Is fiction a better way to tell history? It is, says historical fiction writers

When three authors of fiction couched strongly in history get together with a translator and the host of a popular, long-running television show called Just Books, to talk about whether fiction is a better way to ‘tell’ history, the results are a pretty foregone conclusion.

It is, because fiction allows you to get into those spaces, gaps, and interstices that plain history usually ignores.

So it was on Saturday, when Manreet Sodha Someshwar, author of The Radiance of a Thousand Suns, Manu S Pillai who has written the magnificent, continent-spanning  The Ivory Throne, and Tracy Chevalier, author of the best-selling book (made into a film), Girl with the Pearl Earring, met up to discuss the issue with Patrick DeVille, who heads French translation agency MEET. In the chair was Sunil Sethi, known for his long-running show on NDTV, Just Books.

For instance, Chevalier talked of the inspiration for her historical novel which was provided by the painter Johannes Vermeer’s work, the subject of which provided the title and the subject. Asked if history needed to write fiction, she replied that in fact, it was her biggest challenge. Fictionalising the past is difficult, especially when it comes to using the right language for the time. There is also the struggle to ensure that the present does not intrude into the story.

Deville encouraged the audience to read historical works as one read philosophy. “Historical novels enable us to get an insight into the complexities of life by providing us with the data and facts,” he declared, adding that what readers really want is a story. If that story opens up a window to history, all the better.

Often history is not understood from the vantage point of the present. It is here that fiction helps, and where art and literature act as channels to understand history, said Manu Pillai

He talked about the horror of Partition which eludes comprehension through dry facts and data. But a story like . The Partition of India being an example, he speaks of The partition of India. While that is history and not understood by many, Saadat Hassan Manto’s story “Khol do”. In it, he seens the perpetrators of the violence and barbarity of Partition, not as Hindus and Muslims, but as human beings responding to  events as they take place, thus enabling the reader to relate to faraway events as if they could happen now.  “Fiction adds an element of reality to history,” he said.

Fiction can also break the boundaries of fact. Manreet spoke of Alias Grace, the best-seller by literary giant Margaret Atwood which tells the story of a girl accused of murder in the 19th century. Based on fact, it is the fiction, as in the creation of a doctor who tells the story, that brings the event to life so vividly. The book is now a series on Netflix as well. “Fiction makes the unspoken spoken”, said Manreet.

Krystelle Dsouza

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