As students of history we first learn that the past is a series of events, factual and fixed, the details of which are recorded and filed away to be studied by us schoolchildren, the names of key players all in order, dates checked, and alibis checked out. But the past is far messier than our eighth-grade teachers would have us believe. Despite its claims of factuality, there is nothing sacred about the historical. No doubt history, and literature, too, will recall and relate the event of Sept. 11 depending on writers’ personal politics, memories, preferences, and creative license.
To start with, there are multiple histories, or readings of history, which cannot accurately be conflated: a “real” history, as unfolds irrespective of how it is received, observed, or processed by (wo)men; history as is recorded and disseminated in writing (every different text might be treated as its own history, or its own version of history); history as is preserved through oral tradition; the general history of a nation, state, or group; particular family histories; biographical and autobiographical histories, and so on. Every (wo)man, every community, every society has a history derived from one of the above definitions, by virtue of being presently existent.
But let me pause here, lest I digress too far into philosophical questions of existence and temporality. In the simplest terms, everyone has a history, but some histories are privileged over others. No one can access “history” in its entirety. The motivations, emotions, and beliefs that serve as fuel for history’s engine are inscrutable when assessed from the perspective of futurity. Events are constituted differently with every articulation; who knows how much is lost with each new narrator, speaker, or storyteller of history?
History is a global game of telephone that not everyone gets to play. Questions of ownership and participation further sully claims of historical accuracy. “History is written by the victors,” the adage goes; or, from the popular, though problematically nationalistic, filmBraveheart, “History is written by those who have hanged heroes.” Like any academic, economic, or cultural venture, the writing of history is subject to the dictates of power. Regardless of whom we deem producers—men, capitalists, publishing houses, colonialists, the West (choose your oppressor)—the “official” history is that which is stamped with the approval of those in power. The production of history itself involves the assumption of authority over the past via the writer’s claims of objectivity, ownership, and purity.
Of course, one has to acknowledge that some writers have rejected dominant modes of historical production and attempt to write revisionist histories, but even the most “revolutionary” histories—thinkThe Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Artor even Jon Stewart’s America: A Citizen’s Guide to Inaction—come with their own complications, limitations, and conditions. The “revisionist” assumes an authority over the lives of his or her subjects that is as troubling as that of a traditional, patriarchal, Western historian.
So what about the writers of literature? Do they too assume authority over the past? The writers of historical fiction, for example, have the power to imagine, create, and commit to writing the story of the world. To write fiction is to occupy a new and foreign space: the minds of characters who, no matter how realistically they read, are the writer’s to mold, shape, and direct. To write fiction is to write somebody, something, or a set of events into life. Writers of historical fiction thus speak a language of possibility and uncover worlds that have not come to light through traditional histories.
But, I realize—even as I speak of possibility and new worlds—that there is nothing sacred about literature, either. Not unlike historians, novelists exercise tremendous power as they consider the possible ways to present and represent the past, present, and future. And a historical fiction is never read as simply the fancy of the writer. Novels of and about history are expected to speak to general truths, an expectation that is at its best the enabler of universality, and, at its worst, a constraint on its characters.
Is literature a reiteration of history? Or do historical fictions articulate worlds and possibilities that traditional histories cannot access? Literature certainly grants importance to anecdotes and reflections that history does not consistently have time or make space for. Historical fiction is concerned with the lovers separated, the families torn apart, and the overlooked acts of heroism that might have taken place amidst the tumult of an event like Sept. 11. History gives us a record of name changes, religious conversions, thefts, and betrayals. Who is to say which is accurate? The writing of history and the writing of literature are deeply subjective projects. Each is affected by the “I” of its producer. For every statistic recorded by history, another is left out of the text. For every line spoken by a character, paragraphs of dialogue are left unspoken. Memory is fallible. Choices regarding inclusion are made with an element of randomness. The project of retelling history is always problematic, regardless of intended audience, genre, jargon, or form. Both historians and novelists must reconcile the impossibility of achieving objectivity, and, in turn, we as readers of history must grant writers their subjectivity.
Far more important than attempting to excavate the “truth” of the past is cultivating self-awareness and sensitivity to the perspectives and motivations of particular writers: Why does this historian privilege particular people, instances, and events of the past? How and why does this novelist imagine the past? Who does history record as having participated in the past? For whom and to whom is history written? It may be that the only histories that an individual has the “right” to write, without false claims of ownership or colonialist motivations, are those of family and self. Though admittedly there is tremendous exercise of authority involved in the production of autobiography as well. What greater power could there be than the freedom to remember, and re-imagine, and then commit to writing, your life story?
The only thing more important than history is the exploration of whose story. Whose story has been written, and whose story is being written. Whose story we’ve been told, and whose story we, in turn, will go on to tell.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a sophomore and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.