Cultural appropriation wasn’t an issue in the 1980s when I published my first novel, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. It told the life story of Anna Swan, a nineteenth-century giantess who exhibited with P.T. Barnum (and who may be a distant relation of mine). Anna grew up in the backwoods of Nova Scotia before Barnum and his agent brought her to New York to exhibit at his American Museum on Broadway.
As part of my research, I visited her relatives in Nova Scotia. The ones I met generously gave me their help. But there were others I did not meet. Not until I gave a reading at a library in Port Hawkesbury.
I was warned by the librarian that some Swan relatives were coming to the reading and they were not happy with my book. I didn’t worry too much about them because I imagined they were old people (I was young then), and so I felt utterly surprised when two young women, younger than me, in fact, came through the door loudly protesting my novel. I entertained their questions and explained that I saw my book as an homage to a giantess who had been overlooked by mainstream Canadian historians.
They weren’t buying my argument. They said the things I described had never happened to their great-great-aunt, and they pointed to scenes like the one where the giantess loses her virginity to the local midget wielding an icicle. I reminded them I had stayed true to the facts of Anna’s life. Born in 1846, she stood seven foot, six inches and weighed 418 pounds; she married the Kentucky Giant and had two giant babies who both died within hours of birth. Novels are full of made-up scenes and I admitted that, as a novelist, I had invented a great number of interactions and events that weren’t mentioned in the very able but brief biography by Nova Scotian archivist Phyllis Blakeley.
You should’ve written a biography, like Blakeley, the young women told me. You had no right to tell lies about our relative’s life. They began to scream at me. The reading turned into chaos. Audience members shouted at the two young women to stop interrupting me, and finally, the librarian asked them to leave.
It was my first inkling that readers are not all coming from the same cultural place. The two young women lived not far from where Anna Swan had been born and for them the past wasn’t as far off as it is to a city dweller like me. They were rural people who grew up in an oral culture and they often walked by the houses their dead relatives had lived in. Their past was all around them in a way it wasn’t for me.
And when they talked about their great-great aunt it was as if she had just died a few years ago, not a century before.
Since then, cultural appropriation has become a thorny political issue for writers. (The 2017 dust-up over a “cultural appropriation prize” sardonically proposed in Write cost Hal Niedzviecki his editorial job at the magazine.) When I wrote my sixth novel, What Casanova Told Me, I hired a researcher to help me with a section set in the Ottoman Empire. The novel ends with its heroine going to Istanbul with Casanova, and the researcher pointed out again and again where I had been falsely romanticizing what the pair saw there. So tirelessly and doggedly, I amended some of my descriptions. God forbid that my novel should suggest I believed the same things as my eighteenth-century characters. It was all right for Casanova to have Orientalist reactions to Muslim culture, but it wasn’t all right for me, the twenty-first-century author, to believe in stereotypes.
Like me and many other novelists, Michael Crummey has qualms about cultural appropriation. And in his new slim book of criticism, Most of What Follows Is True, Crummey offers a frank assessment of the predicament that fiction writers are facing in a confrontational age.
What is the relationship of fiction to truth? Crummey asks in this thoughtful essay that was the basis of his CLC Kriesel Lecture at the University of Alberta in 2018. And how does a white novelist like him describe non-white characters in their books?
Crummey is a charming and deceptively agreeable writer whose novels are part of the literary flowering that has been happening in Newfoundland since the wildly successful publication of Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News in 1993. He first struggled with the problem of cultural appropriation while writing River Thieves, his internationally praised debut about the encounters between members of the Beothuk tribe and European settlers. Published in 2001, the novel is set in early nineteenth-century Newfoundland. Its story tackles, among other things, racial genocide along with the issue of guilt in the murder of an Indigenous man.
Crummey was careful not to put his own words in the voices of Indigenous characters: “To pretend I might resurrect them in fiction, that I could somehow make them live again on the page, belittles the magnitude of the loss…it was just one more thing that could be done to them.” But he still depicted Indigenous people, and the depiction of non-white fictional characters by a white novelist is tricky, too. In his essay, Crummey offers some possible solutions that acknowledge the fancy footwork fiction performs in its transaction between artifice and factual truth.
Most white novelists I know wouldn’t presume to write in the voice of a black or Indigenous person. I wouldn’t do it either because a white author writing in the voice of a non-white feels like a transgressive act now. Why do it at a time when non-white authors are claiming their own voices and stories? The chances are also good you’ll get a lot of it wrong.
The notion that a story, like rain, falls where it may came out of a different historical period when racial and ethnic groups didn’t interact as often as they do now. It was also a time when marginalized groups didn’t have the power to complain about how they were being described. For example, few women readers in the nineteenth century criticized the way women were depicted in novels by men because, for the most part, it was men who defined social realities.
Most of What Follows Is True, Crummey’s title, is a disclaimer he borrows from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He begins his essay by pointing out that fiction, to quote critic Stan Dragland, “thickens the real.” That is to say, the community we live in doesn’t have a presence in the world until it is described. Crummey comes from Buchans, a mining town in the centre of Newfoundland, and growing up he believed the real world existed elsewhere, where movies were set or in places he encountered in books.
The burgeoning of Newfoundland writers has made that location feel more real to the world, Crummey says. Until Proulx’s novel became an international bestseller, publishers didn’t think readers wanted to hear about such a remote place. That is why he thinks the notion that fiction holds up a mirror to society is too passive to be accurate. In his experience, there’s a lot more going on with the relationship between history and fiction than simple reflection.
The “thickening of the real” in a novel often leads readers to believe that what they read is true. If a place doesn’t exist until it’s been described, then, by describing people and places, fiction writers influence the way people see the world around them. And with that influence comes authorial responsibility.
For example, Crummey ran into an American reader who exclaimed that she knew “all about Newfoundland” because she had read The Bird Artist, a novel set in early twentieth-century Newfoundland by American writer Howard Norman. It was published in 1994, and Crummey says its author completely disregarded the truth of how Newfoundlanders lived during the novel’s time period.
As he says, “beyond using Newfoundland place names, the world of The Bird Artist bears absolutely no resemblance—I am not overstating this—literally zero resemblance to the Newfoundland of the early twentieth century.”
For instance, Norman has Newfoundlanders eating a great deal of sea bass when the traditional diet used to be cod. Sea bass is what people eat in New England, and Crummey suspects that Norman conveniently took a lot of descriptions of habits and landscape from New England and applied them to Newfoundland.
In another example of false verisimilitude, Norman calls Newfoundland settlements “villages” instead of “outports,” and he describes early twentieth-century fisherman eating lobsters in local restaurants when restaurants were nonexistent in outports during that era. Merchants gave the fishermen food and supplies on credit, and the fishermen paid the bill with the profits from the season’s catch. What’s more, lobster was not eaten as regular fare.
The list of errors and malaprops go on. People in The Bird Artist have Germanic, Greek, Dutch, Italian, and Hebrew names but are rarely called by the Irish names that betray the origin of most Newfoundlanders. These fictional characters with exotic-sounding foreign names also shoot raccoons in the novel although there are no raccoons in Newfoundland.
In his own work, Crummey tries conscientiously to avoid such errors. In a visceral scene from River Thieves, he depicts a white father and son uncovering the skeleton of a dead Beothuk. The son silently deplores his father, who, in a characteristically racist joke, flaps the jaw bones of the skull back and forth and says, “Just a dead Indian…Nothing to bother your head about.” Crummey says he described the son’s worry about the desecration of the Indigenous skull to evoke Crummey the author, who wants to say to the reader: don’t be fooled into thinking I have consented to this treatment of a Beothuk skeleton.
Lest you think Crummey is being too sensitive in his critique of The Bird Artist, consider the movie Argo, directed in 2012 by Ben Affleck, which minimized the crucial roles that Canadians played in the 1979 rescue of six American hostages from Iran. Although Canadians came up with the plan, risked their lives hiding the hostages, forged the necessary documents, and bought the hostages their plane tickets out of Iran, Affleck’s hero is a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer who spent a single day in the country. My hunch is you’ll agree with Crummey that it’s exasperating and insulting to see the role played by your country or group described by someone with so little regard for the basic truth.
According to Crummey, many Newfoundlanders had criticisms of Proulx’s The Shipping News. They didn’t like the way it talked about sexual perversion in Newfoundland families. In the novel, a local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, ran a weekly column devoted to the community’s latest sexual outrages. When Quoyle, the book’s hero, protested that so many abusive incidents couldn’t have happened in one week, the columnist Nutbeam retorted that there were so many he couldn’t fit them all in.
Proulx was likely more interested in poking fun at parochial newspaper columnists than in suggesting Newfoundlanders were a sexually perverse lot, and Crummey says that the physical reality of the sea and land and the social reality of the outports feel authentic in her book. “Whether it’s the grinding passage of the winter or the particularity and variety of local accents, Proulx’s Newfoundland has the air of something created from lived experience,” he writes.
Crummey still hopes a good story will feel true to the reader. He says making up a fictional outport in his novel Sweetland allowed him to get closer to some truths that might have been harder to describe in non-fiction, and he took it as a compliment when one reader thought his fictional place was real.
However, he argues it’s impossible for novels to be 100 percent accurate. He doesn’t come out and say so, but he also implies that readers have a responsibility not to confuse fiction with non-fiction. Authors don’t always approve of how their characters behave, and many of us leave clues that point this out, like Crummey’s desecration scene in River Thieves.
I agree with Crummey that fiction should be seen as mostly (but not completely) true. If readers come to a novel with the same expectations they apply to non-fiction, they will be making the mistake of the academic who once told me Nino Ricci’s beloved novel Lives of the Saints was a failure because Ricci didn’t get the right placement of sacred Catholic relics on the altar.
Crummey is clear that he isn’t going to claim the mantle of total accuracy for his fiction. After all, as he notes, authors are too caught up in their own obsessions to simply, objectively reflect the world. They present the world in their heads, which is often different in substance and detail from the world a reader sees. He compares the act of writing a novel to placing a transparency over the map we’ve made up of our own lives and experiences:
On some level, all creative writing is an act of appropriation, an appropriation of the real to our own inscrutable ends. And in the process, despite our best intentions (or because of them), there are inevitable distortions and adjustments and blind spots and mistakes that snake their way in. Even where writers aren’t being nakedly exploitative, their relationship to the truth, to what we think of as the real world, can’t help but be professional, can’t help but be subjective. And we would do well to keep that in mind, regardless of how convincing a book is.
At the end of his essay, Crummey offers a double proviso to the debate over cultural appropriation. He recommends impatience with the blinkered novelist who doesn’t deign to learn about the world he or she is describing. And perhaps more importantly, Crummey asks that a generous dose of tolerance be given to that minority of one, the author, who is doing his or her best to tell us a story.