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.

The Rogue Primate – Us

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 crime fiction? You’ll see below. Or not. If you’re not into book reviews, feel free to skip to the bottom of the post.

Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication by John A. Livingston. Key Porter Books. 1995. {Review first published by A.M. Potter. ® 1995.}

John A. Livingston is a well-known naturalist and professor at York University (Toronto). Rogue Primate opens with a bang: “What humans have visited upon this planet may legitimately be seen as an ecospheric holocaust.”

Livingston’s views on the damage perpetrated by human beings — rogue primates, as he calls us — are as extreme as those of the staunchest Green activist. Yet Rogue Primate isn’t an eco rant. Livingstone doesn’t point fingers and assign blame. Rather, he blames us all. He attempts to explain why we as a species have become a planet-wide scourge. His thesis is based on the premise that we’ve sold out, jettisoned our inherent wildness. We’ve allowed ourselves to become so specialized and technologically advanced that we’re no longer true primates. Instead, we’re virtually machines, voracious automatons plundering the planet.

Livingston’s views place him far to the left of sustainable development economists. In his eyes, sustainable development is “a full-blown oxymoron.” Yet he is also right-wing in his radicalism. He disagrees with scientists who see the scope of modern medicine as harmfully over-reaching. Rogue Primate‘s thesis is not new. We homogenize and pauperize nature because we lack both intrinsic inhibitions (altruistic love of other life forms) and extrinsic controls (predators). Livingston claims that domestication is humanity’s main enemy. He challenges us to change not only our day-to-day consumption habits, but also our fundamental belief systems, to replace the anthropocentric credo of humanism with a spiritual belief that Nature is more important than Man.

Many readers will agree with Livingston’s lofty ideals, yet most of us will do little more than pay lip service to them. Eco-prophets like Livingston seem to be asking the impossible. Pull our plugs, abandon our cars, eat insects? We realize that our actions pose a threat to the survival of certain species, and possibly the planet itself, yet we continue consuming and discarding. Will we learn to place the interests of Nature above those of Man. Will we contain ourselves? Or will some Rough Beast, as yet unborn, usurp the Rogue Primate?

Postscript: 2019

Some might say that not much has changed in almost twenty-five years. I certainly do. We Homo sapiens are altering our planet. I accept that fact. I don’t think that life on earth will be terrible, but it will be different. C’est la vie. However, that’s my opinion. And it’s not why I posted this review.

Let’s get to writing. This isn’t an eco blog. While I’m waiting for Godot, or for some Rough Beast to slouch toward Washington and/or Beijing, I read and write crime fiction. Yeah, I’m not saving the planet, I know. However, I can tell you this: There’s more than one kind of rogue primate. To wit, there are murderers. Those are the kind that inhabit the pages of North Noir. Jump in. Start with Bay of Blood, to be released March 2019.

Post-Postscript:

John A. Livingston died in 2006. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Livingston_(naturalist). In addition to his writing, he was widely known as the voice-over for Canada’s 1960s Hinterland Who’s Who series.