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.

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14 comments:

  1. Yes. Yes and - that Theodora has a great story (even the misogynist presentations of it made her sound amazing) and I loved all the juiciness and possibility of her life and I was drawn to her as a faithful AND as a 'wild' woman. But yes, the new story, the re-imagining, the hope of what else there might be ... yes.

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    1. It's not something I was conscious of until I'd written some of it and realised what I was doing and then I laughed at myself: So obvious!

      For me, the struggle was to show Hild being an extraordinary woman in a dangerous era. But it was important to show the constraints of her time and cultural mores. But that was the point: to show that women could be fully-rounded human beings even in the face of all the rules. (Just like today. It's still a society with a lot of -isms but we'd bridle at the thought that we were pawns of the patriarchy...)

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  2. Thank you - both! - for taking the time to answer my question

    Gael

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  3. I'm glad you answered this question, I found it interesting,, hadnt thought of it as somehting of a trend (which I think it actually is when I look at it, many authors-not just gay ones-turning to historical fiction). In general, I've always had problems with historical fiction, although I love history. It for the reasons you state, that we can only look at it through modern eyes, not the way the world seemd then to those participating in it . If one can read enough original sources, it is perhaps possible to get an inkling of how people thought and felt at the time, but with women from the past that is difficult; either they didnt record their lives or, even if they did, it was subsesquently destroyed.

    I guess my main difficulty with historical fiction is this: when I read a book that takes place in the "modern world", I feel capable of juding the realism/believability of the characters, the plot, the dialogue and even, if appropriate, compare it to my own life or those around me. In historical fiction I dont find that possible; the events and peoplel are so distant that I cant decide if I like the,dont like them, believe the dialogue to be believable, agree or diagree with their choices etc. It is interesting to me that so many modern authors chose to write about the past, rather than the present. Is it easier to put things into perspective from a distance?? I dont know.

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    1. Anon, I don't intend to give you a choice :) If you read more than twenty pages of my book, you'll believe it. That's my mission in life as a writer. See my Writer's Manifesto.

      Plus, the way I see it: why not believe it, at least for the time it takes you to read? It's more fun that way, and there's nothing to prove it didn't happen this way. (Not likely to be anything, either, unless someone, somewhere, turns up a lot of seriously interesting material evidence.)

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  4. I will have t read your book Nicola.

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  5. I'm excited about your book Nicola, it's been a long wait and may be longer yet for actual publication but I'm so looking forward to reading it. As far as I know I've read all of your books including that sci-fi that I can't find nor remember the exact title and quite a bit from each of the Bending The Landscapes. Oh and I even got that book with you and Kelley writing together about writers who live together. Yup I'm pretty sure I have all your books. {big-grin} Of course you've written squillions of things on websites etc and I've read a lot of that too. I can't be sure I've found it all so I can't say with real sureness that I've all your public writing but I think it's close to that.

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    1. Yes, I think you've read most of the stuff that's been printed. A lot of my favourite non-fiction pieces of the last couple of years are in the sidebar under Nifty Previous Posts. I forget to update it regularly, so the best way to keep up is to have posts sent to your inbox (see the top of the sidebar) or, if you have the $$ and a Kindle, get the blog sent to your ereader every day (click on the link just below the pictures of people who are members of this site).

      Right now, as far as I know, Hild will be out in Fall 2013 but trust me I'll be talking about the process every step of the way--and hopefully there will be opportunities for people to sign up for ARCs (advance reading copies), exerpts, and other goodies.

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  6. I was writing of Boudica more as the inheritor of a spiritual tradition in the beginning - but the more I researched the world before the Roman invasion, the more it became apparent that relationships had been so much more fluid, and the role of women so much less restrained, that it wasn't possible to write anything else...
    Good call, though,and good blog.

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    1. Thanks. Yes, I think many of us start out with particular story goals but then, living in the world, we're struck by what crap we've been fed by our history lessons.

      Real women human, not puppets. They are strong and sly, weak and straightforward, bold and brave and out for themselves: they are like us, in other words, only with slightly different constraints.

      I hope your work is going well!

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  7. Ooops, apparently lost a post somehow. Pardon if I'm repeating.

    When I read historical fiction, one thing I look for is the "shock of the alien". HILD does this well. The people aren't moderns in 'garb'.

    If you go back more than a couple of generations, even if you stick to Western Civ and its ancestors, people are going to be from a radically different culture. Which will make them different in fundamental ways, in their perceptions and moral reflexes and concepts of things like "self".

    Your culture not only determines what you -can- do, it determines what you can -want- to do and what you can -imagine- doing.

    Mary Renault was very good at that.

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    1. Yes. The trick, of course, is being able to convey that alienness while bringing the reader into it--making it seem natural, ordinary even.

      And, oh yes, Renault was a master.

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