Saturday 2 December 2017

How we talk about history - Gillian Polack

Last month you had a light post. This month you have a more solid one. This is because I want to talk about the effects the effects of the worlds writers create. I was in England for a few days at the end of October. It was entirely unexpected, and this was the reason I forgot half my blogpost. I took a ten thousand mile return trip with only a few days warning and quite a few things were affected by it.

The English branch of my family has been in Australia since the middle of the nineteenth century. This means that my relationship with England is mostly through literature and history. Given I’m a writer and also an historian (an historian of England, to boot) it’s not a simple relationship, but it’s not the same relationship that locals have. I noticed this when I walked through the streets of Exeter and when I talked to people at the university. As an Australian, I’m a favoured visitor, but I’m definitely not a local.
Exeter, autumn, 2017 picture: Gillian Polack

I’m giving you pictures I took in Exeter to remind you of this, for it’s important. Very important.
I teach writers how to write about people who come from different cultural backgrounds to themselves. Many writers have no idea how to do this. They write everything from their own viewpoint, as if another viewpoint is impossible to tell a novel from. 

One thing I love about History Girls and why I am delighted to be writing for them is that these writers are aware of who they are. They write in a complex world. This means they’re less likely to fall back on stereotypes due to lazy thinking. 

Exeter's Halloween 2017, picture: Gillian Polack

All fiction writers use stereotypes and tropes. It’s essential to make a novel work. The problem is when we use them unthinkingly. This is why I have such respect for writers who write about others with that bit of care. 

The thing about historical fiction is that it’s ALL about others. We bring the past into the present in a very personal way. We’re bring the lives of others into our lives. This is why respect is so important. 

Those we write about are dead: they can’t argue back. I wanted to argue with a writer all this afternoon, for she wrote Jews into her fiction in a negative way, as if there is no good in our existence. She’s still around and maybe, one day, I’ll get that discussion. I can’t ask any medieval Jews how they feel about work that associates them with the blood libel, for they’re gone.

‘Respect’ doesn’t necessarily mean being nice. It means understanding. It means taking intellectual and emotional steps and working past stereotypes and past hate and past tradition and finding out as much as we can about the real person.

Respect is complicated, Exeter 2017 picture: Gillian Polack

How does this apply to English history? 

I want to talk about two key points here.

First, England is one of the most written-about places in historical fiction, and certain periods are written about more than others. Regency England, Victorian England, the Middle Ages: these all have their own character for us. This character doesn’t come from the actual places and times, but from the number of novels written about them. All the themes and character types are brought together in our minds and create a fictional England.

The England of our dreams picture: Gillian Polack

This is a subject that’s been really well studied for Regency England in particular. Scholars have traced the differences between the actual England of that time and the influence of Georgette Heyer in creating the way we think about these things fictionally. 

I’m one of a number of Medieval historians who work on understanding these things for the Middle Ages. I’m also part of a number of historians who spend time teaching writers how to look beyond the fictional view and to see the people hidden beneath the stories and stereotypes. This is why The Middle Ages Unlocked exists. Writers said to me “We like it that you want us to think harder and do more research, but it isn’t easy – write us a reference book.” Katrin Kania and I did that. That was a much earlier stage in a conversation between historians, readers and writers that will probably last my whole life.

The stage I’m at now is a more troublesome one. 

When I teach world building to writers, I teach them how to think about and research the world for their novel. Traditionally, world building is a subject taught to writers who use fantastical worlds: science fiction and fantasy, for the most part. I teach it to all writers. Novelists who are setting a story in their own street are not actually setting it in the precise world they live in. We write fiction, after all. I use world building techniques as tools to help writers sort this out and create a better story.

Many writers who use history in their fiction tend to ‘own’ the history. They’ve built it for their novel, with a great deal of heart and a truckload of work. This is not a problem if they see it as building a world for their novel, for they’re owning the history for the world of their novel. It can be close to us, but it isn’t us. It can be based on real history, but it’s not the same thing. 

When they say it’s real history, a writer claims deep and special insights into the lives of others. Some of these claims are genuine: they share their characters with us. They don’t share all interpretations of historical people, however, only their own. 

Going back to where I began, this is important in another way, which is my second point. When I or someone else from outside England write about England, when any of us write about a place and time that’s not our own, we need to remember that our special ownership, as writers, doesn't have a more important cultural place than the lives of people who live there. 

Real people lie in our dream places   picture: Gillian Polack

If I were to write a story of Exeter or even a history of Exeter, I’d be writing it as an outsider. This isn’t actually a problem. Outsiders have special insights. Our responsibility is to remember that those who live in a country are connected more strongly than we are. That we write about their home. 

Even our special insights should never be permitted to eradicate their relationship and understanding of their own homeland. 

We entertain. We enrich. We create. But we should do all this with respect.

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