Sunday 29 December 2013

Authority and Authenticity by Elizabeth Wein

Photo: David Ho
Our December guest is Elizabeth Wein and we are thrilled to welcome her to the blog. Elizabeth's Code Name Verity, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, was hard-hitting and unusual, winning it rave reviews. Here she talks to us about Authority and Authenticity: An Author's Dilemma.

My recent book, Rose Under Fire, is partly set in the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück in Germany during World War II. I am not a witness to the horrors that were the concentration camps. I do not even have a family member affected by those horrors. So what gives me any right to tell this story? Indeed—what gives anyone any right to tell a story that “belongs” to someone else? This seems like a question that those of us who write historical fiction of any kind must ask ourselves over and over again: What do I know? How can I ever know enough? How can I ever do this justice?

Sue Purkiss addressed this issue in her recent History Girls review of Boy 30529 by Felix Weinberg pointing out that there is also a duty to “keep the memory alive, and introduce new generations to the appalling truth that such a thing can actually have happened, and not so very long ago.” I also hope that anything I write, even if it’s set in the past, has reason to resonate with the reader in the present. There’s a message in there not only to remember the atrocities of the past, but to be aware of the atrocities in our world today.

The gate
As I began writing Rose Under Fire, I thought hard about whether I should try to “experience” a little of what my fictional characters experienced—namely, on the simplest level, hunger and cold. And I couldn’t even begin. What would be the point? If I didn’t eat anything for three weeks and slept in the garage all winter, I was never going to experience the despair, the filthy conditions, the disease, the heartbreak, the dehumanization. It didn’t seem right to pretend even the smallest of deprivations. And, too, I was deeply touched by Micheline Maurel’s retrospective on her two years in the Ravensbrück satellite camp at Neubrandenburg:

“…behind us is the multitude of the dead left at the camp, who fix us with crazed and envious eyes. Those millions of people, envy us and wish they could shout, ‘You fools, don’t you see that you are happy?’

“Isn’t it so? What did we ask of the living when we were like the dead? To think of us? To pray for us? Yes, a little, in the beginning. But mainly to do all they could to send us material help, and then, when they had done all they could, oh, above all, to enjoy life to the fullest! We so often cried out to them, ‘Be happy, be happy! Be happy, you who eat, and you who expect alms and receive them. Be happy, you who live in fine apartments, in ugly houses or in hovels. Be happy, you who have loved ones, and you also who sit alone and dream and can weep. Be happy, you who torture yourself over metaphysical problems, and you who suffer because of money worries. Be happy, you the sick who are being cared for, and you who care for them, and be happy, oh how happy, you who die a death as normal as life, in hospital beds or in your home. Be happy, all of you: millions of people envy you.”


 The one thing I could do, and felt I must do, was to visit Ravensbrück. There is an annual week-long European Summer School held at the museum and memorial site, and I felt that by attending this seminar it would give purpose to my visit. I would not just be a tourist making a pilgrimage, but I would be learning something in addition to what the site itself had to offer, and I would be interacting with people. The theme of the summer school when I attended it in 2012 was “Remembrance and Media Biographies,” and the questions addressed by this theme seemed so appropriate to the fictional survivor account I was creating—which is, of course, based on many authentic survivor accounts, including the one quoted above.

The seminar considered the following: Is there a memory without its media presentation? How do different media shape our memory and perception? Does media overwrite real memories? Underlying these and other questions is the very real concern that the reality will disappear in time, with its attendant torrent of images and accountings. With the death of the last witness, the transfer of authentic memories becomes increasingly important.

During the course of the discussion at the summer school I was given much food for thought regarding the authenticity and authority of narrative—both in fiction and as documentary—and specifically regarding the reliability of my own role as an author, recreating a “witness” account of a concentration camp. Whether or not I have the right to tell this story is a dilemma that has bothered me from the beginning, and ultimately it comes down to this: I want to tell it and nobody has stopped me from telling it—quite the opposite. I’ve been encouraged. Tell the world—this is the mandate of the true witnesses, those who were dragged to their deaths in the gas chambers.

The academic and mental experience of the 2012 European Summer School was balanced by the physical and practical experience of actually being on site at the Ravensbrück Memorial. In addition to the obvious—the moving international museum in the original “Bunker” prison, the roses floating in the lake just beyond the concrete walls, the sober crematorium and empty factory blocks—there were other things to process. The fact that we were sleeping in the former SS guards’ quarters, now a youth hostel, made many of the attendees uneasy. For me, being the dummy who spoke no German was a new and eye-opening experience. I had never before, in an academic situation, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to open up even the simplest communication (“Do you have a pen I can borrow?”). And I found myself continually amazed at the beauty of the changing sky of northern Germany, a thing that many Ravensbrück survivors have remarked on.

Bunker and crematorium
Indeed, my visit made me feel that I was returning to a place I’d been many years ago and finding it changed but recognizable—it was impossible for me to separate the pictures in my mind, built up over years of immersing myself in survivor narratives, from the solid landscape beneath my feet. The place is real. The physical place is real to me, and now legitimately part of my memory. Yet the reality of the concentration camp exists for me only in my imagination. It’s almost as though I’ve created a kind of false memory for myself.

Claudia Lenz, Head of Research & Development at the European Wergeland Centre and author of The Holocaust as Active Memory (, told the seminar attendees: “Take your own personal expertise very seriously.”

On the third day of the seminar, I found myself giving a tour of the Ravensbrück memorial site to a group of my German colleagues from the seminar. Unlike me, most of the people attending were there primarily for the summer school course and not specifically for the location. So in fact I knew considerably more about Ravensbrück itself than many of my companions, and because our time was restricted by our course schedule, we couldn’t always get tours with site staff. Not only did I know the layout of the camp without needing a map, I also knew its history and many individual stories associated with its existence.

So I gave a tour. I did it because there was a demand for it, and because I could, and because I wanted to. And this makes me think that maybe I should look at my attempt to write a fictional account of this place as a kind of tour: there is a demand for it, and I can, and I want to. I don’t mean that “I can” in the sense of “no one can stop me”; I mean it in the sense that I have the background to give voice to this story, and I feel it needs telling. Mine is not an authentic voice. But I have listened to the authentic voices, and I can tell you whose they are, and I need to pass on their messages of despair and hope.

Tell the world. For all the faults and flaws of my telling, I have no choice but to tell this story as best I can.

Elizabeth Wein writes fiction for young adults. She is the author of Code Name Verity, as well as the The Lion Hunters cycle, set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. Her most recent novel, Rose Under Fire, has been shortlisted for the Costa Award in Children’s Fiction. Originally from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth has lived in Scotland for over fourteen years. She is married and has two teenage children.


Sue Bursztynski said...

You can never have the experience, but you can still - for a limited time - speak to survivors. Have you done that or were these narratives just something you researched? Soon enough, that will be the only way. Thank goodness for Spielberg's Shoah project. But for now, you can still speak to people for whom this was not history but their lives. And it's vital - even now, there are people claiming it never happened!

Petrea Burchard said...

I understand your dilemma, that perhaps you shouldn't tell it because it's not your story to tell. I wonder if you feel that way because it's within living memory and there are witnesses to speak to. Don't let that stop you, please.

I don't hear this dilemma voiced by authors who specialize in, say, the Restoration, or Aethelred, or Mary Queen of Scots. Time has tamed them, in a way.

But I suspect you're not the first to be concerned about writing about WWII and the Nazis. This is a wound I hope time won't heal.

Susan Price said...

The Story comes and you have to tell it. You may be judged to have succeeded or to have failed - either way, you have to tell it.
Good luck. It's a story that should be told.

Alex said...

David McCullough, who is one of my favorite historian/writers, once said that to write history well one needs to put themselves into the area of history they are writing about as much as possible and always write from that perspective. Going to Ravensbrück and listening to the authentic voices was exactly what he was talking about. And why Rose Under Fire is such a compelling work.
Thank you for sharing this important part of your writing process with us.

E Wein said...

Sue, no, I haven't spoken face to face with survivors for this project. I am uneasy about that, even though I honestly don't believe my fictional telling would be much different if I had conducted personal interviews. I can't imagine I would have done a more thorough job than the interviewers for Spielberg's Shoah project, or Loretta Walz in her "Women of Ravensbrück" project, both of which I’ve used. But still, this is something that I feel can be held up against me as a failure in my authenticity. As Petrea suggests, I think my unease is because World War II *is* something still within living memory.

Here’s my dilemma. While it is amazing to meet these people face to face, it also introduces another level of responsibility to the project. When you talk to someone in private about his or her personal memories, you take a difficult risk in translating those memories to fiction. A friend who was a member of the French Resistance told me things in confidence that she asked me not to make public. Another acquaintance told me personal war stories so horrific that for that person’s own protection I would not dare to share them publicly. One of the teachers I met on a recent school visit based her master’s thesis on the recorded testimony of a concentration camp survivor; when she showed her informant a draft of the thesis in which she’d used more lyrical language than she’d used in the interview, the survivor asked that she revert to the drier version. These are events as they happened—no more, no less. That works in a documentary, but it’s hard to maintain that kind of distance when you’re writing a fictional narrative from a highly personal perspective. Also, when you fictionalize real events, there's always the risk that someone will accuse you of changing her perspective or using her ideas or putting words into her mouth - even when you don't mean to, and almost more so when it's a coincidence.

Maintaining that distance is cowardice on my part—a risk I hesitate to take- and a privilege of being a novelist and not a professional historian. But I don't mean to make excuses for myself.

Ann Turnbull said...

I think you were right to maintain that distance. I feel sure that such interviews could overwhelm a novelist with responsibility and suppress their imagination. Of course we have to try hard to do our research and recreate accurately the time we are writing about, but when it comes to the crunch the only way to write fiction is to create imaginary characters, to imagine how they felt, to invent things, to create a semblance of truth. Your novel achieves these things and is a powerful testament to the courage and suffering of those women. As fiction, it brings their story to a much wider audience.

Emma Barnes said...

I'm really looking forward to reading Rose Under Fire, having just read and hugely enjoyed (if that is quite the right word, given the emotional pummeling) Code Name Verity. I can see why you need bravery to write about these areas. There is so much written about World War II and the Holocaust, that it sometimes feels to me that both the readers and the writers are increasingly attracted to the subject just because they can wallow in the horrors (the readers) and because it inevitably gives their work huge emotional power (the writers). There becomes a sort of voyeuristic feel about it. But it still needs to be written about, and it seems to me the test is if you write a good story, with integrity, and backed by research, and that is what you've clearly done. As for ownership - does anybody really "own" historical experience? And if only those who were there can write about it, what about those who don't have the craft and skills to make their story heard - their part gets forgotten.

It also seems like you have deliberately chosen aspects that are less well known - the experience of women pilots/spies, in Code Name Verity, and of woman concentration camp prisoners now - and are introducing them to a Young Adult audience: that seems a fantastic thing to do, to make a new generation aware of something they might otherwise never have known.

Petrea Burchard said...

If I were as eloquent as Emma Barnes is, I'd have said what she said.

Stroppy Author said...

Tell it because you can, and because those you might like to think can and should (because they were there) can't or don't want to. I am close to someone who suffered (not in the Holocaust but a comparable 20th century atrocity) and he won't speak of it. if the survivors won't make the record, someone else must. If we can't have the accurate historical accounts we must at least create accounts that are true in spirit if not in detail because there must be records.

E Wein said...

Stroppy Author - yes, that's true of MANY survivors. In addition, I've found that for the most part, the published Ravensbrueck survivors' stories are now out of print, or are written in a dated prose style that's difficult for today's readers, or simply not available in English. None that I know of were specifically aimed at a young audience. "True in spirit if not in detail" is exactly what I strive for.

adele said...

An outstanding and brave post!

Teresa Fannin said...

Hello, Elizabeth. After listening to your comments during the Plot and Structure Intensive in NYC and listening to your amazing, heartfelt keynote on Saturday I was heartened by the comments you have made here. While I'm not writing historical fiction, more narrative non-fiction, the ability to describe someone else's story bring a load of doubt to the forefront. Thank you for this column. It helps.