This represents my notes on the presentations at the 2019 Historical Novel Society of Australia conference. They should not be taken as a precise record, and any mistakes are mine. There are gaps in some of the discussions because of my hand-writing speed, or because I took a note but couldn’t remember the context around it. I hope you enjoy reading about this conference as much as I enjoyed observing it. This blog uses affiliated links.
History Repeats: The power of remembrance in historical fiction
One of my favourite books as a child was “Seven Little Australians” by Ethel Turner. It was set in the 1880s and published in 1894. When I was a child, I didn’t realise that one section had been removed in the 1890s and wasn’t put back in until the 1990s. The story was an Aboriginal story about the Kookaburra and was an act of censorship. The scholar, Clare Bradford, said the story contradicted a key tenant of White Australia, aka the emptiness of the land and the settler narrative. Removing the story silenced any reference to Indigenous culture and to the colony’s ‘sorrowful beginnings’. The book was seen as authentic post censorship.
The book has contradictory takes on history: White happiness vs sorrowful Indigenous. There are also issues with cultural appropriation with the Kookaburra story that weren’t realised at the time, nor when it was replaced into the book in the 1990s.
The point of this – history is slippery and is shaped by point of view.
Maori culture has a saying which means “I walk backwards into the future with my eyes on the past.” History often looks forwards and backwards.
Morris told a story about her own ancestors – some White, some Maori and spoke about “having a foot in two or more places”
History is people. Past events are things people did or what they said. There are many voices in any point of history, often disagreeing with each. Just look at any family, there are always opposing views on the same event.
Character is the center of a story. They exist in a combined past and present. When a character only lives in the present, they are showing only half a life because they aren’t impacted by the past. And characters often exist in the future – thinking about what to have for dinner tonight, or deadlines, or upcoming holidays.
Consider the dimensionality of time.
How can we unpick the past?
What point of view will you take as a novelist?
Writers are driven by “violent curiosity” (Note this phrase was a quote from a scholar whose name I missed).
We can’t impose our contemporary values without knowing the values of the era we are writing. (Note – I personally disagree with this statement because I think writing is a political act and writers can’t help include their own politics into their writing. And this includes choosing the write an era where the values align with the writers own values).
Morris talked about the ‘power of remembrance.’
Remembrance is a loaded word. What do we remember? What do we choose to celebrate? Who is erased from our remembrance? Example given was ANZAC day and the erasure of different wars, or different soldiers (such as Indigenous soldiers), or the role of women outside the formal military structures.
There are parallels between past and present. BUT – exploring the past to shed light on the present is risky. By the time a book is written, the present has moved on.
Literature isn’t about us. It takes us to places we are afraid to go ourselves. Examples given included being burnt at the stake as a witch, criminal brains, the ugliness of life and person. Human nature and behaviour are the subjects.
Literature makes visible the unbroken lines to the past. History repeats, and seeing it helps us see the complexity of now.
Our business, as authors, is storyteller, not historical theorist. Make your readers believe the past is alive and real.