‘What if the Facts Aren’t the Facts at All?’
On Writers of Color Confronting Historical Fiction
Every year or so, my father tells the story of his Indian Muslim grandfather who fell in love with a Black woman. His grandfather, likely born into a family of indentured servants, changed his surname to “Francis” and began a new life with his wife in another part of Trinidad. Over our most recent Thanksgiving dinner, watching my father grow animated in his retelling, I wondered how much of his story was true, how much imagined over generations. I wondered what import the story held for my father and if he, like me, ever found himself searching for some resemblance in the faces of the Francises he’d met or if, instead, he, a Black man, looked for himself in men of Indian origin, regarding the slopes of their noses, the way their aged bellies balanced on skinny brown legs, much like his own. And I wondered, even in the age of cheek swabbing and Henry Louis Gates type revelations, whether those born of enslaved and displaced people could ever find themselves without the necessity for substantial imagination?
In Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture “Can These Bones Live?” Mantel urges writers “to locate the area of doubt when writing historical fiction.” It is a goal we all strive for, yet as I listened to Mantel’s lecture, I wondered what if for your people or your characters, all of written history is in doubt?
In my novel Book of the Little Axe, part of my story is borne from a fairly obscure character in U.S. history named Edward Rose. Edward Rose was a black-skinned man. He was also a Crow Native American Chief. Little is known about Rose’s origin, other than he was of mixed indigenous and African heritage, perhaps born a slave. When I journeyed out west for research, no one I met had heard of him. Yet I knew that Rose had been a mountain man long before Kit Carson and James Beckwourth, and that he’d led many of the men whose names still lived on in our history.
“A trail blazer’s trailblazer,” the historian Harold Felton said of Rose. Felton wrote that Rose had been mentioned in some of the earliest writings about western exploration. Some such writings characterized Rose as a barrel-chested scoundrel. But through my research, it became clear that Rose was a most sought after guide, one explorers turned to time and again. Why would men with means risk their lives being led by a scoundrel, I wondered?
The idea of pursuing a story about Rose excited me. In my readings, I also came across one mention of Rose’s multiple wives, typical at that time, and I knew then that Rose’s life must have been fuller. Would Rose have married only Crow women? Would he have ever thought to marry a Black woman? The facts don’t offer any help here.
To be honest, I was frightened by the work required to do “honest negotiation with the facts,” as Mantel suggests, when some of the “facts” might not have been “facts” at all. What does a writer do with her suspicion of historical records intentionally obfuscating the contributions of certain characters? Mantel says, “facts are strong but they are not stable” and indeed, it seems the instability is what offered me the greatest opportunity.
In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon she writes of her character Macon Dead thinking of his ancestor on the way to his office. “Some lithe young man with onyx skin and legs as straight as cane stalks who had a name that was real. A name given to him at birth with love and seriousness.” This ancestor is who Macon conjures out of his own “athlete’s stride,” his own “high behind,” his own “strut.” For Macon, the absence of a discernible forebearer is both crippling and permissive. And I found this to be true for me too as I built an imagined story around Edward Rose, working between the dates Rose’s name appeared on record, using the years when the facts were neither strong nor stable but rather absent to make space for Rose to have a worthy life.
Then I turned to Rose’s wives, and offered one of them her own adventure story, bringing her from Trinidad to what would soon become the American West to meet Rose. The journey seemed improbable, yes, but not implausible. Mantel tells us to “resist the temptation to tidy up the past.” As a writer exploring opportunities for characters who face barriers and limitations because of gender and/or race, we must also resist the temptation to submit to likelihood and probability, for we cannot presume we know what is likely when the oppressed and the victimized intend to survive.
“Stick with the truth,” Mantel urges in her lecture. “If the shape is awkward, then your fiction must bend around the narrative.” And though I admire Mantel greatly, it is here where we diverge, for inherently, writers like me must question and perhaps even distrust the written record, even more so than others. While writing Book of the Little Axe, I came across pages of detailed accounts written by former property owners in the Caribbean. Dr. Eric Williams, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, compiled and investigated many such records in Documents of West Indian History, which detailed European accounts of the lives of Africans and the islands’ indigenous peoples from 1492 to 1655.
Reading the letters and Dr. Williams’ reckonings with them, I realized that unlike my father’s story passed down from generation to generation, not many words in those documents had been written by or for the benefit of African and indigenous peoples. When the property owners wrote letters to those in Europe outlining occasional uprisings quelled by European forces, I was forced to imagine the insurrections they did not write about. When the property owners told of “aboriginal suicides,” I then had to imagine the kind of life that would lead to mass suicide. When the 1796 Trinidad census listed 4,500 free coloreds, I knew it was my job to imagine life for at least one of those “free” Black families.
I correctly presumed, like any writer who sets out to write a story with limited materials, that it wouldn’t be easy. But what turned out also to be true was that the incomplete maps, the meager facts, the varnished truths, were like a soft silk pouch, the container within which I would present the living bones formed from the mere dust of what I now have termed critical imagination, a necessary tool for writers of color plagued with a well-earned mistrust of facts.
Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma is available now from Grove Atlantic.