WRITING FROM THE OUTSIDE.
by Mette Newth, Norway.
Lecture at the University of North Dakota 1992
Many years ago, when I first decided to dedicate my writing and illustrating primarily to young children and juveniles, it dawned on me that I was in for trouble. I have been in trouble ever since. The problem is that I, an adult, am writing about children and juveniles, sometimes even children
from a different culture than my own. In other words, I am writing from the outside, and that limits my insight. I cannot rely only on my own experiences and knowledge. I have to listen, learn and .
My only consolation is that writing convincingly from outside of ones own personal ( not private) experience, is a problem shared by all writers, although not all have to face it, or want to face it.
The 40 year old male who writes from inside of a womanís experience, naturally faces a problem of credibility, yet critics or readers may not see it as such.
But the adult man or woman who portrays a 13 year old child, may have to confront the question of credibility. Critics, parents or teachers will ask: how do you know what it is like? Will other 13 year old girls really identify themselves with your character?
My honest answer is I do not know. Whilst writing, I am not pretending to be a modern juvenile or a child. I can not even pretend to fully understand another human beings' intimate thoughts and feelings. To claim to speak on behalf of The Universal Child, would be arrogant, besides being
dangerously self deceptive. Yet there exists a firm, commonly shared belief that literature for children truly mirrors the thoughts and feelings of children, at least in my part of the world.
Writers strongly defend their right to explore and investigate human feelings and thoughts through literature. They still oppose the concept of "suitable" literature, tailor made for THE UNIVERSAL CHILD of clearly defined ages. Writing well for children, be it the child of 5 or 90 as the Finnish writer Tove Jansson once put it, means being deeply engaged in the creation of THE STORY, being inquisitive and inventive, and striving to refine the qualities of that wonderful instrument - language. The writer do not have to be a parent, but I feel that the writer most certainly must be in contact with the child inside, or more metaphorically speaking; the foundation of adulthood, and the child of human history.
Childhood is a stage in human development. Certain traits of childhood crosses time and space; representing a never ending process of learning, developing and growing. The child is also the responsibility of adults. More often than not at the mercy of adults, constantly being reminded that childhood is of little importance and of no use. Childhood, the most vital part of human life, is often downgraded in our culture. One reason may be attributed to centuries of misinterpretation of the Bible. In the First Letter of the Corinthians (Modern translation) Paul wrote:
"When I was a child, I talked like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
Now that I have become a man, I put an end to childish things."
This frequently used quotation conveniently confirms that childhood should be left behind upon entering adulthood. But the Semite Paul did not end here, he went on to say:
" At present, we see things as in a mirror, obscurely.
But then we shall see face to face."
thus underlining that the true appreciation of childhood requires maturity. Sadly, the full meaning of his insight has long been obscured, to the great disadvantage of all children and adults alike.
Writing about today's children requires appreciation of childhood. The writer also need to recognise the differences between the child of past and present; must acknowledge that the children of today are born of another time, a time that is very different to that of the writer's own childhood.
Modern societies are undergoing continuous, rapid and dramatic changes. Children are born into a world that has undergone radical changes only during the past 5 years. What is fresh memory to us, is past history to them. Although today's children meet a world almost rid of the Atomic Superpower struggle and the fear of world wide communism, they still are born into a world in deep crisis, burdened with grave ecological problems, injustice and inhuman wars. And yet; no previous generations have been blessed with so many and so powerful means of escaping reality as todayís children. Adults, many having recently abandoned the typewriter and struggle with computers, find Virtual Reality to be mind boggling, also representing an enormous moral/philosophical problem. Today's children will most probably enjoy their new electronic toy, feeling quite at home in their three dimensional, self-made, electronic paradise.
I think it is crucial that writers for children are aware of the similarities of childhood past and present, and recognise the differences between the child of past and present. The writer should treat with compassion the often painful predicament of being a child, and also regard the child's natural limitations of expression with deep respect, never underestimating the child's power of experience. Adults and children share the real world, but that is a world full of adult secrets and unspoken truths. A child may experience, but may not be able to express. If literature for children has a commitment, I believe it must be to sincerely illuminate the many realities and common facts of life, dress secret fears in words of understanding, explore suppressed grief through feelings, or express the joys of living with conviction.
Writing, in my mind, is a never ending process of combining knowledge and intuition in an attempt to illuminate both the spiritual and material conditions of humanity in time present, trying to understand human conditions of time past or investigating the possible futures of humanity. Writing for people of another era is invariably a problem of writing from the outside. But it is fascinating work, perhaps comparable with the excitement of research or exploration. Even more challenging is writing from outside another culture. More than ever, the writer needs to be aware of his/her position, needs to learn while doing, or more precisely; undertake the journey from ignorance to enlightenment.
In my novel "The Abduction" I attempted to portray a 13 year old Inuit girl, living in Greenland in the 17th. century. My incentive was the recorded abduction of Inuitís from Greenland to Norway, Denmark, Holland and England during the 16 and 17th centuries. I found records of at least 150 - 200 abductions from Greenland alone, but it was obvious that many were not recorded in European manuals. The number of Inuitís and Indians that were abducted from Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, Canada and parts of the Amerindian continent remains obscure, but are probably staggering compared to the size of the peoples.
This human trade continued for as long as these unfortunates made exotic gifts to kings and courts, or provided rare entertainment in European marketplaces. I had visited Greenland many times before I came across the very scarce historical references to the abductions, and it came as a total surprise. Had my forefathers really been involved in this? Why did I not know? The answer was painfully simple. Norway boasts of a keen interest in the medieval history of Greenland, due to the fact that the Vikings sailed from Bergen in Norway around 800 AD, populated Iceland and Greenland, and later, around 1000 AD, sailed to America. Yet the abductions were never recorded or even mentioned by Norwegian historians, probably because they were not regarded as important. This only goes to show how short sighted a nation may become. I spent two years searching for facts, reading the diaries and log books of the captains of the exploration ships and other contemporary eyewitness accounts. Thus I found that the great queen Elisabeth 1 of England, probably was the first recorded abductor, obviously aware of her intentions, as her instructions to captain Frobisher (1577) so chillingly proves:
"Wee doe not thinke it good you should bring hither above the number of 8 or tenne at the most of the people of that countrie. Whereof some to be oulde and the other younge whome we mynd shall not return agayne thither."
In all my research, not once did I come across any account of how the victims thought and felt. This is simply not recorded. But there exists a number of brief accounts of the fate of the unfortunates; how they tried to flee home to Greenland in their fragile kayaks, how they died of a
completely alien sickness: the common cold, how they quickly succumbed to alcoholic poisoning or, simply, died of grief.
Finally, I realised that I had uncovered a blank space in history, or more precisely; another blank space, because the voices of the Amerindians that witnessed the exploitation and theft of their countries, or the innumerable slaves captured in Africa, were scarcely voiced in our historic records. Nor did we hear the voices of the Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, until recent times. This silence faced me with a major problem; how could I truly relate what it felt like for a 13 year old girl of an arctic country and a non-Christian culture, to be captured and raped by terrifying strangers, and then imprisoned in a totally alien city ? And what would the concept of a city be to someone from an ancient arctic culture? Or the wheeled cart, obviously useless in Greenland, or writing and books? What would be the point of the unnecessary extra burden of books to the nomadic Inuits, who entrusted all their knowledge and memory to oral history, to poetry, songs and visual images? Or the concept of God, as the Inuit's had no almighty God, but a number of guardian spirits and the all important Mother Of The Sea, Sedna.
All this became crucial to portray as the writing began. And the terrible feeling of loss increased; of being a modern eyewitness to the consequences of hundreds of years of suppression of people and their invaluable information. It grew to a bitter realisation of what real crimes our culture had committed in its superior ignorance.
It became evident that I should both try to write convincingly from the outside of a culture alien to me, whilst dealing with the ignorance and preconceptions of my own culture. Faced with such total suppression, I was forced to view my own culture's interpretation of history with great scepticism. It was painful, but enlightening, like removing a pair of very dark sunglasses. Having been brought up in the faith that western culture is Christian, expansive and white, and therefore superior, I was also led to believe that whatever abominations had been committed in the name of God or the Sovereign, the intentions were basically good, even if the results were often catastrophic.
The Inuit, Sami or Amerindian cultures buckled under, dying of natural causes, in the opinions of countless evolutionists. Realising this to be utter rubbish, that in fact the Inuit culture simply had fallen victim to ignorance and ruthlessness, and that their history has been obliterated by our own definition of history, then I found that I no longer could use the historical sources of my culture.
To attempt to reconstruct the thoughts and feelings of a young girl hopelessly lost in an alien world, and try to recapture her loss of joy and excitement, her fears and beliefs, her understanding of life and death, her pride and love, I turned to the only sources I felt I could trust. These were the oral literature, the poetry and songs, visual images and symbols of the arctic peoples, that somehow survived through centuries of misinterpretation. Equally important was the contemporary historical research conducted by the arctic peoples' own experts. Research that also reveals the origin of the arctic cultures the prehistoric migrating Asians.
Modern scientists and artists from the outside are also contributing considerably to the new knowledge, in conjunction with the indigenous peoples themselves. In the field of Amerindian history, the American professor of English literature Paul G. Zolbrod, sheds new light on oral literature through his work.
In his book, "Dine bahane © the Navajo Creation Story", professor Zolbrod demonstrates the hazards of transcribing oral literature into print. As an example he uses Washington Mathews, famous for his pioneering work among the Navajo in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Mathews' " Navajo Legends" became a classic, a source of further understanding and interpretation of Navajo culture and philosophy. Although Zolbrod admires Mathews, he points out Mathews' obvious handicap; the man was a puritan, a product of his time, apparently shunning sex as much as he possibly could. The concept of masculine/feminine powers is fundamental in Navajo philosophy, as in many non- Christian cultures. Sex is a dominant motif throughout the creation story of the Navajo, but Mathews avoided it, thereby damaging a lot of what he meant to preserve.
To many of us today, the Navajo creation story, or that of the Cree, or the Aborigines of Australia, appears to be mere childish fairytales, belonging to Maurice Sendaks' Kiddieland.
They are regarded as insignificant sources for understanding social, cultural or spiritual life of times past. But they have been robbed of their potent power of precisely describing the important balance between mankind and nature, or the necessary acceptance of death as part of the life cycle.
Zolbrod, studying the Navajo storyteller, observed:
"I saw, too, a kinaesthetic dimension in oral delivery not evident in print, which might include a heavy gesture at one point (...) the deliberate use of eye contact, grinning, mimicking and mime, a hushed whisper, an unexpected shout. I gained a sense that I had never consciously acquired before of how many effective poetic devices can occur in a preliterate performance."
He illustrates this by stating: "Hearing an oral performance in Navajo must be something like looking at a Navajo rug or a sand-painting which characterises the dynamic symmetry of Navajo design so well. " Zolbrod's point may be illustrated also with an example from Sami oral literature. The Sami language has 29 words for reindeer, accurately describing the animal in varying conditions , in different seasons. When transferred into printed Norwegian, this richness of expression gets lost.
Writing from the outside gives the feeling of actually being an excavator, attempting to dig through layers of languages foreign to the cultures they interpreted. It is a sad contradiction that our wonderful tool the written language also is a powerful instrument of obliteration. What is still hidden underneath, or how much is really left, we do not know. We may never know. That is our loss, as much as it is a terrible loss for the cultures concerned. The predicament of belonging to a self- proclaimed superior culture, is that one can never fully understand what it amounts to, never fathom the consequences of being treated as an inferior. Aware of this, I constantly had to check myself, correct ugly signs of neo-imperialism, avoid the benevolence of the superior, watch for the danger of killing with kindness It is easily done; denying the Inuits or the Amerindians
their right to be individuals, able to murder or steal or harm nature, just like the rest of us.
Recognising the similarities of the individual young girl of Greenland and of Norway in the 1700 century, I still had to point out the vast differences between the cultures. The Inuits, or the arctic peoples, used to live in social systems and hold philosophical standards that regulated their relation to nature, kept it in balance. We did not, and still do not.
Seemingly, the Bible gave Mankind superior rule: "Then God said, Let us make men in our own image, after our own likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." (Genesis.)
Maybe the greatest problem in modern civilisation really started here, with Mankind believing that God gave it superior power to decide what animals should survive or become extinct, what forests should become deserts, and what ocean should become deadly to all living in it. This superior rule,
that led us to play God, has become nature's greatest misfortune, but also ours. We only have one world. We only borrow it from our successors - our children.
If we had listened to and learned from the indigenous peoples of the earth that we so long have suppressed, we might have understood that our policy of expansion and exploitation has become our own misfortune. Perhaps then, many extinct animals would still survive. Many species, like the whale, would not be threatened with extinction. Perhaps the rain forests, abounding in medicines and potential cures for many of the world's ills, would not be destroyed in the name of progress, or the people of the forests not suppressed or murdered for greed. We might even have avoided being the greatest threat to our own species, and sooner have realised what quality of life really amounts to.
Realising all this, I believe, is what makes writing from the outside important today. My book "The Abduction" must not be regarded as an homage to cultures lost, but as an urgent attempt to enlighten my own culture to the possibilities of survival.