Thursday, September 23, 2010

Garth Nix on Aboriginal Stories

One morning, earlier this month, while we had our morning coffee and caught up on news (using our laptops), my husband told me that Garth Nix had been on the Hugo Awards that had taken place the night before.

Nix is one of our favorite authors. As a family, we read Sabriel aloud on car trips, and did the same with Lireal and Abhorsen.  This summer, we listened to the Keys to the Kingdom series in audio book.

I looked up the Hugo Awards website and found Nix's remarks. I was quite surprised to read his first sentence:
First of all, let me acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this convention centre is built, the Kulin Nations - and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
The remark itself wasn't unfamiliar to me. I hear it when I go to conferences in American Indian Studies, or, to gatherings of Native people. Quite often, a Native person will begin their paper or speech with that acknowledgment. What surprised me was that the someone in this case is Garth Nix (he's not indigenous) and that he was delivering the remarks at a a major non-Native gathering.

I recalled that somewhere I'd read (and wished I had noted it) that Garth Nix knows the ins and outs of using indigenous stories. So, I asked colleagues on child_lit (an international children's literature listserv) and learned that it is fairly common for speaker's to preface remarks with that acknowledgment.  And, colleagues pointed me to a place where I could read more about Nix and his views on indigenous stories (thanks, Charlie and Judith!).

In his collection of short stories, Across the Wall, Nix writes (p. 140-141):
"The Hill" was written for an interesting international publishing scheme, in which a bunch of publishing houses in Europe and Allen & Unwin in Australia decided to simultaneously publish the same collection of short stories in English and four European languages, with the theme of the new millennium.

I was one of the two Australian writers invited to participate, and I wrote "The Hill" in an attempt to try to tell an overtly Australian story---something I'm not known for, since nearly all of my work is set in imagined worlds. This proved to be somewhat problematical, particularly when in the first drafts of "The Hill," I made the major characters part Aboriginal and tried to interweave a backstory involving Aboriginal myth and beliefs about land. I knew this would be difficult to pull off, but I didn't expect my Australian publisher's reaction, which was basically that, as a white Australian, I simply couldn't use either Aboriginal characters or Aboriginal myth. My initially simplistic attitude was that, as a fantasy writer, I should be able to draw on anything from everywhere for inspiration; that I could mine any history, myth, or religion.

After some discussions with both the publisher and an Aboriginal author, I realized that the issue was more complex, and that many Aboriginal people would feel that I was not inspired by their myth but was appropriating something valuable, one of the few things of value that hadn't been taken over in the process of colonization. It would be particularly hurtful because, as an Australian, I should know that some Aboriginal people would consider this yet another theft.

So the fantasy element of "The Hill," inspired by some Aboriginal myths, was removed and I rewrote it in a more straightforward way. However, given the constraints of the multilingual publishing schedule, and some misunderstanding along the way, the original version of the story is the one that got translated and is in the Norwegian, French, Spanish, and German editions. Only the English-language version is different.

I'm still not sure where I stand on the matter of allowable use of myth, legend, and history, save that if I do decide at some point to seek inspiration from the rich traditions and lore of the Australian Aboriginal people, I will ask permission first.
That's quite a lot of information, and it tells me a lot about Nix.  He starts with his lack of knowledge about the complexities in using indigenous characters and story and how he felt about his publisher telling him not to use Aboriginal material. But instead of digging in his heels, he went on to study and think about the issue, and share the development of his thinking with his readers.

Thinking about this reminds me James Ransome's remarks...  I heard him speak at a children's literature conference several years ago. He was asked why he had not illustrated children's books about American Indians. He replied that he "hadn't held their babies." In other words, he didn't know them well enough to do it with the care and sensitivity required to do it well.

I wish other writers in the field of children's and young adult literature would think as carefully about these issues as Nix and Ransome. We'd all be better off if they did!

[Note: Nix's first novel, Ragwitch (published in 1990), begins with an Aboriginal midden (described as a garbage heap) where the main characters find a ball that has a rag doll inside. I haven't read that book and don't know if the doll is meant to be Aboriginal.] 


Tehani Wessely said...

Thanks for the post! As a matter of interest, most conventions and many many events, large and small, in Australia are now opened with a traditional "Welcome to Country" by the local indigenous inhabitants, or at the very least, as Garth did at the Hugos, with an acknowledgement to the traditional owners of the land.

Nafiza said...

I studied at the University of British Columbia and every event we hold, there is thanks given and acknowledgement of the land we stand on and the people to whom it belongs. I think it's only right thing to do.