Penman No. 41: Writing Historical Fiction

Deed of SalePenman for Monday, April 8, 2013

AS I write this, we’re up in Baguio with this year’s crop of 12 fellows attending the 52nd UP National Writers Workshop, and we’re discussing the works-in-progress presented by the fellows, who are all practicing and accomplished creative writers with at least one published book to their name. We’re calling them mid-career writers, but their ages range widely from the mid-20s to seniorhood.

In our youth-oriented culture, we often forget how maturity can have its advantages, and how the literary imagination can improve with age. I was reminded of this when we took up the works of two of this year’s older fellows, Thomas David Chavez and Anna Marie Harper, both of whom happened to be working on historical novels.

Writing the novel is difficult enough, but the writing of historical fiction poses some special challenges, which probably explains why not too many writers essay the medium.

History deals with the past, but whenever we present it today—whether as fact or fiction—it inevitably also deals with the present, and by projection, with the future. In other words, the past is truly important to us—beyond its curiosity value—insofar as it informs the present, and provides clues as to what the future might be.

The “historical” part of the term “historical fiction” apparently requires close attention to factual detail, which means exhaustive research of an almost academic nature, to make certain that one is taking off from solid ground. Just how solid that ground is will of course be debatable and may even be the subject of the fiction itself—“What really happened?”—but no matter what departures from fact are taken, a certain familiarity with the past (perhaps a fictive or imagined familiarity) is assumed.

Indeed the basic proposition of historical fiction can be summed up thus: “We think we know the past, but we don’t.” A more severe formulation might be: “We don’t know the past at all.”

The fictionist’s conceit lies in his or her suggestion that fiction, rather than even more thorough or more scholarly research, can remedy this lack of understanding. It’s the same conceit we carry over to contemporary fiction, which is our response, our proposed alternative, to CNN, to the White House or the Malacañang Press Secretary, to the Departments of History and Political Science. The fictionist’s reason for being draws from one of my favorite quotations, this one from Mark Twain, a man who knew how to spin a fanciful yarn while being engaged in the most significant political debates of his time. In so many words, Twain said: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.”

The sense-making of fiction relies, in turn, on dramatic plausibility—or, to put it in Aristotelian terms, on probability and necessity, in the logic of the human heart and mind. (To Aristotle, tragedy—which you can take to be literature itself—was superior to history, because history merely dealt with what happened, while tragedy concerned itself with what could happen). What makes fiction interesting is that this logic of the human heart and mind can often be bewilderingly illogical, although it will, at some point, acquire a frightening inevitability.  I’ve often told my students that characters become truly interesting if and when they go out of character, and these turning points are what we wait for, both in history and fiction.

It is, therefore, the burden of the historical fictionist to offer more than both ordinary historians and ordinary fictionists can offer. The past has to be more than setting or décor, the pitfall of bad historical fiction; and the fiction will require more than an embellishment of known fact. Historical fiction is not fictionalized history; it is not creative nonfiction. It is a fictionist’s creative use of the past as material with which to make sense of the present, of how we came to be what we are, of how we will likely be tomorrow.

Dave Chavez’s novel is set in the American Occupation, told from the point of view of the Filipino butler and cook of an American officer who heads the health service in a time of war and cholera. It goes a bit farther back to 1874, when a boatload of Japanese lepers arrives in Manila Bay from Nagsaki under the command of a Captain Kurosawa:

“Only in the last minute was Kurosawa informed of the nature of his gruesome mission, although two weeks before setting sail, he was told to recruit an able-bodied crew of 14 ocean-tested men, then to stock up on supplies treble that number, and finally, to organize a guild of petty merchants who could assemble on such short notice a credible cargo for trade in Manila. Given the time constraint, the captain orchestrated a passable, if rough and ready nine tons of merchandise. Kurosawa inspected and oversaw for himself the weighing of the bales of Kyushu silk, wax-sealed jars of Shikoku soy sauce and crates of Western-style gleaming steel cutlery from the foundries of Fukuoka.

“Of course, there were special items that were not for sale or barter, but were primed spotless and sheening just the same under orders of the Overlord. In there were intricately- packaged gifts of dolls, fans of gilt brocade paper, ukiyo-e scrolls, pictures of the fleeting world depicting the pillow tales of cloistered Genroku noblewomen, some fancy paper from the presses of Nagoya, and finely-wrought cotton yukatas from the prefecture of Nara. These were presents for Manila’s notables, including Governor-General José Malacampo Monje, the Spanish and mestizo nobles of Intramuros and Ermita, the regidor of the port, and finally the Archbishop of Manila, Gregorio Melitón Martinez Santa Cruz.”

Bambi Harper’s second novel will be a prequel to her first one, Agueda, published last year. While Agueda charted a woman’s and her society’s progress from the late 19th to the early 20th century, The Shadow on the Sundials starts with the British Occupation of 1762, and introduces a colorful cast of characters that includes a visionary beata, a dashing Spanish rake, a native servant girl, and a dwarf. Harper draws the curtains on our bygone days thus:

“The entire upper floor of the house that overlooked the narrow provincial road formed a giant screen with its window panes of capiz shells, while below the sills were ventanillas where as a child Tita dangled her chubby legs through the spaces between the carved balusters. The house stood on the corner beside an old stone bridge and massive doors opened into a saguan where granite steps led to the caida, an anti-sala overlooking a garden of fruit trees. The lower classes waited here to be summoned into the august presence of the owner—even poor relations of Doña Titik unless they were in the kitchen eating with the help. The lucky visitor who was invited into the inner sanctum of the sala meant you were either a friar, a foreigner, rich, or all of the above. No expense had been spared in the décor of the living room that revealed ceilings painted with garlands held up by rose-cheeked cherubs. Trompe l’oeil of receding colonnades on the walls created an illusion of expanding space. No carpets hid the glory of the wide narra floor planks that were rubbed daily with a coconut husk and banana leaves to a mirror finish.”

I look forward to the completion of both projects—indeed, of more novels that draw on our tremendously rich history to examine the emergence of our nationhood.

I’D LIKE to acknowledge and express my appreciation for a message from reader Nikko Salvador, who wrote in to say—in response to my GenSan piece last week—that a museum can indeed be found at his school, the Notre Dame of Dadiangas University, and that a few steps away stands a thorny dadiangas plant. I’ll make sure to visit these spots the next time I fly down to GenSan.

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