May 21, 2018KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsLiterature

Stealing Stories, Part 2

In the recent literary news, three examples popped up (two in Canada, one in the US) of writers utilizing Native stories without doing adequate research or asking for necessary permission. I’ll highlight all three in separate installments. This installment focuses on In Case I Go by Angie Abdou.

Abdou is a Canadian fiction author of five books. In Case I Go is a fictionalized account of Abdou’s family history, focused through her main character—a ten-year-old named Eli who befriends a Ktunaxa girl named Mary. Haunted by the mistakes of his ancestors, Eli tries to find a way to move forward. Abdou has written about the East Kootenays before in The Canterbury Trail but did not include any Indigenous characters in that novel. In an interview, Abdou stated “that to me seems racist by exclusion. It’s Ktunaxa territory. So with In Case I Go, I include the Ktunaxa because it’s a novel about their territory.” Okay, so there’s a minor alarm already with the whole “haunted by the mistakes of his ancestors” bit, especially for a ten-year-old protagonist, but I’m going to move along because this next bit is more important. Originally, in earlier drafts, the Mary character was a ghost haunting Eli. Frank Busch, a Cree novelist who was the first cultural reader of the book, told Abdou she should change that and make Mary a contemporary, live girl in Eli’s life. Luckily, Abdou agreed. One trope that all us Indigenous folks can do without is the Indigenous ghosts haunting non-Indigenous literature. Believe me, our ancestors have much better things to do than bring your dead pets back to life, leave ectoplasm on your walls while trying to get you to follow them, or sit there on the side of your bed in full regalia weeping over a long-lost family heirloom (all taken from actual books that exist in the world, friends). While I don’t currently have a research paper to back this statement, I’m pretty sure there are more Indigenous ghosts in non-Indigenous lit than living, breathing Indigenous characters—even if we only consider literature from the last fifty years. When you take into account how much contemporary media would rather discuss our cultures and tribes in the past tense, it’s not difficult to see why we’re often portrayed as ghosts.

There were even more changes after Abdou met Natasha Burgoyne, the cultural liaison with the Ktunaxa Nation Council. Abdou admitted she felt trepidation over the consultation process.

We are, understandably, not at a point in history where white people are invited to write about Indigenous peoples. Still, I had invested considerable time and energy in a novel I believed in. I had to figure out what to do with it. I knew I needed to consult with Indigenous people, with Ktunaxa people. But how? I had no set of rules, and I found the prospect terrifying. What if I approached the Ktunaxa and they were angry or hostile? What if they didn’t like me? What if they said no?

I would hope it’s obvious where the problems are in this statement. If the subtle things are lost on you, focus on two words that ring with stereotypical bile—angry and hostile. How many times have non-Natives been terrified of us potentially angry, hostile Natives? It’s hard to remember that Abdou is doing her best to be a culturally sensitive author when this jarring language shows up in her published work.

Long story short, Abdou goes in front of the Ktunaxa Nation Council after several rewrites initiated by Burgoyne. She is not confronted with the angry, hostile Ktunaxa people of her fears and she lives to tell the tale. There is mixed responses to her request, but several council members request copies of the text after her presentation of the work. Feeling confident she was diligent and the text was ready, the book is sent for publication. Articles and interviews creating buzz for the upcoming book are published. People have lots of feels about the problematic language, claims, and descriptions Abdou includes in these publicity moves—many people let her know about the shortcomings. In one article, she claims to have received the “Ktunaxa Nation Council’s enthusiastic support” and “Ktunaxa elders’ approval” of her novel. She later has to recant when the council clarifies they did not officially support or approve the novel. Reading about the necessary recant, more Indigenous people have more feels and start spreading the word about this problematic situation via social media.

The book becomes available for purchase by the publisher Arsenal Pulp Press. Authors write rebuttals and defenses including Jonathan Kay, who takes the opportunity to write a piece about cultural sensitivity and the novelist. Kay quotes Abdou as saying, “Canada has gone mad. From any other country, this looks like pure insanity. The idea of the novel is dead.” I guess Abdou’s not pleased with all the critique that came her way. It becomes quite clear in his writing that Kay does not understand tribal concerns or ways of life, but has come to Abdou’s defense in order to keep her safe from all the “hostile” First Nations folks and remark on how dedicated she was to even request input from anyone before publishing. It is commendable that Abdou requested that input. I would argue that practice enriched the final product immensely; however, that doesn’t mean the resulting book or the accompanying publicity pieces were above reproach. In the article, both Kay and Abdou sound bitter about the changes in place to guide writers attempting to portray characters that are not like them. The idea that a non-Indigenous writer could go through the process of asking real, living breathing Indigenous people their opinions about her project and then not receive some sort of medal or a pat on the back for her effort must be upsetting.

Sorry but not sorry, writers. We’re living in a time when you have to take responsibility of what you write and say. You have the freedom to write whatever you want about whomever you want, but that freedom does not come with any guarantees of approval from the public. Writing responsibly, even in fictional accounts, is what the majority of readers want. Readers are vocal almost immediately thanks to social media, so authors/publishers are expected to be diligent and prompt. That certainly must mean the former idea of the novel is dead and the entire world has gone mad. Absolutely mad.