Family Myths and Facts–The Value of Research

When I was growing up and I’d ask my mom where we were from, what were we, she’d always answer, “We’re Heinz 57; a little bit of everything.” I love my mom and I know she was trying to be funny, but I always hated that answer. All I took away from it was that our history was lost and we didn’t know where we were from. Mostly, she assumed, we were some combo of Great Britain and Western European. So, you know, very specific and unique.

But she did know two ingredients for sure. She knew my birth father was Irish, and thought he was probably wholly Irish, so that would make me half, and she knew she had a Cherokee grandmother or possibly great grandmother.

Here’s the thing about Cherokee grandmothers: everyone in the South has one. That’s not something I knew growing up but it is a wide-spread myth in the American South. We’re all Cherokee and we all come from Cherokee grandmothers who were once Cherokee princesses. Apparently there were a lot of Cherokee princesses marrying white men and having a lot of white babies.

Obviously we’re Indian, we have high cheekbones and prominent collarbones. Obviously we’re Indian, look how well we tan despite all that British Isles blood.

So I grew up knowing just two truths: I was half Irish and a little bit Cherokee. I clung to these two things because I had nothing else. I was a Navy brat for the first part of my young life and then a Construction brat for the rest, which meant we moved a lot. So I didn’t even have a state that I could call home. Of course I now call Southern California home because I’ve lived here so long and I sound like I’m from here but it wasn’t until the internet became what it is in the last ten years that I was finally, finally able to figure out what was truth and what was myth.

Because I’d always clung to the idea that we were part Cherokee I’d studied a lot about them, I’d done many reports on them in school, I’d given myself a better education about what happened to that nation than anything even honors history classes could give me. But I was never sure who my Cherokee grandmother was. I’d always wanted to write a fantasy novel featuring a Cherokee heroine, but as I got older and the internet got better and I learned a few things about white people and their “connections” with being Cherokee, I stopped myself.

It was a little embarrassing to realize that we’d been perpetuating those bizarre, made-up claims and we probably weren’t even the tiniest of Cherokee or any other native nation for that matter. But it was also disappointing. It was one of only two clues I had about my heritage and I was sad to have that pop like a bubble.

Even as I was coming to terms with the idea that our family myth about a Cherokee grandmother was probably just that, a myth, I still wanted to know my family history. I wanted to know where we came from, when we got to the states, what made up my genetics. I wanted facts, not myths.

So, like any good writer, I began researching.

I plumbed U.S. Census Reports (by the way, I hadn’t realized just how important these things are until I needed them), combed through marriage licenses and birth records, mapping out years and decades and centuries.

Mostly I started only knowing my mom’s information, her mother and father, and some of their mothers and fathers. Luckily my mom was able to get some information, like maiden names from my grandfather.

Also, when people tell you women just aren’t important when it comes to history beyond who they give birth to, they aren’t exaggerating. If I didn’t know a maiden name, the line would just stop with her marriage. I was literally able to follow my grandfather’s paternal lines into the Crusades and early Scottish Royalty and so far I was sure I’d fallen into the Dark Ages to point where years were only three digits. But the women? The women were footnotes, asides, shadows that fell away with the years. So remember women’s names beyond their husbands, please.

But I digress.

With the little information that I had–and I know it’s more than a lot of people had–I was able to find out very quickly on my grandmother’s paternal side, that we were, in fact, English. Not a little bit of everything. English. Now I struggled learning about my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family. There are some hints of vikings and there is some lore about forest witchery and mountain men with great scraggly beards that live in cabins, which is all obviously spot on and doesn’t need research to be proven correct.

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But back to Granddaddy and his family. I was amazed to find out that our family name is an ancient and proud Scottish name. Scottish. Now that rang a bell in my soul. The family eventually moved into England, Kent, specifically. So English yet again. But that Scottish line was amazing to read about and I don’t know if I’d ever had so much pride in my body before. But there was one spot–one name that didn’t match the rest. Grandma Katie. Katie was my grandfather’s grandmother.

And according to the U.S. Census, when she was a little girl, she lived on “Indian Territory.” You’ll see the further back you go on the Censuses the more offensive and belittling they get when documenting certain groups of people. But Katie lived in a house on “Indian Territory” with her sister and father.

Mom confirmed with Granddaddy that Katie had a sister (whose name was butchered by the Census takers). And my heart fluttered a little bit.

To be considered Cherokee you have to be able to trace your family back to the Dawes Rolls, which were taken 1898-1906. Not a lot of time. But Grandma Katie’s Census record was from 1900. So, with trembling fingers I searched for Katie on the Rolls. And my stomach about dropped out.

There she was, with her little sister and father, all on the same card.

Reader, I cried.

And not because I wanted to point to this things and say, “See! I’m Cherokee!” No. It was more like, relief? Maybe? I’m not quite sure what emotion is the right one. But there was happiness, seeing her name there, giving me back this piece of history that I’d held on to as a child when I had so little. We actually had a Cherokee Grandmother–no she wasn’t a princess. If you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not a thing.

And no, I am not claiming to be Cherokee or Native because I didn’t grow up that way. I didn’t grow up with lessons and stories and history and culture. But it was exciting to find out what made up part of me. The bio father side is still mostly assumption but I’m okay with that.

So I sat down and wrote a story to honor Grandma Katie. Yes, it’s a story with a Cherokee sister and brother as the MCs. Yes, it’s based on a Cherokee legend. No, I didn’t suddenly feel like I had “permission” to write the story now that I found Grandma Katie, and I’m certainly not claiming #ownvoices with it (but please go check out that hashtag on twitter for some awesome books), but it was something I’d always wanted to do and now that I knew Grandma Katie (and did research about her family), I wanted to honor her, like I’ve done with books from the rest of my background. And I was inspired. I was inspired to write something wholly different than anything I’ve ever written before.

If you’re interested in reading the story, I am going to be sharing it on Patreon, serialized into chapters. I’m making the first post free to the public so everyone can read it and get a taste, but beyond that it’ll be available to people who pledge $3 or more. If you’d like, pop over here to read.

I guess this was a post about inspiration. Or maybe the value of research. Or finding and separating the threads of myth and fact. I guess the post is about what you take from it, dear reader. But this is what led to me writing my story about the Ravenmocker and his sister.

Of Monsters and Cultural Appropriation

For my latest work, Oasis, I drew heavily on Japanese mythology. My main character, a shape-shifter (female) warrior named Kiana, shifts into a fox, and by moonlight can take a hybrid fox/human form.

I don’t call her a kitsune, but that’s what she is.

A kitsune is a Japanese fox spirit, a trickster or a seductress often, as well as a great protector and a source of wisdom and power. They’re marvelous creatures, and I created a race of them in my fictional world.

A nine-tailed kitsune. Kiana only has one tail, but how many does a girl really need?

I peopled my world with other creatures from Japanese mythology, from eagle-human hybrids called karura to creepy disembodied heads called nekekubi. But I altered these creatures subtly, to make them creepier or more magical, or to endow them with powers that mythology may not have given them. I also changed their names, because I did not intend to lift Japanese mythological culture out of its historical context and paint it directly onto my new novel—plus, the spelling would’ve done me in.

But I felt kinda skeevy doing it.

We’re so used to a fairly small subset of mythological creatures that we don’t really think too much about where they came from. Vampires exist in many (if not most cultures) but there’s a fairly strong Western tradition of vampire mythology. Likewise, werewolves are generally thought to be a European invention. Every culture has its small folk or fairies, and even demons exist across a variety of lands with their respective hells. Most of our supernatural creatures are public domain, part of a worldwide cultural fear of and fascination with beings more powerful than we can comprehend.

So why did I feel skeevy about stealing from the Japanese?

The answer is pretty complicated.

One, I don’t know much about Japanese cultures, and I felt disrespectful, taking their stories and twisting them for my own ends. And two, the U.S. and the global “West” have a long history of stealing things from the East and passing them off as novelties.

And third, I’m just a glutton for punishment.

At any rate, I did my research and learned about the creatures I transplanted into my world, and I tried to give them at least a little bit of authentic flavor. The fact remains, though, that I took my inspiration from a mythos I have no legitimate claim to. I found a tradition I liked, and I corrupted it and had my way with it.

That’s not so simple, either, though. Loads of fantasy novels take on other existing cultures: Guy Gavriel Kay does it beautifully, and Ilona Andrews works creatures from many nations’ fairytales into her works. No one owns the stories of myth and magic passed down for generations.

In the end, what I created is something new entirely. It’s inspired by Japanese mythology, but it makes no claim to be authentic. The Japanese stories and creatures run like a golden thread through a tapestry that I wove: they’re a beautifying part of it, but they’re not the only feature.

And if we’re respectful, does it matter if we’re using magic that’s foreign to us?

I’m not sure.

I don’t actually have a good answer to this one, readers. What do you think of folklore in fantasy? Is it public domain? Have I joined a tradition of cultural abuse and callous repurposing? What works do you know that successfully blend cultures?