The Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre is ‘the home of new writing, debate about literature and more’, so the questions from writer and lecturer Ardu Vakil, our interviewer, were duly stimulating. My thanks to Prof. Blake Morrison: it was an honour to be invited to Goldsmiths, having been there years ago as a Creative & Life Writing MA student, and a pleasure to see some of my former tutors, including Ardu. This blog post is in response to requests, on the night and subsequently, to make available online my own reflections on history in fiction.
Why weave history into fiction? Because it does something which really matters: it raises awareness of the legacy of history in our present day and of the fact that history is narrative. Novels can alert readers to these two issues and their consequences in ways which imprint themselves in our minds more deeply than intellectual notions alone.
The past conditions our present everywhere, but there are places where this is more evident than in others. My native Puglia, the region located in the ‘heel’ of Italy, is one such place. Part of the Ancient Greek world since the Bronze Age, it was eventually conquered by the Romans. The Via Appia soon stretched all the way from Rome to the port city of Brundisium (modern Brindisi), carrying armies and goods to this natural ‘Gateway to the East’ (‘Porta d’Oriente’). A succession of conquerors followed: Byzantines, Berbers, Normans, Swabians, French, Venetians, Spaniards… Over the centuries, they left an abundance of visible traces. First-time visitors to Puglia today are astonished by the sight of Ancient Greek or Roman ruins side by side with Norman churches, Swabian castles, Anjou palaces, Venetian loggias, Baroque jewels, the idiosyncratic ‘trulli’, whitewashed kasbahs… As a child whose bedroom windows opened onto the 11th-century round church of St. John of the Sepulchre, built by the Normans (influenced by the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) on top of a Roman house, I was conscious of walking daily where other children had walked for at least two-thousand years.
Of course, that is exactly what we’re all doing, physically or metaphorically, everywhere – but most places don’t bring us face to face with that realisation. Puglia has the power to do this also in slightly less obvious ways, and so my novel highlights the ‘living traces’ of diverse people and cultures in the region: the inhabitants’ physical appearance, which surprises foreigners; the mixture of languages which flowed into the local dialect; the cuisine; fairy tales which blend Greek myth with historical fact; proverbs where ancient gods and Christianity meet… I might write a future post about exactly how these traces appear in That Summer in Puglia. In the meantime, these sketchier references are here to help illustrate my answer to the wider question of why history in fiction – including, but not restricting ourselves to, historical fiction – matters.
Brindisi, church of St. John of the Sepulchre, with view of access to Roman domus underneath
The Appia Traiana in Egnazia
Ostuni – Old Town
Lecce – Basilica of Santa Croce
Some awareness of how dynamically history still impacts the present is salutary for at least two reasons. First, it highlights positive aspects to be grateful for and exposes toxic ones. Second, by reminding us of the transience of life, it has high ‘existential value’: it awakens in us the instinct to make our existence meaningful; and the realisation that we’re tiny drops in the flow of humanity encourages empathy towards others not merely across time but across geographies. At the very least, it’s a spur to seeking to understand our world better and to take responsibility for daily actions. At its best, it pre-empts dangerous Othering. Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy offers a memorable discussion of why intellectual awareness and courage are essential to countering the instinct to invent an enemy in the process of identity formation (individual as much as national).
Equally salutary – particularly when nationalism is experiencing a resurgence at all longitudes – is the recognition that history is narrative. All history is incomplete: the most scrupulous historians, committed to seeking the truth, are not exempt from the imperative to select the dots to connect; they have to sift through the facts and the personalities of the past in order to determine which to include or exclude. Even the most consciously unbiased will do that from a point of view inevitably tinged with the unconscious bias of their time and of other factors. And even the most balanced account can only be partial, a cross-section of reality. Think of the fils rouges running through your own life: they all tell true stories, but each thread can connect only certain aspects of your existence.
Omissions and distortions can have tragic consequences, especially when they’re wilful. That’s true both for societies and individuals and whether the narrative in question is the history of a nation or of a person. The story of Tommaso, the protagonist of That Summer in Puglia, is that of a man who unwittingly misinterprets and distorts past and present at great cost to himself and others, until the complexity of the truth catches up with him and presents him with a choice.
The link between the words‘history’ and ‘story’ remindsus that both are narratives. The distinction between them in the English language is relatively recent: it first appears only around the late fifteenth century. In some other tongues – for example Italian (storia), French (histoire) and German (Geschichte) – one term still describes both. Layers of history – and different versions of them – shape national as well as personal identities; they give rise to frameworks of beliefs and of normative behaviour. I’m intrigued by how history with a capital ‘h’ affects personal histories as well as our own times. I’ve explored some of these intersections in my first novel and will explore others in my second one, a story set in late sixteenth-century Southern Italy. I hope That Summer In Puglia shows how layers of history and of diverse cultures account for my native region’s deep-rooted contradictions, which give rise to its intense beauty but also to conflicts between and within my protagonists; ultimately, their task is that of ‘connecting the fragments’.
The word ‘history’ comes to us via the ancient Greek but derives from the proto-Indo-European ‘weid’ for ‘to see’, the root for the words ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’. It strikes me as one of those cases in which etymology transmits a timeless truth: while knowledge and wisdom are different things, seeking ‘to see clearly’ is integral to acquiring some degree of wisdom. To ‘see clearly’ is always a challenge though, not least as it requires viewing things from multiple perspectives. An education which stresses the value of the arts and humanities encourages that, by training us to open-mindedness, empathy and critical thinking. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued the case (full text here) particularly effectively: ‘Never assume that the humanities are an optional extra, a bit of leisure-time fun, alongside the real hard-nosed human business of science, medicine or engineering. Without hard and creative thinking in the humanities, the human society in which you and I find ourselves may well go mad. Look around you at the world in which we live, and try to prove me wrong.’ Fiction and non-fiction are cornerstones of the arts and humanities.
Most novelists – I, for one – don’t write to a theme. Rather, a cluster of them tends to reveal itself only in the course of writing, and sometimes only afterwards. It’s in the nature of creative work that this remains true even when we set out to explore a specific issue. Historical novels can show powerfully how the past still affects the present. They can foreground microhistory, which is arguably as significant for our everyday as who won which battle (with some notable exceptions). They can convey people’s acceptance as givens, in their time, of rules and customs we find abhorrent, prompting us to query widespread present-day attitudes future generations will decry. They pose the question: how would you have behaved in those circumstances? The temporal distance inherent in historical novels (to varying degrees which impact the defamiliarization effect) can make it easier for us as readers to discern and engage with aspects of our own reality.
Researching the lives of ordinary people in sixteenth-century Southern Italy threw up surprises for me, such as the incidence of slavery, and the deep roots – immemorial by then – of a misogyny we’re still struggling against. The greatest challenge for me as I write my second novel is to resist all temptation to project a twenty-first century worldview onto characters from another era. As the great Carlo Ginzburg recently said in a Warburg Institute lecture: ‘history and anthropology are located forms of knowledge’, so we have to strive against unconscious bias, by listening to, and respecting, ‘the voices of the people at the time’.
That doesn’t mean that imagination plays no part in historical fiction – on the contrary. For example, my second novel is inspired by true events, but gaps in the documentary evidence call for a high degree of conjecture. My response to the challenge includes inventing protagonists who interact with real-life historical ones. They are far from being arbitrary inventions, though: rather, they’re fictional human beings who give voice to countless numbers of their contemporaries who actually experienced the situations and dilemmas they face in the story.
Is it worth all the research, all the emotional and imaginative effort to inhabit a consciousness located in a very different world, all the meticulous assembling of pieces of an incomplete puzzle? I think it is: fiction has the power to capture and communicate the narrative truth of fragments of the past – and so to illuminate the present.
Flier for ‘History and Fiction’ event: courtesy of Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre.
The festival’s name suggests a focus on travel literature but its remit defies narrow definitions. It showcases different ways of narrating places and cultures: journalism, travel memoir, fiction, photography, music, television, comics, anthropology, history, politics, philosophy… It’s promoted and hosted by the Società Geografica Italiana (founded in 1867, it’s Italy’s equivalent of the Royal Geographical Society, for those of you in the UK) in the historic grounds of its headquarters, Villa Celimontana. Journalist and photographer Antonio Politano (La Repubblica, National Geographic and much more) is the Artistic Director. Writer and broadcaster Tommaso Giartosio (author of several books, journalist and presenter of Rai Radio Tre’s literary programme, ‘Fahrenheit’) co-ordinates the talks and interviews the speakers.
The festival’s byword being ‘openness’, its atmosphere is at once relaxed and challenging. The juxtaposition of some sessions emphasises the relevance and reach of world events. An example? In their presentation of Otto Giorni in Niger (Baldini + Castoldi) a memoir of days with the UNHCR in refugee camps in Niger, acclaimed authors Edoardo Albinati and Francesca D’Aloja spoke of how the experience affected their perspectives on issues ranging from degrees of hospitality and generosity, to the wisdom of young mothers whose babies were born of rape; their talk was followed by the award of the festival’s Navicella d’Oro Prize to Aboubakar Soumahoro, trade unionist, for his work against racism and the exploitation of migrants in Italy, and to Antonio Marchesi, President of Amnesty International Italy.
The novels presented at the festival tend to be connected by a strong sense of place. The session ‘Levante Italiano’ or ‘Italian Levant’, involved a discussion of three works set in Puglia: Omar Di Monopoli’s Uomini e Cani (Adelphi), Carlos Solito’s Sciamenesciá (Elliot) and my That Summer in Puglia (Eyewear). Rino Caputo, Professor of Italian Literature at Tor Vergata, University of Rome, put them in the historical context of literature from Puglia-born writers, highlighting the similarities and differences vis a vis the experience of earlier Sicilian authors. Tommaso Giartosio pointed to the strong thread connecting our individual visions of Puglia, despite our three widely differing styles: namely, the region’s contradictions, rooted in history, which still shape its present and our imaginations.
Yesterday’s event in Ostuni was very special: after a journey begun in Oxford, my protagonist Tommaso “came home” to the beautiful city through which he and Anna “walk”.
Poster produced by the City of Ostuni
Article in La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno
I have lots of people to thank for the success of this bilingual presentation to an audience consisting, in fairly equal parts, of Italian and native-English speakers:
The authorities who took the initiative of offering a literary event for both an Italian public and the sizeable Anglophone community resident in and around Ostuni. My thanks to Mayor Gianfranco Coppola, City Councillor Antonella Palmisano and Director of Museums Michele Conte, who gave the welcome addresses, and to their wonderful team, especially City Library Director Francesca Garziano and Press Officer Paola Loparco
Francesco, Paola and Ilaria Casanova of the Bottega del Libro bookshop, whose support at the event and in the weeks leading up to it was precious
Last but certainly not least, my wonderful interviewer Francesco Dimitri, another Apulian author living and working in London. Francesco writes in both Italian and English. His most recent titles include To Read Aloud and The Book of Hidden Things (which is set in Puglia) and he collaborates with The School of Life. I can’t wait for his That Sense of Wonder, which is due out in November 2018.
Mayor Gianfranco Coppola’s welcome address
Address by Museum President Michele Conte
Assessore Antonella Palmisano’s address
Francesco and I translated – from English into Italian and vice versa – everything we discussed. We had wondered how well this would work and were delighted to hear that people loved it and that many of them actively enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand what was being said in the other language before hearing the translation into their own tongue.
Francesco’s questions were insightful and stimulating, and those from the audience showed warm engagement with the novel. As always, it was so lovely, afterwards, to meet those present, to hear their thoughts on the book and to learn of their backgrounds.
The City of Ostuni, where That Summer in Puglia is set, will host a presentation of the novel on the 31st of August in the magical surroundings of The Bishops’ Garden (Il Giardino dei Vescovi) of the Diocese’s Museum (Museo Diocesano).
Several things make this talk special for me: it feels as if my fictional protagonist, Tommaso, has ‘come home’; the venue opens onto the square through which he and his great love, Anna, ‘walk’ and where they ‘sit’ on the steps of the historic Cathedral; I’ve known and loved Ostuni all my life; and… the talk will be in English and Italian, something made possible by my wonderful interviewer, fellow-author Francesco Dimitri (To Read Aloud and The Book of Hidden Things, which is also set in Puglia), another Apulian living in the UK.
What could be more appropriate for this book than a bilingual presentation in Ostuni? A work of fiction written in English (my literary mother-tongue) and set in London and Puglia by a dual-nationality author will be discussed with an Italian- and an English-speaking public. I was so pleased that the Mayor, his team and the President of the Museo Diocesano were keen to organise an event of potential interest to the sizeable Anglophone local community.
During the Q&A at the talks, I’m often asked whether I feel Italian or British. The question is valid and the answer is that for me it’s not an “either/or” but an “and”: I am both Italian and British, and more broadly European.
Image of publicity material: courtesy of the Comune di Ostuni.
Special thanks to the Comune di Ostuni’s Press Officer, Paola Loparco, and to the Director of the Library, Francesca Garziano.
My thanks to Tiziana Sforza for her extensive coverage of That Summer in Puglia in her article for Radici Future Magazine. She includes intriguing facts about tourism and foreign property investment in Puglia and a discussion of books which offer insights into this beautiful Southern Italian region. Click here to read.
Un sincero grazie a Tiziana Sforza per la bella segnalazione di That Summer in Puglia nel suo articolo per Radici Future Magazine. Cliccare qui per leggere l’articolo.
Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.
My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia? Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.
For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.
Riveting Reads: on Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Nicola Gardini
The European Literature Network champions international literature – if you aren’t already aware of its activity, do check out its website.
Every month, its Riveting Reviews section features reviews of (mainly) European literature – mostly of works recently translated into English. It also offers a Riveting Reads section, consisting of brief (only a few lines long) recommendations of a wider range of books, including fiction and non-fiction not yet available in English translation, as well as texts published years ago.
Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.
This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.
Career or vocation?
With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.
Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.
I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.
I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.
The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.
I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.
Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.