Before I came to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, I wrote that there was a theme of shadows running through my selections. It seemed fitting I should be the one to attend a session called “In the shadow of history”.
This session brought together three writers who’ve written fictional works about real, significant, historical events. These authors, their books and the events in question are:
- Mal Peet – Life: An Unexploded Diagram – the Cuban missile crisis
- Sebastian Barry – On Canaan’s Side – the wars of the twentieth century
- Jesmyn Ward – Salvage the Bones – Hurricane Katrina
Given the significant historical events that have happened in dear old Christchurch, I was interested to hear how these authors used the stuff of fact to create fiction. How does a writer create art out of the shadow of history?
Mal Peet is interested in how historical events shape human identity. He says, in his dry laconic way, that there are ‘floating particles of history in the air all the time’ and he’s fascinated with the concept that there are three molecules of Julius Caesar in everyone alive today. Life: An Unexploded Diagram plays with the notion that if we could explode people, break them down to their atoms, we could see the historical and biological patterns that make them up.
In Life, the characters are aware of the Cuban missile crisis but they live in their personalised present and do little about it. It’s a story about “bluff, double bluff and bumbling” where no one seems to realise they’re taking part in history until after the event. Then, there’s an epiphany and the author explores how events change lives.
Sebastian Barry spoke in general terms about his novel On Canaan’s Side. He observes that Irish literature never seems to go to war. It’s much more concerned with portraying marginalised people.
There was no conscription in Southern Ireland during World War 1 but 200,000 soldiers went to war and 50,000 died. The soldiers were all volunteers. When the survivors came home in 1916, they didn’t get a hero’s welcome. They were forgotten because the war didn’t fit the national story. These men were damaged by the horrors they’d seen, and the shadow of their experiences haunted them and the lives of those who loved them. His book follows the story of Lilly Bere who is forced to flee Ireland after the war as she tries to make sense of the sorrows of her life.
Jesmyn Ward bases her novel Salvage the Bones on her own experience of living through catastophic Hurricane Katrina which destoyed large areas of New Orleans in August 2005. She became angry about the unjustness of the commentary in the media. She gives the example of a newspaper photograph showing a white couple going through a rubbish skip accompanied by the caption ‘foraging for food’ whereas a black man doing the same thing was accused of looting. She wrote her novel to “offer people a fuller experience of what it was like for the people that lived through it.” Sebastian Barry made the observation that the storm of racism that followed Hurricane Katrina was even more heartbreaking than the terrifying natural storm.
Jesmyn Ward didn’t start to write her novel until two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, Mal Peet writes of events that occurred in the early 1960s and Sebastian Barry looks back in time to WW1. It may be too early yet to see how the Christchurch earthquakes will impact upon the New Zealand literature, but the fact is that significant events shape our identities and out of the shadow of history comes art.