I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and they started talking about Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, a book which remains the only Steampunk novel I’ve actually enjoyed. I admit I was a little taken aback when the hosts mentioned that they had a problem with the way Priest talked about Chinese-Americans in the novel. Many of her characters are outright racist, but then what else would you expect from the Civil War era? I hadn’t batted an eye-lid at it when reading.
But as I started thinking about it, this is something I have noticed people critiquing other historical fiction for as well. Specifically the two things I most often see historical fiction critiqued for is racism or inclusion of asylums.
As I am right in the middle of reading a historical fiction novel with some extremely offensive language right at this moment, I thought I would take a second to weigh in.
First of all, let me start by saying that we can not go back and change the past. Like or not, people in the past made mistakes. They were racist, they were anti-gay, they didn’t know how to handle mental health problems, they killed people who were inconvenient to them. The past SUCKED. I don’t know why it is that we are so drawn to it, but there it is.
So the way I see it, any author writing a historical fiction novel has three choices for how to deal with history’s problems:
- Ignore the problem all-together. Make everyone white, straight, and healthy.
- Put the diversity in there, but make your characters okay with it, even if that means losing some authenticity.
- Write your novel authentically, even if that means leaving in some problematic content.
The first option, I hope we can all agree, is not acceptable. By pretending the past was all hunky-dory we loose all opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and we risk continuing to marginalize those who were treated poorly by continuing to ignore their voices. Even Regency Romances aren’t doing this anymore.
The second option, including diversity but making your characters okay with it, is I think the direction a lot of readers would like to see historical fiction go. But here’s the thing. (And keep in mind, this is my opinion.) By writing characters who are universally accepting we continue to white-wash history.
If ignoring the marginalized populations ignores their voices, so does pretending that the dominate culture wasn’t marginalizing them. If ignoring the problems of the past keeps us from learning from them, keeping your protagonist out of the problem does the same thing.
And, most important to me, books are often supposed to make you feel uncomfortable.
It’s been my experience that when authors include “problematic” or offensive content in their historical fiction novels, they do so on purpose. They want you to see that the characters were racist (or what have you) so that YOU can see it is a problem. The characters might never see it as a problem, but the reader should.
So the book I’m reading right now is Whiskey When We’re Dry, a 21-st century Western by John Larison. It includes a lot of the same offensive anti-Chinese-American language that Boneshaker does, and the character is equally ambivalent about it. I mean, people call her horrible Mexican slurs all the time, why should she be fussed that they do the same thing to the “chinamen”? It also includes a LO-O-OT of anti-gay slurs. In particular, the men in the novel are very concerned with being “a fish”. Larison does this explicitly and on purpose. It should make you uncomfortable because it is AWFUL. It makes the main character, Jess, uncomfortable, because as she knows literally nothing about sex she’s not sure what it means or why it is wrong. As she eventually starts to figure it out, it makes her even more uncomfortable as she selfishly realizes that the gay-ness of one of her friends could seriously screw up her own situation.
But Larison does this to set up the exploration of Jess’s own sexuality. As Jess begins to realize that she is not attracted to men, the stigma surrounding “fish” is at the forefront of her mind. Surely the same stigma would be applied to her. It affects what she does, as well as how and why she does it.
Had Larison ignored the stigma surrounding queer people in the wild west, the novel would not only have lost authenticity, but it would have lost a lot of the power behind the love story. It’s uncomfortable for the reader, but not near as uncomfortable as it would have been for the dude whose genitals were cut off because he was discovered having sex with another man. We can NEVER forget that these kinds of atrocities happened, and writing a character exploring LGBTQ feelings in that era has a special kind of power to it.
So as far as I’m concerned, bring on the racist historical fiction. But I would love to hear YOUR thoughts, because I know this is a multi-faceted issue.