What’s Your Take?: In Praise of Borrowing by Ronald Mackay

In this series, Northumberland artists share their views on issues related to the arts.

Ronald Mackay

Let us cherish the commingling of diverse cultures.

As a Scot, I see others wearing tartan – “plaid” to Americans – and feel pride that the criss-cross patterned cloth associated with my homeland is copied and worn with pride if not with a full understanding of its significance. It’s adopted as a school uniform for girls and worn as a pleated skirt by women the world over, though Scottish tradition dictates it to be a man’s dress.

My British pride swells when I see how inventions and ideas that originated in my country have been adapted to international benefit. Among the many are mathematical logarithms, the reflecting telescope, and the pedal bicycle. There were conceptual precedents for most of these. Technology is neither immaculately conceived nor born fully-fledged.

Retelling ancient stories

Among our first children’s books was Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. It retells Shakespeare’s plays in a simpler, shorter form. Shakespeare mined Holinshed’s Chronicles to fuel his history plays as well as King Lear and Macbeth.

Another favourite was One Thousand and One Nights, tales compiled over centuries by diverse scholars and translators from folkloric origins in the languages of Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and India. Recently, Nandita Ghose of Indian and British heritage, and Yasmine Seale of British and Syrian heritage, separately reshaped these stories to display less misogyny.

Constant retelling of ancient stories is internationally ubiquitous. The essential human kernel of any tale is owned by no one. Only when an author has remade a story with sufficient originality to capture the reader’s trust because it illuminates the essential human predicament, may she have ownership. The premise of many a famous novel has arisen from real people and events including Murder on the Orient Express, Little Women, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

The history of borrowing and adaptation

Writers find inspiration as readily in reported events and the experience of others as in their own lives. We may err if we believe that “I” can tell “my own story” most truthfully. James Watson’s Double Helix is suspect. Who would trust Trump’s personal memoir?

Shakespeare’s genius lay in his ability to imagine himself into others’ lives – into the very souls of rogues and royalty, beleaguered minorities and bumptious braggarts, hesitant men and unwavering women.

The history of storytelling is the history of borrowing and adaptation. Thus the charge of “cultural appropriation” is unhelpful. Arising from disregard for history and misguided charity, it seeks to accuse and thereby curb artistic creativity.

The panorama of life

My memoirs are peopled by characters with whom I share neither culture nor mother tongue – Canary Islanders in one case, Romanians in the other.

On arrival in their lands, I knew little about them. I stumbled into moral and political circumstances at odds with the ethics of my Scottish upbringing and British heritage. I expressed my doubts and explained why. Likewise, I offered appreciation for whom and what I deemed worthy.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Travels with a Donkey after a mere twelve-day trek in France. He both criticizes and compliments those he encountered. Stevenson’s purpose, like mine, was not to overlook the bad and extol the good, but to record the panorama of life as he saw it.

Einstein’s Fridge

The premise for my play, Einstein’s Fridge, was prompted by learning that Einstein had fathered an illegitimate daughter, Lieserl, a child he chose never to meet. Such callousness puzzled me. I researched Einstein’s life and learned that he was a womanizer and treated his first wife badly. I revere him as a scientist but respect him neither as husband nor father.

Einstein’s Fridge offers my imaginary insight into a part of Einstein’s life I find deplorable. Inspired by facts, I claimed the artistic liberty to answer a hypothetical question: “What if the abandoned Lieserl had been adopted and later sought out her father to understand why he rejected her?”

I share little with Einstein other than being a man with decades of life experience. Neither physicist nor Jew, I have never fathered a child. Nevertheless, as a storyteller, I can respond to aspects of Einstein’s character and record in my fictional script, disapproval–even disrespect–for his misogyny.

Acknowledging Cultures

Those who would seek offense in “cultural appropriation” may miss penetrating insights into circumstances of great human import.

Successful writers, like successful societies, embrace heterodox ideas. I am a proud Scot with ties to Canada, Britain, and Spain, including past colonies. I enjoy seeing elements of my cultural heritage adapted wherever I travel. In return, I feel free to discover and borrow. Learning from and assimilating the achievements of others, imagining their lives and retelling their stories from my intellectual perspective, is a legitimate way of acknowledging cultures whether they be similar to or distinct from my own.

Einstein’s Fridge in performance at 2019 Festival of the Arts

About Ron:

A career in international development has persuaded Ronald that cultures have always borrowed and continue to borrow from one another. Without self-serving and often asymmetric learning from others, no culture flourishes. Ronald has worked with peoples from the Arctic to the Southern Cone and in Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania. His published memoirs include Fortunate Isle about Tenerife and The Kilt Behind the Curtain about Romania in the late ‘60s. His insights into his own humanizing influences and those of others in https://www.fd81.net/ appear in the several anthologies published separately by Robert Fear and Alyson Sheldrake.

25 Comments Add yours

  1. Margaret Kropf says:

    Finally someone else has recognized Einstein’s misogyny.Than you, thank you.

  2. dmwauthor says:

    Currently on the CBC Tom Powers is interviewing Neve Campbell who grew up doing all things Scottish like pantos, something Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre has adopted.

  3. Alan Bland says:

    Well said, Ron.

    If we took cultural assimilation, appropriation or acquisition to the degree that some seem to want, all indigenous people would have to give up their electronic devices and cars, fridges and stoves, and even books and Western medicine.

    For me what becomes an issue is when people, such as Joseph Boyden, claim a heritage that they are not entitled to for furthering their own career or image.

    I’ve always shaken my head when a person of mixed race is defined narrowly, such as President O’Bama. who is defined as black. Why isn’t he defined by the other 50% of his genetic makeup, as white? If we keep going down that troublesome path we’ll have a situation similar to what existed in Germany in the era of National Socialism. Why can’t people, such as O’Bama, just be defined by what they do, or what they stand for?

    A writer who I greatly admire is Thomas King, who identifies as Cherokee although that’s only half of his make-up. The other half is Greek. Is he more interesting because he identifies as Cherokee rather than Greek? I suspect so, and more power to him.

    As a writer I choose my characters and the situations that I put them in and will continue to do so, and if anyone takes issue with that then they can also choose; not to read me.

    Alan Bland

    1. ronaldmackay says:

      Alan, as a writer, you take the appropriate approach, I think, when you say: “As a writer I choose my characters and the situations that I put them in and will continue to do so, and if anyone takes issue with that then they can also choose; not to read me.” Nobody has right to silence you or to dictate to you who or what you may or may not write about. They do, however, as you point out, reserve the right not to read you.

      1. Alan Bland says:

        Hi Ron, just to expand a little, when I criticized Joseph Boyden for claiming an indigenous heritage I should also have said that in no way does that diminish his novel, “Three Day Road”, which is (my opinion) a very powerful and well written story. But the controversy has put me off from reading his other works. And unfortunately the similar controversy around Michelle Latimer’s claimed indigenous heritage has prevented Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian” reaching a wider audience after the National Film Board withdrew support. Which I feel is a great loss to us all.

  4. ronaldmackay says:

    Yes, Donna, one simple and local example. Thanks.

  5. The phrase “cultural appropriation” is an unfortunate one since it ascribes property values to culture and regards it as a form of theft. But it is really a matter of respect not theft. All cultures influence all others and borrowings across cultures are legion and referencing other cultures in art has a long history. Shakespeare (Edward De Vere) referenced Italian culture he was very familiar with, wrote about Jews (Shylock) about Moors (Othello) and Romans, (Julius Caeser etc) but he did so with intelligence and made his characters live. In Japan his plays were made into films by Akira Kurosawa, taken the englishman’s work and converting it into a Japanese historical setting. Kazuo Ishigoro a Japanese but living in the UK took English cultural motifs and gave us Remains of the Day. I don’t think anyone has criticised him for it. I wear Ojbewe moccasins, becuase I like them and want to help their economy. Did I do a bad thing by buying them? It seems to me that it depends on the context and power relationships involved. First Nations here do no like others misusing and mispresenting the sweet grass ceremonies. And they are right. I have a Lakota sacred pipe given to me in Minnesota, butu I can never use it becuase it can only be used in a sacred ceremony so I cannot use it to smoke something else. It would be disrespectufl of the object and the people that gave it to me. On the other hand The Beatles introduced many in the west to Indian music which produced a lot of great music in the west and India. Was George Harrison wrong to try to play the sitar when he is not Indian and to use it on their recodrdings. I think not. We are all better for it and he had the approval of Ravi Shankar because he adopted the instrument and style with reverence and respect. So, once again, it depends on the context, and each case what is acceptable and what is not, but we must always object to stifling the imaginaion and creativity, of censorship for spurious reasons,

    1. dmwauthor says:

      I agree. Context is everything: historical, personal, thematic.

  6. Alister Cumming says:

    Well and clearly stated, Ron.

    Your ideas make me think of Bakhtin’s argument that learning a language fundamentally involves appropriating other people’s words and uses of them for one’s own purposes. (He made the same argument more centrally about producing visual art.) T.S. Elliot made a similar argument about creativity building on others’ precedents in his essay Tradition and Individual Talent.

    As I think I had said in a similar message to you a while back, the distinction that seems to me worth making is not whether there is borrowing or cultural mixing, per se, because there always will be to some extent in any communication, interaction, or artistic creation, but whether the purpose involved might be virtuous, illuminating, creative, self-aware, or empowering rather than malicious, trite, unaware, or harmful.

    1. ronaldmackay says:

      Thanks for drawing my attention to Bakhtin, Alister. I was unaware of his theories about language acquisition. Yes, T.S. Eliot strongly believed that art is created by building on past writing, painting or whatever, not by rejecting the past and starting from scratch. This means that, as writers, we are part of a tradition. We inherit all that has gone before us. This would suggest that we are duty bound to use it to our own creative ends in the artistic process.

      1. Alister Cumming says:

        Reading your reply, Ron, and rereading my post here, I realize that I am making the matter into a primarily moral concern. A dilemma, though, is determining the qualities of an individual’s intentions, disentangling them from their social context, as well as distinguishing their consequences (intended and unintended).

  7. Well. I am all for borrowing. Artists do it all the time. Only non-artists claim it is ‘cheating’. If you use a photo for the inspiration for your own picture or use a theme or story lifted from a classical or impressionist painting as long as you make the product your own in some unique way, the borrowing has only done good things. The same goes for taking bits and pieces from different paintings and incorporating them into one of yours. Long live borrowing!

    1. ronaldmackay says:

      I’m glad you brought in the plastic arts, Mike. As you say, it is not only writers who borrow in order to make their art; other artists also legitimately borrow and do so constantly.

  8. Wally Keeler says:

    Good artists borrow; great artists steal.

    1. ronaldmackay says:

      A handy aphorism, Wally. When we tease it out, what does it really mean?

      1. Wally Keeler says:

        LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL
        LOL LOL
        LOL All the news that fit to print LOL
        LOL LOL
        LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL

        Behold! Be bold! Be brazen! Mockspeak!

        “All the muse that’s wit to mint.”
        MUSE@11

        Beware of fake muse.

  9. The NFOTA editors are grateful to everyone who has replied and especially Ron, for agreeing to help launch “What’s Your Take?” by taking on a somewhat controversial issue in this opinion piece. We hope Ron’s article will also trigger some debate. So if you disagree with what Ron has said, or if you simply have another point of view, we’d love to hear from you. Different perspectives help shed light and feed creativity.

  10. kimaubrey says:

    Ron, I would argue that your memoir, Fortunate Isle, is not a case of borrowing. You write about your own experience living in Tenerife and your encounters with the local islanders. It is very much your story of your time there. It’s not as if you’d written a novel from the point of view of one or more of the islanders, which might not have been as well received there as your memoir was.

    It’s one thing to write respectfully of the people you encounter, as you do in your work, and quite another to take on the voice of someone who for whatever reason has not been able to tell their story. Einstein, as a famous figure and once powerful man, seems fair game for the subject of a play, but if you were to have written a play about a residential school survivor, especially at this time when survivors have only begun to tell their own stories, it would feel disrespectful and thoughtless.

    Thank you for thoughtfully beginning this discussion.

  11. ronaldmackay says:

    I agree with you, Alister that cultural mixing is inevitable and something that cannot easily be avoided by any writer. I’m wondering, however, about what you say about ‘purpose’. I’m having difficulty thinking of creative literature that lends itself to be simply characterised by any of the list of adjectives you use. My personal experience as a writer suggests that what motivates my creative writing as art, as opposed to propaganda or advertising copy neither of which I write, tends not to be one or other of your list of adjectives but something far simpler – a feeling that I can say something of interest about a topic or event. Imagining the feelings of Lieserl, the daughter that Einstein never saw, led me to write that play. Her possible feelings of mental anguish and need for understanding are what I sought to explore.
    Once I have a ‘kernel’, I try to give my writing – be it a short story, a play or a memoir – a redemptive aura gleaned from a feeling of being at home in the only world we have and in which we must accommodate ourselves. To do that I have to mould the randomness of life into a simpler shape.
    For me, it is not a moral concern for good or ill, it’s an attempt to come to terms with what we have. I want to write so that the chord I strike resonates with the reader. If I don’t succeed the ‘fault’ – if there is one — may lie with me the writer or with the reader.

  12. Shane Joseph says:

    Great article, Ron. And much needed during this time of self-censorship that was born out of fear generated by a vocal minority who claimed custodianship of what was permissible in the arts. The field of creativity is one of the last bastions of freedom in our world today – a world that is monitored ad nauseum with sophisticated technology deployed around us and within us – and must be defended at all costs!

  13. It’s a thought-provoking piece you’ve written here, Ron. Thanks very much for it. Especially coming from someone whose ancestors were so heavily oppressed by the English, your thoughts are interesting.

    Authors work from the imagination, and the thought of putting fences around their creativity is upsetting to many of us. I’m not sure that is the main contention here, however.

    What’s missing from the discussion so far is understanding the roles of history and power. I come at this knowing that Europeans have “borrowed” so much from other peoples of the world (invaded, stolen, enslaved, ravaged are more accurate terms), that their descendants are now in a precarious situation when they talk about “borrowing” from other cultures to enrich their own storytelling. I also know that most people who have been robbed of so much are not inclined to give more to people whose ancestors did the robbing – especially when their stories, values and culture are often their biggest wealth.

    I can’t speak for all oppressed/formerly oppressed peoples, of course.

    (As for T.S. Elliot: did you know he plagiarized other writers -the holy woman Julian of Norwich, for example- allegedly without ever giving credit? If what we’ve read of her story is true, I can’t imagine any ethical person appropriating this woman’s words without giving credit.)

    Thanks again, Ron. Keep provoking us. We need it.

    1. ronaldmackay says:

      If we introduce the roles of history and power, Cynthia, we must go further back than the Europeans. My point is that borrowing has gone on since time immemorial — or to use your words ‘invasion, theft and enslavement’ — have characterised human history from its very beginnings.

    2. ronaldmackay says:

      You hit the nail squarely on the head, Shane. Writers and artists who venture into areas beyond the narrow set of orthodoxies permitted by a minority of self-appointed but unduly vociferous gatekeepers find themselves defamed. The message is: “Self-censor or else!”, reminding me all too clearly of the repressive, totalitarian societies I have long, first-hand experience of around the world. It leads inexorably to the evisceration of the arts.

  14. I hear you, Ron. We enrich each other’s cultures when we share – witness the Antony di Nardo’s post today about haiku and renga.
    I’m using that more recent historical context because it’s today’s authors of European origin who seem most offended by the idea that they can’t culturally “borrow” as they please.
    Westerners (writers included) have done significant harm to the world’s perceptions of certain peoples and cultures – perceptions heavily influenced by ignorance and/or bigotry. In Canada, we see how this affects Indigenous and racialized people today. That harm has come back to haunt our generation of authors; saying we should have free rein (as some authors do) because we are creative people doesn’t absolve writers of responsibility.
    Does this mean authors of European origin can’t write about other peoples and other cultures? Not at all. It means all writers have some work to do – on our own assumptions, empathy and knowledge base. As a Black woman of mixed heritage, educated in the British school system. I am keenly aware that I have a lot to learn. I don’t get a free pass.
    I welcome a full discussion of this topic – in part because it’s one of those things that provokes a knee-jerk reaction from some authors, without clarity on exactly what is meant when the term “cultural appropriation” is used.
    Thanks for trying to help us understand what you mean when you address part of this issue. One of these days I hope we will also discuss the impact of age on who gets published/celebrated: Is there room in our literary culture for today’s middle-aged but emerging artists or do the gatekeepers and media only value “fresh young voices”?

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