Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Writers Week on Tuesday: questions of history

The real make-believe world

The original panel for this session had to be changed when Rachel Kushner became unavailable for the Festival, but the choice of Jamaican-born Kei Miller was a smart one. His writing fitted the topic perfectly and made a good match with that of Jaspreet Singh.

Anne Kennedy introduced the two of them as authors of "award winning stories that are very much grounded in the real world" and posed a series of thought-provoking questions. Why write historical events into fiction, rather than non fiction? and What can fiction do that non fiction can't?  was an excellent place to start. Kei Miller described his view of history ("history never ends") and how fiction  seems "an important strand, a way to account for the past and to help unpick its multiplicities and complexity." Jaspreet Singh talked about the November 1984 genocide against the Sikhs in India and wondered "how do you write about burned books and burned bodies of burned people?" For him, it was important to tell the story in a way that allowed people who didn't know about it to engage with that time, and also allowed for mourning and healing.

Anne asked them both about the technique of using the lens of the present to look back at the past, whether their experience of living in a different country from the land of their birth (Canada for Jaspreet, Scotland for Kei) has affected their view of events, the place of humour in their work and how they carry out research. Kei Miller said, "A lot of my writing is the process of hiding that research - I want you to think I just speak like that, that the poem just rolls off the tongue when I get up."

It was great to hear them both give a short reading as well. The piece Kei Miller chose (about a house fire, that wasn't what it seemed) was especially powerful, but he was also funny and witty and very engaging to listen to - and he must have already won over a large number of listener at his earlier session, because some of this books had sold out at the Unity stand.

Silence: a Christian history

In the afternoon, more reflections on history from Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of History of the Church at the University of Oxford, talking about "the sheer utter strangeness of the past".

MacCulloch has presented three BBC television series and talked about his theory of "popularising" (or as he prefers to call it, "opening up") history, on the basis that academic historians are paid by taxes and ought to give something back. History is everyone's property. We all tell each other historical stories and the danger lies in the bad stories (like those told in Nazi Germany or Rwanda), so historians need to tell the right stories, "or as near as we will ever get."

He calls himself a "candid friend to Christianity" (in fact he is still a Church of England deacon) and describes Christianity as a very young and still developing religion, with change being forced by social change. His book Silence looks at " silence throughout Christianity", with both positive and negative connotations - the "good, holy" types of silence such as monasticism and meditation, but also the "bad" types such as sexual abuse cover-ups.

"People without stories are lost," he said. I'm sure I've heard similar words from other writers throughout the Festival. 

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