They Made Me An Honorary Member of the Tribe

As I've mentioned on social networking recently, I've been researching and outlining a set of short stories to write before I return to novel-length fiction. In some cases, the research has been fun (i.e. watching episodes of Dexter to learn how other writers have crafted sociopathic characters), some of it has been gruesome (i.e. reading on Aztec sacrificial practices) and now some of it has crossed a boundary for me, forcing me to reconsider the cultural backdrop of one of my stories.

The story is Songlines, which takes place in my Petals of the Twenty Thousand Blossom universe and to date has been a coming-of-age story about a boy of Australian Aboriginal extraction living on a far-future generational ship. I outlined the bones of it many years ago after reading a monograph by David H. Turner, one of my University of Toronto professors, about Australian Aboriginal music. But after polishing the outline yesterday, I realized I needed to read the monograph again, so I picked it up this morning.

Before I go any further, I should probably mention that I remember this professor as an arrogant and self-important person who had an ill-concealed interest in his young, female students. But his lectures in anthropology were interesting to me, and his fieldwork in Australia was extensive, so I picked up his monograph Afterlife Before Genesis An Introduction: Accessing the Eternal through Australian Aboriginal Music. I didn't read it until a few years later, though, around the time I was outlining Songlines. I remember thinking that his ego was certainly present in his prose, remember peevishly wishing he could spell the word 'breathe' and in general being left with the impression that his approach to his research lacked a certain cultural sensitivity that he clearly felt he was excluded from exercising. He writes:

My approach will certainly bother whom legitimacy rests solely in the voice of the "authentic indigenous other", and to whom I, a white male anthropologist, am dismissible as the product of a colonizing culture....

...It is amusing to observe how some people react when I tell them I am an Aborigine when they ask me to identify myself...I was conferred with this "citizenship" status when I became initiated into Aboriginal culture during a mortuary ceremony in 1986 and now think like, and at least try to act like, a proper Aboriginal person (which is not easy in our society). So who is "other" and who is "us" any more"? I thought about this for awhile and then decided to stop worrying about it. Who cares? Knowledge is knowledge and experience is experience and what difference does it make if it comes from an "authentic other" (as political correctness dictates), from an "objective observer" (as "science" dictates), or from a "participant observer" (the classic position in anthropology). It doesn't even matter if I am identified as "Aboriginal" in terms acceptable to them.

It isn't for me to say whether or not he was made an Aborigine by Aboriginal people. I wasn't there. I can tell you though, that it takes a certain chutzpah to use such a claim in defense of the perspective he takes toward his research. Chutzpah or no, though, I got past it for the sake of argument back when I read the text the first time. This time, however, I read something a few pages later that troubled me. He writes:

I arrived at the Aboriginal settlement of Angurugu on Groote Eylandt on July 15th by 'plane from Cairns Queensland. As this was only a brief visit to arrange a much longer stay in January I quickly sought out my friend Jabeni Lalara to see if I could persuade him to teach me how to circular breath (sic) on the didjereedoo. I located Jabeni in the Angurugu Community Government Council office and asked him. He said he would, and proceeded to give me a silent demonstration on the spot, but not before glancing around to make sure no one was looking or listening. (emphasis mine)

Then he goes on to describe the lesson in detail, which was clearly given to him in confidence. So either Turner has broken Jabeni's trust by revealing to his community that he imparted privileged information to an outsider, or Turner has broken Jabeni's trust by imparting privileged information to his readership that Jabeni wanted for him to keep private. In either case, Turner never divulges what permission he received to include this incident in his monograph, so the reader is left to conclude that he believes his conferred status gives him the right to do whatever he pleases with the information he is given by Australian Aboriginal people.

I'm not certain why I didn't catch that nuance in my first read of the text, but it stopped me cold this time. My trust in his authority as a writer, already admittedly shaky, was completely shattered. I found myself looking on for Kindle-ready books written by Aboriginal people about themselves out of the interest I've always had in their culture. I found a few I might put on my teetering to-read pile, but as I was browsing, the cultural backdrop of my short story slipped away from me. I realized I couldn't trust any voices but Aboriginal ones when it came to their culture, and I found I knew too little and had too little time to spend right now building the body of knowledge I would need to do this short story justice in the way I had originally envisioned it.

I'm still going to write the story, but in a far-future Pagan context. It'll have a different name and require a more imaginative approach from me with regard to the cultural and spiritual elements of the tale, since I'll be inventing them rather than borrowing them. That said, I really want to write an Australian Aboriginal character now! I just want to base that character on the words of his own people and not the ego of an adopted outsider.

P.S. Well, I've looked at the outline for Songlines again, and I've decided to write it as is, just not right now. It's a cool story, and the young boy in it is so likeable, and I want to write about him, not some other boy. So the bones are going back in the archives, and I'll pull them out again when I research and write another stack of short stories, probably next year. It'll give me an excuse to do that reading I was telling you about!