Tuesday 2 January 2018

Writers chatting about their love of history, by Gillian Polack

To celebrate 2018 arriving yesterday, I've asked a friend in to chat. She is, of course, a writer. Rachel Nightingale, would you like to introduce yourself?

Rachel: Hi Gillian. Yes, I'm a writer - my book, Harlequin's Riddle is (apparently!) second world historical fantasy. It's about the Commedia dell'Arte of the Italian Renaissance, but it's set in a fictionalised Italy since there isn't magic in the real one. I'm also a historical re-enactor, which means one of my hobbies is going along to medieval feasts and creating dresses from various different time periods. 

Gillian: Why all the history for both of us? I can tell you why I'm obsessed with historical food and historiography and so many things, but it goes back to my childhood and is profoundly connected to how I try to interpret the world around me.

Rachel: I've been trying to think back to a beginning, but I can't really pinpoint a time when I wasn't interested in history. I read The Diary of Anne Frank at a young age, and I know that had a profound impression on me - gaining insight into the life of someone from another time, and how that opened up my awareness of the terrible events of WWII. In school I always found history to be the most interesting subject - looking back I'm not sure why I didn't study it. As an avid reader I was always aware of the setting, realising that lives were always lived in context, and that context impacted on what they could and couldn't do, and what happened to them. For me history has always been closely linked to the stories of people’s lives. Given your interest in historiography, it sounds like you focus on asking who is telling those stories and why they are telling them in a certain way...

Gillian: That's certainly what my university training was in. As an adult, I need to understand the cultural contexts of all the stories, to work out where they come from and why they're told in the way they are. As a child, though, things were different. The pleasant aspect of 'different' is that my mother taught geology. I had a very science-based childhood. My passion for history included how humans use landscapes and what rocks are used when and how and why, and what living on different types of land meant to different societies. This goes back to when I was about ten.

Earlier gave me the biggest factor in me demanding to find out why things happen and how they affect ordinary people. I saw my first picture of a pile of dead bodies from a WWII death camp when I was six. I understood that the pile of corpses belonged to people who had been murdered, but I didn't understand why the word used to describe the murder was the same one we use to refer to the outcome of pesticide. Soon after, I discovered that some of them were potentially cousins or distant relatives. That and a mild form of antisemitism at primary school meant that I could see history as my family's past, where those who didn't flee to a safe land were tortured and murdered. I didn't understand how that was possible. I needed to understand. Later (much later) I discovered that I myself was part of a different form of bigotry at school.

All of this pushed me into trying to find out how humanity operates. Who we are. How we make the decisions we make. The story side of it is because this turned out to be a key factor. We are good to others and we murder others based on the stories we tell. Stories are powerful.

Rachel: Absolutely! The power of stories is what I wrote my thesis about, with a focus on climate change. My background is in social work, and I was trained as a narrative therapist. Narrative therapy is a deliberate and structured process that examines and pulls apart the stories that get told, considering where they came from and how they maintain problematical situations, before moving on to construct and strengthen new stories that are more affirming and less destructive. It's mostly used as a form of individual counselling, but I applied it to cultural stories in relation to climate change. Specifically I looked at the stories we tell about the earth and other living creatures, and how they impact on our relationship with it and our willingness to act (or not) in the face of catastrophic species extinction and the loss of a liveable planet. But that's another story for another day.

What I've found in recent years is that I've really shifted into a headspace where I can't help querying the cultural narratives underpinning the stories and relationships in society - both now and in the past. Invariably those cultural narratives are created and maintained by those with power and privilege, and used against those without it. What I find frustrating and fascinating is why so many people don't see or question that now - we are highly educated and have access to many different sources of information. In previous centuries the cultural narrative ensured acceptance through imbuing authority such as the divine right of kings, or of the church, and questioning authority was a very dangerous proposition. But those stories have weakened. Now we have stories around how good capitalism is for everybody, when the reality is the opposite. But people tend to believe what they're told, not what they observe. That's the power of stories.

In terms of history, one of the huge cultural narratives was (and still is?) that women don't do anything of value. Of course those who decide what has value tend to be white wealthy males. The result is that so many women's stories either get framed in a highly negative light or disappear completely. My personal mission at the moment is to learn more about the lives of women who made huge contributions, in whatever field, and had those contributions minimised or, very often stolen, by the men in their lives who have gone down in history as 'great men'. 
Gillian: We're coming from opposite ends, and meeting in the middle. It all comes back to story, though, which explains why we meet in the middle.

For me, those cultural narratives become more and more important as our lives become more and more difficult. This is not an easy decade. Understanding the cultural narratives around us helps us get through it. Using historical fiction can be especially powerful, becuase it gives us a safer place to explore and it provides contexts for our current lives. Not all historical fiction gives this, and not all writers who intend to present story this way do so, but for readers, every book we read that helps us with our own lives is essential reading.

What I've noticed over the years is that the assumption that literary wriitng has more meaning for us than genre writing is ill-conceived.

The writing that has most meaning is the writing that helps us decode our culture and to understand who we are. The best writers do this, no matter the form their writing takes. This has important cultural implications for the kind of decisions some readers make about reading genre writing. They're cutting themselves off from material they need and from understanding that would give them emotional help in tough times. The best historical fiction writers deliver all this along with fine stories in historical settings. The trick is not to find a particular type of writing (historical fiction, science fiction, literary novels) but to find the themes and stories we need for a particular moment in our lives. Some reasons for reading require specific genres, but for others, genre is far less relevant than the other things an author may put into their novel.

When I joined the History Girls, I explored this. I read books by all the members I could find in two weeks. Those two weeks were what convinced me that it's all in the skill and hard work of the writer: every one of those novels contained deep meaning and would be perfect for readers who needed that specific type of understanding.

Not all writers are as good as this and not all books by even our favourite writers are equally classic. And some of us need fun reading within a genre, with no extra meaning from time to time. This summer I'm reading a dozen of the latest Regency romances, because it fits my mood. I'm reading them alongside the other novels, however, and not replacing either with the other: they have their own cultural niches and meet different needs.

Rachel: I couldn't agree more regarding genre fiction. I enjoy well crafted stories but if I'm going to really love a book it needs to have some depth to it, exploring those themes and ideas you mention. We tell stories to make sense of what it means to be human and to live in human society. Literary fiction tends to do this by holding up a mirror to what we see and know, whereas genre fiction does it by opening a doorway to another time or place, or world. Either way, both can function on a purely story telling level, with a series of events, or they can dive in deeper and ask explore the meaning behind behind those events. What genre fiction does well is provide comparisons and contrasts. For example, in a novel about the lives of Tudor women we can see how they are constrained by the social rules of the time, and compare that with our own experiences - how they differ and how they are the same. In a book set in another world we can see a society that is set up differently to our own and thus question why our world works as it does, and perhaps question whether that's a good thing. 

Oatley (2011) says that if readers lay themselves open to imagination they can abstract themselves from immediate reality, gaining the ‘ability to conceive alternatives and hence to evaluate ... [to] gain the ability to think of futures and outcomes, skills of planning’ (Such stuff as dreams: the psychology of fiction, p. 30). I think genre writing requires a greater flexing of the imagination muscles because readers will only be truly transported if they open themselves to the journey, which will take them further from what they know than literary fiction. But this distance can allow them to see their own world differently, with new ideas. 

Coming back to the idea of themes, exploring those themes in another time or place also shows us what we have in common with those who look different or live different lives. There is a growing body of research showing the importance of stories in increasing empathy, which is desperately needed right now. As Ursula Le Guin says, writers have an obligation,
by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader's mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.  (The wave in the mind, 2004)

About Rachel:  Rachel Nightingale is an Australian writer, playwright, educator and actor. With a passion for story telling and the theatre, it was natural that her first fantasy series would centre
on both. You can find out more about her and her writing here.

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