History and Journalism, Oral History and Fiction
Frances Dinkelspiel describes a conference she attended, Reconstructing the Past: Where History and Journalism Meet, which took place at Berkeley this past weekend. In some ways, it’s a parallel to the Southwest Oral History Association Annual Meeting Conference I attended in Orange County last weekend (Listening to the Past and Keeping it Alive). Not that attendees at each conference would look at the other like long-lost siblings of common interest. But I do. They both belong on a continuum in my mind.
Dinkelspiel is writing a biography of her great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, “the Pacific Coast’s leading financier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and his role in transforming the frontier into a modern state.” It’s a cross where family and personal history meets state history meets journalism (Dinkelspiel is a journalist),
The concluding session at the SOHA event I went to was a presentation by Cynthia Kadohata, a fiction author, who draws upon history to write her books. One book, Weedflower, tells the story of the Japanese American internment camp from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. Kadohata’s own father went to Poston, AZ, the internment camp that she describes in the book. She drew upon her own interviews (she’s got a journalism background) and interview transcripts that are part of the collections at Cal State Fullerton.
Frances Dinkelspiel describes the tension between narrative nonfiction and history:
Narrative non-fiction is one of the most popular genres today, but many historians look down upon the notion that great events must be crafted into a compelling narrative and many journalists are disdainful that too many history books are dull and dry.
Kadohata’s discussion touched on similar issues—A historical fiction writer places an individual (fiction) story into a historical context that’s drawn from actual history. This is how many people learn history, says Kadohata. The reader is drawn into the story, but comes away understanding historical events. She says that when she speaks at schools, students ask her why she researches history—why doesn’t she just make it all up. (Answer: because any storyteller has to create a “real” world in the course of writing a story, so she researches the historical events of that particular era in order to create a credible world.) For her most recent book, Cracker, The Best Dog in Vietnam, she conducted her own interviews.
Q: Did you record your interviews?
A: No, but I should. I wrote it all down. I really should do that… That’s a good idea.
Q: Have you archived your interviews—submitted them to an archive?
A: No, they’re all in a box with the word Cracker or Weedflower written on the outside.
Then, from this audience of oral historians: Please feel encouragement from everyone here in this room to submit your interview materials to an archive. Laughter.
Historical novelist, meet oral historians. Oral historians, meet novelist.
Dinkelspiel’s description of the Berkeley conference included one session that I’d like to have attended:
Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree, and Mirja Orito, author of Finding Manana, talked about the rewards and perils of interviewing witnesses to events long past.
I wonder if anyone blogged that session in particular?
Note: Frances Dinkelspiel’s description was particularly poignant—she posts about journalist/historian David Halbrstam, the featured speaker at the conference— in light of the fact that he was killed, untimely, in an auto crash on his trip to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Great article! Sign me up as a fan of the narrative history. My interest in goes back to my teen years reading historical fiction. I was fascinated by Anne Boleyn and read several different novels about her. Each book had an entirely different view of Anne - from victim to temptress - that got me wondering just who she really was. As a result I kept reading about Anne - non-fiction this time.
I learned early that all history is written with the authors’ prejudices. The most interesting historians are the ones who admit their leanings up front. My fascination with family history has grown from the personal histories written and spoken by the people who loved them.
This weekend is the L.A. Times Festival of Books. A great event. Mentally rich and chewy. There are a ton of free discussion panels. In years past I’ve found myself attending the narrative nonfiction, some history and biography ones and memoir. Oh, and historical fiction. There’ve been some great panels about that. (So some of the stuff that Kadohata said about research that helps to “create a place” is territory I’ve visited before.. well, at least as far as being an audience member listening to historical novelists discuss their craft.)