Friday, 20 November 2009
Abstract of my contribution to 'Writing, Risk-Taking and Rule-breaking in the Academy'
Real and Perceived Risks
I think there is always going to be an element of ‘riskiness’ in historical fiction simply because we are taking material considered to be ‘factual’ and reshaping it to fit our purposes. Readers knowledgeable about the historical details I include in my novel are bound to be critical if those details are not presented accurately, and readers more engaged with the fiction will be critical if the plot reads like an academic treatise. But historical fiction is fiction at the end of the day, albeit a form which demands authenticity. The key, then, is to be meticulous in my research.
Perhaps the greatest challenge I face, however, is one which is self-imposed. At the centre of my novel is an historical personage about whom very little is known – Halahtookit, the Nez Perce son of the explorer William Clark – and my original aim was to present one strand of the narrative from his point of view. Many fiction writers would rejoice at such a find – an intriguing ‘character’ which they can manipulate to their own ends without the worry of being criticised for historical inaccuracy. Cultural appropriation such as this, however, has been detrimental and hurtful to Native Americans. In the past, their traditions, beliefs and ancestors have been misrepresented by non-Native writers and these inaccuracies have been given an authority within the wider community which they don’t deserve. This, in turn, has led to resentment and mistrust. Before being introduced to the Nez Perce tribal historian, Otis Halfmoon, I was cautioned to take things slowly and to understand that the sharing of tribal knowledge is ‘serious business’.
Were I writing about an historical figure who was White, I doubt very much that I would have this sense of responsibility about portraying them in a fictional context, but I am very much aware of the sensitivities involved and of the fact that Native Americans have suffered greatly at the hands of non-Natives.