Over the last two decades that I’ve taught aspiring novelists, two issues arise again and again in classroom discussion: “What will mom think?” And, “Do I have the right to tell this story?” In short, am I, a writer, ‘allowed’ to find inspiration in the stories of those immediately around me, or in other cultures?
As my new novel, The Spawning Grounds, is released in Canada, I know I will be asked this question again. Do I, this white girl, have the right to find inspiration in First Nations stories, as I have, in part, in this novel? The answer to that one, of course, depends on who you ask.
Here’s what I think: fiction is a port city, and like any port city where cultures meet, world stories mix and percolate to create whole new ideas, new stories, new flavours. We are very familiar with how musicians blend musical traditions to produce dynamic new music, or how chefs draw from many cuisines to create fusion dishes. Storytellers borrow and blend too. And when we write, we almost always step into someone else’s shoes. That is in fact our job description.
I grew up hearing both British folk stories and local tall tales from my mother. My father, on the other hand, told me Shuswap stories of Coyote and other transformers that he heard from the sheepherders he and his father worked with throughout his early life. During summers spent on the mountain range, these men, both Swedish and Shuswap, entertained each other with music and an exchange of stories. My father passed that on to my sisters and I. So the stories I grew up with were a blend of Swedish, Shuswap and British stories and traditions, along with a never-ending stream of local tall tales thrown in for good measure.
Not surprisingly, then, much of my writing has been about the fluid boundary lines between First Nations and settler cultures. In The Spawning Grounds, there is a river between my two fictional communities. There is also a bridge that both communities cross, one that is destroyed in the narrative, and must be rebuilt. Just as, of course, a bridge must be rebuilt between these cultures in real life. We’re working on it.
So, back to that question: what stories do I have the right to tell? Can I find inspiration in the Shuswap stories I grew up with? Or, because I’m of British descent, can I only draw from the myths of my mother’s ancestors, from stories that originated in countries I have only visited? I’m doing that too, of course. At the heart of The Spawning Grounds is the Fisher King legend, a story rooted in the cultures of my mother’s ancestors, where the environment suffers because the ruling king, or overriding worldview, is old and no longer fertile or viable. I gave that ancient story a new, Canadian setting – my home country, the Shuswap-Thompson region of BC -- and used the stories that were already here to enrich the underlying structure, that of the hero’s journey, or more specifically the female hero’s journey. As I point out in the novel, the forest and water spirits found in Shuswap stories are also found in my ancestor’s stories, and in most world stories. They are a heritage we all share.
I believe that when we fear to find inspiration in other cultures, or allow others to tell us we can’t explore differing worldviews in our writing, we not only limit our own creativity, we put up greater barriers between ourselves and others. Writing and reading open the door to understanding another person, another culture, and another way of seeing the world. My father and the Shuswap men he worked with got to know each other with a simple exchange of stories told over a campfire. They listened to each other, then took each other’s stories home and passed them on. That’s how we start to rebuild those bridges.
Images of the Thompson Shuswap by Mitch Krupp.