A couple of weeks ago, a LitHub article discussed the pros and cons of “Why It’s Ok to Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle Fiction.” The article specifically focused on Sadia Shepard’s recently published short story “Foreign-Returned,” which plucks clear elements from Mavis Gallant’s 1963 short story “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street.” In an interview, Shepard said she owed a “great debt” to Gallant’s story, and that while Gallant’s story is about a family formerly from Geneva currently living in Canada who face financial struggles, she thought it felt “so Pakistani.” This was a clear inspiration for Shepard’s retelling of Gallant’s story.
“Inspiration” is describing it loosely. As author Francine Prose pointed out on Facebook, several character attributes, plot points, and in a few cases, actual quotes in “Foreign-Returned”, are seemingly directly lifted from “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” though nestled in a new modern era and an altered cultural context. Other people have chimed in to the debate, with different sides claiming Shephard is in the right or wrong for reimagining Gallant’s work this way. The crux of the problem seems to be determining whether Shepard, who has openly admitted to being inspired by Gallant’s story, has plagiarized her work or not.
Here’s something to consider: no fiction exists in a vacuum. Nothing you or anyone else will ever write is wholly untouched by another’s work or thoughts. We’ve grown up surrounded by others and their own creativity, and occasionally we create things that share minor resemblances to an aspect of someone else’s work. That’s okay.
This is not to say Shepard has written something that “minorly” resembles another’s work. “Foreign-Returned” very blatantly mimics “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street” in many cases. However, Shepard has been upfront about drawing from Gallant’s story. While the basis of the two stories is the same, the major difference in Shepard’s work is that her protagonist is a man named Hassan from Karachi, Pakistan, who, among other things, deals with his and his wife’s desire to climb the social ladder; traditional and religious versus contemporary values; and anti-Muslim sentiment his co-worker experiences. While the similar events appear in Gallant’s version of the story, the reader’s understanding of these scenes is different.
Cultural identity is a large part of Shepard’s story, and we can only say these two works are identical if we strip Shephard’s characters of that. Similar words and situations take on new meanings and results depending on the context for them. Plagiarism does exist, and it is a real worry when one work closely resembles another. However, while we can say Shephard possibly should have included an “inspired by” credit near the top of her story, she’s been open about Gallant’s influence on her work. Once you’ve changed the cultural context for a work like this—making the 2016 election the backdrop of events and creating a protagonist who lives in the U.S. on a work visa, dealing with identity and racism on top of daily struggles for a life in a new tax bracket—the moral and theme of the story becomes inherently changed.