July 8/365 Whose Story Is It?

Ismael is not a great novel. At times the writing clunks along under a heavy burden of SAYING IMPORTANT THINGS. But Daniel Quinn’s argument, his discussion of essential knowledge about the underpinnings of our civilization, was the last straw in my long divorce from Christianity.

No small thing.

ishmael1.jpgAt the heart of the story is a discussion of the seminal text in Genesis of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Eden. His question – who does this story belong to, who is the original teller of the tale – resonates with me right now, even as I grapple with my own cultural appropriations. Can a white, cis, straight woman speak about those who aren’t any of the above? I, who have always greedily enjoyed aspects of other people’s cultures, drinking and eating their foods with abandon, dancing to their music, rejoicing in the free movement of their clothing styles, am I stealing something that is not mine to have? And can I produce my art including them, imagining a fully-fleshed version of a trans person, or creating a history for someone I have never been?

In the world ruled by straight, white, mostly Christian men, the canon of WHAT ART CAN DO was established with no input from anyone else. Now all the rest of the world weighs in, with a multiplicity of voices, and I find myself adrift in a beautiful sea.

And I realize that none of this has anything to do with Ishmael, or does it? Questioning Mother Culture is, after all, the fundamental lesson here.


6 thoughts on “July 8/365 Whose Story Is It?

  1. I’ve not read Ismael. I almost grabbed it when it was $1.99 on Kindle the other day, but I realized I didn’t need another book on my Kindle shelves that I would probably never read.

    Your post is very interesting, and timely for me — not that I am concerned about creating art whose story does not belong to me — but because I have been asking myself the same question regarding appropriation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating because in my grad school class I just finished, in which we are each prepping for our thesis/capstone project, my partner/peer review person is doing hers in an art classroom and it is all about cultural appropriation. I feel steeped in this right now and keep seeing and reading things all over (my awareness is heightened, although I’m sure hers is less so because my topic is station based co-teaching, snooze). She an I both teach in overwhelmingly African American schools and spent a long time talking about assimilation vs appropriation. I have nothing to add. Just needed to say that this is part of my milieu right now.

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  3. I love this post, and not only because I will now happily never read Ishmael! This question is really interesting. I love your phrase, “… adrift in a beautiful sea.”

    It’s such a tricky question. I remember when I was at school learning about the differences between integration and assimilation. And now as Bridgett says, we look at assimilation, integration, and appropriation. In NZ, we’re working very hard on integration, bringing in Maori language and cultural practices into our official and private lives, but always in consultation with them, rather than imposed.

    It seems, to my inexpert but interested eye, that in conversations here in NZ appropriation is often about commercialisation. There are issues here of people (usually overseas) fairly ignorant of Maori culture doing a haka, for example, and more recently, copying tattoos, which are generally seen as a taonga, a cultural treasure/spiritual connection with their ancestors. Integration, assimilation, or appropriation. And of course, there are some Maori who are not bothered (ie the tattoo artists) and others who are deeply insulted. It’s all a bit of a minefield, but I hope it can be navigated with respect. And research. And a lot of both.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am adding Ishmael to my list. Likely it will be the only book there who’s description starts “this is not a great book”. The premise intrigues me, and I’m willing to try to trudge through some clunky writing. (Although I’m a bit hesitant – a writing style of SAYING IMPORTANT THINGS sounds a lot like academic writing, which I read enough of.)


  5. Fascinating post. Excellent questions. My brain is fried right now and I can’t reply in an intelligent way, but it raises some of the sorts of feelings I have about what art is once you find out that the person who created it is kind of an asshole. Especially when you freakin’ loved the work. Not related here, but … feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, and I meant to mention that I LOVED Ishmael the first time I read it; when I read it years later, it didn’t really hold up for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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