Dragons and demigods -- your stories are not my stories
This evening, I was speaking to an acquaintance in Britain who expressed a wish to learn about other cultures. I thought, “Okay, I’m no expert but I can at least speak from personal experience, what I’ve been taught between scholars and cultural experts, and about my research.”
After an abbreviated romp through Polynesian migration, we got onto the subject of Samoan myths and legends.
“Are there dragons?”
What an English thing to ask, I unfairly generalised, while mentally flitting through images of steel knights lancing red dragons.
Now, I’m still learning about our fāgogo (folk tales) and tala o le vavau (myths and legends), but I confessed, “I’m fairly sure we don’t have dragons – at least not in the way you’re probably thinking. Not like East Asian dragons, either. And if we did, they probably would have been of the sea, more eel or shark-like.”
As I spoke about the legends of Sina and Nafanua, I caught myself hesitating.
Wait. If I tell you this… am I going to see a poor man’s rendition of this coming through in your work?
Are you going to be the Christopher Paolini to our Tolkiens and so blatantly borrow to render our heroes, journeys and signature moments as your own? No offence to Paolini, we all show our love for stories and their elements in different ways, experimental play is necessary to growth, and we all have to start somewhere. He may have even credited Tolkien and other works as inspiration; I have not gone searching for such evidence, so I will not assume ill will or laziness.
But all of that is fine, because people know the Hero’s Journey. People know who Aragorn Eragon is. The Judeo-Christian threads of the prodigal son have permeated Western-European mainstream culture so well that people say “prodigal son” without needing to understand its original use or context, but still use it correctly.
These ideas have been successfully adopted by the popular consciousness. It’s shared mental property by now.
We can look at a story and recognise, “Ah, that’s a mash-up of this, that and that” because a significant proportion of us as a community share a canon of stories (or pieces of those stories) from our time growing up. We were taught and understand the original(s) that inspired it.
Samoan myths and legends don’t have that luxury. We may be one of the largest Polynesian populations across the world, but even then, many people haven’t heard of us. We get mistaken for Maori, Hawaiian, South Americans. If they haven’t heard of us, they have almost certainly never heard our stories, whether traditional or contemporary.
A non-Samoan may come to our stories and look only for themselves or the things they already love. In fairness, the first thing you do in an unfamiliar environment is to ground yourself with something familiar.
“So, no dragons. That warrior goddess, though –“
And on the inside, I’m quietly starting to seethe, wishing I could curl around the figure of Nafanua because she has a name. She has a story. Even worse, I used to be just as ignorant and I can see myself in them. Ignorance is not a virtue. It is just not cool not knowing what you’re talking about. A wise man once (recently) said that; we call him President “Yes We Can, But Why Can’t You Stay Forever?”
As for me --
I’m happy to share, but I hope you’re not just going to look for the things that suit you and choose to only love that.
I hope you’re going to see her for all that she is, or at least try and ask about the parts you don't understand. Don’t just adapt her to suit your needs. You might need to adapt yourself a little to understand her, too.
I hope you’re going to treat her with respect.
Treat her well, because if you don’t -- I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you want, but I will find you, and I will “learn” you.
It’s easy to be drowned out when people don’t even realise you exist. This is why we have to tell our stories -- and strategically, because these are also our measina. Ah, those power dynamics of narrative, they teach you about; it's not just for the textbooks and exams! Don’t believe the haters, kids, cultural (mis)appropriation never goes out of style.
It’s not about credit for glory, it’s about respect and reciprocity. Do not take; exchange. Give credit where credit’s due. Cite your references, yo.
Very simply, let's all demonstrate the same measure of some respect, please and thank you.