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