Histories, Stories, and the Voices Behind Them

Today’s will be an editorial piece. I will make it as concise as I possibly can, though, so never fear. Haha, just kidding, my posts are always to be feared! But I will eventually be asking for reading recommendations, so please stick around for that.

August 15th of 2014 marks the 68th year of India’s independence*. Every year it is- I have been instructed by various principals peering sternly down from their podiums- a day for reflecting on the past and a day for looking to the future. As tired and clichéd as that sounds, it is quite true that you cannot do the latter without having done the first. And these days especially, I can feel the past catching up with us in the present- no matter which part of the world we reside in. This is largely due to the fact that no matter where you are, no matter when you are, there is always a struggle for power between oppressor and oppressed.

Depending on who has the louder voice, your story (and the story of your people) will either be raised to heroic levels, hurled down to villainous trenches, or sympathetically placed in the position of the hapless victim. Also, there may be slight differences in the way your history is told. For years to come. I think Avatar: The Legend of Aang said this the best. For context, Aang- the last of his kind- attends school in the kingdom that basically killed off all his people. This is what comes of his first history lesson:

The language in which history is told and the voice that tells it is incredibly important. (Now, bear with me, because I am getting to the historical fiction part of the deal. I just need to get the historical part off my chest.) When India was struggling for freedom (well before Gandhi’s time), it was white voices that dictated how the rest of the world saw us. The revolt of 1857 became a mutiny, commented on by many a famous British writer, condemning India and its people. The esteemed Charles Dickens even called for a genocide of the Indian people. For the record: when you “benevolently” colonize people and “pay them” paltry sums of money while divvying them up so you can continue steering other non-white people toward “civilization”, you aren’t building an army, you’re tricking people into crippling themselves. And when those people wise up to your sinister, moustache-twirling ways and turn on you, it isn’t a mutiny, it’s a well-deserved ass-kicking.

*deep breath*

Now that India has its independence, there are two dominant voices that will speak out. Within India, politicians (and people) will praise Gandhi. They will disregard his flaws as well as his true merits (a quest for equality between Hindus and Muslims) and continue with the shameful tradition of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Outside of India, people will talk about Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi as a sexist, racist, homophobic person rather than a saviour- which, by the way, you would have already known if you had bothered to read anything by Gandhi instead of waiting for a journalist to feed this knowledge to you.

In all this madness fixated on a singular person, you know who gets forgotten? That’s right, everybody else. For example, most people don’t even know about Rani Lakshmibai, despite the fact that she was a very badass lady.

In India, she is a pretty big deal, but not as big as Gandhi given her tendency to answer violence with violence (funny that). I have to question why she is one of the few female revolutionaries we learn about in school. Why are we, in Indian schools, exclusive about our own history? Why are the many awesome ladies who revolted in their own ways, against various institutes (during British occupation and after) not celebrated?

I find that similar questions may be asked of the historical fiction genre too. Without these questions, the genre becomes an excuse to:

  1. Write about oppressed people from the perspective of the oppressors leading, inevitably, to the White Saviour trope.
  2. Write solely about white people having Disney-esque romances because only (straight) white people lived in Europe back then, right? (WRONG!)
  3. Gloss over real, historical struggles because why depress people? (This is where you have the beginnings of a Sassy POC Supporting Character.)
  4. Write the “real” “historical” “struggles” because gratuitous cruelty is so edgy! Of course, do ignore any non-white person who tried to change the way things were, because erasing the struggles of people and making them seem like willing participants is a much more sympathetic struggle.
  5. There’s that one guy that everyone loves, we’ll just keep banging on about him, shall we?

I am tired of this. I want voices that are educated in a broad, inclusive history and use this knowledge to create complex characters within a complex world, like:

I want fantasies in “historical” settings where characters of colour are not token or in the minority:

I want historical fiction that challenges the dominant voice, by allowing someone else to speak up:

I want LGBTQ characters to be as accurately represented as possible in a historical context**:

It’s not like we stumbled upon all these different voices just this century. We may not, for example, have had the terminology to describe trans people in the past (though some cultures certainly did), that does not mean they just never existed, and it definitely does not give the genre a pass on erasing their existence entirely.

So! If you have read any (YA/Kidlit/Crossover) historical fiction books that give a voice to the ignored, please leave them in the comments! For those writers who need a starting point for your research, I made a WIP list:

  1. To the library! And be sure to research from the POV of different kinds of people, not just the loudest ones. Always ask a librarian for help.
  2. For a starting point particularly on POCs in European history, go here. For Asian centric history, go here.
  3. For women in historical fiction and real life, go here.
  4. For LGBTQ people in history, go here. I can’t find a more extensive source, so if anyone has one, please do send it my way.
  5. There’s also this rather unusual podcast that I’ve started tuning into. I think it’s another good starting point.
  6. Add to this list! My resources are so incomplete! I have, for instance, almost nothing about disabled people in history, barring the famous Helen Keller.

Of course, these are all just starting points- more research is always needed. And this is where you start to look at the present and the future- be sure to pay attention to current events. They are never arbitrary and almost always a. parallel a historical event and b. are caused by bigotry that was never effectively discussed with in the past. If you think about the change that your words and research can bring about in young and old readers alike, historical fiction is all set to be one of the most important genres. It has the potential to do several things at once- retell personal and cultural histories, present a more inclusive history for people to reflect on, as well as “make history” in a sense because you are affecting a positive change in the way people look to the future.

*Is my math right?! Other historical events include- Janet’s thesis defence! Go Janet! :)

**I am waiting on that Hans Christian Anderson picturebook, Mr. Owen.

3 responses to “Histories, Stories, and the Voices Behind Them

  1. I liked A Spy in the House by Y.S Lee. The heroine investigates a mystery but also struggles with her mixed heritage in 19th Century London. Also, The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker is an amazing historical fantasy book. Ahmad is a Syrian djinni and the story delves into interesting threads about the impact of migration on identity alongside the supernatural side of things.

    In Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier, Anluan has a form of palsy as a disability but I like how the author does not use magic to heal him/’gift him’ with excess supernatural powers but instead focuses on exposing some of the cultural attitudes around how he is perceived by others which is a twist away from traditional ways of portraying beauty and the beast in a medieval setting.

    When I was 10, I read an MG historical fictional diary called Who am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937 which was about an Aboriginal girl taken from her home during the White Australia policy and placed into the care of a white family. As a kid, I could relate to Mary’s confusion about her cultural identity. I learned more about empathy, oppression and erasure in a way that’s different from just learning in the classroom.

    • Oooh, thank you for this helpful comment! A Spy in the House and Heart’s Blood look especially intriguing- I shall add those to my TBR list immediately! Cheers. :)

  2. Pingback: Weekly Recap| Aug 10-16, 2014 | Oh, the Books!·

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