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.
At 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.