Alma Alexander (Twitter, LJ) is a Pacific Northwest novelist, short story writer, and anthologist. Her books include “The Secrets of Jin Shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, “The Hidden Queen”, “Changer of Days”, the YA Worldweavers series, and “2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens”; short stories have appeared in a number of recent anthologies, and “River”, the first anthology where she wore an editor’s hat, is out now.
Almost exactly a year ago, novelist Kari Sperring wrote a blog entry entitled “Other people’s toes.” You can go and read the full entry, but there are a few things I would like to pull out of there – to wit –
[on Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear]
… the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and — as an Oxbridge historian — I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently… Then I read [Connie Willis’s] short piece in the Bulletin. Here’s the key excerpt. ‘That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating — the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What’s not to like.’
That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, ‘How about all the dead civilians? That’s not to like at all.’Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun.
Here’s my point. History is not a theme park. It’s not a story, either. It’s people’s real lives. If you’re going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because — as Ms Willis did with me — otherwise, you’re going to find someone’s sore place, someone’s vulnerability, someone’s sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you’re going to do damage. Other countries aren’t theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They’re homes to millions, they’re people’s lives, too.
But the Blitz is not likeable, it’s not fun, it’s not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all.
I guess what I’m saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people’s things, histories, homes. We don’t all understand the same things in what we read, we don’t all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It’s far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It’s far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.
Kari Sperring was talking about an interesting and not a little unsteady position for the contemporary fantasy novelist – writing about a period in history which is still very much in living memory (if not the people who have lived through the period themselves then certainly through their direct descendants, sons and daughters whose connection with that particular era may not be direct experience but certainly first-hand accounts thereof). It is something that I myself have had cause to think about in my own work.