Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who Should Tell The Tale?

I'm always looking for folklore to retell. Recently, I purchased an old volume - INDIAN LEGENDS OF AMERICAN SCENES, published in 1939. Before buying it, I checked the background of the author/reteller. Well, Marion E. Gridley lived on reservations, produced dramatizations of legends with Indian actors, was an officer in a national organization devoted to Native Indian interests and welfare, and was adopted by different tribes in name-giving ceremonies. She published widely about Native Americans and was the wife of Whirling Thunder, an Indian chief. But Marion E. Gridley was not a Native American. Neither am I.

Is it important for the author to have the same background/heritage as the folklore being retold?

I am not Turkish, French, British, Venezuelan, or Finnish, but I've published folktales from those countries. I've also retold Native American tales. I do research to find more than one version of the tale and consider my sources carefully. Even then, I suspect there might be some Native Americans who would say I should not be retelling their folktales. I haven't LIVED their traditions.

Are folktales and legends fair game for anyone to retell? Or should there be exceptions? What about Jewish, Hispanic, or Black folklore?


  1. Hm good question. I'm currently working on retelling a tale from a collection of Polish Gypsy folktales. While I'm from Poland and grew up with the folktales, my knowledge of Gypsy culture is pretty limited. I'm enjoying retelling the story, but I plan on doing a lot more research to make sure the depiction of Gypsies is as authentic as I can make it. But is that enough? I'm not sure...

  2. That is a good question. My immediate response is sure, why not? Is it so different from writing culture-focused non-fiction? Or biographies?

  3. In the hands of a skilled writer, I think any subject is fair game!

  4. I agree with Robin re: skilled writers. Gale, you fit the category, so go for it. You may want to consider changing your by-line though, to something like Sitting Writer. :-)

  5. This topic got me hot under the collar.

    Would that mean that only Jews could write Holocaust stories? Or only blacks could write about slavery? I immediately think of OCTAVIAN NOTHING by MT Anderson (although this is a Revolutionary War story, it's still about slavery) and NUMBER THE STARS by Lois Lowry. And while I don't know Han Nolan personally, I'm pretty darn sure she's neither a neo-Nazi nor a Jew, yet in her beautiful book IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE she enters the minds of both such characters.

    Sure, coming for a certain culture might make us more interested in writing about our heritage and background, but that alone doesn't make us qualified. As writers it is our job to use our imaginations. We are told to write what we know, but we don't have to know about something intimately to write about it. We need to do our research, we need to be informed, we need to find our own emotions and create a story.

  6. Looks as though I stirred up a wee hornet's nest here.

    I asked the question because I know of at least two people who feel the author's background should match the tale being told. Are they just being proprietary about their heritage?

    I thought so, but wanted to throw the question out to others. Thanks for the responses. I never intended to stop what I love doing - retelling folktales.

  7. Good question. I think its fine.

  8. I think with the right research any subject is open for an author. Else how could people who didn't live during any past historical time write about it?

  9. Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewd Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author and the editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review, on her blog today. Lots of interesting info.