Whose story is it anyway?

This is an old story, an issue that won’t go away.

At a recent IBBY bookbash very kindly hosted by Tanya Barben at the Rare Book Collection at the UCT library, a splendid array of books was laid before us: African folk tales ranging in form from current picture books to old collections, with everything in between; some beautifully illustrated, some not; some colonial in tone, some as politically correct as you can get. Tanya had been spurred to get this particular event together as a response to comments made on a previous occasion about the unsuitability of many African tales because of their goriness and their portrayal of stereotypical gender roles. She effectively countered this by relating the grim and gory plot of a European traditional fairy tale (by Grimm?). “A hit with most kids I know,” I thought to myself, but that was not the issue that was making me feel uncomfortable.  I looked around at the group of 8 or 10 of us, the usual suspects at these dos, and then back down on the laden table.  There seemed to be an invitation for the writers, publishers, booksellers and librarians present to view this as a wonderful resource, but especially to the writers to dip their hands into these riches, to dig in and explore and ultimately to refashion them into more books:  retellings of retellings or brand new stories based on a thread discovered here and there. The prospect was delicious.

So, what was it that was bothering me?

I suppose that old South African issue of ownership. These stories are some of the richest products of certain cultures, for the Khoi – San or Bushmen, products of the Homers and Shakespeares of their society. Was it ethical for me to take anything that took my fancy and use it in whatever way I want?

On the one hand there is the basic tenet of artistic freedom – the right (and necessity!) of fully inhabiting any character that takes an author’s fancy and expressing his/her feelings in whatever way she finds interesting. On the other hand, even artists must accept limitations to their freedom: we are not allowed to copy verbatim other artist’s work – that is plagiarism; there are unsaid rules that we adopt to avoid material inappropriate to children – pornographic content or suchlike. So why do we find it difficult to understand that before diving into Tanya’s books for a story or for inspiration, we need to ask ourselves what right we have over the material.

I have many questions and I’m not sure where I stand on them. I definitely do not want to take the moral high ground in this debate for over my career I have most probably been as guilty as most in wandering into this ethical bog.

When we retell the stories of Norse mythology, for instance, we are writing about a people that no longer exist, but this is not the case when we retell the stories of the Bushmen/ khoi-San. Should we take into the equation the current lives of the remaining Bushmen? On the whole they live in abject poverty. These stories are undeniably their valuable and precious heritage. Should they benefit in some way from the publication of their stories?

Is it our duty to chronicle their stories if they show no interest in doing or are unable to do it themselves?

Do we have to earn the right to tell their stories? In what form is the ‘earning’ to be done? Library research? Living alongside the ‘target’ community? Why does it not rankle nearly as much when one hears that the chroniclers actually lived in the community for many years? (Best of all, are members of the community!) Do we then consider the work more authentic? Is this a valid distinction?

What distinguishes our C21 approach to the old colonial mould of collecting stories for children from exotic peoples?

Do we need to be culturally appropriate to the tee or is this a straitjacket on our freedom and the freedom of children- readers?

Is all that matters how well (imaginative, empathetic, gripping etc.) we do the job? One of our members offered her take on the matter by emphasizing the universal child as the main character and the main recipient of our stories. To highlight quality and universalism goes some way to bridging cultural divides but does it adequately address the issue of the ethics of appropriating cultural treasures?

These are some of the questions that circled my head as I left the Bookbash. What do you think?

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