Monday, July 16, 2012

Recreating the past, steering the future

When I was writing about the Polari prize the other day, I was reminded of a question that came up here both in context of that prize and as a comment on an earlier post about lesbian fiction:

I've been meaning to ask you in relation to your own work about a few others. I enjoyed earlier work by Emma Donoghue, Manda Scott and Stella Duffy. All fit into the category of authors who have written great books where the characters 'just happen' to be gay. In common with yourself, all have moved onto 'historical' fiction. Is this coincidence or do you think there is a specific reason/s?
I don't think its a coincidence.

Last month I talked about how I thought writing Hild was a huge risk but that I began anyway because I needed to tell her story. Adrienne Rich said, "We must use what we have to invent what we desire." (What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics) 

That's what I'm doing when I write: I'm inventing what I desire. I desire a vision of the world in which the woman I had imagined (after years of research) might have existed, in which she might have been able to live her life as a human being: as subject not object. I wanted to believe that the Hild I imagined was possible. To look at where we come from--the past--and believe we could have survived there as ourselves. By making Hild possible, I wanted to recast what people today think might be possible and so make it possible.

In other words, I'm recolonising the past. Recreating it. Retelling it. And by so doing, I'm recreating the present and so steering the future.

This is what history is: our interpretation of what happened. Our shared understanding of events in light of what we think/know/feel today. Our cultural attitudes inform our understanding of the past.

Our cultural attitude to gender has changed a great deal since Bede wrote his History of the English Church and People, the only extent source for the life of Hild that's even remotely contemporary. (Hild died four years after Bede was born.) I think she deserves a new story. It wouldn't shock me to discover that Manda Scott was similarly motivated on behalf of Boudica, and Stella Duffy for Theodora.