About the author
What fiction asks us to remember
By Jeanne Mackin
Think of history as narrative. Think of historical fiction as expanded narrative, history with all the trimmings, with cause and effect, speculation, personalization. Think of expanded narrative as the story teller reaching out to you, saying, 'pay attention.'
We best believe what we remember, and narrative is about memory: giving memories in the form of stories, receiving memories and adding them to our personal stores. But historical fiction, as memory creation, asks us to do the impossible, to remember experiences we can't possibly have had, to 'remember' the smell of the rosebush growing outside Hester Prynne's jail in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, to remember crouching in darkness outside the mead hall, the perpetual outsider, as John Gardner's Grendel does; to remember the wild vines strangling the decaying plantation in Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. All of those things were before our times; yet having read them, we remember them.
There is a relationship between memory and freedom, asserts Dr. Chris Nunn, author of De La Mettrie's Ghost: the Story of Decisions. Nunn examines free will and the decision making process and ultimately concludes that "stories…are the mediators of free choice." He argues that people whose 'memories are more malleable should, other things being equal, be less prone to conditions like milleniarianism and other forms of private or mass delusion. People with flexible memories are less gullible.
Perhaps fiction can prevent us from making the same mistakes over and over. Perhaps historical fiction keeps our memories malleable by constantly recreating and adding to those memories; perhaps there is a connection between fiction, memory and freedom. Eugene O'Neill tells us in Long Day's Journey into Night. Perhaps what fiction most asks us to remember is that memory keeps us human.
Jeanne Mackin is an award winning novelist whose previous novel, The Last Collection, was translated into five languages. She is a fellow of the American Antiquarian Society and taught creative writing in the MFA program of Goddard College, and at Ithaca College. She lives in upstate New York.