Who Tells Your Story? Historical Fiction as Resistance
February 8, 2016 9:54 AM   Subscribe

What my favourite historical fiction has done for me, besides make me happy in the way that good books do, is teach me more about justice, and silence, and perspective. These are the questions I want to spend my time examining and writing about. The limits placed on many women’s lives are the very reason they are conveniently written out of the dominant historical narrative, in a circular argument as old as misogyny itself: “Women do not appear in the record because they didn’t do anything of note, and they didn’t do anything of note because they don’t appear in the record.”
posted by sciatrix (11 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
This brought tears to my eyes because it tells truth so exactly:
For me, two threads ran through this syllabus – silence and blood. Historians who explained why there was so much of both in our past were the ones I wanted to study.

I wonder now if my love for the Tudor historical novels of Norah Lofts as a kid arose from my bafflement and sadness in hearing about Henry the VIII and how terrible he was to his wives. I liked her books because they gave those victimized women voices.
posted by emjaybee at 10:14 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Large chunks of our history are presented to many of us – queer people, people of colour, disabled people, neurodiverse people – as though we never existed

This is mostly true, although queer people, people of color, disabled folks, neurodiverse people... we were locked up and silenced. Killed, shamed threatened, and ignored. Owned. Existence is only part of the equation.

Great link.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:17 AM on February 8, 2016

That was marvelous.
posted by rtha at 10:29 AM on February 8, 2016

Slight derail. This conversation actually ties in nicely with this article: Fighting Erasure by Parul Sehgal [The New York Times].

There's a lovely quote in the article that makes me think of what is being discussed in the article linked above from The Toast:
“Wherever it is found, erasure, as a practice, can be detected by its preference for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the single story — for easily legible narratives that reinforce the existing order.”
“To engage with the lives of others, white audiences would have to encounter something far more frightening: their irrelevance.”
posted by Fizz at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thanks! Also led me to the BET Hamilton Cypher video, which was excellent (and discussed in the linked article at length).
posted by blahblahblah at 11:22 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wonderful essay! thanks for the post. Reminds me of the Hopi Proverb
The one who tells the stories rules the world.
posted by pjsky at 11:33 AM on February 8, 2016

Emjaybee - another Norah Lofts fan! I found my first Norah Lofts - The King's Pleasure, about Katherine of Aragon - on my grandma's bookshelf in sixth grade and have been hooked ever since. I think that one reason I loved historicals is, as the article notes, they're a look at lives that have been poorly documented. With fiction there is freedom to tell a story that straight biography does not have - and sometimes there is not enough documentation to get much nonfiction biography.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ha, Rosie! I discovered that my 8th grade American History teacher that year ALSO loved her and we had many discussions after class. And that was the one I read first, also.

I was just telling my kid yesterday how I had NO IDEA that Alexandre Dumas was black until recently. Because it just never came up (and I didn't study any of his works in college) and I just assumed he wasn't, because you know, 19th-century France, famous, etc. Even though there are pictures out there of him, and he is clearly black, but he's never listed as a Black Author in anything I read as a kid. And then I told him about the blog about people of color in history, and how much it is teaching me about how Europe in the middle ages had people of many races, even in positions of power.

And what gets me is that the evidence for the existence and participation of people of color in European history is there, but it's been erased by white historians simply ignoring it. And that's been done to women, too.
posted by emjaybee at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

I had NO IDEA that Alexandre Dumas was black until recently.

But wait, there's more. Dumas' father was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, son of a white aristo and soldier and planter in Saint-Domingue and a black slave. Thomas was taken to France at a young age and eventually became a general in Napoleon's army. He is ably biographed in The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.
posted by BWA at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is one of the powerful effects of historical fiction that audiences tend to remember, and then forget, and then remember again. Hence, in the nineteenth century, you get Grace Aguilar's The Vale of Cedars, a Jewish riposte to Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, or an explosion of Catholic fictions countering the dominant Protestant narrative of British history.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:42 PM on February 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

This was lovely. Thanks for sharing it. I don't read much of what I'd call historical fiction but I remember thinking while reading the USA trilogy, "I ought to read books like this more often, this is amazing." Good historical fiction can be a really mind-expanding thing.
posted by town of cats at 8:42 PM on February 8, 2016

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