This is a great book, and that isn’t just my opinion! It received a 20th anniversary reissue, which speaks to influence, reach, and the number of people who have/continue to buy it. I highly recommend anyone writing historical fiction or historical fantasy (as I do) read it and consider how the issues it discusses impact the times/worlds in which they right.
Okay, so what is the book?
To quote from the 20th anniversary description, it offers “an indispensable analysis of the silences in our historical narratives, of what is omitted and what is recorded, what is remembered and what is forgotten, and what these silences reveal about inequalities of power.”
Even if no characters in a given work are historians, this addresses questions which matter in terms of world-building and character-building.
Who was there—in that particular place and time?
What might they have been doing, or not doing, and why?
How do we know, or do we?
Which is not license to say oh we don’t know, so I can make it up. Go ahead and make it up, but call it what it is: fiction.
Or well we don’t know so-and-so was x, so I can pick-and-choose. Yes, you can, but there are (often) consequences.
Now, most authors of historical fiction and fantasy are well aware of these considerations. Hence the author’s note at the back of many published works, or lists of references on webpages. The agonized worrying over what we can change for the sake of story and what we can’t (and who will / won’t notice).
What Silencing the Past offers me is an apt reminder to consider who’s in a story, who’s telling it, who knows what. And an elegant, powerful discussion of ways this has manifested, with examples drawn from the author’s scholarship and research on Haiti and the Haitian Revolution.
The main series of stories / novel installments I’m writing take place in the 1850s United States. They start in Chicago and head for San Diego by way of New Orleans, San Antonio, El Paso, and Tucson. So I need to think about who was there, in reality—and what that means for the story / stories I’m writing. Whenever possible, I use primary sources for research. Many are wonderful because they document what people noticed / did in the places my characters go and at that time. They are also, one and all, problematic. What don’t the authors notice? Why are these accounts available now and not others? And, of equal import to me, at least: how can I work through these books to make the fantastical version of reality reflect diversity.
I don’t pretend to have solved anything. Or to be the first to have thought about these matters. I’m not in either case.
That’s okay. I don’t have to be. I appreciate the work others have done and are doing (and I will appreciate the work they will do, when done) to explore these issues with respect to history whether non-fiction, fiction, or fantasy.
Which is all a long-winded way of endorsing this book for those interested. It has and continues to make an impact on me. So thanks Michel-Rolph Trouillot, even though you’ll likely never see this entry.