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Writing strategies for revealing lives on the margins
Craft: Filling in the blanks
When we’re trying to recreate the lives of those long gone, we look for written evidence: diaries, journals, business and government records, news reports, letters and other documentation to help us paint a portrait. Those whose lives are well-documented—the wealthy, the powerful, the (often) male—are more likely to have their lives documented and their stories told than those who were unable to read or write, those judged to be unworthy of note, those who were considered marginal to the main text of the time. And so what do we end up with? A partial portrait of the past, with many absent from the picture.
I’ve been grappling with this on a nonfiction project I’m working on. In some ways, I’m fortunate: my subject’s life is partially documented. But I’m not sure how much to trust what is on paper (I’ll come back to this), and there are also significant gaps in the documentation. As I’ve been considering my options, I’ve been looking at how others have navigated similar terrain:
Hallie Rubenhold, in The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Tiya Miles, in All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Ilyon Woo, in Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom
Emily Skidmore, in True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century
Lorri Neilsen Glenn, in Following the River: Traces of Red River Women
Doireenn Ni Ghriofa, in A Ghost in the Throat
Strategy: Challenge assumptions
In The Five, author Hallie Rubenhold starts with a simple question: What’s the evidence? She’s not seeking evidence of who Jack the Ripper was. Instead, she’s challenging the evidence of who his victims were. “Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes,” she writes, “or so it has always been believed, but there is no hard evidence to suggest that three of his five victims were prostitutes at all.” (p. 12) Police assumed the women were prostitutes, and that assumption became accepted as fact. Records of coroner’s inquests from the time—which may, in any case, have reflected the bias of the time—are missing. “All that remains is a body of edited, embellished, misheard, reinterpreted newspaper reports from which a general picture of events can be teased. These documents have been approached with care on my part, and nothing contained within them has been taken as gospel.” (p. 13).
And so what does Rubenhold do? She rigorously interrogates the documents, while also masterfully painting a more complete and nuanced social history of the times that serves to illuminate the realities of the circumstances of the five women. By the end of her book, we understand the social forces that conspired to push these women to society’s margins, placing them in the path of a killer. We see their lives more clearly, and Rubenhold achieves the goal she set for herself in her introduction: “that we may now hear their stories clearly and give back to them that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.” (p. 13)
Strategy: Get closer
In True Sex, author Emily Skidmore faces a dual challenge in examining the lives of trans men at the turn of the 20th century. First, because living as a man so often depended upon secrecy, those trans men who show up in the historical record tend to do so when their secret is discovered and reported—typically when they come into conflict with the law in some way. So, challenge #1: the lives for which there is documentary evidence tend to be those which intersected with the legal system in some way. There isn’t much Skidmore can do to address this challenge, other than to bring to her reading—and her readers—an understanding of the context of the laws of the times: the emergence of sexology and its definitions of deviance, and the intersection of laws around appropriate clothing for men and women with both anti-suffrage and anti-immigration sentiments.
There is another layer here, though, that Skidmore deftly peels back. Much of the research into these stories has focused on reporting done in the major media of the time—the big city newspapers most easily accessed through archives. Skidmore takes us closer: she tracks these stories to the local coverage of the cases, and then examines “the ways that stories of revelation morphed as they circulated and how representations of trans men changed as they moved from the local to the national context.” (p. 8) In doing so, she is able to tease out a more nuanced story, one that reveals far more sympathy for and acceptance of trans men in local communities, and a politicized “trans panic” driven in part by national conservative media. (Sound familiar?)
Strategy: Imagine the possibilities
In Master Slave Husband Wife, author Ilyon Woo seems, on the surface, to have plenty of documentation on which to base the story of the enslaved couple Ellen and William Craft, who escaped their enslavers by embarking on a daring journey. Ellen, who could pass for White, disguised herself as a wealthy disabled man, with William as the man’s slave. The couple wrote a book about their exploits, embarked on abolitionist speaking tours and were widely covered in the press.
But even with all of that material, Woo faces significant gaps: details on the couple’s later life are notably thinner, and even in those more heavily documented periods, Ellen’s perspective is often missing or conveyed through the words and impressions of others. What does Woo do? She is scrupulous in grounding her work in the evidence available to her, while also imagining and articulating possibilities for Ellen’s actions and reactions beyond those recorded by others. Here, for instance, she considers Ellen’s public silence once the couple escaped to Great Britain:
“Why her public silence? It may have been a strategic choice, in a land where there was an even greater stigma than at home against a woman speaking onstage—no matter that Britain’s monarch was Queen Victoria. Ellen was also keenly aware that any publicity in her name would ‘only ensure more cruelty’ to her mother, as she would warn friends in the coming months. Artistic differences may have been another factor, especially over the term white slave, which the Williams ‘rather liked,’ in contrast to Ellen, who would always identify with the Black community, and whose complex ethnicity the term erased. It is even possible that Ellen did not want to be on the road at all.” (p. 288)
Strategy: Honour the fragments
In Following the River, poet and author Lorri Neilsen Glenn searches the historical record for the story of Red River women, in particular her great-grandmother Catherine and the generations of grandmothers before her, Indigenous women of York Factory and Red River Settlement. Over years, Neilsen Glenn searched archives and libraries for historical records, engaged in conversations and interviews, and took road trips to the lands once inhabited by her female ancestors.
“The search has been worth every haystack, lost needle, road trip and conversation; every dark afternoon winding a screeching lever on a microfilm reader; every hard-won shred of testimony scoured from an almost unreadable diary or musty, century-old book. There is no whole story to tell of any of these women, but as I continued to dig, the search would uncover a past both sobering and humbling...Red River women are introduced here in scraps, found poems, historical snippets, narrative snapshots, shards of memory and the occasional image—assembled and organized largely chronologically around the lifetimes of my own Indigenous and ‘half-breed’ ancestors. The incomplete pieces here are markers, signposts of a larger history we need to re-examine and preserve.” (p. 24)
As Neilsen Glenn’s story unfolds, the gaps have their own resonance, like the space in a cavern in which the few words that are spoken echo and linger, thrumming their way into our bones so that we carry forward both what is known and what is lost.
Strategy: Forge a connection
In A Ghost in the Throat, poet and translator Doireann Ni Ghriofa sets out to discover “the erased life” of an 18th-century Irish noblewoman, Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonnaill, author of a powerful lament composed after finding her murdered husband’s body. The poem, initially transmitted orally, is widely considered the greatest poem composed in Ireland and England during that period—but because of its oral transmission, its authorship has been contested and Eibhlin Dubh’s contribution diminished and doubted. As with Neilsen Glenn’s exploration, Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s obsession with the lament and its author leads us not into a completed picture of the erased life she seeks to reveal. Instead, we are forced to reckon with the reality of erasure, as Ni Ghriofa reckons with erasure’s echoes in her own life. As she writes, “My attempt to know another woman has found its ending not in the satisfaction of neat discovery, but in the persistence of mystery.” (p. 280) We may not know the facts, but we can feel the lessons of a distant life and its truth echoing into our own.
Strategy: Trust but question
So what about when we have a subject’s own words among our source materials? Should we trust what they say? That’s something I’m pondering with my own current project: the person I’m focused on wrote a memoir—but it includes some material that seems unlikely to be true, and was published at a time when embellishment for the sake of a ripping good yarn wasn’t out of the question. London-based writer Henry Oliver considers the question of the reliability of diaries and letters in a post on his Substack, The Common Reader, and suggests we take “people at their word, while trying to judge how strongly you take their claim.” At the very least, even if something is factually wrong, the person writing it may have believed (or wanted?) it to be true.
(And hat-tip to the newsletter of Biographers International Organization for pointing me to Oliver’s newsletter.)
Strategy: Make your case
In All That She Carried, historian Tiya Miles tells the story of an enslaved woman named Rose and her daughter Ashley. Miles starts with an object: a cotton bag Rose packed for her daughter when nine-year-old Ashley was sold and separated from her, the bag saved, handed down and embroidered decades later with a simple message by Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth. Miles diligently hunts for every scrap of documentation—but she also knows that documentation will be thin. Still, she will not let the erasure of the past result in invisibility in the present. And so she sets out the parameters of her storytelling approach in the book’s introduction:
“While these pages will offer grounded interpretation based on evidence, comparison, and context, they will also accommodate suppositions and imagination, recognizing that there are a great many things about the past that we cannot know for certain, especially with regard to populations whose lives were mostly underrecorded or misunderstood.” (p. 17)
Miles goes on to highlight the work of historian Marisa Fuentes, who described her approach to researching the lives of enslaved women in Barbados as reading “along the bias grain”—that is, seeking all of the records that are available, but reading them with recognition of the “‘violence’ and ‘distortion’ of traditional archives while refusing to abandon enslaved Black women to that discursive abyss.” As well, she nods to the work of cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman, who argues in favour of the use of “restrained imagination” and of linking the failures of the past to the present-day legacy of those failures. She is inspired as well by art historians and archaeologists, and quotes Caribbean studies scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot who says “History begins with bodies and artifacts.” Miles says:
“In addition to stretching historical documents, bending time, and imagining alternative realities into and alongside archival fissures, I ask that we seek out the actual material—the things enslaved people touched, made, used, and carried—in order to understand the past.” (pp18-19)
She goes on to say: “Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, attention to material things, especially ones elaborated by words or pictures, opens a route to accessing intangible feelings and desires that can evade the documentary record.” (p. 19)
At no point does Miles—or any of the other authors considered here—try to fool the reader. What is known is laid out clearly, the lines of the gaps drawn sharply. But those gaps do not stop Miles, Neilsen Glenn, Ni Ghriofa, Woo, Rubenhold or Skidmore from thoughtful consideration of what is missing. The lessons of absence, erasure and silence speak to us and reveal lives worth knowing, lives that even in fragments have the power to inspire, guide and nourish us.
Embarking on historical research? I’m a beginner on this front as well, but some tools and resources I’m finding useful include:
ArchiveGrid: Author Sarah Weinman shared this resource with our MFA in Creative Nonfiction students at King’s during a seminar last year, and I’ve found it enormously useful: a searchable database of archives. I’d been trying to figure out if an author, now deceased, had placed any of her materials in an archive, but had come up dry. I typed her name into ArchiveGrid, and bingo: up popped the exact material I was looking for.
Newspapers.com: I think the technical term for the amount of content on this site is “shit-ton.” Still, I should perhaps not be surprised that despite providing access to historical newspaper records from around the globe, the site comes up almost empty on my home province of New Brunswick: a year’s worth of Acadie Nouvelle and about 300 pages of Saint John newspapers from 1992 are the extent of the offerings.
Ancestry.com: Not just for tracking down your own family! Great for figuring out the family trees of the people you’re researching, and, if you’re lucky, can turn up various official documents, photos and other materials.
Writing Inclusive Historical Fiction Webinar: Happening Aug. 26 online (with options to view the video later), from Writing The Other. I’ve found Writing the Other’s sessions to be terrific, so am looking forward to this one, which promises to examine techniques for finding and accurately interpreting historical sources (so could also be useful to those writing historical nonfiction), and more.
Seek context: As I’ve been researching my historical project, I’ve been struck by exactly how much I don’t know about the time period, which has sent me searching for historical overviews, social histories of the time, academic papers and newspaper accounts. But shouldn’t we do the same when writing a more current story? We assume that we know about “now”—but our social position, geographic location, gender, race and a thousand other factors all influence our perspective. Whether you’re writing about the past or the present, consider what context you need to understand—and where you might be able to find additional insight, whether through reading or conversation. Look at a piece you’re writing now: what additional research could broaden your understanding of what you think you already understand?
Find an object: Historian Tiya Miles makes a powerful case for the stories embedded in the objects. “Things become bearers of memory and information, especially when enhanced by stories that expand their capacity to carry meaning,” she writes (p.13). If you’re writing memoir, find an object from the period about which you are writing, and write deeply into that object: describe both what it looks like and what it means—or meant—to you. If you’re writing about someone else, find an object related to them or their story, and do the same: describe the object in as many ways as you can. What does it look like? What is it made of? What did it mean to the person who owned it/purchased it/gifted it/threw it away? What stories are carried within those materials?
Things I’ve underlined this month:
“More is known of the woman who hated Ellen than the mother who loved her.” Ilyon Woo writing about Mistress Eliza Smith, wife of James Smith, and Maria, enslaved mother of Ellen Craft. James Smith was Ellen Craft’s enslaver—and very possibly her father. Master Slave Husband Wife (p. 45)
“The subjects of this book introduced their friends and neighbors to the idea that sex and gender were two distinct things. For example, [Kenneth] Lisonbee’s instance [sic] that his customers didn’t make a fuss over calling him ‘Ken’ while knowing that he was anatomically female underscores the idea...that Americans at the turn of the twentieth century had a far more nuanced understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality than previously has been acknowledged...[and] that the United States has a rich and deep queer history that extends far beyond the ‘bubbles’ of the East and West Coasts, and penetrates deep into the heartland of ‘real America.’” True Sex (pp. 177, 179)
“Admitting that one does not know, that one cannot know, or that a life is too complex to be fully understood does not preclude our attempts at knowing, nor does it lessen the potential for tremendous gains from what we may learn.” Steacy Easton, Why Tammy Wynette Matters (p.9)
Amazon, AI and scammers, a story in three links:
The Guardian on Jane Friedman impersonators
The New York Times on crappy guidebooks
And a Twitter link about really shitty insta-books
A workshop on how AI might actually be useful for writers
Want to make your author website better? Publishing pro Jane Friedman offers an excellent webinar on this, and has a session for just $30US through Desert Sleuths’ upcoming online conference (note that times are in the Mountain time zone).
Obligatory photos of Buddy & Reggie
The stuff at the bottom
I’m a writer, editor and teacher. This is my personal e-newsletter on the craft of writing nonfiction, sprinkled with occasional feminism and social justice. You can find out more about me on my website at kimpittaway.com. You can also find me on Facebook. I’m a cohort director in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction limited residency program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. If you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you should check our program out! (And hey, we just added a limited residency MFA in Fiction as well, taught by some of my amazing colleagues!)