Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610.
When you need to tell the truth, sometimes nothing will do but lies.
Thanks to the labor of women of all backgrounds who have raised their voices in the face of indifference or opposition, some of the silences in our culture’s narratives are now getting long-overdue attention. The labor of filling the gaps is under way in venues large and small—only last month, the New York Times launched Overlooked, its series of obituaries for unsung women.
Yet while retrieving the facts of willfully forgotten lives is essential, some of the most necessary work of repair ultimately can be accomplished only by our culture’s most scrupulous liars: writers of historical fiction. This may sound like an endorsement of fake news, but in fact, it’s the opposite. Any history that doesn’t include women, and doesn’t make ample space for the lives of women of color, is itself fake news. The question, then, is how to correct our collective understanding of reality. And while the meticulously verified works of historians and journalists are essential to that goal, if we don’t set well-researched fiction by Louise Erdrich or Geraldine Brooks prominently by their side, we’ll miss one of the surest paths to repair.
During the twelve years I spent writing The Weight of Ink, a novel set in the Jewish communities of seventeenth-century London and Amsterdam, I pursued historical research to sometimes absurd lengths. I read tomes about seventeenth-century philosophy and sanitation; I spent hour after hour in document-conservation labs and rare-manuscript rooms. Writing passages set in the seventeenth century, I chose my language carefully, checking Merriam-Webster’s “first known use” listings to confirm that the words I’d selected were common parlance in that era. If a word wasn’t old enough (say, “chaperone”—first known use 1720), then I substituted a term my characters would have known (“duenna”—1623).
I undertook that research in order to write the story of a fictitious Portuguese Jewish woman, Ester Velasquez, who broke the rules of her time, who managed, through elaborate deception, to live a life of the mind forbidden to women of her era. I took pains with accuracy not only because I didn’t want readers to be distracted by careless errors but also because I anticipated that when I published the book, readers might say, That’s an interesting story, but of course we know it couldn’t have happened—based on the evidence, very few seventeenth-century women succeeded in doing even a little bit of philosophical writing, and those who did were nobility and certainly not Jewish. I wanted to be able to answer with confidence: Yes, Ester is fictitious, but every piece of her story is factually plausible. What I was after wasn’t a false feminist heroism but instead one grounded in fact; I wanted readers to imagine with a degree of certainty that women like Ester—women of capacious intelligence who tried to speak out despite restrictions—must have existed.
To argue that something can’t have happened because it was forbidden is to ignore one of the basic rules of human nature: people try to do like the grass—they try to grow up through pavement. Most don’t succeed, but some do. When history puts a foot on people’s necks, they break rules. (My own mother’s family were law-abiding citizens in Poland until August 31, 1939. Then they bribed, lied, sneaked across borders. They were arrested and interrogated; they escaped and then broke rules again, until they became law-abiding citizens once more in the U.S. in 1942. We call that surviving.)
Throughout the centuries, there have been women who struggled hard to speak or create. Some, like the Brontë sisters, wrote under fake identities. Some, like Fanny Mendelssohn, composed music that was performed under the names of men. The further a woman was from a position of privilege, the more daunting the struggle for education and access and the more opaque the necessary disguise. It would be foolish to the point of hubris to believe we’ve already catalogued all those who masked their identities. Logic tells us there must have been other artists of erasure: women scattered here and there across cultures and centuries who expunged themselves from the record so the work of their hands and minds and hearts could be visible. And if they were good at it—if they succeeded—we’ve never heard of them.
The writer Hilary Mantel has said that the historical record is “what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.” In every era, record keepers preserve the facts they consider important enough to note and safe enough to recount. The lives that pass unnoticed through history’s sieve, in contrast, are the ones no one memorialized, often because the people involved were poor or female or “irrelevant” because of race or religion or sexuality, or because their stories were considered dangerous.
The purpose of historical fiction isn’t just to add a pleasing emotional embroidery to what we already know about history. It’s to tell the dangerous stories—the human truths that fly in the face of propriety or power.
What the historical record has rendered invisible will remain so unless we avail ourselves of the power to fictionalize, to blend the real and the imagined with rigor and transparency. Facts are essential, but when they’re absent or insufficient, the informed lie of fiction can be the only way to get at the overarching human truth. The full story of a real Sethe will never appear in any historical record, but we have Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Annie Herron’s reality would not have been documented in her day, but in Alice Munro’s “A Wilderness Station,” we glimpse the harsh contours of her life in the nineteenth-century Canadian wilderness.
We’ve lost too many stories. Historical fiction, undertaken with integrity, is an act of repair. Lives have run through the sieve, but we can catch them in our hands.
Rachel Kadish’s work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Salon, and Tin House. Her most recent novel, The Weight of Ink, won a 2017 National Jewish Book Award and will be released in paperback on May 1.
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