So, what's wrong with telling other people's stories?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 19, 2006

It seems not all our readers agree with Darryl Klassen's position in last week's column challenging the right of non-Aboriginal people to tell Aboriginal peoples' stories – a practice often referred to as "appropriation of voice." In this week's column I'll share some of the responses.

But first, an e-mail from Mumbai, India, coffee companion Raj Patwardhan. He wrote while the dust was still settling from the July 11 terrorist bombings of trains in his city last week that took 182 lives.

"Warren, you may be worried if you have heard the news on TV about serial bomb blasts in Mumbai this evening," he said. "It's so sad that lives of innocent people are lost in these barbaric acts created by miscreants under the pretext of religious beliefs – or rather, misbeliefs. . . . One keeps wondering how to appeal to the psyche of the perpetrators of violence to make the right choices to promote peace, brotherhood and love."

Yes, Raj, we share with you your concern for the mindless violence that not only has killed and injured so many in your city, but is running rampant around the world. With you, we pray for an outbreak of peace, brotherhood and love that will truly show our respect and gratitude for this beautiful world we are privileged to share.

Now back to reader comments regarding appropriation of voice.

Calgary coffee companion Jeff Perkins wrote: "I would suggest that there is nothing in Aboriginal stories that non-Aboriginals cannot relate to. All cultures have stories, but in our day-to-day Canadian lives we often fail to recognize them. Many people belong to religious groups which make it a fundamental tenet that stories of ancient mythology must be told and retold because, just like the Aboriginal stories, they can have relevance today."

Edmonton broadcaster and avid reader Yovella Mizrahii holds a similar opinion.

"I don't think it matters who tells the story," she wrote me. "When a person writes a story, fact or fiction, they are sharing what they see as important. Writers share how they see the world.

"If storytellers are unable to communicate and express themselves, they will feel . . . frustrated and muted by the inability to say what is in their heart and mind. As humans it's only natural for us to want to share with others, and what writers want to share is their stories."

Readers must accept their part in the storytelling process, she wrote.

"I think what's important is how the reader digests the story. I believe that readers need to always remember that writers can only express how they interpret things. It's the reader's responsibility to remember that every writer will tell a different story based on personal interpretations, personal life experience, gender, ethnicity, economic status, etc."

Ottawa journalist Henry Heald put it more bluntly.

"Stories are stories," he wrote. "We all tell stories – from the Bible, Shakespeare, Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales. Stories are told to put across universal truths or to entertain. I tell Newfie jokes, Polish jokes, Jewish jokes, Scottish jokes. Darryl himself backs me up. He quotes Plato to make a point. Plato was a Greek, wasn't he? Can only Greeks quote Plato? I provide attribution where it seems appropriate.

"I would happily tell Aboriginal stories, if I knew any. We should all know some good Aboriginal stories and repeat them wherever we can. Every other culture puts its stories out into the great void for universal consumption. Let's add some Aboriginal truths, myths, jokes to the mix."

Kathleen Adamson, of Schomberg, Ont., was more sympathetic to Darryl's position. "He is dead right about storytelling," she wrote, "largely because it is the only true way in many respects into a people's head. It is like looking at the world from inside the TV box, instead of at the screen." It's all about "mindset," she said.

It's also about authenticity, something that came up over coffee the other day with Third-World development consultant Michael Bopp, of Cochrane. When we get right down to it, he said, "appropriating someone else's voice is purporting to speak for them."

As a gifted public speaker, he often shares stories from client communities, "but they're always coming from me," he said. "I don't pretend I'm speaking on behalf of other people."

And then there's the issue of protecting property rights, a matter covered by copyright laws in modern technological societies. But what about recognizing ownership of stories and songs in traditional societies? I hope to consider this angle in a future column.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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