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Meat on the Bones: Writing Forgotten Histories

Published 8th June, 2016 in MRP Guest Blogger
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Recently I read an interview with the English writer, Hilary Mantel, which got me thinking about the role of the author in writing historical fiction. Mantel is a rigorous researcher (which, being a researcher myself, I admire) and insists on the novelist’s duty to stick to the facts, as they’re set out in the history books. ‘Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction’, she laments, noting that most other writers feel compelled to make things up for the sake of a good story.[1]

 One of the outcomes of Mantel’s approach is that the novelist is constrained to telling those stories that have already been acknowledged by official histories. For this reason, Mantel’s early draft of a novel about the French Revolution, written before the advent of feminist historical scholarship, contained no women. Or rather, the women were present, but they lacked agency, they existed in the shadows. As Mantel says, ‘they were wallpaper’.

By default, mainstream history has focused on the accomplishments of a handful of privileged white men. This is slowly starting to change. Some time ago I saw the historian and author, Clare Wright, speaking at The Wheeler Centre about her Stella Prize-winning non-fiction book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. Wright’s mission in writing this book was to unearth the stories of the women who lived and worked in the goldfields and who played a role in the Eureka stockade. When Wright first embarked on this project, some of her fellow (mostly male) historians, expressed doubts about its validity. They raised objections such as, ‘You can’t make things up’, and ‘If women were there, we would have found them sooner’.

As it turns out, the women were there. Moreover, Wright didn’t even have to look very hard to find them. She quickly discovered that the historical records contained ample evidence about the diverse and significant roles that women played during the stockade. So why hadn’t anyone found these stories before? The answer is quite simple: no one was looking for them. Wright points out that there was no conspiracy involved here – women’s stories weren’t deliberately hidden. Rather, these blind spots were the result of the fact that people ‘weren’t asking the right questions’ in their research. It turns out that if we don’t actively seek these forgotten stories – the stories of women, of people who are Aboriginal, are ethnically diverse, have disabilities, or are LGBTI – then, for the most part, we simply won’t see them.

I would argue that this imperative to ‘ask the right questions’ applies, not only to historical research, but also to the writing of historical fiction. As writers of fiction, we have a duty to ask: whose stories aren’t being told? Unlike historians, fiction writers don’t need to be wholly constrained by the facts. Rather, we can use the available facts to empathetically imagine ourselves into situations that could have plausibly occurred, imagine ourselves into the lives of those characters whose stories have been deemed ‘not important enough’ to record in official history.

The Melbourne-based author and historian, Tony Birch, has highlighted the absence of Aboriginal voices in history. He says that his project as a fiction writer is to give these voices articulation, and argues convincingly that fiction and poetry are valid ways of putting ‘meat on the bones of history’. He says:

Fiction can be an empowering way of understanding the past… The greatest threat to recognition, in this case the recognition of both Indigenous histories of Australia and the at times difficult terrain of colonial history, is silence, absence.[2]

As Birch points out, ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ are, in themselves, dubious categories. Fiction – at least, good fiction – always has a truth at its core, whether this be a literal or emotional truth. And history, for all its claims to objectivity, is always a narrative construction, an interpretation of people and events that privileges some voices and perspectives and not others.

Of course, this raises the question: how do we tell historical stories – particularly the stories of people who are underrepresented or marginalised – in an ethical manner? That is, how do we strike a balance between ethics and inventiveness?

Jerilee Wei writes about this balancing act in these terms:

we have an obligation when it comes to writing historical fiction to treat the past and the people who lived it with a certain amount of respect and compassion.  At the same time, we also owe our readers fresh perspectives and our own unique interpretations of how the history parts of the historical story interplay with each other. [3]

This approach requires us to pay heed to the available facts, and to identify those instances in which it is ethical and appropriate to ‘make things up’, and those instances in which it isn’t. Of course, this exercise is not at all clear cut, and nor should it be.

As I’ve noted, Hilary Mantel exercises a high degree of caution when writing historical fiction, and works within the parametres of the available facts. But how have other authors approached this task? Some, such as Anna Funder in All That I Am, have created works that explicitly blend fact and fiction. All That I Am takes real people and events, and uses them as a springboard to tell a story of Funder’s own imagining. She constructs an – entirely plausible – story surrounding the lives and deaths of two of the women characters (who are also real historical figures). In Funder’s book, these female characters are afforded a degree of agency and complexity that, too often, they are denied in mainstream history accounts.

The American author, Toni Morrison, is acclaimed for using fiction as a way to offer fresh perspectives on black lives and histories. Her works are revealing of the psychological effects of apartheid, slavery and racism. Morrison’s novels do not shy away from difficult – and often violent – realities, but always place the complex and compelling human traits of her characters at their front and centre. Morrison has referred to her writing as a type of ‘rememory’, as a radical reimagining of real and neglected lives.[4]

Of course, none of this is to say that historical fiction should be merely didactic. The key aims of historical fiction – like fiction more broadly – are to entertain and evoke an emotional response in the reader. However, it is by reaching for these emotional truths, rather than simply the factual ones, that we can perhaps begin to fill in some of the gaps of mainstream history.


[1] Mona Simpson, ‘Hilary Mantel, Art of Fiction No.226’, The Paris Review, Spring 2015 available at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6360/art-of-fiction-no-226-hilary-mantel

[2] Tony Birch, ‘The Trouble With History’, Australian History Now, Anna Clark and Paul Ashton (eds), NewSouth Books, 2013.

[3] Jerilee Wei, ‘Ethics in Writing Historical Fiction’, Eye on Life Magazine, 25 April 2013 available at http://eyeonlifemag.com/eye-on-writing/ethics-in-writing-historical-fiction

[4] Maya Jaggi ‘Solving the Riddle’, The Guardian 15 November 2003, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/nov/15/fiction.tonimorrison.

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