Back in the winter of 1984, I wrote a version of the following "Author's Note" for Mulengro, which was subsequently released in October, 1985:
The Rom have fascinated me for a great many years, not simply because of their Romantic image, but because the mythology that has grown up around them seems to represent a living embodiment of the Trickster-whether it be the Puck of the British Isles, or Old Man Coyote of our Native Peoples. What appears amoral about them is, in fact, merely a completely different viewpoint. Perhaps, by exchanging their horse-drawn caravans for Caddys, and their tents for tenements, they don't hold the same appeal for as many people today as they did in, say, the early part of the century. But for me, their continued co-existence with, but refusal to assimilate into, Western society merely enhances the romance.
Not being a Rom, I doubt very much that I've been able to do more than scratch the surface in regards to Rom beliefs and customs, but I hope that any Rom reading this book will understand that I tried my best to present them in an honest light and tell a good story at the same time. To the rest of you non-Rom out there, I hope this book will interest you in the Rom enough to seek out some more factual books on them-particularly books written by Rom, rather than just about them.
And for those of you whose interests include music, the Ewan MacColl songs quoted as epigraphs come from a radio ballad that he wrote for the BBC in England, along with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker. It was called "The Travelling People" and a recording was available in the late sixties from Argo Records (catalogue # DA 133). That record has long been deleted, unfortunately, but many of those songs still show up on various British folk-oriented recordings.
The song by Robin Williamson (who's as much a Trickster himself as he is a bard) comes from his album A Glint at the Kindling, now available on CD from The Music Corporation, P.O. Box 25, Edinburgh, Scotland, EH7 5HQ. The bonus with this particular version of the album is that it also includes the complete recording of Selected Writings 1980-83, a lovely collection of spoken verse with some musical accompaniment that features the long poem "Edinburgh"-the latter's worth the price of admission all on its own.
And now as I write this, it's ten years on.
Ewan MacColl passed away in 1989 and his voice-both the songs he wrote and his singing-is much missed. Robin Williamson is still gypsying around the world, telling his stories and playing his music. I'm ten years older, the world is much changed and there blows a wind in certain literary quarters that frowns upon something called cultural appropriation, by which is usually meant: white authors mining the cultures of minorities for their own profit and gain while the voices of writers from those same minority cultures go unheard.
I understand their discouragement. It must be so frustrating to see your culture represented in somebody else's book-perhaps wrongly, perhaps hitting a best seller list and making all kinds of money for its author-while your own work goes mostly unread because it seems only small literary presses will take a chance on something that is (mistakenly) perceived as not capable of grabbing a viable enough market share to make a larger-scale publication commercially viable.
But I don't think that censuring the white authors is the answer. We should rather be presenting a united front and promoting each other's work.
I come from a mostly white Western cultural background-at least I was brought up that way. My mother was Dutch, my father was born in Sumatra of a mix of Dutch, Spanish and Japanese blood. Does this mean that my literary palette can only be composed of characters with that same genetic background? By such logic, I couldn't even have completely white characters in my writing, little say women, blacks, Native Americans...or Rom.
And let's not even get into the fields of fantasy and science fiction. I mean, when was the last time you read a book written by an elf, a wizard, an android, a Martian?
No, we can't limit our palette-that's the death of good writing. But we can make sure that we approach cultural and sexual differences with respect when we write about them. We have to do our research. If we can, we might even run the material by someone from that different culture-not to be politically correct, but for the sake of veracity. Nothing is worse than the uninformed author; all they do is spread stereotypes and often outright lies.
And as I mentioned above, we can support our brother and sister authors whose work comes from a less mainstream perspective. We can and should promote their writing. We can and should be buying and reading those books ourselves, because if those voices aren't heard, we're not only doing those writers a disservice, but we're doing literature a disservice as well.
Instead of tearing down the white literary establishment, let's work to turn it into a rainbow. My life has been greatly enriched by reading the books of writers such as Thomas King, Sherman Alexie, Susan Power, Toni Morrison, Lisa Jones, Ronald Lee, Manfri Frederick Wood, Sandra Cisneros, Evelyn Lau, William Wu, Leslie Marmon Silko, Robert Rodi, Sarah Schulman, Jeanette Winterson, Dorothy Allison...the list could go on for pages. These are simply a few that come immediately to mind.
Some have already been embraced by the literary establishment, others aren't but should be. The point is, let's not simply lionize the Shakespeares and Dickenses; let's not forget the other voices. But let's not censure each other as well. You can learn as much from reading a white author writing about the black experience as you can from reading a black author writing about it. You don't learn the same thing, but both are worthy of our attention.
Let the criteria be good writing-books that inform and enlighten us while they tell a story-not the source of the writing. And if that makes me sound naive, so be it. But I'll continue to read as widely as I can, and I'll be enriched by it. And I'll continue to use as large a character palette in my writing as the story requires, because I can't do otherwise and still maintain my integrity to my work.
- Charles de Lint, Ottawa, Spring 1995