Discussion: Problematic Content in Historical Fiction

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:

  1. Ignore the problem all-together. Make everyone white, straight, and healthy.
  2. Put the diversity in there, but make your characters okay with it, even if that means losing some authenticity.
  3. 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 gentiles 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.

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Sorting Hat Sunday: Runaways

Alex Wilder looked at the kids in his compartment with him and rolled his eyes. How was he stuck with these idiots? They didn’t have half a brain to rub together between them! And was the little girl actually crying?

But if he was being honest, this group had some possibilities. They might not seem like much, but they would probably be pretty easy to manipulate. He could probably get them to do exactly what he wanted. And, let’s be honest, the girl with the black hair was really pretty. Really REALLY pretty.

He relaxed in his seat. He was going to have to play it cool. Make them think he was just another kid like them. Alex smiled. He was going to like Hogwarts.


Alex Wilder

Okay, so if you’ve read Runaways, this is a no-brainer. If you haven’t, GO READ IT! It’s amazing. I’m in love.

Alex is … a tactician. He knows how to play the people around him, what they are likely to do next, how to get them to do what he wants them to do. He’s a huge asset to the Runaways because he can almost read their parents’ minds, so great are his tactical skills. But … he doesn’t always use his skills for good. He’s grown up in a life of luxury, so he is accustomed to getting what he wants. While he is horrified by the evil his parents do, he is often the one leading the Runaways to make questionable choices of their own. And he is ambitious in that the whole group was HIS idea, and HE is keen to take charge. Then in the final episode of season 1…. well, he knows what he wants and he takes it. So even though he could be sorted into Ravenclaw for his smarts, that’s definitely not where he belongs.

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Calendar Girls April Theme

Hey Calendar Girls!!!

IT’S SPRING BREAK!!!! WOOOOOOOO! Who’s ready to sleep in??? THIS GIRL!!!! Bet when you were in school you didn’t realize the teachers were MORE excited about spring break then you were, lol.

So I’m ready to revel in my time off, but it’s time to start looking forward to April. We want to make sure everyone has plenty of time to think about the prompt and get a post ready! Because I know none of you wait until the night before to pick and book and right a post. I mean, I know that I don’t! *shifts nervously in seat*

The votes are in, and it was very close, but the theme for April will be…


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The 90s Kid Book Tag

I AM A 90s KID AND I AM PROUD!!!!

Seriously, I love the 90s. My childhood was so amazing. We had video games and computers and stuff, but it wasn’t as constantly invasive as it is now. (I say on my BLOG which I am writing instead of sleeping…) (The hypocrisy is not lost on me.) We had the best TV shows, the greatest music, and just generally happy lives. I am so nostalgic for 1999 pretty much all of the time.

So when I saw this tag on The Literary Phoenix a few months ago I couldn’t resist bookmarking it for a later date. I don’t do as many book tags as I used to, so it’s taken me a while to get to it, but I love tags and I’m so happy this is how I’m spending my Sunday night. 🙂

Rules:

  1. Please, please, please steal this tag and spread it around!  I only ask that you link it back to The Literary Phoenix so that I can see everyone’s answers!
  2. Freeze tag was all the rage in the 90s.  Tag someone (or many) you think would have fun with this!
  3. Have fun!

Pokemon

Gotta Catch ’em All! The author you need every book from.

I don’t typically auto-read an author, I still have to find the synopsis interesting before I’ll want to read it. But I have read literally every single book by Rainbow Rowell except Carry On, and a friend recently convinced me that I need tor read that one, too. I mean, I started reading comics just so I could read her Runaways run, okay? Y’all, my love for this woman and all of her books cannot be understated.

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Calendar Girls March: Favorite Book with a Strong Female Lead

Welcome to March Calendar Girls! I’m feeling good today. Spring is here, I’m bound to not be sick anymore soon, and the future is looking up! I’m ready to talk about books. Who else is ready to talk about books?

Our theme for this month is Women’s History Month: books featuring a strong female lead. I had to think for a bit about this one. What is a strong female lead?

Typically when we talk about the strong female lead we’re talking about the warrior women. And, of course, the first book that came to mind was my all-time favorite, The Lord of the Rings. Eowyn has long been one of my favorite characters in literature because she rides to war with the men, but does so for love rather than glory. I was very much looking forward to talking about her for a few hundred words until I realized she’s not the lead. *sigh*

Which got me to thinking about my other favorite book: Pride and Prejudice. Because, is Elizabeth Bennett not also a strong character? Strength doesn’t only have to refer to strength in arms. Elizabeth thinks for herself, knows what she wants, and doesn’t let the men in her life tell her what to do. To me that is the definition of a strong female lead!

And yet, there’s also the anti-strong-female-lead idea, which proposes that those characters are just proof of how we prefer men by putting traditionally masculine qualities on to women before we can get behind them. Perhaps a woman like Mrs. Weasley who does what makes her happy and doesn’t worry about what she “should” want or do would be the most appropriate kind of woman to celebrate this month.

As you can see, I am waaaaay overthinking this prompt.

So right now I am stopping and going with my gut. My favorite (or at least a favorite) book featuring a strong female lead is…

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Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Bronte

Okay, so I admit that this pick is … unusual. But what I love about Jane Eyre is that she is strong. She takes control of her own life, despite the multitude of people who are trying to set her path for her. She doesn’t let society’s expectations dictate who she is or who she will be. She has the sort of strength of character to say no to something she really wants when she knows it is the right thing to do. Jane is a woman that I have looked up to for my entire adult life.

For those of you who don’t know, Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan raised in terrible, abusive situations, who rises to become a governess in a wealthy home. She falls in love with the master of the house, but there is more to Mr. Rochester than meets the eye. It’s moody, mysterious, brooding, and the original feminist novel. (my opinion)

While I’ve seen modern feminists critique Jane Eyre, at the time it was written it was like nothing literature had ever seen before. Even now, nearly two hundred years later, it remains one of the most celebrated works of literature in history. And it was written by a WOMAN. Y’all, that’s pretty amazing.

Women’s History Month
Favorite Book with a Strong Female Lead

Our Picks

Jane Eyre – Katie (that’s me!) @ Never Not Reading
The Poet X – Adrienne @ Darque Dreamer Reads
To Best the Boys – Teri Polen
Dread Nation – Deanna @ Deanna Writes About
A Court of Mist and Fury – Flavia @ Flavia the Bibliophile
Skyward – Lucinda @ Lucinda is Reading
Harry Potter – Samantha @ Modern Witch’s Bookshelf
A Curse So Dark and Lonely – Sophie @ Beware of the Reader
The Last Letter – Sophie @ Beware of the Reader
Kat and Meg Conquer the World – Dani @ Mousai Books
I Am Malala – Ashely @ Inside My Minds
An Ember in the Ashes – Liz @ Stellar Kitten Book Reivews


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Calendar Girls is a monthly blog event created by Melanie at MNBernard Books, and Flavia at Flavia the Bibliophile, and is now be hosted by me (!), Katie, and Adrienne at Darque Dreamer Reads. It is designed to ignite bookish discussions among readers, and was inspired by the 1961 Neil Sedaka song, Calendar Girl.

Just like the song, each month has a different theme. Each blogger picks their favorite book from the theme, and on the first Monday of the month reveals their pick in a Calendar Girls post. Make sure to post back to the hostess’s post, and I will make a master list for the month. The master lists allow everyone to see the other Calendar Girls’ picks and to pop on over to their blogs. Thus, we all get to chat about books and even make some new friends!

Sign up for the Calendar Girls newsletter.

Six Degrees of Separation: The Arsonist to The Nest

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly blog event hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. It’s inspired by the 6 Degrees of Separation, a movie game where you attempt to connect actors in six movies or less. But we do it with books!

This month we’re starting with The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper.


I had never heard of The Arsonist before, probably because it’s an Australian true crime novel. It is, unsurprisingly, the story of the police trying to catch an arsonist. Go figure. True crime isn’t really my genre, but another novel I read and enjoyed set in Australia is…

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Favorites February: Emma Volume 3

Synopsis

Emma and Frank Churchill plan an outing for the Highbury group to scenic Box Hill for a picnic. Tensions between Emma, Frank, Jane Fairfax, and the Eltons come to a head as a result of this party, and Emma is finally forced to confront the shortcomings of her character. And Harriet’s new love interest helps Emma to recognize her own feelings…

Why I Love This Book: Volume 3

  • Ah, the love story. I was so invested this time through, so able to catch on to the little details, I was practically swooning.
  • Jane Fairfax is a very interesting character, and I love seeing her fleshed out in this volume.
  • Seeing everyone, even Mr. Knightly, thoroughly abuse Mrs. Elton is so satisfying.
  • In some ways Volume 3 in soooo cringy, because all of Emma’s flaws come to their climax. But seeing her learn and grow is one of literature’s great character arcs.
  • I just adore how Mr. Knightly loves Emma so much that he’s willing to move to Hartfield, something unheard of in that day and age. ALL THE FEELS!
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