Voice Appropriation – Then and Now

Introductory Note: I wrote the following book review in 1995. Why am I republishing it (with a few edits)? What does it have to do with writing fiction? Two words: Voice Appropriation. If you’re not into book reviews, feel free to skip to the bottom of the post.

A Discovery of Strangers by Rudy Wiebe. Knopf Canada. 1994. {Review first published by A.M. Potter. ® 1995}

Rudy Wiebe won the 1973 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (Canada) for The Temptations of Big Bear. Long before the advent of movies like Dances with Wolves, Wiebe’s indigenous characters took centre stage. He appropriated a multitude of historical voices, regardless of ethnicity or station in life, and allowed each to tell their own version of events.

Wiebe’s second G-G award-winning novel, A Discovery of Strangers, follows the same general format. The reader views the 1820-21 Franklin Expedition through the eyes of not only the English explorers, but also the Canadian voyagers and Yellowknife natives who made it possible. Much of the story is told from the point-of-view of a young indigenous woman called Greenstockings. Wiebe could be accused of double voice appropriation. He’s a white male who wrote as a female, not to mention an indigenous female.

A Discovery of Strangers is as much a love story as a retelling of history. The beautiful Greenstockings is a man-magnet. One of Franklin’s junior officers, Robert Hood, is besotted by her. Wiebe’s account of their deepening attraction – which finally erupts inside her father’s lodge – is as tender and tragic as a troubadour tale.

A reader cannot help noting the stylistic affinities of Wiebe’s two award-winning novels. Both use similar narrative devices – flashbacks, visionary dreams, multiple points-of-view – as well as similar prose styles. It’s almost as if the author said to himself, Hmm, that worked before. I’ll do it again.

Wiebe’s descriptive passages perfectly capture the sub-Arctic terrain, largely harsh and unforgiving in the eyes of the whites, no less harsh in the eyes of the Yellowknife, yet also pregnant with life and joy. We read of eerie ice caves, the fickle migrations of the caribou, and the endless threat of starvation. We enter the past. It may be long-lost but, in Wiebe’s hands, it is also eternally-present.

Postscript, 2019

When A Discovery of Strangers was published (1994), some people weren’t happy with Wiebe’s double voice appropriation, that is, writing from the point-of-view (POV) of both an indigenous person and a female. It’s no easy task for a male to write convincingly as a female, let alone for a white male to write as an indigenous female. However, Wiebe succeeded. Stylistically.

As to being politically correct, in 2019 many more people challenge Wiebe’s voice appropriation than twenty-five years ago. For the most part today, voice appropriation is frowned upon. A white male like me shouldn’t write from the POV of an indigenous person. I also shouldn’t write from the POV of a female. But I do. The protagonist and sole narrator of my North Noir detective series is a female, Eva Naslund, a Swedish-Scottish Canadian.

Why do I use a female narrator? The answer is not simple. I understand that, for some people, it’s not politically correct. I understand that I can’t think or feel exactly like a female. {Incidentally, it seems to be OK for females to use male POVs. For example, in the mystery genre, Louise Penny’s protagonist is Armand Gamache, and then there’s Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.} Despite the recent voice appropriation furor, I persist. While I’m a supposedly honorable person (according to friends, and I don’t even pay them), I’m not always politically correct. I don’t think anyone is. I also persist because I write fiction. Works of imagination. Say no more.

My final spiel: I don’t care what narrative voice(s) you use. Write as a Purple Martian who’s in love with non-gender-specific star dust. If your POV is convincing, I’ll read it.

Post-Postscript:

See Rudy Wiebe on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Wiebe.

2 thoughts on “Voice Appropriation – Then and Now”

  1. Writers have adopted the POV and the voices of characters who are not cultural copies of themselves since the dawn of storytelling. How pointless literature would be if we only heard echoes of the dominant voice; how would empathy, insight and culture itself continue to evolve?
    Of course much of what was written in the past portrays the bias and ignorance of the times (and still does!) so the current political attitude is completely understandable, especially in the context of ‘redress’, but it is not completely rational. it implies that a writer cannot know anything other than herself.
    So perhaps this discussion all comes down to the validity or not of making generalisations? Some ‘appropriated’ voices are well researched, so have a degree of authenticity. Some are not and do not! I may well be speaking from my own ignorance but doesn’t it all come down to the craft of writing itself?

    Liked by 1 person

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