I recently picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s popular new novel, The Invention of Wings, on the recommendation of a friend, having loved her award-winning The Secret Life of Bees. I was having trouble with it anyway, already uncomfortable with a white writer’s attempt to write in the voice of a black slave, and then I came to the author’s note in which Kidd describes the many liberties she had taken in recreating the stories of Sarah and Angela Grimke and of their slave girl, Hetty, also known as “Handful”. Changing dates, relationship statuses and geographies, seemingly at the author’s whim, seemed an odd strategy. Why even reference the historical figure in the first place?
According to Molly Driscoll’s Christian Science Monitor profile: “As depicted in the novel, Sarah teaches Hetty to read when the two are young and both Sarah and Hetty are punished. In real life, Hetty was given a severe beating and then died of “an unspecified disease” shortly thereafter, according to Kidd. But Kidd says she knew she had to keep Hetty in her story.”
When using a historical figure as the basis for fiction, what is the author’s responsibility to accurately portray the known facts?
Another classic example is Count Ladislaus de Almásy, the protagonist of Michael Ondatje’s bestselling 1992 novel The English Patient, played by Ralph Fiennes in the acclaimed film adaption. Correspondence discovered after the novel’s publication indicates the Hungarian-born adventurer did not die of a morphine overdose after suffering terrible burns and dreaming of the woman he loved. Instead Almásy succumbed to amoebic dysentery in 1951 never having once slept with a woman.
I guess it happens all the time. Does that mean I must accept it?
In George Clooney’s recent film Monuments Men, adapted from Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book, the character played by Cate Blanchett is based on Rose Valland, who played an instrumental role in the protection and recovery of some of France’s great works of art when Nazis plundered museums and galleries of Paris during World War II. She was also, in fact, an out lesbian, a fact apparently not evident in the film. (I haven’t seen it yet.)
Valland was depicted as heterosexual, or at least the object of a male character’s passion, in Sarah Houghteling’s 2009 novel Pictures at an Exhibition. When I contacted Houghteling after a presentation at the Jewish Community Library calling her attention to the ease with which I validated Valland’s lesbian identity, she responded with an unconvincing excuse about how she’d run out of time conducting her research.
I don’t get it. If one is taking inspiration from a historical figure, it seems incumbent on the author to respect the known information about their life. Connect the dots with creative interpretation, sure, but don’t alter the facts. It seems to me that such misrepresentation is irresponsible and revisionist. Especially when it occurs among marginalized figures, such as women of color and gay men and lesbians. Are we such easy marks or attractive targets? Am I missing something?
Leave our lives alone unless you’re going to take the responsibility to do the research. I realize it seems I’m conflating novelists with filmmakers, but having given up on Hollywood I’m really more interested in the responsibility of writers to get it right.