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Cultural appropriation in the fiction of Paula Morris – Pistacchi 2

February 1, 2012

In her analysis of Paula Morris’s fiction, Ann Pistacchi points out that: “In Mana Tuturu Barry Barclay emphasizes the fact that if an indigenous story ‘is lost in some way, if it is perverted or squandered, then it may lose its force for the people of the future’ (2005: 169). This mantle of responsibility is one that sits heavily on the shoulders of indigenous storytellers as they make decisions ‘about something precious – what to do with a taonga…a family history’. As the late Matiu Mareikura once said, ‘We’ve got to be able to tell our stories, or else we’ll vanish. We aren’t anything without our stories’ (qtd. in Barclay, 2005: 169).  What Paula Morris questions in Hibiscus Coast, Queen of Beauty and ‘Rangatira’ is how to best tell these stories — and to whom, ultimately, indigenous people should be telling them. Refusing easy, didactic solutions to these dilemmas, the three texts end up raising more questions than they answer about the line between appropriate re-inventing and re-visioning, and unethical appropriation or theft. Morris leaves it to her readers to answer key critical questions: can the appropriation of native stories be justified by the desire to keep indigenous histories from slipping into obscurity? Why is it important that in Queen of Beauty appropriation takes place between people located across an enormous social and economic power differential? …” (Pistacchi 78)

Pistacchi explains that: “Margaret’s acts of story appropriation in Queen of Beauty, while lawful, are … described by the narrator in such a continually pernicious manner that it becomes ultimately impossible to exonerate her, in ethical terms, for the ‘theft’ of Virginia’s stories simply because she has paid for her right to use them.  This ethical discomfiture is largely grounded in the way in which the narrator describes Margaret’s ‘legal’ appropriative actions. In each instance of appropriation, after paying the young New Zealander to recite her family stories, Margaret ‘mixes’ them up, retaining all of the key plot structures, emotional capstones, narrative climaxes and resulting denouements, but rejecting the key Aotearoa/New Zealand, and specifically Maori, cultural aspects of the tales. According to Lenora Ledwon, this is often the fundamental problem with the appropriation of native life-stories by non-native authors. Referencing the works of Emmanuel Levinas, she says, ‘the great failure of Western thinking is to forget and negate the Other, to want to possess the Other so that it becomes the same as ‘me.’ Western philosophy is ‘allergic’ to the Other that remains Other, and constantly works to transmute the Other into the same… That kind of writing turns the Other into a theme, destroys Otherness, and cancels the Other’s autonomy’ (1997: 587).” (Pistacchi, 69)

In this article, having considered the definition of cultural appropriation (Pistacchi explores this concept more fully, but briefly: ‘taking -from a culture that is not one’s own’ (63)), Pistacchi also poses this question:

“Do our definitions of ‘appropriation’ change when the appropriating takes place between storytellers who share a common cultural, ethnic or national background?” (Pistacchi, 64)

It is a very interesting question! I read her article while thinking of the ‘absence’ of Maori criticism surrounding New Zealand texts taught in New Zealand schools and wondered how appropriation by ‘English’ teachers might be considered in this context…

I would therefore add to this question… What of teachers as representatives of the bicultural commitment of the Crown in its relationship with tangata whenua, as mediated by the Treaty of Waitangi/te Tiriti o Waitangi? How might one understand ‘cultural appropriation’ in this context?! (I am thinking of the desire among English teachers to teach Maori writing with Maori viewpoints/criticism more firmly in mind). There is a very real tension here between the obligation to practice biculturally in a predominantly Pakeha institution and the need for bicultural experience to do so…

Of course, Pistacchi also acknowledges that this topic (cultural appropriation) is a complex one and observes that:

“It is perhaps because it is such a ‘hard topic’ that Morris keeps mulling the issue over, utilizing acts of cultural appropriation as the catalyzing incidents in nearly all of her major plots. These acts range, in the various novels and short stories, from instances of oral-story appropriation to accounts of land theft and art forgery. At a superficial level, many of these appropriative acts appear easy to identify because they cross clear legal copyright boundaries.” (Pistacchi, 65) However, … I suggest reading her article to pursue her argument more fully!

Ref: (emphases in green bold, mineAnn Pistacchi (2008) ‘Any dead bodies we can exhume?’ story-blood and the politics of cultural appropriation in Paula Morris’s Queen of Beauty, Hibiscus Coast, and ‘Rangatira’ Sites: a Journal of Anthropology and Cultural Studies. 5(1) [FREELY AVAILABLE ONLINE]


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