It may be history, but when is it your story?

Ideas

It may be history, but when is it your story?

A panel of writers debates the fraught issue of cultural appropriation

Jo-Ann Floris

No story should be allowed to remain untold just because of the belief that only certain people may tell certain stories.
Cultural appropriation has become the dirty word in politics and writing and, while that fight is carrying on, voices that should be heard, and history which should be recorded, are stifled or forgotten.
So at the University of Stellenbosch’s annual literary festival, Woordfees, last week, a panel spoke on the theme of “Whose history is it anyway”. Writers Rehana Rossouw, Alexandra Fuller, Fred Khumalo and Achmat Dangor made up the panel – all respected writers and journalists, each one with different writing styles and techniques.
They are, however, bound by the desire to tell a story and, in particular, record oral history.
In Dancing the Death Drill, Khumalo captures the history of the 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, who died when the SS Mendi was rammed by another vessel, causing it to sink in the English Channel on its way to France on February 21 1917. They were en route to help fight World War One.Khumalo said he grew up hearing this “mythical” story of the black soldiers who drowned, as it was orally passed from one generation to the other.
Born in KwaZulu-Natal, if one had to stick to the notion of cultural appropriation, he should not be the one to tell this story. Yet, if he did not, it could have remained just that – oral history.
From the limited recorded information, the last word spoken by Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha was:  “I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers ... Swazis, Pondos, Basotho ... so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa.“
It was during a visit to France, when he walked through a cemetery and saw the names of his compatriots, that the fable became reality, and the story had to be written.
Inhumanity revealed
Fuller, a white woman born in England, who grew up in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and now lives in America, could not turn a blind eye to the plight of Native Americans in the reservations.
In her book Quiet Until the Thaw she rips the plaster off the “inhumane” situation on the reservations, through the eyes of two young boys.“What happens there is not unlike genocide. If you speak to the government about it, they get defensive – but they refuse to acknowledge culpability.”“So how can you see this happening, see the destruction of a human being, and remain quiet?”
There are basic conditions though, the writers agree. You must respect your subjects, the people or communities you write about. You must do diligent research. Be acutely aware that your writing will have an impact, so get the facts right.
Rossouw nodded in agreement. “I have so many different kinds of blood running though me, I can basically write anything,” she jokes.
“We must write, also on behalf of those who cannot find the words. I meet a lot of men in their 50s, 60s. They still can’t talk about what happened to them. They had to kill people because other people told them they had to kill the communists, the blacks, the heathens.
“We need to tell the story of the victim and the perpetrator.
It was his “confused” history that compelled Dangor to write, as a means to try to find out where he fitted in.His  (Afrikaans) mother was the daughter of a local farmer, who fell in love with the son of the Indian shopkeeper. Both sides of the family were baying for their blood, and they ran away to settle down in Fietas (Pageview) in Johannesburg.
His paternal grandfather fled to South Africa after killing an Indian soldier, and his granny was of Malay descent.
“I have on occasion made mistakes when portraying another culture or religion through my writing. You live and you learn. But the story gets told.”

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