From Our Archive: Judith Berman on Cultural Appropriation

Bears, Bombs and Popcorn

Some considerations when mining other cultures for source materials, by Judith Berman

Bear_Daughter[The cover] painting is a made-up decoration merely done in Pacific Northwest style … meant to say to a reader “This novel is based on the mythology of the Pacific Northwest,” just as covers for other kinds of fantasy use images from Celtic, Norse, or Japanese mythologies to signal “pick me up” to the right kind of reader. ([Name withheld], p.c. Feb. 9, 2005)

In the background of the cover for my novel Bear Daughter sits an object that resembles a piece of Native American art. It looks, in fact, quite a bit like a painted wooden screen made by a Tlingit Indian artist in the early 19th century to represent the hereditary Bear crest of the Tlingit Naanyaa.aayí clan. That screen, now in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, formerly embellished the Ground Shark House in what is today Wrangell, Alaska.

Having worked for a number of years with traditional Tlingit art, I immediately recognized the resemblance of the cover image to the Naanyaa.aayí Bear screen. It also resembles, to a lesser degree, two other screens. The first of these, likely a copy of the Naanyaa.aayí screen, was made for the Killer Whale House of the Kaagwaantaan clan of Klukwan, probably in commemoration of the genealogical links between that house and Ground Shark House. The second, which the Naanyaa.aayí screen likely copied, is known only from a fragment preserved at the Burke Museum in Seattle.

Upon seeing the cover, my first concern was that the background object might be another related Bear screen, one I didn’t know about. Tlingit clan heirlooms like these screens are the focus, today as formerly, of deep emotions about one’s connections to past and future generations. The right to display such heraldic designs is a hereditary prerogative often acquired–“paid for,” as it is sometimes said–through the blood of one’s ancestors. In earlier times wars were fought over misuse of crest objects. A validated Tlingit crest object, as I wrote to my publisher, is

like a national flag, a trademarked product logo, a memorial to dead relatives and ancestors, and a family heirloom with strong emotional associations, all rolled into one. There is variation across the [northwest coast] region in what these objects mean and how they are used, but the notion that they are in some fashion property and “copyrighted” is near-universal.

Some crest heirlooms remain in Native custody, like the Klukwan Bear screen. Many others, however, have found their way into museums and private collections. The means by which they have done so are frequently not pretty, and the objects have been the subject of repatriation claims and other legal actions. Given that the cover artist had likely used photographs as the source for the cover image, US copyright law, which extends to so-called “derivative” images of copyright materials, might also have been called into play. In short, using an image of genuine crest art on my book cover could have been problematic.

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From Our Archive: Biographical Fantastic

Framing the Unframeable

What does the fantastic bring to the storying of lives? By Gary K. Wolfe

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“Unser Leben ist kein Traum, aber es soll und wird viellicht einer werden”.
(“Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one, and perhaps will.”)

– Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenburg), as quoted in George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1859)

“And do not rely on the fact that in your life, circumscribed, regulated, and prosaic, there are no such spectacular and terrifying things.”
– C. P. Cavafy, “Theodotus,” as quoted in Elizabeth Hand’s Last Summer at Mars Hill (1998)

When one looks at the published memoirs and autobiographical sketches written by science fiction and fantasy authors, mostly for the benefit of their fans – the sort of thing collected in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s Hell’s Cartographers (1975) or Martin Greenberg’s Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers (1981) – one is initially struck by the relative thinness and lack of genuine introspection of many of the essays. Typically, such pieces read as a variety of Augustinian conversion tales, depicting a precocious childhood, often solitary and bookish, sometimes sickly, sometimes featuring battles with parents to get into the adult sections of the library, and characteristically leading toward a moment of revelation: “And then came Hugo Gernsback” (Alfred Bester) [1] “Then I saw and bought an issue of something called Amazing Stories” (Damon Knight) [2] “So science fiction entered into and began warping my life from an early age” (Brian Aldiss) [3] etc. In one of the still-comparatively rare autobiographies of SF writers, Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction, Jack Williamson ends a chapter with the following cliffhanger:

Something else happened, however, in the spring of 1926, the first year I was out of high school. Something that changed my life. Hugo Gernsback launched a new pulp magazine, filled with reprinted stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and A. Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs, stories he called “scientifiction.”

The magazine was Amazing Stories. [4]

Following these road-to-Damascus moments, however, these memoirs and autobiographies seldom become genuine testaments, instead amounting to not much more than narrative resumés, filled with anecdotes of encounters with fellow writers and editors and often with almost obsessively detailed accounts of sales figures and payments; one comes away with the sense that (a) science fiction writers all clearly remember the first SF story they read, and (b) they keep really good tax records.
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Superhero_ines: Rebooted Comics and Trans* Identity

Manteau: Seriously? Bust? – What kind of things’ve you dialed so far? You been a giant metal spring, yet? A super-disco dancer? A boomerang? Now it’s bust because you’ve got ovaries? Every few dials, this happens, Baroness.
(Miéville & Santolouco, Dial H #3, 2012)

In this academic article, Christina Scholz explores trans* identity within comic books. Christina Scholz teaches at Graz University, and has research interests which include Weird fiction, M. John Harrison and China Miéville. You can visit Christina’s blog for links to more academic writing, fiction, and reviews (and other things!)

Abstract: Gender is a discursive and performative construct, and mass media such as comic books play a role in how it is constructed. Problems arise from discrepancies between prescriptive models of gender and individuals’ actual lived experience. Now, in the era of the reboot, comic book writers have the opportunity to change the identity politics inherent within well-known series, reaching a wide audience through iconic figures, and contributing to changing cisnormative perceptions of gender. Comic books are particularly crucially placed in this regard, since superheroes, as established metaphors of otherness, may in some sense already be ‘queer’ figures. However, although important and exciting steps have been taken toward better representation of trans* identities within superhero comics, we still have a long way to go. Drawing in particular on the theory of Judith Butler and Antke Engel, as well as lived experience, this article explores the past and present representation of trans* identities in comic books, and looks with hope toward the future.

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WorldCon 75

By Jo Lindsay Walton

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It is Wednesday. I am in Helsinki. So is everybody else.

There are a few issues of Vector and FOCUS on the freebies table, courtesy of Dave Lally; but, of course, not for long.

I put in time in Messukeskus 209, the academic track. On Wednesday, Merja Polvinin introduces the Finnish Society for SFF Research (Finfar), its journal Fafnir, and the theme of the next five days. The theme is ‘estrangement.’

Elysium
Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 Elysium

Speculative fiction isn’t about other worlds, it’s about this world! In speculative fiction, we encounter real, familiar things, only made strange! There is a political value to such encounters. In the movie Elysium, we encounter something real and familiar (unjust access to healthcare), only that thing is made strange.

By making the world strange, we can unsettle the distinction between what is possible and what is not. By making the world strange, we can see the world for what it really is, including all its promise and possibility.

At least, that’s the idea. Over the five days, I am struck by how accommodating and flexible and familiar the concept of estrangement has become.

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