This week the Paper Lantern Writers tackle a topic for our times – How have you dealt with race relations when writing historical fiction?
A recent New York Times headline claimed that “Every Work of American Literature is About Race”—which got me thinking.
When I (Kathryn) decided to write a fictionalized account of my great-great-grandmother’s polygamous marriage, I hadn’t thought much about how Swiss immigrants interacted with other races. But writing a story about the people who homesteaded the American West meant I’d be writing a story about people who claimed and farmed land that was occupied by Native Americans. For my ancestors and characters, those people were the Shoshones living in Northern Utah and Southeastern Idaho.
The more I researched interactions between the Shoshones and homesteading Mormons in the Great Basin and Upper Snake River Valleys, the more varied my depictions became. There were heartbreaking stories of brutal massacres by the U.S. military and heartwarming stories of Shoshone survivors who worked alongside the starving European immigrants bent on building Zion in the wilderness. Including the sinners and saints from all camps made the story richer.
My new WIP set in Gilded Age Salt Lake City (which wasn’t all that gilded) includes Japanese immigrants as well as African-Americans (not to mention a Cuban lover) who interact with two female white protagonists. Again, the kernel of the story did not include strong themes of race relations, but these characters showed up and demanded to be heard. I’m doing my best to tell their story—as it would have happened in that place and time— without resorting to tropes and cliches.
One silver lining in the current climate of racial tension is the outpouring of resources to help me overcome my own racial biases. This summer I’ve slowly been working through Layla Saad’s ME AND WHITE SUPREMACY as well as Joanna Brooks’s MORMONISM AND WHITE SUPREMACY. Their perspectives have helped me see where I tend to err—usually by painting people of color as the “wise ones” (e.g. Noble Savages), rather than writing more fully rounded characters. I think of Maya Angelou’s statement — “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I’m learning more in order to do better.
In a recent interview, author James McBride (DEACON KING KONG) recommended writers find their characters’ “good stuff and the rest will work out.” He also said that “a book is not a platform to give your opinions, a book is a place to tell stories.” The stories come first but I will continue to question the way I portray interactions with characters of color in order not to reduce them to their race.
Linda looks to research and sensitivity readers to avoid pitfalls . . .
The biggest risk I took with THE ALOHA SPIRIT was having the nerve to try to portray such a Hawaiian concept as the aloha spirit. I did my best to write it with as much authenticity and respect as possible. I didn’t have to deal too much with different racial cultures since my main characters were all haole, or White. Hawaiian, Japanese, and Mexican characters make an appearance, but are ancillary to the story.
In my current work in progress, however, the three main women are Dakota, Black, and White. Although they are all real historical people, not much information exists about their lives. I’m doing my best to research how the various cultures lived in 1835 Michigan Territory, and I hope to do them justice. I will definitely have it read by sensitivity editors who are Black and Indian when it is finished. I would hate to offend someone because of my ignorance.
Katie recalls life experiences and literature that have informed her approach to race and literature . . .
I take classes (as often as possible) about writing other perspectives and marginalized POVs. I read histories written by those with marginalized perspectives. I follow social media accounts so I can learn what contemporary experiences are. And I constantly challenge my own writing to deconstruct my bias, because I absolutely have one.
The first lesson is that Representation Matters. I don’t write as a political act or to be different for different’s sake. I want to write books that I like and that my friends will like. My life is not all cis-het-white people. So why would I create a fictional world where my friends don’t exist? Or where they are institutionally oppressed? I do my research, I don’t change facts, but even so, I am aware of the patriarchal white-bias lens that came with my high school history textbooks. I work to overcome that.
I’ve been writing a literary novel, THE SQUARE GRAND, for well over a decade, which started me down this different path of inquiry. It pre-dates my interest in Romance novels, it predates my marriage. The book is set in North Dakota at the turn of the previous century and features three white characters and one member of the Mandan tribe.
Years ago, when answering questions from a friend about THE SQUARE GRAND, he pointed out that my discussion of my main Native American character was disrespectful. My friend, who is a member of the Mohawk tribe, corrected me. Gently, of course, because he’s heard it all before. It was an easy moment, in passing, just friends lounging around. But in that moment, I realized that he might be MORE interested in my dusty book about the budding infrastructure of 1899 North Dakota railroad towns because there was someone with whom he might identify—if I wrote the character with more sensitivity.
A little later, I asked my closest knit group of friends to read my book and when they all got to a particular scene–a birthday party/barn dance with a fiddler and pie and apple cider on a balmy September evening on the prairie–they all agreed the scene was cinematic, and jokingly discussed where they would cast themselves in the movie version. Serving pie? Dancing? In the hay loft, up to no good? One friend, who is of Korean descent, offered that if she was way in the back, in soft focus, maybe she could pass for Native American, because my book had zero Asians in it.
Ouch. I worked so hard and for so long and now I saw that I’d created something that excluded one of my best friends. Someone I’d known since we were eleven, slept over at each other’s houses, were pen pals when we lived in different states. We even had the same boyfriend (not at the same time). And here was my blood-sweat-and-tears book, and she had no representation. I felt stupid and bumbling.
In an unrelated move, I started looking into Romance, and reading Regency, because I love historical fiction. And while I found Regencies enjoyable, and some had very snappy, smart dialogue, many were. . . a little bland.
Until I found Courtney Milan. I first read Milan’s THE HEIRESS EFFECT, which has a secondary love story where the hero is from India. Not just Indian descent, but legit, grew up in India, going to school at Oxford, has super complicated feelings about England and the British. Dude. Is. From. India. The romance between the younger sister of the heroine, who is shut in because of her epilepsy, and this University student from India, is so poignant and touching.
(Side note: I highly recommend THE HEIRESS EFFECT because the heiress tries really, really hard to not have men running after her because of her money, so she directs all these very polite but exceedingly rude comments at dinner guests. Wears shockingly clashing colors. It’s . . .hilarious. Please read. Because it’s also a book about putting you in your place, which is an inherent aspect of race and gender relations.)
So, I wrote A LADY’S REVENGE about a woman who is supposed to have it all, except for one unfair childhood tragedy, which everyone tells her to just forget. But she’s so angry that she can’t see straight. And when writing it, I found Bess Abbott, the main character and titular boxer for my next book THE BOXER AND THE BLACKSMITH. When thinking about the hero for A LADY’S REVENGE, I made him have the same light ginger coloring as my dad. I knew I was doing it–it wasn’t an accident. My dad had passed away several years previous, and had a poor self-image, and I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely for him to be a romance hero? While the character is not anything like my father, he resembles him physically.
And when thinking of a man that would love Bess Abbott, who could see Bess not as a fighter, or an unfeminine woman, but rather as a person with uncommon drive and strength, who always lands on her feet, I thought of a friend from college–absolutely a romance hero in his own right. And while my hero, the titular blacksmith, is not my friend in many ways, I wanted him to have my friend’s gentle wisdom, even temperament, and ability to weather all storms. I needed to have a hero that had a similar lived experience as my lady boxer, one where their physiques define how the world sees them, no matter what their insides are. I needed my hero to have a different past, one that makes him looking for connection, whereas my heroine has a past that made her convinced that love of any kind was out of her reach. Picturing them together, I knew that my hero, like my friend, was Black.
But as a white woman, I cannot speak to the Black experience, even one that occurred 200 years ago. So I read non-fiction and fiction. Reading history written by Black historians gives a very different picture from canonical history books about the Georgian and Regency eras.
For example, I knew that the South Seas Bubble was a financial disaster for England’s elite during the Georgian era. Many aristocratic families lost wealth and needed to consolidate their families to shore up their finances. In A LADY’S REVENGE I set scenes in the London Stock Exchange; showing how they were bullies, threw elbows, and openly engaged in insider trading and shortselling (which was legal at the time).
Then I read BLACK AND BRITISH by David Olusoga. And his take on the South Sea Bubble didn’t mention the financial impact on titled aristocrats. Instead he explained how the South Sea Bubble was an inflation bubble surrounding the belief in the profitability of The South Sea Company. The honorary governor of this company was King George I himself. And you know what it sold? People.
The South Sea Company failed to turn a profit in the slave trade. And a bunch of aristocrats lost their shirts. It took reading a Black historian discussing the same time period as a white historian for me to understand what was really going on during the South Sea Bubble: the slave trade.
Some readers think A LADY’S REVENGE is more historical fantasy than historical fiction, because the idea of a woman boxing has never occurred to them. Especially in the genteel world we associate with Jane Austen–even though boxing was the eminent sport of the time. Even though there are accounts of aristocratic older brothers teaching a thing or two to younger sisters, just in case. Even though there is an account of an all-out brawl in the late Georgian era between two ladies of standing.
Classic novels and film adaptations depict the elegant architecture, the white dresses, and the balls. They forgo the drunks in the street, mad with gin; the stench of the Thames full of floating corpses and sewage. It’s easier to think of the British aristocracy as all white, even though it demonstrably wasn’t. There were complicated race relations then, with wealthy whites, but also people of color, and thousands enslaved people of color creating wealth for the upper classes with the production of rum and sugar.
But I think this bigger view of the Regency is fascinating and broader and far more magical than the one we’ve known. So, I’m here to talk—and write–about it. All of it.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.