Spittin’ bars harder than Joan of Arc’s armour,
Driving Rosa Parks’ car, bustin’ out Frances Farmer,
Airborne with Amelia Earhart, walkin’ tightropes –
Being Pocahontas, giving smallpox to white folks.
—Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton Cypher
Back in November, three things happened which, combined, made me consider the blurred worlds of fiction and history that have been so important to me over the last decade: 1) I ran into the double digits in my listens of the Hamilton cast album; 2) I began writing my applications to PhD programs, so that I could continue my training as a historian; and 3) I read Ijeoma Oluo’s “Why I Won’t Write A Review of Suffragette.” Thinking about the kinds of stories I want to tell as a historian gave new weight to lyrics like “I’m erasing myself from the narrative / Let future historians wonder…” Oluo’s piece made me both angry and sad, and prompted me to think even more about the strange relationship between fiction and the past.
For us, the past is gone, in a sense; memory is an unreliable, tricky thing. Much of what historians do when they reconstruct another time or place is a literal fabrication – made by human hands, for human consumption. It is a kind of fiction. Particular historical narratives, when carried to particular conclusions, can be conflated to justify actions carried out in the present. Justifying claims to land, to restitution, to national status, or simply to personhood – these are justifications often made in the name of history. Studying and reconstructing the past allows us to do a great number of things, if we read it in the right way. This process is fascinating to me, and that’s why I want to spend time working through its complexities and writing history myself.
But if I honestly recall what drew me to reading about the past in the first place, it is fiction in the literal sense. Specifically, children’s historical fiction presented as the diaries of girls my age, living through various periods in Canadian and world history. The librarian at my elementary school pointed me towards the one about Marie Antoinette one day, and I was instantly consumed. The Dear Canada and Royal Diaries books meant that I could hunker down with a friend who was escaping to a New York tenement from Russian pogroms, or being shipped to Quebec as a fille du roi, or studying with the imperial Chinese because her tribe needed to establish diplomatic relations. Today, I continue to love anything about a badass genius woman in an old-timey world.
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. Last year, Katherine Beutner wrote for The Toast about women in historical fiction, and put beautifully why these stories continue to make me happy today: “poetry and contingency can sometimes go hand in hand.” 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.” But these limits are also why, as a preteen girl with no chill, stories of women overcoming obstacles with aplomb were so delicious to me in the first place.
The historical fiction that resonates with me today is invariably created by people who take seriously the stakes of the game they are playing. When a piece of historical fiction moves me, it is because of two things happening at the same time: I identify with the emotional place the protagonist is in, and I am utterly swept up in whatever point the author is making about the past. To me, the basic argument the author is making is as follows: This person and their experiences were important, and they deserve to be explored and lived by proxy, by the reader. And because I have been moved by what matters to this person, I believe in them and their place in our collective human story. Now, I could probably map my reaction to all good fiction this way. But the difference with historical fiction is that the power of the storytelling is underscored by a claim to significance that might challenge the dominant narrative.
The Hamilton cast’s BET Cypher from last October has been widely praised as historic – the first time a Broadway cast was featured on the legendary platform – and its Genius page is dense with annotations on the verses performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs, and The Roots’ Black Thought. Each performer’s part rings out with the lyrical complexity expected in freestyle rap, but this particular Cypher thuds in my memory with one theme uniting the verses: justice. The verses resonate as joy-filled fuck yous to systems of exclusion and oppression.
What does this mean to listeners? Why does the Hamilton audience feel such triumph at the line from the show, “Immigrants: we get the job done”? Where does that feeling come from? I think about the ways in which historical fiction can be a form of resistance to a homogenizing view of our world and our past. There are certainly more immediate and material ways to resist oppression — legislating, organizing, protesting, boycotting, and mobilizing are very powerful ways — but sometimes, just existing and living your life, having your story told, can have an impact.
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. It bears saying, and repeating, that this isn’t true. People lived and worked and travelled in ways that defied the smooth and ever upward trajectory of the histories we are often taught. We first learn about the past from our families and our teachers, and sometimes they tell us contrasting accounts. But sitting in a classroom and being graded on the accuracy of your remembrance, your absorption – this usually filters down as the glorious and predestined origin story of whatever nation-state you’re in. It can still be a powerful experience, but it leaves out a lot of people, and not just because “there isn’t enough time” to cover a broader syllabus. (Sometimes there’s a poster of black and brown faces that goes up around February, so. Thanks for that, I guess.)
Sitting in a classroom and being graded on the accuracy of your remembrance usually filters down as the glorious and predestined origin story of whatever nation-state you’re in. It can still be a powerful experience, but it leaves out a lot of people.
Erasure works in so many ways, and this means that for a person living in 2015, just the act of seeking an ancestor in the dominant historical narrative around you is an act of resistance. I was there. And I am here. These words ring out, full-throated and thrumming with power, whenever someone others might want to ignore elbows their way into view. “I am here” – when a person of colour wins a prestigious, and previously very white, award. “I am here” – when student protestors refuse to back down, at an institution that would rather they just behaved. “I am here” – when people write about themselves and their experiences. But to be here and be seen in the same way as cis-gendered straight white men are, for instance, would require not just producing excellent work and doing great things.
Depicting the histories of people otherwise erased is certainly intellectually interesting. It’s also a political project. And sometimes it just boils down to being a better storyteller. Demanding better, more accurate stories. In her piece on the absurdity of an all-white London in Suffragette, Ijeoma Oluo put it so well: “I’m tired of fantasy worlds where people of color don’t exist.”
Feeling like a part of something, feeling connected to people who lived long ago – it’s powerful stuff, and when people who are typically written out of stories find their way back in, and take you with them, it can be an act of resistance to the homogenizing, violent narrative that cuts out most of humanity.
In university, my classmates and I learned about the approaches academic historians take when assembling images of another time. I learned, most importantly, that there is no such thing as an uncontestable account of the past. As much pathos as there had been in the made-up diaries of little girls, the implications of what I was studying were blown outwards and away from me as I worked deeper into my degree. The pins that held my world together in the 21st century were pulled out and examined up close, in seminars on empire, capital, colonialism, race, and gender. 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.
Now, I am also curious about why we are drawn to some stories and not others – why do we write about the things we write about? I think it often has to do with how we have imagined ourselves to be like or unlike our subjects – a connection that is rooted in the emotional worlds we have built, in order to understand what matters to us in our present, and in our past. Academic histories make arguments based on evidence they cite, and historical fiction tells a story rooted in a past created by such academic histories, but the reasons we are drawn to reading and writing both are in my experience, very similar.
Emotion- and empathy-driven narrative, the supposed purview of fiction writing, can be a very powerful way of bringing the traditionally silenced back into the narrative. This can help explain why all the silence, why all the blood. Violence often leaves a void too glaring to be ignored, and narrative can help string together the fragments we can access. In his book The Slave Ship, historian Marcus Rediker works to fill this void, by recounting with meticulous scholarship the vessels that carried captured Africans to the Americas for four hundred years:
“Lying in the bottom of the canoe in three or four inches of dirty water with a woven mat thrown over her travel-weary body, the woman could feel the rhythmic pull of the paddles by the Bonny canoemen, but could not see where they were taking her. She had traveled three moons from the interior, much of it by canoe down the rivers and through the swamps. Several times along the way, she had been sold.”
As voyeuristic as this passage may seem when excerpted – the cobbled-together experience of a woman whose name we don’t know – Rediker concludes his introduction with the following: “I offer this study with the greatest reverence for those who suffered almost unthinkable violence, terror, and death, in the firm belief that we must remember that such horrors have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism.” The rest of the book is a fabrication in the sense I meant it earlier – made by human hands, out of the scraps left by long-gone humanity. It stands for me as an example of storytelling as history and history as storytelling, in which the lines between fiction and scholarship are sometimes blurred in order to move closer towards truth.
Truth based in fact – the right kinds of facts, mind – is one of the ways in which dominant narratives of the past are built around us. Names and dates of battles, titles of generals and kings and canonical writers, these are bits of data that when stacked up high, present an edifice with little to chip away. Nowhere to grab on, because guess what? All those battles were fought, those men existed, didn’t they? We have their letters right here. So the story we tell with these facts – one of benevolent imperialism, scientific advancement, and the triumph of the liberal West – this story must also be true. Until you find a gap, and the brittle, brutal structure looks a little less sturdy.
The lived realities of white supremacy, or misogyny, or ableism – these are propped up by the emotional and historical worlds built by the central assumptions of these systems of oppression. You weren’t there. And if you were there, you weren’t important. But belonging is much too glorious a feeling to be bound by this kind of lie. People have always found ways to live and find meaning and challenge oppression, and part of our job is to seek them out and tell their stories. They existed, and it’s our job to find some way to understand.
This alchemy – this process by which someone in a dusty grave comes alive to us as a friend or ally – this can happen more often in historical novels, because the license to imagine and fill in the silences is accepted.
That’s where historical fiction is key – because it allows us to access a version of a whole person, someone with fears and hopes and ambitions. We can connect with this person on a human level when they have been made up. We can weep when they do, over a dead child or thwarted dream. Though we live in the after-time, in a future they were trying to build, or avoid, or outlast, we are tied to them through the rite of emoting. This alchemy – this process by which someone in a dusty grave comes alive to us as a friend or ally – this can happen more often in historical novels, because the license to imagine and fill in the silences is accepted from the get-go.
When these same narrative and imaginative tools are used by historians, it can help deliver a blow to the insidious assertion made in nearly every grade-school classroom – that we’re supposed to relate exclusively to dead rich white men because they created everything of value. Sometimes we do relate to them, because our experiences meet somewhere in the space between the living and the dead. At other times, we yearn for someone to relate to who is a little bit more like us, whatever that may mean. To find them, we may have to first find an interlocutor – an historian, or filmmaker, or composer – who has decided to reveal this someone to us. If the interlocutor cannot find the kinds of records that are left behind by the lettered, important few, they rely on other sources.
Decades of academic discourse have exhumed men and women from unmarked graves, and poked around at the remains of their lives. History from below, oral history, material culture – these techniques and the historiographical debates they engender make the discipline of history richer and more interesting for students like me. But with the emotional intelligence of the novelist, readers can imagine something very much like reality, and know what it might have been like, since we can never know how it really was.