Prolific Canadian writer Charles de Lint has been thinking about cultural appropriation for some time. The matter came to a head when he revisited his his dark speculative novel, Mulengro. The book, which I read last month, is about a series of homicides among Gypsies in Canada. De Lint focused on the Romany myth that people’s souls remain stranded in the world if they aren’t forgiven when death occurs. Someone literally needs to grant the spirit permission to move on to the afterlife. Mulengro is a demented Gypsy drabarno, magician, who can summon the undispatched supernatural mules or spirits to commit murders for him. He sets out to cleanse North America of Gypsies who he considers assimilated. He believes they are no longer pure and therefore unfit to live. The belief that assimilation makes a Rom marhime is normal, but murdering outcasts is not.
De Lint is not of Rom descent. He learned about Gypsy culture, including the vocabulary he uses in the book, by adept research. He first wrote about his interest in Gypsies when Mulengro was released in 1984.
Romanies 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 Gypsy, 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 Gypsy 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-Gypsies 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 Romanies, 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 Seegerand Charles Parker. It was called “The Travelling People” and a recording was available in the late sixties from Argo Records (catalogue #DA 133).
In intervening years, de Lint discovered that not everyone approves of Western writers appropriating material from other cultures.
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.
De Lint is of mainly Dutch derivation, with some Japanese ancestry, as well. However, like most writers in the Western countries, he acknowledges that his cultural influences have been pretty exclusively European. He says he has attempted to remedy that problem by reading writers from other cultural traditions. De Lint also notes that if the rule of not culturally appropriating material were followed strictly, he would only be able to write mixed-race characters.