Don’t Forget the “Story” Part!

St Lawrence Hall was an important site in the Canadian anti-slavery movement

St Lawrence Hall was an important site in the Canadian anti-slavery movement

The pic at left is of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall–an important site in the Canadian abolitionist movement. The Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1851) invited lecturers such as Frederick Douglass to speak there and the North American Convention of Colored People met here.

I was in Toronto since a very good college friend of mine–now a professor at the University of Michigan–was attending a symposium entitled “Tales of Slavery: Narrative of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Enslavement in Africa.”

Since my best friend (his wife) and I are writers, he thought we would enjoy a panel on “How Novelists Construct Past Slaveries.” He was right. Given that two of my published stories involved slaves, I was absolutely fascinated. Moderated by Kofi Anyidoho of the Univ. of Ghana, the panelists all spoke on their challenges, inspirations and realizations as they tried to turn history into a story. The panelists included African-Canadian author Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes, US title: Someone Knows My Name); South African authors Manu Herbstein (Ama, A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade) and Yvette Christanse (The Unconfessed); and historian Natalie Davis (Fiction in the Archives, Slaves Onscreen, and Women on the Margins).

I found Mr Hill’s and Ms. Davis’ papers and answers during the Q&A to be the most compelling as I know the feeling of how going through an archives and reading things like lists can get you hyped and trigger questions that become inspirations, such as “Who were they? What were their lives like? What are their stories?”

I also liked Ms. Christanse’s honest answer to a question of “Can anyone write the story of another culture?” Her take on it was that in theory–yes–but there are certain stories that she’d be nervous about taking on, such as that of a Jew during the Holocaust. Chesya and I debate this question constantly, as, is it a matter of “appropriation”? Or as writers, shouldn’t we be able to write about anything or anyone if the facts are straight and the voice is true? That’s a whole other post for another time though.

Having been a history major myself and considering that I write historical fiction, I could see one problem if a historian wishes to create a work veering more towards creative writing than not. A comment was made about “Wondering what other historians would think.” I remember muttering, “We don’t necessarily care what you think. Who are you really writing for?”

Don’t get me wrong. No writer ever wishes to have their facts incorrect or to misinform others, but a creative writer is not the same as an academic writer. We can take some liberties where a historian writing a more non-fiction or scholarly work absolutely should not. We are not writing for scholars, we are weaving a story for the reader and there’s nothing worse than reading a novel that is just a stringing together of the author’s research notes. While I believe historians have the capability to write an engaging story, they have to be able to be skilled enough as a storyteller as well.

History is a great inspiration for fiction, without a doubt, but to make it come alive…one can’t forget the “story” part of it.

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