Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Evolving understandings of racism, preferred terminology and historical fiction

I participated briefly in a very interesting exchange on Twitter on the term "gypsy" a week or so ago, mostly by reading the thread, but I did ask one question, one I'd love to get some more thoughts and answers on.

The question I was trying to ask, though I don't think I worded it very well then was about historical fiction. I'm asking it again here in hopes of getting some more responses and thoughts.

"How do you handle terms and attitudes that are now considered racist/inappropriate when dealing with a story set in a time when those attitudes were considered normal/acceptable?"

Personally, I lean on the side of authenticity - if the terminology or attitude was common in primary sources of the time then I don't see an issue with using it - if appropriate for the characters and storylines. Don't go using it just because you can. A fine line... But one that can be trodden I think. Examples include the Book of Negroes (TV series at least), and Outlander (books and TV series both).

I should note that the responses I got to the question when I asked it on Twitter ranged from "yes, authenticity is good, but add warnings so people can chose if they feel like dealing with the attitudes right now" to what felt like "don't write or read those stories. They're racist", though that was never actually said. A fair enough point, but doesn't that cut out most of the past then as fodder for writing?

At least if you don't want "modern characters in period dress" which is an issue I've felt with quite a lot of popular historical fiction, and those books tend to end up on my DNF pile pretty quickly. Not every character in a time period is going to be "enlightened" and "modern" by our standards. Is it realistic of us to expect that in our reading? and if so, doesn't that then construct false impressions of a particular time period?

I'm forever debating variations of this with people I know - mostly on topics of women's rights and legal standing in ancient Rome or Greece (I come down on the "that's the way it was, now how was it justified/accepted/understood in that time" side of the debate, vs. the "that's wrong, it never should have been that way, they're so backwards, how did we ever accept it" side of the debate, which to me gets in the way of trying to understand the way people thought and acted in the past).

This is a question I'm poking at a bit, trying to find an answer that works - I have dreams of one day writing a novel or two myself, and the ideas I have are mostly historically-oriented, so this is something I'm trying to figure out (around reading books about the times I'm interested in to try and lock down facts and ideas that I could use). Whether it'll actually happen or not, I don't know.

What solutions are there to this question? I'd love to know - and not actually being a writer, I'm sure I'm missing some ideas and options. Thing is, while I know I prefer "realism" in what I'm reading when it comes to historical fiction, I also don't want the books I like to be offensive to people either - thus trying to figure out the balancing act.
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