How to write historical fiction in the face of contested history
Going over the details of my novel set in Toledo I revisited the museum of magic, set in a tenth century cave that was an Islamic dwelling during the time of Casilda, a Toledan princess-cum-saint, whose story weaves through the trilogy. Back in the city after two years, spending time checking my memories of places, has raised several questions of how to do justice to the historical threads in my writing.
Weaving story from fragments or overwhelm
Much of the novel, For Hope is Always Born, takes place in the present, but a significant strand goes back to Moorish Spain. It’s a period that has proved difficult to research.
There’s a great deal of writing on the broad brushstrokes and there are certain characters who have captured imagination, like the slightly later El Cid. But there is a paucity of detail about ordinary daily lives, particularly in English. Despite the enormous amount of historical record across centuries and locations, it’s always the quotidian that is missing. Most history concerns the elites, whether of class or gender.
Internet searches on the history of this amazing tenth century home, with its two surviving hamsa images beside the slender entrance pillars, yielded nothing. I could only discover that had two-storeys, a well and courtyards. More ironically, two of Google’s top hits on this building were from blog posts I’d written myself on my last visit to Toledo.
At other points the problem has been in choosing the details to include. I’ve read several books on Islamic advances in learning, from alchemy to botany, from geometry to the best time and way to dig wells. It’s tempting as a writer to want to show off all this reading, but putting in too much detail is boring and distracting for a reader of story. The art is to get a sense of authenticity, to conjure the time and place with all the senses working, but not to let the skeleton of research show on the body of the narrative.
Weaving story from contradictory histories
Where there are descriptions of social arrangements, the accounts differ widely.
Some historians view Moorish Spain as a golden age paradise. In these accounts there was universal education, for girls as well as boys; well-lit paved streets; multicultural scholarship, religious tolerance and a high standard of living. Such is the view of historians such as John G Jackson and Ivan van Sertima.
The controversial Cordovan princess, Wallada bint al-Mustaki, is a prime example. Her dates overlap with Casilda’s and she was similarly a daughter of one of the last Umayyad caliphs. A poet who inherited her fathers estate when he died without a male heir, she had a reputation for teaching poetry and literature to all and sundry. Criticised for her unconventional dress-style, including a refusal to wear a veil in public, and for her outspokenness, as well as for taking many lovers, Wallada epitomises a golden-age history.
Other historians view the Moors as barbarous invaders who destroyed an existing civilisation. This view accuses the Moors of stealing from Visigoth culture and taking credit for its advances. Dario Fernandez-Morera, for example, claims:
under Islam the art of the Visigoth capital decayed, as the conquerors wiped out the traces of Catholic grandeur.
Such historians seem much less concerned when the Catholic church later persecuted Jews or turned architecturally exquisite mosques and synagogues into churches.
For these historians Moorish Spain was a misogynistic, repressive regime of a theocratic elite. An elite of clerics bent on sucking the joy and freedom out of every aspect of life.
The Visigoth museum in Toledo attests to a cohesive, sophisticated civilisation before the Moors. Toledo was the Visigoth capital in Spain and the city was a place of literature and liturgy. Several major Church Councils took place here. The surviving artefacts of the 5th to 7th Centuries are evidence of architectural and ecclesiastical wealth and of complex domestic and social lives.
Tariq ibn Ziyad led the invading Moors. History claims he was either an Arab, a Berber or a Persian. But historians most opposed to the idea of Islamic culture opt for Berber, in turn writing off the Berbers as ignorant nomads, with, as Manuel Rincon Alvarez would have it:
no or little capacity for absorbing culture.
The invading army was largely of Berber soldiers, though to judge a culture by its foot soldiers seems reductionist and absurd. Moreover, the instigators of the invasion were Umayyads, a Syrian dynasty from one of the cradles of civilisation. The Visigoth civilisation was undoubtedly culturally rich, but it was no paradise. It was, for example, bent on eradicating Judaism from its domain.
The invading army destroyed Visigoth statues and repurposed or rebuilt churches. But to argue that the Moors stole their architecture from the Visigoths is contentious. There are architectural antecedents in Africa and the Middle East, including pre-Islamic horseshoe arches in Syria. Similarly, Moorish agriculture built on earlier Roman irrigation, but it also innovated. The Moors brought cotton and silk to Spain, introduced new strains of wheat and expanded food diversity.
Weaving story between the conflicts
By the time of Casilda, towards the end of Moorish rule in Toledo, science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy flourished. The status of women remains contested. It seems probable that high-ranking women could access education and many historians support the idea of universal education.
I’ve bequeathed a remarkable and broad education to Casilda. After all, legend says she was learning from the great minds gathered in Toledan Alcazar from a young age.
I have no illusions that tenth century Toledo was paradise on earth. However, I’m wary of the political motivation of ‘histories’ that balk at the notion of cultural innovation and wealth coming from Islamic and/or black origins. I don’t doubt that the Moorish rulers taxed Jewish and Christian subjects at higher rates than Muslims. The Jewish population was keener on Muslim than harsh Visigoth rulers. And many Jews held high positions of scholarship and office, sometimes to the chagrin of the Muslim population. Yet there were undoubtedly tensions and even atrocities along religious lines. There were also internal tensions, with Berbers feeling second-class compared to an Arab elite, and at times staging coups.
What I want to reflect is a complex society with remarkable advances and many strains and imperfections.
Story as witness and myth
Fiction, no matter how made up, has a responsibility not to buy into extreme myths; whether they promote genocide or lead people into la-la land delusions of a perfect past.
But when there is no agreement on the ‘facts’ and competing histories represent a range of political opinions, what is fiction to do?
I’m uneasy with fiction that masquerades as dogmatic fact, and that is susceptible to use for scapegoating particular groups, rigging elections or poisoning our thinking.
I’m not writing a history, but rather using a sliver of history as a point of departure for a fiction across several centuries. Nonetheless, I want the novel to witness to those myths that build humanity and optimism.
History is not there to provide a romanticised backdrop to fiction. Nor is it there to argue that people are mere puppets of circumstance. Fiction has to take account of a more dynamic relationship between people and context. It has to make us care not only about the past, but about how the past goes on resonating so that we can shape the future.
Story as imaginative reconstruction
Fiction, of course, isn’t about simplistic ‘facts’. It’s about paradigms and perspectives. It’s an imaginative reconstruction that asserts, with Cervantes, that
The madness of the world is more insane than any fiction.
Fiction can be meticulously researched, but when the facts are hard to determine it can ask questions or float possibilities. As historian and writer, Richard Slotkin, says,
because the novel imaginatively recovers the indeterminacy of past time, the form allows writer and reader to explore those alternative possibilities for belief, action, and political change, unrealized by history … the novelist may restore, as imaginable possibilities, the ideas, movements and values defeated or discarded in the struggles that produced the modern state.
Fiction is about asserting that there is always another way to see things, to re-imagine life and possibility. It is the certainty, again with Cervantes, that
Hope is always born at the same time as love.
Whatever the political mess, warmongering rhetoric or inhumane institutions of the day, in fiction what matters is people. The story and the facts, even if such were discoverable, don’t always have to agree.
Becoming a Different Story
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