HNSA2019: Learning from History

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.


Content Warning: Racism

Learning from history: subtexts in historical novels

Kelly Gardiner chaired this panel, with Lucy Treloar (Salt Creek), Winton Higgins (Rule of Law : A novel) and Michelle Aung Thin (The Monsoon Bride).

Question – What is the book about?

WH – WW2 Nuremberg trial

MAT – 1930s Rangoon

LT – Salt Creek is about a South Australian colonial family

Question – But what is it really about?

MAT – about sex, marriage, and how ethnical identity impacts your choices.

LT – gap and contradictions in family stories. Note: At this point, she called the local Indigenous people ‘the blacks’ then made an ahhh noise and corrected herself to Indigenous. I was too shocked to note why she was mentioned Indigenous people in relation to her book. I continued to take notes on this panel (in contrast to my response to the earlier insult on the Bette and Joan panel) because I was interested in what MAT had to say. Does this make me a hypocrite? Possibly.

WH – the impact of war and the court trial

MAT – who you are and negotiations of place

Question – your reflections and feelings as you wrote

LT – not a conscious decision to reflect on the present. Mostly I was mad about Tony Abbott and women’s spaces. Note: the (mostly white) audience laughed at this, while my sense of being uncomfortable increased. Is the earlier racism forgiven by the audience, or simply unnoticed, or are they united around common politics? Honestly, I’m not the person to dissemble this, as a white author who is still learning. This article by Asha Ganesan is excellent re the use of racism and racial erasure in historical novels.

WH – Felt anger. He spoke about some technical stuff about global issues. “It is a criminal offense to start a war” but so many have begun since the Nuremberg trial. It feels like an enormous regression especially with regards to human rights abuses.

MAT – we keep fighting the same issues again and again. Zodie Smith said “nothing is ever won, you just keep fighting.” MAT talked about being born in the year of the coup of 1969. Rangoon and Burma was forbidden to her family after they ran away, and therefore she became a bit obsessed with the place and the family stories.

Question – how does place impact on your book?

MAT – acknowledge the people from the past and the hidden layers. Rangoon is purported to be the most haunted place in Asia. It is literally built on layers to build it up over the swamp in monsoon season

WH – Hitler described Nuremberg as “the most German of cities” hence why the Americans bombed it. No other strategic reason for it. Imagine a rise up of modern Germany out of the “despicable crap” of Nazi Germany. Now Nuremberg is completely rebuilt, even the medieval buildings.

LT – resonance of place. Called herself a “Geiger counter of place” with a gut feel for bad things having happened at a place. The place in her book gave her weird vibes, and many locals also mentioned it. She said, “Something bad must have happened there.” Note: Given her earlier comment on the local Indigenous people, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a massacre in the place’s history, but that wasn’t mentioned in the talk.

MAT – moral structure of place, believes people can be very attuned to that if you’ve researched a place a lot. And you bring that same structure to a place too.

Question – how do you create atmosphere in your book?

WH – the changing seasons and what characters notice

LT – if you have an emotional connection to a place, the atmosphere will come. If you ‘lunge’ at it, it comes out forced. If you inhabit the world, it’s more natural.

MAT – Fiction allows atmosphere to work with character, the “thereness” of fiction. Understanding power structures adds atmosphere. Understand the hierarchy and hidden layers – how to people feel in different spaces, and their different access to different spaces. There is a constant upheaval of relationship to space and power structures.

Question to WH – Did the trial turn the Nazi hierarchy on it’s head by taking the Nazi leaders and putting them on the stand?

WH – the trial was full of classic school yard bullying stuff. Goering saw himself as a legacy. The power moved back and forth between Goering and prosecutors during the trial.

Question – which authors inspire you?

LT – Jane Gardiner (1799 Young Ladies’ Grammar or An Excursion from London to Dover, in Two Volumes (1806)), a UK writer who was an observer of human nature. And Hermann Melville (Moby Dick).

WH – Frank Moorhouse (Dark Palace), Kate Grenville (The Secret River) who has inspiring, perfect prose, and someone else whose name I missed.

MAT – Michael Ondaatje (The Cat’s Table (Vintage International), Running in the Family)

Question from floor – what are the pitfalls of writing historical fiction?

LT – let the history sit lightly. It’s too easy to pile in the history. Only use the important details to create a sense of place. Too much is like wading through mud.

MAT – start with the characters

WH – if you have enormous curiosity, the details overwhelm. Keep the story moving along.

The panel concluded with a question from the floor referencing a debate that took place at the previous HNSA conference, which I didn’t attend. Most of this panel sided with Kate Grenville against some guy called Ian.

WH – both sides (of the aforementioned debate) take a different approach. No one should have a monopoly on the past.

I have spent the two days after this panel thinking about this moment. Should I have said something? Should I have kept listening? Isn’t the title of the panel a little ironic (learning from history)? How can I boost writers of colour who are much better placed than me to understand the impact of a casual racist reference like this? Etc.

Here are some books written by authors or scholars of colour on the subject of racism in historical novels and in romance novels.

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