Episode 7, season 2, of the mid-90’s show Northern Exposure, explored sources of modern myths for Americans. Leonard Quinhagak, the shaman of the local Tingit tribe, interviewed the white townspeople of Cicely, Alaska to learn about the stories that guide their lives. The ensuing collection of urban legends were hilarious. They included stories like the hook n the car door. Leonard despaired at the potential short-comings of the American oral tradition. He discovers through a local film festival that, in 20th century America, our stories for inspirations, guidance, and how to be (and how not to be) good people come from movies. The program asserts that movies are our modern storytellers. I would add books to that but I didn’t write the episode.
This fits with my experiences growing up in the latter half of the 20th century. My earliest memory of a fox story is Disney’s Robin Hood. The story was distinctly Americanized with Appalachian style folk music and a range of American accents. This fox was a cunning trickster with a good heart sticking it to the foolish representatives of an outmoded government – very much in keeping with the attitudes of the ’60s and the American belief in the modernity of our form of government as well as its superiority over the British system of monarchy. I learned about other animal stories from Saturday morning cartoons, especially the Looney Tunes stories of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, road Runner, and Coyote. Not sure why there wasn’t a cunning Fox in there as well.
Spiral out. As I read more Fox tales, I discovered that Disney’s Robin Hood was probably modeled after the Reynard the Fox stories common across Europe. Reynard is always cunning. In constant war with Ysengnimus the Wolf and others, these tales comment on the society of feudal Europe. He also uses his cunning in darker ways, such as in the tale of Mr. Fox in which he poses as a nobleman, courts an unsuspecting maiden, and lures her to his mansion filled with the bones of previous victims.
The stories of Reynard the Fox, while influencing modern American tales, are not the stories I grew up hearing. My genetic roots primarily draw from some of these European places, such as Ireland and Scotland. I am hesitant to lay claim to them solely on that basis as my family tree also contains African and Cherokee branches. Those are cultures that, because they were closeted by descendants seeking to fit into American culture, I have little direct experience with them. My ancestors also sought to leave behind their European roots and lose themselves in the American west so, again, few traditions or cultural experiences were passed on. I have never lived in Europe. Thus, I am an outsider to Reynard the Fox and the cultures which created him.
Spiral out again. Reading further afield, I found Fox in stories of various Native American cultures. Here are cunning trickster foxes who steal fire from the sky, make fools of themselves dancing with maidens, or consult with war councils. There are foxes that, like Reynard, trick others to steal their food. It is a culture I don’t have direct access to; nor should I. There is too much history and historical trauma that will need to heal before that can happen.
I catch glimpses of these foxes ghosting across my yard and into the nearby woods. I see them on my hikes through the hills. They hunt mice and lead full, secretive lives in our midst. I share the same physical landscape that inspired their stories. I catch glimpses of the rich cultures that those stories belong to but they are not my stories. I honor appreciate them through the lens of the outsider.
Spiral out and around again. Now we move to Japan. Here are Foxes who are tricksters and shapeshifters, often becoming beautiful women who lead young men astray. Other times, they are vengeful and bring disaster to the homes of those who harm them. Some of them are generous and bring blessings to those who spare them or rescue them. White foxes are often guardian spirits.
This is a landscape and culture I have only experienced second-hand through photographs, movies, and books. The language is unfamiliar and much is often lost in translation. I am a cultural outsider here as well. I appreciate and honor these stories even as I view them through an outsider’s lens.
Now spiral back to the center with me. There is Fox having tea in Yoyogi Park under a camphor tree with Crow and Raven. This Fox is of my own imagination and is a blending of the various foxes described above. She is a trickster and a shapeshifter; she is adapted to living in urban environments and lives freely among us. She most recently worked together with Crow and Raven in my story “Doll Trouble” in the Holiday Magick anthology released by Spencer Hill Press (May, 2013). It is a tale about the Japanese Doll Festival told through the eyes of Raven and explores possible origins of some of the traditions associated with it. Raven, like me, is an outsider to this story set in Tokyo. He reports Fox’s antics and motives through the lens of his knowledge. He is a flawed narrator because he is an outsider.
Writing the other is complex. I agree with Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward that it needs to be done because to leave out those voices in our stories out of fear of getting it wrong or because we should only write what we know (implying only what we have directly experienced) is to silence and ignore huge swaths of society and the world. Raljan Kohanna and The Angry Black Woman provide an excellent starting place for exploring the line between giving voice to those underrepresented in our stories and cultural appropriation.
For my own part, I add these unheard voices to my stories to better reflect the world around me. I do my research, I listen carefully to discussions on avoiding cultural appropriation while honoring the rich diversity of mythology around the world. Do I get it right? Sometimes. I make mistakes and apologize for them, strive to do better in the future. The discussion on how to effectively include diversity in stories is ongoing at places like WisCon. The answers are moving targets; today’s best practices may be found wanting tomorrow. So I listen, I honor, and I respect the sources of my inspirations.
Besides, tricksters such as Fox are generally well known for pulling the rug out from under you if you suffer from hubris or forget to listen.
this post was originally written for the Mythic Well, published March 26, 2014