There are very few things that legitimately keep me up at night. I try to live without regrets, so it’s usually only the physical pain that keeps me awake. There are a few exceptions, though, and one of them is eating at me right now.
I never want to pull a Rowling.
In case you haven’t heard, JK Rowling put out a series of books folding Native American culture into her mythology, and establishing a North American branch of her wizarding tradition. My first reaction, of course, was, “That’s ridiculous. The settlers were the wizards. That’s why they were so good at making our nations disappear. Treatorius Disregarda!” My friends and I laughed it off, since we always try to have a sense of humor about what we can’t change. Then I found out exactly what she’d done, and I wasn’t really laughing anymore. To give you an idea: In her mythology she says there were never skinwalkers, only wizards that were persecuted by the establishment of non-magical persons. That encapsulates my first two problems with it, in one statement, but more on that in a bit.
I’m sure her intent was to respond to fans who felt left out of the English-centric Harry Potter series, and wanted to see themselves reflected in the series. That seems pretty clear here. Intent, however, is just not enough to cover the way she did this. First, she lumped a lot of nations into one aggregate concept, a la ‘Native Americans’. To fold Navajo, Apache, Cree, Lakota, Hopi, Cherokee, Seminole and so many others into one label like that is pretty upsetting on its face. It seems the various spiritual and druidic traditions in the UK didn’t mind this homogenization, or I didn’t hear about it, but they had a lot more in common than the nations being stuck in a cultural blender here. Their culture wasn’t painted as false propaganda, and reduced to yet another victimization either, and that’s what really galls.
How ‘harmless fantasy’ stops being harmless sometimes.
Remember I mentioned how most of my problem with this is encapsulated in her treatment of the Navajo skinwalker legend? Her story treats this as a myth, propaganda made up by non-magical people to demonize the ‘wizards’ of North America. She depicts non-magical medicine men, fearful of exposure, as making up derogatory rumors to keep themselves from being discovered. Let’s really look at that for a second, shall we?
First, this is built off of little more understanding than a Wikipedia summation of the legend. It completely disregards the roots of the belief, which is a powerful one amongst some Navajo. This was at its heart a cautionary tale about those who threw themselves into an all-consuming lust for power. The idea of being driven so far into the darkness that we will sacrifice anything to get more is a fairly universal one. Any effort to understand this legend could have brought out commonalities and even insight, because the idea of sacrificing a loved one as a final act of abandoning humanity is something every culture seems to understand. It could have driven people to find out more about this particular take on a common theme. Instead it just waves the tradition aside.
Second, though, and most disturbingly, this mangling of the myth not only dismisses everything that matters about the legend, it lionizes the darkest side of Navajo spirituality and dismisses its true traditions in the process. There is this thinking in the self-congratulatory postmodern mindset, that it’s somehow a good thing to treat all things ‘other’ as pristine and wonderful and holy and this equates to ‘honoring’ it. The skinwalkers are transformed into a very Twilight-esque reimagining of a noble savage, and the only thing that honors is the fascination people have with reducing the ‘other’ into exotic bite-sized morsels. In the meantime the core Navajo spirituality, the careful and responsible medicine men, are painted as cowardly charlatans, and that honors no one.
There’s so much arrogance in assuming that painting people as victims somehow redeems the use of their culture in an ignorant way. I give people the benefit of the doubt, and try to believe they think they’re doing others a favor here. That’s because in the modern era it seems that everyone aspires to be a victim. People spend a lot of time trying to find ways to be more and more victimized by everyone else’s sense of well-being. I am just tired of it, honestly. I don’t think there’s any redemption to be had in making up stories where nobody is ever evil, just a victim of someone else’s ignorance. That probably colors my perspective on Rowling, because I always see some degree of personalization in this mindset. Muggles and non-magical people are so clearly resented and demeaned for their rejection of the ‘special’ people, a class of people to whom Rowling clearly seems to believe she belongs. I don’t appreciate that at all, and I appreciate it even less when it’s applied to medicine men.
The thing is, the skinwalker isn’t just some bedtime story. As far as I’ve ever learned from people, skinwalkers were a formative part of Navajo culture, influencing some of the differences between their lives and others. The wearing of skins became taboo, for one thing, whereas skins were pretty important to many other surrounding nations. They could be killed on sight, and were a constant reminder of the evils surrounding human life. There are some people who won’t even discuss them, the way some of my friends won’t talk about hexes or bad mojo. To reduce that to some story made up to undercut magical shamanic power does come out to be pretty insulting in my view. I’m sure the Navajo are more than strong enough to withstand this belittling, but I think it’s good that they’ve spoken up.
Trying to embrace rather than appropriate is tough.
The Malakhim series embraces a lot of cultures, and gives its own spin to all kinds of legends. That’s what keeps me up at night. Not out of guilt, mind, but out of worry that I’ve missed something or accidentally done something careless in the process. It is a very deliberate choice, to embrace all human mythology and create one possible fantasy undercurrent that doesn’t homogenize them, but suggests an underlying reality that draws them all together based on the things they share.
I’ve always been interested in these universal themes, and the way they trace back to so many shared specifics. I’ve seen the way a single type of virtue or principle seems to leave its mark on so many people in similar ways without the cultures ever seeming to meet before it happened. To me this is really beautiful, and I want to touch on it as I write about these messages. Malakhim encapsulates a kind of universal field theory of spirituality, suggesting and personifying influences beneath the undercurrents of the world.
Now, my characters are not so concerned with this as I am. Nathan will sometimes dismiss or lump together different beliefs– this is due to his attitude, and his perspective. He tends to disengage from human legend and history, and sometimes it all blends together to him. As the personification of Acceptance and the legendary Reaper, his core spirit can be cold, dispassionate and a great equalizer, as befits many of the legends surrounding that virtue. It also embraces the Reaper’s mercy. As with any virtue, he has internal dichotomies– on the one hand, he can accept anything. On the other hand, he can deny acceptance just as easily. On top of that, he is only expressing this iteration of a much larger eternal personality. Concepts like avatars, daemons, and other ways the divine is thought to manifest itself on earth, all inform what I’ve constructed for my angels. Their inner self only emerges as a small part of a vast, unknowable eternity. This inner self also fights with the very human perspective of this life, one that has been put through a lot of suffering and offers a tantalizing amount of resistance to the spirit within.
Nathan is by no means representative of all angelic perspective, though. Many other angels appear in the series, all with different levels of reverence and interest in different ideas. Ben is there, too, wondering about the differences, and pointing out the different ways that people see things. My effort to embrace rather than appropriate revolves around that, too– the acknowledgment that the perspectives displayed here are individual takes on existence and that no voice in this book speaks for all of them. Nathan speaks very strongly for the way he sees things, but other angels in the book, be they Fallen, soldiers of Michael, legions of Hell, or various other groups, speak equally strongly for theirs. The characters sometimes speak in absolutes, but the books try not to.
I’m sure there will still be people who are certain I’m appropriating. I can’t prevent that, and I don’t believe it would be right to anyway. What keeps me awake at night isn’t the fear that people will be offended. Honestly I’m amazed at how wonderful and benevolent people have been about what I feared would be a very polarizing subject. People are absolutely free to be offended. I can only apologize for any feeling of distress and suggest they find other books, though. I cannot apologize for what I’ve written, because I try day in and day out to make sure I am being as respectful and careful as possible.
Of course, I could play it safe, but…
I could easily hide from these potential criticisms, and only write about things to which I have a genetic passport. That would provide me a wealth of material, as I come from very mixed-race heritage. It would be dishonest, though. I grew up in Hawai’i. I am more familiar with menehune than Ikto’mi, even though my ancestor Grampa Scotty purportedly has an Ikto’mi story named after him. Pele was an everyday presence in my life, and I’ve seen her art and her capricious nature firsthand. No one would ever deny a strange old woman a glass of water in our town, and that was just straight up fact as far as anyone I knew would say.
Though an old kahuna gave me a Hawai’ian name when I was a child, I know I was never and will never be a part of that culture. I grew up as an absolute outcast there because of my skin, for most of my life. It was only later in life, when my friends grew out of these prejudices, that I found any acceptance there at all, but I will never be Hawai’ian by any stretch. I don’t have ownership of any of the stories I grew up with, and I don’t feel I should. I don’t feel ownership of any story but Malakhim, because that really is a labour of love, something I’m working hard to create with honor and respect for other legends, but the perspective of my own. I don’t feel ownership of any of its sources or the traditions it draws from, but of the new thing it has become.
That’s not to say my ancestry didn’t inform and shape the way I grew up in the world. Of the few things I knew about my forbears, three principles loomed large. One was that we grew up believing that embracing the differences, the rainbow if you will, was a high calling. When I was given a name in the Lakota tongue, much later in life, it was actually reflective of that. (Yes, that is a trend. I don’t really know why, but I’m honored by it and I treasure each name.) All nations were one nation, to a lot of the prominent people in that world, as far as I knew. We looked down on the idea of separating people and pitting them against one another, and strove to be as open-hearted as we could, which is part of why I come from such a mixed heritage. I know full well that this was not by any stretch a universal belief.
The second was that names were important, and not lightly treated, which of course you can see throughout my story. I see that in a lot of cultures, and I think it’s reflected in real life too. The way respect for one another has declined in my own country, where names are constantly demanded and treated with undeserved familiarity, speaks to me very clearly of this principle.
The third value that really shaped my perspective revolved around stories. Stories were more than just things to listen to. They were things to learn from, things to understand. They were healing, and comfort, and gifts to be treasured. I deal with this more thoroughly in one of the upcoming volumes, but it is a way of life for me. I am constantly collecting the stories of those I meet. From cab drivers to nurses caring for me in the hospital to people waiting with me for something. I offer stories when invited to, and carry with me the stories people offer me. This is the way I try to learn everything I can about everyone I meet. Stories from Haiti, from Ethiopia, from Turkey, from Florida, from Japan, from New England, these are just some of the ones I can think of that have found their way into my heart recently through people I’ve met and things I’ve researched. They wind themselves around my thoughts, and find their way into my voice.
The storytelling tradition I learned doesn’t ask us to simply retell these stories, but to make them a part of our wisdom and understanding. To thread them into something new, when the moment arises. In no way do I suggest that this is representative of all Lakota culture. I don’t even think there is such a thing as ‘all Lakota culture’, just common threads to a lot of different people banded together in a larger nation. It is only what I know and feel, and presented as such. It was only a small part of a very large and diverse set of influences in my life, and does not buy me license to speak for anyone.
Hiding behind genetic legacy to legitimize our voices is cowardly anyway, in my view. Others feel differently, and that’s all right. The result of speaking only from our genetics is a small, myopic world that never reaches out to others. I just don’t want to create that. I want to reach out to everything, and try to wind as much of it as I can into my own perspective. It seems more offensive to me, to write a Heaven which only encompasses the cultures to which I am told I rightfully belong. To me it would be obscene to create an eternity which divided itself against certain portions of the world. I cannot possibly understand and embrace them all– some cultures actively discourage that kind of inclusion or depiction, and I try to respect that when I’m aware of it and can find a way to accomodate it. I know sometimes I am going to put a foot wrong.
What keeps me up at night
There are times when I edge up against a line that worries me. As I’ve said, I see things that seem to be common inspirations across cultures, and at times I want to highlight that. I see something in someone’s legend that beautifully expresses what I want to say, and I try to truly honor it. Do I manage? I’m sure people will have all kinds of views about that.
One measure I try to take is to express, in context and out of it, that this is a fantasy reinterpretation. This is not simply to shield myself from criticism, but to point people in the direction of real and actual culture. At all points in the story the reader is encouraged to pull these threads, and follow them off into the real world around them. Will they come to the same conclusions? I have no idea. It’s up to them.
So when Nathan says, “Yes, this angel became the inspiration for this culture’s myth,” that is his perspective. That is his belief, and his assumption. He is shown on multiple occasions to be reductive and wrong about things, and there are other angels who think he’s full of it. It’s not just Ben who questions him, and he acknowledges that he’s speaking from his own muddled perspective. Like anyone else, he’s not required to equivocate about his own point of view. He tells the stories he tells from his own perspective.
There are times, though, that I know I might wander too close to the quick. In one volume, Nathan tells a passionate tale about two huge figures from Egyptian mythology, Horus and Anubis. (Yes, within the tale Nathan acknowledges that these are not the names the tribes of Egypt gave them, and the story pretends that these are the angels’ names snuck into the human zeitgeist by the incarnate walking amongst them, in hopes of calling them home. This is not an attempt to glorify these fictions as more important than their real legends, but to set the Malakhim mythology apart from the real legends and frame it in a personal context removed from the reality though it coexists in the same space.) In another story, Nathan recharacterizes the plagues of Egypt, drawing from some scattered pieces of local history and giving them an angelic interpretation. I’m sure that offends people, but it is the way I see it. I made huge efforts to find roots of truth in these stories, in any of the histories of the region. I may have made mistakes in that, but not for lack of trying. I don’t believe my story in any way threatens these plague stories, they have millions supporting them.
Is trying an excuse? Certainly not. If it were, I would never stay up nights worrying. I would never pester my friends who do have a more personal context on these things, and ask them to let me know if I’ve put a foot wrong. Honestly, I think that would be a bad thing. I should worry, and I should keep trying to do better.
Walking a fine line should be difficult, but sometimes the walk is worth it.
I think if Rowling had spent a few sleepless nights on her work, it wouldn’t have turned out this way. If she had really made an effort to reach out to the traditions of North America, she would have found a wealth of culture just waiting for someone to care. The Navajo didn’t need anybody to throw the name ‘Skinwalker’ around, any more than they needed somebody to slap it on a ranch or a fake-umentary cryptozoology expedition.
A thoughtful tale, though, of someone being drawn too far into the temptation to wield spiritual power? With the right respect and research, that could have been something. She has a greater ability to research now than anyone without her name recognition. I’m nobody, and it hasn’t been that hard for me to get people to talk to me about their local legends. For a writer with the profile and wide fan base Rowling has, it doesn’t seem as though it should have been hard to just talk to someone about Navajo tradition. Rather than treat them as a mystical ‘other’, she could have just sat down with someone and listened to stories for a while. If nothing else, she might have gotten the idea that there was more to this legend than people being outcast for wanting to be animals.
I know she’s not very public. I’m a legit recluse though, rarely if ever emerging from behind my blackout curtains and locked doors. (That’s not fear, that’s autoimmunity that makes sunlight really awful. That and sadness for the way illness has disfigured me, I face a lot of rejection out there sometimes.) Even with my reclusive lifestyle, I manage to come across and listen to all manner of people. Certainly this isn’t impossible for someone who shows up to peoples’ book clubs for cake.
There are some perspectives no one can give me personally either. I get them from researching multiple perspectives on the same legend whenever I can. Sometimes I can’t. In the upcoming volume where Anubis appears, there’s a Shelley reference tacitly acknowledging what I’m doing here, drawing inspiration in my own broken way from what I see in the monuments and legends around me. It is my whispered apology for the incompleteness of my perspective, and a sharp eye will find these scattered throughout the work.
It is worth it to me to risk being wrong, being criticized and shot down, to try to reach out to every culture I find. To try to reach out to the things in it I recognize and love. That’s what Rowling’s treatment of North America is missing. Love. There is plenty of affection, the one-sided dollop of ‘here you can be just like me,’ that authors often drop on the people they see as other. That one-sidedness is reflected in the way these depictions diminish their source.
Dear reader, dear heavens, dear Father, I hope I never do that. I never want to use others’ stories as grist to grind out my own blanched flour. I never want to treat peoples’ hearts and stories as mere consumables, products to be rebranded. I want so much to point others at whatever reality they can find, through my own love of these stories. I want to encourage them to reach out and learn more from the perspectives layered over what I see as universal tensions, motive forces running beneath it all. In no way is this ever meant to replace the roots from which they draw. If I encourage anything, I want to encourage people to explore other ways of seeing the world, to bring their own hearts to bear on the mysteries around them and find their own way outside the insularity of our basic dogmas. I exhort them to do that, whenever I can.
I want to entertain people, sure, but not at the expense of their understanding.
I spend a lot of time worrying that I’ve failed.