On reading historical fiction

by Adrienne Loftus Parkins

To paraphrase George Santayana, those who do not learn about history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. This phrase kept coming to mind when reading two novels recently.

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer and A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah both take past events as their themes. Both are fascinating character studies that give insight into the societies in which their characters function. Both are compelling works of historical fiction, but each approaches history in a completely different way.

Galgut’s subject is Passage to India author, EM Forster and his struggles as a writer and a homosexual at a time when to be the latter was a crime and a social death sentence. Forster’s loves and his difficulty in writing what became his most successful book are so convincingly portrayed that I wondered how much was imagination and how much was fact. The challenge of writing Arctic Summer must have been in understanding the character’s emotions, the intricacies of his affairs and in imagining how his torments must have played out in private.

Shah’s book is multi-layered, with ancient stories and more recent history mixing with a tale from the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life – from the time she returned to Pakistan to contest the election in 2007 till her assassination at a political rally in Rawalpindi. The novel views these months through the eyes of Ali, a young media student who is sent to cover Bhutto’s arrival and later, what turned out to be her final speech. Interspersed with this are stories from Sindh’s rich tradition of mysticism and folklore, family tales and political history. These enrich the book and treat non-Pakistani readers to a glimpse into the strengths and issues at the heart of Sindhi society. Shah gives us insight into what has made Sindh and Sindhi’s what they are today: the rich spiritual fabric of society, the relationships between feudal land owners, the British and the rest of the population and the long reach if the Bhutto family in Pakistani political life.

Reading both these novels stirred up a desire to know more about historical fiction and the challenges a writer faces in including the nuance, character development and layering, necessary to engage the reader while remaining true to the facts.

I asked Bina Shah if there were any rules she considered while writing historical fiction. She believes that there can never be a truly definitive version of history. “We’ve seen how textbooks can be manipulated to influence generations. When I wrote A Season For Martyrs, I was mindful that whatever existed as fact in a book I would have to be faithful to, but there are so many gaps even in our history books that I found it easy to fill those in using my own imagination. Who’s to say things didn’t happen the way I imagined them?”

Shah made the point that she wrote her book very soon after Bhutto’s assassination. “The world moves so fast these days that 2007 already feels like it happened a very long time ago. If I were to sit down and write about it today I probably wouldn’t be able to remember everything as I did when I wrote the novel in 2008.”

Writing historical fiction is a double-edged sword. Although there is a ready-made story based on something that has happened, the challenge is to adapt that story and turn it into something fresh, meaningful. It must become something infused with a warmth, suspense and approachability that will engage readers and open their eyes to people, places and things about which they may only have had passing knowledge.

In the words of Shah, “That’s the power of the fiction writer: to turn fact into fiction, and fiction into fact.”