History's great tragedies have always made for great storytelling. Some of the world's best-known works of literature -- from Anthony and Cleopatra to Beloved -- are rooted in our wars and revolutions, rising and falling empires, doomed heroes and lost love affairs. Both readers and writers find the tug of true-life epics irresistible -- in spite of the weighty responsibility of accurate historical representation as well as the burden of political baggage often attached to an era or event.
A topic, for instance, like the transatlantic slave trade or slavery as it was practiced in the Americas can be a political and creative minefield for the intrepid writer. Still, authors continue to traverse it. Alex Haley's mostly autobiographical Roots, which covered six generations of an African family in America from freedom to slavery to freedom again, is perhaps the best-known effort. Toni Morrison's stunning Beloved captured the Pulitzer and, some say, defined the experience of slavery in America. Speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler even did a sci-fi take on the topic with Kindred, in which a contemporary African-American woman is thrust into the antebellum era via time travel.
Other efforts range from controversial to demeaning. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, though admittedly not a novel about slavery, is an ode to a fictional antebellum South that depicts the institution that upheld the world of hoop skirts and mint juleps as little more than a footnote. And there is, of course, the abundant "panting Mandingo-wilting magnolia" tripe.
Acclaimed British novelist Barry Unsworth has successfully navigated the waters of historical fiction in works such as Morality Play, which explores medieval life, and Pascali's Island, which looks at the shortcomings of empire and colonialism. He took on slavery in Sacred Hunger, arguably his most courageous historical work. The Booker Award-winning novel sketches a detailed, unflinching portrait of 18th century Brits drawn by greed, despair and desperation into "the Africa trade."
Historical fiction provides prime opportunity for detailed studies of human behavior. With the sullied characters who float through Sacred Hunger, Unsworth has condensed one aspect of the infamous trafficking in human flesh -- commerce -- down to its essential elements.
"For me, the main attraction of historical fiction is that it enables the writer to get a focus on his story and his theme," says the novelist. "A focus in which a great deal of the superficial clutter of life has been removed by distance. ... What is important can be isolated and seen in a stronger light."
Unsworth makes the most of this opportunity in Sacred Hunger, probing the spirit of rampant capitalism and unchecked profiteering in men like Mr. Kemp, a desperate, ill-fated Liverpool merchant who delivers robust Gordon Gecko-esque monologues on the rosy verisimilitudes of the transatlantic slave trade:
"The trade is wide open. Wide open, I tell you, gentlemen. The colonies grow more populous by the year, by the month. The more land that is planted, the more they will want negroes. It is a case of first come, first served. ... I tell you, if God picked this town up in the palm of his hand and studied where best in England to set her down for the Africa trade, he would put her exactly back where she is."
Unsworth sees the pervasive inhumanity of Kemp and his fellow merchants as particularly pertinent to contemporary times. "Like many other people, I was appalled during the years of the Thatcher government by the way in which the profit motive was extolled as the highest virtue of man," he says. "The slave trade constitutes a perfect example of this attitude, untrammeled by any moral considerations whatsoever."
So, while Unsworth hardly sees himself as a revisionist, he and other writers can and do use historical fiction to offer critical assessments and perspectives on historical figures and events. "The novel was taken in some quarters as an attack on the colonial spirit and on the sanctity of trade," Unsworth says of the response to Sacred Hunger. "And so it was."
Connie Porter never set out to write about slavery for children. But when the African-American novelist was tapped by the Pleasant Company to write a series of children's books for the company's American Girl series (which pairs dolls and books based on the lives of pre-teen girls from different eras in American history), she immediately saw the social and political value in the project.
"I liked the idea that the company was presenting historical fiction to young readers in the form of characters," Porter recalls. "It gives the kids a sense of how events impacted real people."
Porter's stories portray the life of Addy -- a young African-American girl who escapes from a plantation in the Carolinas to freedom in Civil War-era Philadelphia. The popular books tackle the brutality of plantation life -- members of Addy's family are sold away and the overseer is cruel. They also address the struggles that come with freedom, when Addy and her mother scramble to make a living in Philadelphia. Porter thinks having her readership understand Addy's life and the forces that shaped it are key to understanding a lot of present-day social issues.
"I know it's a touchy subject, but it needs to be explored," Porter insists. "Young people need to know. If someone wants to understand, say, affirmative action, you have to go all the way back to slavery and understand how inequality and the inability to build wealth was perpetuated in this country."
In addition to recognizing the need to accurately represent history, writers such as Porter and Unsworth have to consider their audience. In Sacred Hunger, Unsworth delivers a detailed account of some of the depravities of 18th century Liverpool, as well as the brutality carried out at sea against both the enslaved Africans and the conscripted British crewman. Yet when it came time for Porter to depict the barbarism of the overseer on Addy's plantation, she had to strike a delicate balance between telling the whole truth and producing age-appropriate material:
"He had his whip in one hand. She turned to run, but he got to her before she could take a step. Addy raised up her hands, thinking he was going to hit her.
"But he did not hit her. He dropped the whip and pulled Addy's hands down from her face, yanking her toward him. ... Addy saw what he held -- live worms. Worms that Addy had missed. The overseer forced open her mouth and stuffed the still twisting and wiggling worms inside. ... 'Eat them!' the overseer growled. 'Chew them up -- every last one of them. If you don't, I'll get some more.' Addy gagged as the worms' juicy bodies burst in her mouth."
For Porter, that need for balance encompassed more than the obvious concerns about depictions of violence or cruelty. She was also concerned with the dignity of the people portrayed -- something she was reminded of during her first visit to a Southern plantation. She recalls that the lives of the slaves who ran the estate were hardly mentioned during the tour. "[It made me realize] there's a story that needs to be heard about the people who were forced to be there," she says. "It's important to realize there was a dignity to their lives. They were not just slaves, but wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and daughters who had a life outside of the fields."
In her work, as in any work of fiction, is the attempt to create fully realized characters. "Every moment of black people's existence wasn't misery and every white person didn't own slaves," points out Porter.
Unsworth approached writing about slavery with a simple belief about the timelessness of the human constitution. "These characters are men and women of their times and our times, and, as far as I can see, of all times," he insists. "They are not more depraved or more wicked than many of the people we read about in our newspapers or see on our television screens."
Furthermore, adds Porter, a work of fiction can both document and transcend history. "Historical fiction catalogs that everyday life of people," she says. "What people go through shows us the resiliency of the human spirit and our ability to get beyond situations you never thought possible."
At the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, Barry Unsworth will lead the master class "The Presence of the Past: Writing Historical Fiction" at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, at the New Orleans Historic Collection. He'll also be interviewed by Dale Edmonds at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, April 1, at Le Petit Theatre. Connie Porter will participate in the panel "Children's Literature" at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 31 at Club Shim Sham.
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