Novelists’ responsibility to history?

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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?

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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.

The Daily Mail reported that letters written by Almásy indicate he was in fact homosexual and that according to the staff, “Egyptian princes were among Almasy’s lovers.”

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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.)

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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.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Novelists’ responsibility to history?

  1. kitty

    Should there be or is there a word for a combination of truth and fiction on the screen, in a book or screenplay—does docudrama cover it as infomercials that pretend to be news
    fill TV. Is the vast array of misinformation that comes our way each day through the media just the way it is. I was looking for news about the Ukraine and Russia’s attempt to sabotage it’s fledgling democracy this morning and came upon Food, Inc on channel PIVOT—listening to that was a jolt of reality and then after a friend suggested it found AJAM–Al Jazerra—I had heard all the negatives re it but when I found the news re the Ukraine and more I realized this is what I used to turn on CNN to find but could find no longer. Other channels it’s all about entertainment or fear mongering re child molesters, car accidents and burglers in the local news.
    Truth seems to have become a casualty of the 24 news cycle .

  2. Interesting speculations here. I’ve been repeatedly exasperated to find (mostly through the reading of various memoirs) that someone I assumed was straight wasn’t. For some reason, it makes me angry every time that happens! It’s like there needs to be an entire GLBTQ history/literary curriculum developed, as a corrective to the erasure-prone previous ones. I just hope the sexual orientation of writers, playwrights, filmmakers, etc. who are being taught in high schools and colleges these days IS being mentioned , especially when it bears directly on those creators’ choice (or avoidance, or sublimation) of themes, characters, plots, etc.

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