Context and culture (#SFWApro)

So recently I read a post from Wading in the Shadows about cultural appropriation of Celtic mythology. The problem not being appropriation in itself but a)not getting Celtic culture right and b)in taking legends out of the original Irish context, they inevitably distort them. Heroes and monsters are part of a tapestry and if you pluck out when thread, you inevitably distort the meaning:  “The problem, however, is that mythology is CULTURALLY based. Mythology contains elements of fantasy but at its most fundamental it’s an intellectual framework used by our ancestors to make sense of the world around them. Because it’s culturally based, many of the mythological elements and associated context have been passed down through generations and incorporated into national identity and belief systems. Today of course, the use of Irish mythology has been superseded by scientific rationale, but its core narratives remain intrinsically linked to Ireland’s self-identity and cultural values.”

Which is a fair point. Taking anything out of its original culture is going to change the meaning. Titus Andronicus meant something different to Elizabethan audiences accustomed to revenge plays than it does to modern viewers. The Aztecs probably reacted to their human-sacrifice customs very differently than I do. To one Korean blogger, replacing a Korean condiment with Sriracha because that’s what was available was outrageous because it’s a fundamental change to the dish. Heck, pop-culture Christianity where humans turn into angels when they die is a big change from actual Christianity, where angels are entirely separate.

But I’m not so sure it’s a negative thing.

It can be bad if a writer passes off a patchwork creation as authentic, as Nisi Shawl points out: “In one unpublished story I’ve seen, the writer took a sacred song here, a tattoo there, snapped up a feast featuring roasted pig and manioc root from somewhere else and presto! South Pacific Island culture at our fingertips! That this Islands analogue was inhabited by blond, blue-eyed people may have been meant to soften the act of appropriation by distancing readers from its victims. Or the point may have been to allow the blond, blue-eyed author or reader easier identification and access. The effect, unfortunately, was one of cultural theft squared. Not only were the appurtenances of the culture removed from their native settings, they were placed in the hands of people deliberately marked as racially distinct from their originators.”

On the other hand, transplanting myths and legends from one culture to present-day America can create a remarkable result. A Grail quest in Mobile, Alabama. Or in Las Vegas (Tim Powers’ Last Call). The sidhe showing up in rural Georgia in Windmaster’s Bane by Tom Dietz, or in California in Mercedes Lackey’s Serrated Edge series (curiously although Dietz’s book is far superior, it had less influence on Southern Discomfort than Lackey’s). Or the gods of everywhere showing in Wicked and the Divine (same link as earlier in the paragraph). Or Thor swinging his hammer as a super-hero. Etcetera, etcetera (cover art by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights remain with current holder).

I think planting Celtic magic in Georgia for Southern Discomfort works fine, or will once I finish. But there’s no question I’m willing to bend established myth where it improves the story. I don’t think I’m doing anything objectionable; quite possible Wading in the Shadows (or anyone who really knows the lore) would disagree.

Is it the quality that decides what works out of context and what doesn’t? How respectfully it’s adapted and changed? Whether you’re reinforcing stereotypes (e.g., presenting Native American gods as some kind of devils or Lovecraftian horrors)?  I don’t really know what I think, and if I did know I might look back in a year or two and decide I was clueless. For whatever that’s worth.

1 Comment

Filed under Reading, Southern Discomfort, Writing

One response to “Context and culture (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning? Merlin’s Godson (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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