The stories we tell

J.K. Rowling is currently coming under a certain amount of fire for appropriation of Native American/ First People myths and traditions in a new story. This also allows the Scottish Nationalists who don’t like her because she doesn’t believe in an independent Scotland to get the boot in, so that’s a slightly depressing synergy.

Anyway, it made me think, which is probably what the better critiques were meant to do; it also made my blood pressure rise, which is automatically what happens when I read ANGRY things, no matter who is saying them.

So. First: it’s crap to be misrepresented.

It’s especially crap if it comes on top of hundreds of years of damaging misrepresentation that has justified appalling repression, even if the person misrepresenting you had nothing to do with the oppression and is, it could be argued, yet another casualty in the war that is being fought over the ways in which you are represented.

Angry? Yeah. Oppression and misunderstanding does that to people, especially when the target of ire is someone important. My kids’ school still has a ‘Red Indian’ week (or did until last year when a mother who’d grown up in Canada explained the error of their ways). We are not super-advanced in our understanding of Native American history here. This debate will (possibly) help us to find out more.

As Outlander appears everywhere just now, representing all those tartan-wearing, claymore-wielding hairy highlanders who are also my ancestors, I feel marginally equipped to have an opinion. I’ll spare you the details of my upbringing, but let’s say it’s just as well I never had a boyfriend whose surname was Campbell, and I mean that in a serious, bitter n twisted kind of way, not in a ho-ho-ho isn’t this entertaining some people still pay attention to historical conflicts kind of way. We have a history here. It’s full of blood and betrayal and people dying for really stupid reasons a long way from home because of some abstract concept of kingship, and people thrown off the land to make way for sheep because of some abstract concept of progress, and people murdered by being rolled down the high street in barrels of nails because of… yeah, well, I don’t know. Fear? Bigotry? The idea that only some people own the truth?

We do, all of us, have stories that give us meaning and place us in history. The Massacre of Glencoe (for example) is one of my stories — I was told it over and over again growing up — and it’s part of what makes me me, and I feel strange and a little sick when I find it in a historical romance or a thriller or whatever, because the way I learned it, it didn’t feel like trivial entertainment.

But some people use it that way, and I can live with that.

Partly, I can live with that because it doesn’t have any real impact on how people view me now. And Scotland got messed up but these things are relative, and there is no comparison to what has happened — what is happening — elsewhere. Partly, because I’ve worked with other people’s stories and I know that however important they are to us, they don’t have to be real — the stories we have need to be useful, that’s all.

In the 90s I was a starry-eyed postgraduate in Moscow finding out about archives, kasha, the music of Nick Cave, cockroaches, beautiful boys who smiled at me across the reading room, held my coat for me and then told me they were neo-nazis (didn’t see that one coming), and various other excitements that all seemed shiny and precious and strange. I found out about vodka and ex-pat merchant bankers and swimming in the Volga and all sorts of other things as well. But mostly, because that’s what my research was, I found out what the Soviet State had done to the Russian Orthodox Church.

And no one wanted to know.

As with many of these things, the picture of what the archives said happened — the careful, bureaucratic record of appalling oppression, of churches closed and priests murdered — was not the picture people knew to be true.

There were only three churches left in the whole of Yaroslavl’ oblast’ [<– I can’t remember if that’s true. My notes are elsewhere!]

No. There were no churches at all. The Soviets closed them all.

But–

There were none.

Didn’t matter what the archives said, didn’t matter what the priests I interviewed remembered. The story that worked — the story that helped some people reassemble their world in the 1990s — was one of absolute oppression, none of the greys and the compromises and the oppression of weak-on-weak that what we traditionally think of as ‘history’ suggested was true (let’s not get into a discussion of ‘true’).

And that’s OK, because we all need to have the stories that make it possible to live our lives. They don’t need to be true, or verifiable or written down; they just need to be useful.

I don’t know where that leaves me with the JK Rowling fuss. Sympathetic, I think, to both sides.

 

 

 

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