How to write difficult local histories (Part One)

Eleusis, 2018 (C) Eleanna Castroianni
Photo showing a headless Greek statue and industrial area stretching behind.

One of the reasons I started writing fiction in English was to share my country’s little-known recent history.

The world is well acquainted with ancient Greece, its myths and its inhabitants, as it is the civilization the West chose as its cultural ancestor. My experience of contemporary Greece has little to do with ancient Greece, which I regard as a sort of a cosmopolitan, overbearing grandparent. It has a lot to do, however, with the Ottoman empire, World War II, the Greek Civil War, the junta, and massive waves of Greek-speaking refugees and immigrants, to mention a few things. This is what I want to talk about with fiction as a vehicle, yet writing about such topics challenges me daily.

One of the reasons is that these are often contested histories within the Greek-speaking world (if you grew up in a country with a 20th century civil war you probably know what I mean). Sometimes the intensity and sheer complexity of a historical period adds additional difficulties in writing about it.

Bringing history and fiction together

Navigating this in my stories has been a continuous process and not without mistakes. In my short story We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes we follow a woman soldier and haruspex who is fighting with the partisans in a quest that reveals the futility of this war (and every war). Because the Civil War has left my country a very divisive legacy, I wanted to write a story that highlighted the lives of the guerrilla fighters (who eventually lose the war and are vilified for decades after) and looks at them and their quest with a sympathetic eye. The idea behind this story was something I came up with in order to address the polarizing legacy I myself have to live with. As I kept growing and reading more, I came up with another story set in the Civil War that is currently in submission and which highlights a different kind of experience in that time period. It is, again, on a highly divisive yet somewhat obscure topic. It also has additional nuances acquired through additional reading that I did in the meantime.

My story An Incomplete Account of the Case of the Bird-Talker of Yaros (recently reprinted by PodCastle) is set in the dark years of the Greek junta. It was something I wrote while deeply concerned about the situation today. A turn to increased authoritarianism is observed around the globe, but it can be particularly traumatic when there is a prior history in your community. The more I researched the junta, the more I could see similarities with today. Writing this story was not only a way to process my own feelings, but to tell other people of what happened there and then.

So talking about these difficult histories through fiction can be a way to learn more about something, to show it to the world, to start a conversation – and also, a way to heal.

A way to write about difficult pasts

These stories have resulted into a kind of formula for me. The common elements are:

a) the characters and smaller events are entirely fictional, but are set within larger events and situations that are historical. This is very helpful if historical fiction isn’t your main thing (it isn’t mine). The historical details are a frame and a setting, but the story itself can take a number of forms.

b) the time and place are absolutely essential to the story. It is not, say, a story about any civil war, but of this one and what it did to these people.

c) there are elements of the fantastic that are also intrinsic to what the story does and what it says about those times. This is what makes these shorts speculative after all, but it is also one of the ways to navigate these difficult histories (more about this in Part Two).

I’ve found that this “formula” works particularly well to highlight the specific events while handling them with as much freedom and as much care as possible – the latter being a huge responsibility we must bear.

One of my dreams is to make more fiction like this available. I would like to see more writers from around the world writing these minor literatures; bringing us closer to events that have shaped the places they live (however small events and places) through fiction.

Would this formula work for you? Can you share what you’ve written from the margins of history? How was the process? How did it affect you?

In Part Two (coming next week!) I discuss what I’ve learned and provide tips for anyone who would like to write stories like this.

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