Thursday, October 6, 2011

Historical Footnotes

I'm taking a class in Historical Fiction this semester, which thus far has been my favorite writing class here at IC ever. (My professor is also awesome; last night she read from her new book TEN THOUSAND SAINTS, which I have not yet read, but which was blurbed by ANN PATCHETT of all people!! It also involves laser tag on the NYC subway system in 1988, so I now really have to read it.) I'm loving this class to pieces because I'm reading and writing things that I actually want to be reading and writing, rather than slogging through 'important' short stories and pretending I can write contemporary fiction because that's what's expected of me in an educational setting.

So far, in the two novels that we've read (THE BOOK OF SALT by Monique Truong and THE LITTLE BRIDE by Anna Solomon) and, to a lesser extent, in Professor Henderson's own novel, the authors have presented their readers with one of history's untold stories. THE BOOK OF SALT involves the gay Vietnamese chef employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris; THE LITTLE BRIDE is the story of a Jewish girl sent to South Dakota as a mail-order bride in the 1880s; TEN THOUSAND SAINTS is about the straight-edge scene in 1980s New York City.

One of the most interesting and, I think, important things about historical fiction is that it allows writers and readers to explore those untold stories. It allows us to imagine the lives of those people left out of the history books. It allows us to bring the past alive in a much more concrete way than a textbook that tells us "in 1793, Marie Antoinette was guillotined." Through fiction, and especially through the untold stories of history, we can empathize with the people who lived before us in ways that the 'facts' might not necessarily allow us to do.

History's untold stories are also a great place to find inspiration. All three authors have discussed in interviews (well, all right, I asked Professor Henderson about it at her reading last night, because we talk about it in class all the time) that they stumbled across a historical footnote that inspired them to write their novel. For Monique Truong, it was a mention of "Indo-Chinese cooks" in Alice B. Toklas' cookbook. Anna Solomon was Googling herself and discovered another Anna Solomon on a website about Jewish women pioneers. Professor Henderson said last night that her "footnote" was her husband's stories of growing up in the East Village. I've recently been inspired by the discovery that during the Irish Potato Famine (called The Great Hunger in Ireland), thousands of pounds' worth of food was being harvested from Anglo-Irish estates and shipped to Britain. This was something wholly left out of my previous historical education, and I wondered what it would be like to see all of that leave your country when you and everyone you knew was starving. And even worse, what would it be like to be the ones handing that precious food over?

History books (and yes, also things like Google and Wikipedia) are full of those footnotes, practically waiting for someone to stumble across them and become inspired by them to write those untold stories down. The next time you lovely readers are in need of a new idea, pick up that history text you were bored by once. Maybe there's something waiting there to inspire you.

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