"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Past matters: Writing other people's history

Documenting the past comes with a frightening number of challenges that at times beg the question, why bother? 

With historical writing, the challenges are even more pronounced, particularly the lack of people and sources against which to check your facts. 

Depending on how you look at it, it’s either the greatest investigative adventure or a guaranteed route to sleepless nights as the unknown quantities swirl around your tormented mind.

Most likely it’s both – in masochistic fashion, I’m attempting to research two completely unrelated periods of history so am living perhaps the biggest dream/nightmare of being this kind of writer.  One project relates to the Ugandan-Asian Diaspora of the 1970s, the other is concerned with the development of the post-1945 humanitarian movement.   One of the hardest things I’m finding is connecting the dots between the socio-political events of each era and the personal stories of the people who experienced them, and then creating a narrative that flows like a novel but is an authoritative work of historic significance.

How do you faithfully tell other people’s stories when your motive for doing so is inevitably driven by some kind of personal agenda?

Speaking at this year's Bristol Festival of Ideas, the historical writer Ian Buruma suggested that it boils down to the art of combining the stories of both people and processes, but he cautioned against the temptation to paint a smooth picture, saying: “you have to be careful when documenting the past not to make out that the past was a coherent narrative”.

It was encouraging – and humbling – to hear Buruma talk about his latest book, Year Zero: The History of 1945, in which he charts the fallout of the Second World War.  The book has been described as “a work of enormous range and stirring human drama” based as it is on a series of eye-witness accounts and personal stories.

In fact it was his father’s story that prompted Buruma to write the book.  A university law student, his father was seized by the Germans and forced into labour in the Reich.  When he made it back, he willingly endured a harsh initiation at the hands of his university peers, describing it as a return to “normality”.  It was this that led Buruma to question the human experience of war.

Telling tales

Storytelling as a means of documenting history is nothing new but increasingly, some have questioned it as a technique, fearing that hard substance has been sacrificed for narrative style.

Reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath in the New Statesman, Steven Poole completely decimates Gladwell’s storytelling approach as a poor substitute for evidence-based writing.  Where Gladwell claims to “explore” important ideas, Poole argues that he merely spins yarns and avoids any opposing evidence to his prefabricated ideas.  The result is, according to Poole, something that exists at the contemptible level of “pseudo-profundity” and “vapid homily”.

Thorough research then, is fundamental.  Another Festival of Ideas speaker whose work testifies to the artful skill of combining testimony and historical fact is Jung Chang, author of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Drawing on recently released Chinese historical documents, Chang virtually rewrites the popular narrative about the 19th Century stateswoman, which has traditionally depicted her as a cruel despot.   Chang’s portrayal is of a thoughtful albeit justifiably ruthless leader who was responsible for modernising China.

Chang has admitted to falling in love with Cixi during her research period to the point where some reviewers have suggested her perspective has been tainted by emotion.  Equally, Chang has been praised for producing a ground-breaking biography that provides a fascinating insight into the birth of modern China as well as an intimate portrait of the women responsible for it.   

The key seems to lie in not restricting your view to the one seen through rose-tinted glasses.  As with all enquiry the starting point is a question and if you’re genuinely driven by a quest to discover an unknown truth, then you have to be open to answers that might overturn your premise, no matter how wedded you were to your first idea.  

Dying to get here: Blog Action Day 2013

The thinking woman's narrative