The Role of Politics in Historical Fiction

I had the pleasure of listening to Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan‘s talk The Fictional is Political during the 2021 HNS North America conference. The premise of their presentation is that every story is political given the power dynamics behind its characters and their world, and that those writing historical fiction must delve into and interpret the complex politics of the past. Definitely a topic of interest for the seven elements of historical fiction – so I invited Carrie and Samantha to answer a few questions.

Can you start us off with a definition of politics that provided a foundation for the presentation you gave at HNS 2021?

Carrie: Politics is the pursuit or exercise of power. So what’s power? In college, my professor defined power as the ability to force others to do as you will. I think that coercive element is unnecessary and distracting; rather, power should be the ability to do as you will – power is agency.

Samantha: I love Carrie’s definition of politics from our presentation for the Historical Novel Society, which is better than what I could come up with! In a generalized way, I think of politics as interlocking systems of power and how those systems affect my characters

When you think of politics in the context of historical fiction, what aspects do you consider to inform the stories you tell?

Samantha: We live in a time where people often feel so disenfranchised and disempowered that we begin to believe we have very little effect on these larger systems at play. Through my fiction, I hope to demonstrate how marginalized people are, in fact, the people who most interrogate, challenge, and change these systems that we tend to believe are immutable and entrenched. Perhaps it’s an aspirational inclination, but the historical record is full of “regular people” who radically changed the world. 

Carrie: I adore Samantha’s empowering view of politics in fiction. Likewise, I feel passionately that all lives are intertwined with politics, whether it’s a nun’s pursuit of independence in a 13th century convent or a young woman’s efforts to liberate her enslaved relatives or a female artist’s efforts to establish herself as a working painter in male-dominated 17th century Holland. I want our readers today to see how the threads of power and politics have always formed the weft and weave of human lives.

What research do you do to understand the political dynamics of a particular era?

Carrie: For both my novels, I read widely about the historical moment (17th century Holland or early 20th century Russia). Because history is founded on history, I always research what came before the moment I’m writing about. I also look for the wars. You don’t have to search far to find a war at nearly any moment in history, and understanding those wars helps illuminate the political conflicts of that time.

Samantha: I usually begin by reading books about the subject matter and then go deeper into scholarship. I’m fortunate to have access to some excellent research databases and an incredible public library system with very helpful librarians! For The Company Daughters, I also reached out to some scholars in the field of Dutch slavery in Indonesia and I traveled to Amsterdam as well. 

Do you look for parallels between the politics of then versus now?

Samantha: Those parallels are an inevitable part of writing historical fiction for me—otherwise, what’s the point? Personally, I’m not very interested in the human stories behind famous people in history—monarchs and such. As someone who grew up reading European history until I took an Indian History class in college (taught by a non-Indian professor), I’m more interested in unearthing the stories of the oppressed and colonized. And we live in such a time of social and economic upheaval, that I’m continually surprised and aware that the stories I’m writing, and the dynamics shaping them, are still relevant. 

Carrie: As Samantha said, it’s almost impossible not to find the parallels. As writers we are interested in moments of history precisely because we see something that resonates with us at the moment, and we are offering stories to readers who will become immersed because they too see echoes. Yes, that parallel might be as simple as a common humanity, but that is based in an understanding that our struggles today are similar to those before us. In my first novel, A Light of Her Own, I wondered how Judith Leyster felt about her female ambition in a patriarchal world. Today we’re still not sure what to do with women’s ambitions.

How does the political dimension enrich character development, add to plot and conflict, become part of the world you build for readers.

Carrie: Ah, so much! In my second novel, Salt the Snow, real-life American journalist Milly Bennett is trying to figure out what to make of early 1930s Moscow — when the Depression is ravaging the United States and the Soviet Union seems to be finding its economic footing. Politics at that moment were integral to her personal conflict. As a journalist, she was exploring how to be truthful in a world where it felt like everyone had an agenda. It became personal when her opera-dancer husband was arrested by the secret police. The struggle to exercise power affected every step of her life.

Samantha: In The Company Daughters, I saw so many concentric circles of power/politics. There was the issue of class between Jana and Sontje, exacerbated by the Dutch colonial project at that time and the establishment of what’s now considered the first multinational corporation (The Dutch East India Company). Then there were the gender politics requiring the trafficking policy imposed by the Company. And of course the political realm of religion and how religious dogma further removed women from their sexuality. Finally, there’s just the political dynamic between these two women who fall in love on this awful ten-month journey to the colonies and must constantly navigate shifting systems of power through marriage, sickness, pregnancy, and class when they arrive in Batavia.

Perhaps you could both also answer the question: What novel are you working on now?

Samantha: I’m working on a multi-POV novel set in the 1930s about three young people in India, France, and Vietnam who find their way into anti-colonial activism around a specific historical event in French India.

Carrie: I’m also working on a story set in the 1930s! It’s such a rich era for political uncertainty and drama. My story is about a Spanish woman exiled from her home when her father catches her kissing another woman. It doesn’t get easier from there.

Carrie Callaghan is the author of the novels Salt the Snow and A Light of Her Own. She lives in Maryland with her family and three ridiculous cats. She’s something of a political junky, though she hates to admit it.

Samantha Rajaram is the author of The Company Daughters. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and India Currents, and she was a contributor to Our Feet Walk the Sky, the first South Asian-American anthology published in the US.

Many thanks to Samantha and Carrie for illuminating the topic of politics in historical fiction. You’ve certainly given me new perspective on the topic along with the notion that politics is (almost) always a source of conflict.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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One Response

  1. Nice:

    “…parallels are an inevitable part of writing historical fiction for me—otherwise, what’s the point?”

    Very much also part of why I write historical fiction.
    Excellent review, thank you for presenting the reasons behind why and how these ladies choose to write.

    Warm regards,
    Shira

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