Friday 2 February 2018

Holes in History, by Gillian Polack

Most people in history are not well-documented. Some of the most interesting people to write fiction about are the people we can’t hear. A peasant from the twelfth century, the younger daughter of a noble who doesn’t believe women need to read and write, a Jew pretending not to be Jewish in order to save their own lives and keep their family lands in sixteenth century Spain, a child in fourth century Rome. I could give you pages and pages of examples.

The writer has a special task when we bring these people into a novel. These people are not in historical sources, or we look at the wrong historical sources to find them (traditional sources, perhaps, or modern analyses when they're still caged inside primary sources). When we write about them, we don’t have their voices. And yet we still want to hear them. 

We write what we can, drawing on what we know about people and creating a person of that type to fill that hole. This is one of the subjects I have been working on recently. My research goal is to understand what we draw on to fill those holes. When we break through the silence to give a young Jewish girl (pretending to be Catholic) in seventeenth century Latin America a voice through a novel, I like to know how we do it.

If this were an academic article, I’d analyse case studies of what writers do for at least eight thousand words. (I’m full of things I won’t do, today.) This piece is not an academic study. Also, I’m not where I need to be with my research yet, which means I can’t give you a simple case study to explain things This means I need to do something quite different to explain the holes and what we do with them.

Deep analysis and big studies can wait. We need to start talking now. The way we fill those holes shows why: the history we put into fiction is important. What we say about the past helps us live in the present. Right now, this is trickier than it’s been in years. This means that the history in our fiction is terribly, terribly important.

Why is this so critical to understand?

One of my ongoing concerns is how we carry biases with us. If we don’t know how we read novels, or a bit about the methods we use to encode culture within them, we end up in a place where, despite being wonderful human beings, we’re supporting bigotry and prejudice. Culturally, we’re doing this. Writers and readers are using stories that leave other people out in ways that can hurt them. And yet we’re not trying to hurt anyone.

I haven’t see analyses of the levels of racism and bigotry in the writing/reading community, but my experience of it is that we’re a set of communities that care about people. We're not writing our fiction in order to hurt anyone. Many of us are writing it as socially-aware people working towards a better world. What we’re doing is interpreting the past from certain directions and not realising the implications of this.

One of the easiest ways of seeing this in operation in a novel is to look for female characters. Count the number of female characters who have important parts in that novel.

Or count the number of characters of particular religious background . Judaism is the simplest to see in this instance: many writers don’t have Jewish characters in novels set in periods and places where there would be Jewish people. 

Thirteenth century Montpellier had Jews... and a mikvah.

Gender, religion, race – there are so many things one can check. There’s been an outcry on the web about the latter. So many people are pointing out that English history is not all white, for instance, and that Alexandre Dumas was a person of colour. Some of these issues are on the map, therefore, and we’re beginning to look at them.

I say ‘beginning’ because the moment we move into what we think of as pure history that describes a classic incident or Great People, we (writers) tend to fall out of this tree of self-realisation.

Good intent is not sufficient. My second most popular free article of all time is one I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s work. Gaiman, as a human being, is supportive of people from many backgrounds and cares about feminism. He unintentionally devised a universe of gods for American Gods that is problematic for women.

This and the awareness that many writers have of some of the issues also shows that we’re moving to a better vantage point to see what’s happening. We beginning to change the ground rules and allow more women in, more people of colour, more people of backgrounds who existed historically and who somehow miss being put in traditional fiction from a period. 

Only Christian males? This is the right place  to set a historical novel in. This region otherwise has women, Jews and much more.

But… You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

We still have tools we use to write these new characters into novels. We will always have tools to write anything into novels. And we don’t yet know the effect of those tools.

I was alerted to this many, many years ago through the tools actors bring to their parts. I discovered in “Oliver!” almost all the interpretations of Fagin were of Jews with Eastern European accents. Fagin was based on Isaac ‘Ikey' Solomon, who would have had a London accent. If he had been born elsewhere, then his accent would have reflected that, certainly, but he wasn’t. He was born in London. Giving him an accent that couldn’t possibly be his own is part of the ‘othering’ of Jews, someone saying “He was different to other Londoners – let’s give him an accent to show this. What’s the accent that shows Jewish difference? Ah, I know.”

That particular tool used by some writers to bring history into their fiction is finding ‘common knowledge’ about a people or gender and applying it, whether or not it fits that particular  case. This common knowledge is partly stereotype, for that’s what we draw on when we haven’t focussed on a subject. Fagin’s accent. Making history male. Both of these are stereotyping.

Another thing we draw on when we haven’t focussed on a subject is the culture we live in. In a way, calling on stereotypes is just that, but it’s also possible to call on positive attributes and give them to a character. Turning female characters into American teenagers, for instance, or turning children into characters that reflect our own upbringing. When they’re quiet at table, what sorts of subjects they study and what methods they use to study. 

When I teach this, I explain that we’re missing a key element that some students used to gain basic literacy in Early Modern England. Some instructors served delicacies in letter form (some of the moulds survive) to young students. This fuelled a student’s approach to basic literacy and it also fuels the sentiment of those who aren’t taught. The servant boy watching at the door never gets to taste a thing, but carries all the food back and forwards. Will never get to taste a thing, for he’s among the unlearned classes. 

This different experience due to class might include eating different food at the dinner table on special occasions, and even having a different everyday dinner table eventually, but in the sixteenth century most English families treated their servants as extended family. They were often children in status and asked permission to do this or that, so not eating those letters is handy way of overcoming modern views of them and giving them more accurate lives.

This is what I’m working on now. Normally I wait until I’m much further in my research before discussing a subject. Writers have been asking me what they do in their work (the unintentional stereotyping and the drawing on their own culture to fill gaps) and I’ve been teaching it. This means it’s more than time I give you these examples. It’s only the beginning, but it’s an important subject to talk about.

If you want more of this and you live in England, you’re luckier than I am, for there’s a conference. It discusses a whole order of things related to history in fiction. It may or may not cover the work I’ve talked about here, but it will help writers see how other people see their work (which is a big part of writing better fiction) and it will help give contexts for both fiction and history. You can find more here. 

For the rest of us, there is this blog, and other online places. None of us have to work alone.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, dear, a spam comment! A truly weird one!

Nice post, Gillian... even the music for Fagin is Eastern European - just listen to “I’m Reviewing The Situation.” I can’t see how else an actor can interpret the role. Blame Lionel Bart. ;) Not everyone knows about Ikey Solomon.

You know, I wouldn’t mind attending some of your classes if I could get some time to live in Canberra.

Gillian Polack said...

Thanks :). Persuade Continuum, for I've done workshops in Melbourne for them before.

I'm technically on the Victorian Writers' Centre list to run courses, but they always apologise for never getting back to me when I ask what they think of the proposals.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I don’t think. Ontinuum will have any problems. They should be starting to ask for panel suggestions soon.

Gillian Polack said...

They've already indicated interest. The question is the subject. If there's one of my subjects you want to do, then suggest it. Seriously. otherwise we might think that an entirely different subject is the best for a short convention workshop.

Michelle Ann said...

An interesting subject. The problem is however, firstly, as you say, we are always reinterpreting history, so what is considered correct today may be found to be inaccurate tomorrow. I think the second problem for authors is that unless they show anybody except a white male as anything other than nice or a victim, they are likely to be accused of misogyny, racism, etc. And if I were an author I would be wary of including other cultures in my book, because if I get any of the details wrong, it may cause offence. All the points you have raised are very valid, but it does seem a bit of a minefield.

Gillian Polack said...

It's like learning a language. When you're listening to others talking and looking at the shelves of book in that language, it's intimidating. In the early stages of learning it feels like hard work and "I'll never get this." One day the penny drops and you 'get' the language and can use it comfortably. It's till work but then research and writing are also work.

Your second problem is (culturally) a straw man. Very, very few writers have been accused of these things. News focuses on these few, so those who are newly-aware of the issues get jumpy and say "I can't do this. It's not fair."

This particular straw man is used a lot as an excuse to keep hating (by bigots) so when someone non-bigoted uses it, they look like a bigot even when they're absolutely not one.

It's far safer for a writer's reputation to do the work and understand than to use that particular argument to sidestep. Like so much else, however, each writer gets to make their own decision on these things. Academics who study these subjects and critics who write about books will note those decisions. That's how our system works.