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.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

Out of the Blue

In late October, out of the blue, I received a message from a lovely woman at QueryLetter.com. Lana had this to say:

We spend a lot of time reading top writing blogs, and I’m pleased to inform you that we’ve selected A Writer of History for a Top Writing Blog award …. Congratulations on building one of the best writing blogs available today and for helping writers improve their craft.

Imagine my delight and surprise! The blog has previously won awards from Writers Digest on two separate occasions, so I/we must be doing something right 🙂

QueryLetter.com offers services such as query letter writing support, agent contact info, manuscript critiques, and self-publishing support. They also offer a blog with lots of writing tips. I’m grateful that they selected A Writer of History for one of this year’s awards.

But .. I couldn’t have created this blog, let alone sustained it for nine years, without your readership and encouragement, and without the help of so many authors, bloggers, and readers who have contributed posts along the way.

So this award is also for you!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

Interview with Maraglindi author Bob Rich

Australian author Bob Rich writes both fiction and non-fiction and sends out a delightful newsletter once a month with bits of advice, philosophy, and writing news. I had the honour of endorsing his novel Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit. Today he’s answering questions about his writing and this novel in particular and offering a giveaway for someone who leaves a comment.

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Mary, thank you for the honor of featuring me on your wonderful blog. May I refer to it as the global hub of historical fiction? [So kind of you to say this, Bob.]

Having read the list of questions you emailed to me, I thought, “Hey, I really want to know the answers!” I hope I am not alone in this. But, I thought, first I’ll discuss the way my book, Maraglindi: Guardian spirit came to be written.

I used to work as a counselor at an (Australian) Aboriginal health center, and also, where I live has a substantial First Nations community, and I was able to be of service to them. I woke one morning, and a young Aboriginal girl spoke to me. No, she hadn’t entered the house, only my head. She demanded I write her story, and instantly, I had three facts: who she really was, how she was born, and how she died.

I said, “No, I’m not qualified. Aboriginal people get very upset when an outsider claims to write from their point of view. Anyway, where are you from?”

“What you people call the Hunter River. Worimi people.”

“Fair go! I have some familiarity with the Bunurong and Wurundjeri. That’s like knowing a little about the English and French, and being told to write about Romanians. Same continent is about the only commonality.”

All the same, like all the characters in my stories, she insisted on being the boss. After all, she is a Superior Spirit, and who am I to argue?

I had to do a lot of research, and also I tried to find a co-author: a Worimi person who could provide the internal details and therefore give the story legitimacy. While that hasn’t happened, I did find some very knowledgeable and helpful advisors. The strange things is, much of what Maraglindi told turned out to be correct.

It was necessary for me to include a creation story, and at the time I couldn’t find one, so used a combination of several from other Aboriginal nations. This was one of the details that proved to be false, and my advisor pointed me to the correct one. And you know what? It is uncannily similar to the Christian one, (well, Jewish one) given the cultural differences.

Maraglindi hasn’t stopped bossing me around, only now she is born the second time around, and is Florence Kline. “My name is Flossy, so I can be bossy!”

  • MARY: Indigenous people around the world have suffered trauma at the hands of settlers and colonizers. What insights about the relationships between them did you want Maraglindi’s story to provide?

Conquerors write history, so history glorifies conquerors… except when they are consigned to history. Few people say good things about Genghis Khan’s hordes, the Huns, the Vandals. All the same, there is admiration for Alexander from Macedonia, the Romans, the Vikings, and of course the various European cultures that stole from all over the planet.

To my mind, any colonial power is inherently barbaric. (The dictionary definition is “savagely cruel.”) Empire is robbery. When Queen Victoria’s empire considered itself to be the pinnacle of civilization, it was actually the nadir of inhumanity.

Everything you write is colored by your philosophy, even a shopping list. So, this attitude comes through in all my historical writing. It is just as strong in my fictionalized autobiography, Ascending Spiral, as in Maraglindi. You see, my life can only be understood by looking at the past lives I have recalled, which includes Viking raids, the Irish rebellion of 1798, and the terrible treatment of both convicts and Aborigines in what later became Australia. And in two of these past lives, I had very strong emotional bonds with Aboriginal people, although not Maraglindi’s nation.

My aim in life, the reason for everything I do, is to work to provide a future for the young people of the present, and to ensure this future is worth living in. Maraglindi’s story addresses the second part. In order to have a good world to live in, we need to learn from guardian spirits like Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius—and Maraglindi.

Every sentient being on this planet is an apprentice Jesus, an apprentice Buddha. Well, the ones who are already there are not apprentices. We do have a few. The Dalai Lama is one, and in my opinion Pope Francis another. (Mind you, I am not a Catholic, and not even a Christian.) We certainly need more!

In the mid-19th Century, the arrogant British aristocracy considered themselves to be the crown of creation. The colonials in America were beneath contempt, the Irish were animals to be either exterminated or enslaved, and when they invaded noble ancient cultures like in India and China, they treated the locals as if they were primitive. This is not even to mention the crime against humanity of enslaving Africans.

And, as you say, Mary, the treatment of indigenous people was approximately abysmal, give or take a little. OK, the Brits were no worse than the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas, the French, Belgians and Dutch and later Germans—it was an European disease of the soul.

I didn’t particularly set out to highlight this in Maraglindi, but, like the English version of religion, it was part of the framework the story was set in. You see, when I first met this amazing person, She told me she would need to live three human lives in order to be fully competent at understanding us. The first was Maraglindi, the second Florence, who is born at the very end of this book and features in the sequel, and then we need a third one in the present.

  • MARY: What aspects of Australia’s aboriginal culture do you admire most? Are there lessons that ‘white people’ can and should learn from this culture?

Mary, this is a wonderful question about a wonderful family of cultures. Before the white invasion, there were approximately 700 different nations, each with its language, culture, customs, myths, but also they had things in common.

People interested in history probably like nonfiction about it too. One of my favorite books is The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery. He sets out evidence that a long time ago, when I was very young (a minimum of 60,000 years, but maybe 100,000 years ago), people managed to cross the Wallace Line. This is a divide of animals. One side has Asiatic fauna, the other Australian. Once across, hunting became ridiculously easy, because animals did not fear humans. So, they developed a locust culture that killed everything in its path then moved on.

Until then, humans were just one hunter species, and also being hunted. But when people returned north, they took these destructive attitudes with them. Or so Tim Flannery says. Then as the great ice sheets melted and land became exposed, weed plants moved in, and rapidly breeding animals came to eat them, and humans followed with a weed culture.

We are the fruit of that weed culture, which has now eaten the planet.

But in what became Australia, the weed culture faltered. When people drove the big herbivores to extinction, vegetation built up and this resulted in megafires. It was so severe that it changed the very nature of the continent, with plants that do well in fire like eucalypts and wattles replacing the ancient forests. The humans also adapted, and learned to become parts of the land.

We are now doing to the whole planet what those ancient arrivals did to Australia. In order to survive, we need to learn how they survived, and to copy their attitudes. In another of my books, an Aboriginal elder says, “All living beings are my family.”

  • MARY: Magic—or perhaps the better description is the spirit world—plays a role in Maraglindi. Why did you choose to incorporate that aspect into the novel?

Me choose? I did no such thing.

First, I have found evidence that each hunting band in the old days had a “magic man,” and they communicated with each other by telepathy, and that’s how things were coordinated over long distances.

But also, the first thing Maraglindi told me about herself was that She is a Superior Person, an enlightened spirit, Who has learnt the ultimate lesson of unconditional love for all, and that She has been assigned as a guide to us little humans. Try and tell that story without invoking the spirit world.

  • MARY: You talk of a ‘white person truth’ and a ‘blackfella truth’—is there a message for readers to take away from this?

I do love your questions. The force me to think. One of my hobbies is comparative religion, and you know what? Every religion I have studied carries the same set of underlying messages. Because I am a secular Buddhist (follow the philosophy without doing any ritual), I use the Buddhist term “metta” for it. You can read what that means at http://bobswriting.com/bill/metta.html

So, as Maraglindi has said in the book, both the whitefella truth and the blackfella truth can be true. So is Chinese truth, and Jewish truth, and Muslim truth—they are all the one Truth.

  • MARY: Do you have hope for the future relationship between indigenous Australians and those who took over the country?

Instead of answering myself, I will quote Aunty Lil, who is a Wurundjeri elder:

“In old times, there were 700 different nations in this land, each with their own language, each looking after their own country that was their mother and their being. Now, there is a need for one people, looking after one land that is our mother and our being. This whole planet is my mother. The land is my mother; the trees and grasses and mosses and kangaroos and elephants and wolves and rabbits and snails my brothers and sisters. The ocean is my mother; the whales and dolphins and sharks and salmon and herring and jellyfish and krill my brothers and sisters.

“And so are you, and so it is for you.

“And so, I welcome you to my country, which is your country, to my planet, which is your planet, and I invite you to stop killing my mother, which is your mother; my brothers and sisters, which are your brothers and sisters.”

Aunty Lil only lives inside my computer at the moment. She is an important secondary character in the Doom Healer series, which is doing its best to burst onto the world stage. But she does set out what humanity needs to do to survive: adopt the Australian Aboriginal attitude to nature so it fits our circumstances.

This is one of the important reasons I am a very active member of the Australian Greens political party. A Federal election is approaching, and we have a 15 point platform. Top of the list is “Treaty with First Nations.”

Mary, once again thank you for featuring me on your blog. One week after this interview goes live, I will visit random.org, and select one commenter, who will receive a free electronic copy of Maraglindi: Guardian spirit.

Many thanks, Bob. Your thoughts from Aunty Lil echo some of the philosophy articulated in a memoir I’m reading – Indian in the Cabinet by Jody Wilson-Raybould. An indigenous Canadian, Jody Wilson-Raybould says: ‘our culture, worldview, spirituality, and way of life are integrally related to the natural world … this is our religion’.

Best wishes for Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit.

Maraglindi: Guardian Spirit by Dr. Bob Rich ~~ 1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love.
During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart.

Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.