15/10/2014, by CLAS

Imagining silence: experiencing history as fiction

By Katie Hamilton, PhD student in the Department of American & Canadian Studies

On first consideration, a reading and conversation with a novelist seems an incongruous way to celebrate Black History Month. It begs the question of what a contemporary novel can tell us about the history of the African diaspora that we don’t already know from primary sources. However, what Margaret Wrinkle’s award-winning debut novel Wash (2013) reminds us that this history is just another story: a series of selected facts, creatively presented. This in turn raises another question: can we get closer to the reality of past experiences through acts of imagination than by the analysis of factual records alone?

The history of black populations in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century is sketchily pieced together from a relatively small number of often contradictory sources such as court documents, slave ledgers, bills of sale and runaway slave advertisements. There is a dearth of historical evidence of the lived experience of black people, largely because as slaves the overwhelming majority of black men and women were denied literacy and were controlled by white-authored documents. What results is a story that is characterized by absent voices. Academics – including several of the researchers within The University of Nottingham’s Department of American and Canadian Studies – attempt to recover this silenced history through examining other modes of expression such as the work of black visual artists.

In Wash, Margaret Wrinkle suggests the imperfect and even misleading nature of the historical records of slavery: characters burn ledgers and rip pages from diaries and account books. What we think we know is even less than half the story: not only has black experience been silenced, but the official documents have been doctored. Fiction therefore becomes a means of attempting to fill in the blanks and understand the identities of black and white humans existing across a related divide. What Wrinkle does in Wash is imagine a series of fictional enslaved Africans and African Americans, making their voices heard by way of a narrative technique that features the first person narration of both slaves and slaveholders, whose lives (and psychologies) are intertwined and co-dependent. Wrinkle does not flinch from representing the dehumanizing brutality of slavery, from rape, to violent beatings, brandings and murder. Her black characters struggle to retain their own “story” and their rich African ancestral and spiritual traditions in the face of these assaults, but cling to alternative ways of preserving identity such as talismans and oral histories. Further, through her nuanced representation of the internal monologues of white slaveholders, Wrinkle suggests that history sometimes fails to represent these figures faithfully. Her sense of the psychological damage that slavery inflicts on slaveholders is not lessened by her complete condemnation of their actions.

The effect of characters recalling the same events from perspectives that are entirely incommensurable is of a conversation between different world views, cultures and identities. A subject that we think we know well is made alien as new voices join the colloquy. Wrinkle’s fictional world creates an imaginary dialogue that integrates black and white cultures and traditions. By celebrating Black History Month in the UK, we hope not only to conserve and pay tribute to the richness of black British heritage, but also to encourage dialogues between different communities, and to recognise the role history continues to play in shaping our lives in the present.  A conversation about an imagined shared past therefore seems a uniquely appropriate place to start.

Please join the UoN Department of American and Canadian Studies at Waterstones Nottingham on 15 October at 5.30pm when Margaret Wrinkle will do a reading, take questions, and be in conversation with Katie Hamilton. All are welcome and there is no admission fee, but guests are invited to please register at www.wrinkle.eventbrite.co.uk.

Hamilton image

Posted in American and Canadian Studies