gotten into a heck of a lot more trouble if I had made the primary antagonist of Fathom Five the spirit of Gitchee-gumi. Which is a bit of a conundrum right there. I wrote Fathom Five the way I did because that was the story that materialized in the home that was the most personal to me, which is to say my head. However, the fact that I was appropriating some European elements and attaching them to a North American setting was itself an acknowledgement that there are cultural story elements that, at present, I feel I have no right appropriating.

And, yes, I did write a story way back entitled The Howling of the Wolves, which featured native magic and the Navaho take on the werewolf legend. However, I was called on the magical elements of the story, gently chided for the brevity of my research, and it was fan fiction and I was a much younger writer back then. I did things then that I would not do now.

But I think this is more a question of knowledge than geography. I don’t know enough about the legends of Canada’s first nations people to make appropriating elements anything more than trite or patronizing. If you do your research, if you write well, I believe that you have earned yourself the right to locate your story in a location that is more personal to you than anywhere else in this world: to wit, your head.

And there is something of an immigrant take on my writing. I am of primarily European descent (the Chinese part of me is something I’m still exploring, and don’t yet feel comfortable committing to the printed page), and I have been born and raised in North America — specifically the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Lowlands region of North America. I had to do extensive research, rely on my experience travelling the American Midwest and ship out The Dream King’s Daughter to a resident of Saskatchewan in order to be sure I had that setting right. If there is a tension between my European storytelling elements and their North American setting, I can’t help but think that this is a good thing, since it tells me that I’ve tapped into something personal, something real that can lend energy to my tale on the printed page.

Ursula K. LeGuin does it differently, though. Her Earthsea is populated with people of a variety of different colours and cultures, each told in such a way that they aren’t trite or patronizing and, most importantly, don’t bog down the story. But then she’s especially adept at writing about cultures which have no easy analogue to cultures on Earth. Consider what she’s able to do with A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, crafting a people with a completely different structure of sexuality and inserting it into a short story about a time paradox, in a way that’s entirely believable and, more importantly, readable.

But I am not Ursula K. LeGuin. I can only aspire to have one-third of her ability, much less her stature in the realm of fantasy and science fiction.

For whatever reason, there aren’t enough people of colour writing science fiction and fantasy, and I can understand the desire of readers to read more about characters that they identify with. I don’t think I can rectify that situation in my own writing easily; not without engaging in tokenism, or patronizing my readership. But on the other hand I am not writing stories about a stay-at-home Dad who has been trained as an urban planner, and Erin isn’t writing stories about female ex-physicists. We are up for a challenge in pushing our own boundaries, and in creating characters that are as different from our own experience as possible.

We’ll see what the story demands.

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