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Essay By Steven Leibo
Do It Yourself Historical Fiction
Those of us who are committed to the importance of learning history often site the many advantages gained from an understanding of the past -- issues ranging from the enhanced research and writing skills studying history offers to developing the more sophisticated perspective on ourselves necessary to operate well in modern society. But most professional teachers also realize that these "pay offs" from historical studies usually come only after years of study when at last the sense of patterns and perspective gained have had time to develop and mature.
The problem, of course, for the classroom teacher is that these clearly recognizable advantages are almost never immediately available to the beginning student or even explainable to the large numbers of young adults who inhabit our general education-based history courses. For them, all too often, history is simply a series of names and dates to memorize withl little relevance either to the world they live in or their understanding of their future needs.
Thus the primary task of any historian interested in truly engaging their students is to find a way to make an era that is often dramatically different from their own, compelling enough to arouse the learner to become excited enough to want to learn more. For those engaged in teaching not only about the past but the past of widely different cultures, far beyond the borders of the United States or the world of the West, the task can be especially daunting. For here we are often not even dealing with early versions of ourselves but perhaps early versions of Modern Chinese or South Asians, an even greater intellectual leap than study of American history requires.
With these problems in mind some, though not all, historians have felt compelled to find newer tools to involve the students on a more personal and emotional level than that usually found in the impersonal generalizations which dominate lectures and textbooks. But these efforts are often disdained by our professional colleagues because many historians believe that any format beyond the lecture, monograph, primary source and textbook approach is somehow heretical.
I have heard historians denounce even the use of professionally produced documentaries as somehow distracting from the real stuff of learning. I personally retain a profound sense of irritated embarrassment from a comment I once made within a very prestigious scholarly seminar, in front of yet, one of the leading scholars of South Asia, that I had used the film Gandhi in class and found it helpful . The look of scorn, the sense that I had somehow claimed to have disrobed in class, remains deeply embedded in my mind to this day. And this negative attitude toward historical recreations is hardly uncommon. Only a few weeks ago the op-ed page of the New York Times was filled with a particularly nasty attack on those who would seek to use Steven Spielbergís Amistad to help students understand early nineteenth century America. But these prejucides seem very distant from the reality of my own professional career.
In my own case I have taught widely throughout the United States, from the West Coast through the Midwest and more recently in New York Stateís capital district area. My teaching experiences have ranged from large state universities and small private colleges through several community colleges. And despite the common prejudices of many professional colleagues , these experiences have forced me to recognize that if the students don't care, do not become engaged and emotionally involved in a subject they simply will not do their best work or sometimes any work at all. No doubt the situation is different at the nationís most elite colleges but in the world I work in things are quite different. Either engage them or forget it. It is with that in mind that I have always used novels alongside more conventional tools to involve my students.
Over the years the novels I have used have ranged from Gore Vidal's Julian and Awad's Death in Beruit to Emcheta's The Double Yoke and Ba Jinís Family. In each case the novel was chosen to try to make the students more emotionally involved in the historical and cultural communities I have been trying, through my more formal classroom methods, to introduce to them.
To try to bridge the gap between the goals of the novelist and the historical issues I am concerned with I have for years insisted that the students write an evaluation of each novel with regard to its utility as a complement to more formal historical training. The general assignment is to compare and contrast the novel's portrayal of the historical and cultural subject under consideration with the other impressions gained by the students from the more formal classroom materials, texts, readers, lectures, films etc. My goal is to develop critical reading skills and to enhance their historical perspectives. On the larger level the goal has always been to make what was foreign more personal and familiar. On a more practical matter we all know that for the bulk of our students their future encounters with "history" will more likely occur within historical novels and films than with monographs and they might as well get used to looking critically at these most common tools of historical presentation and interpretation.
Using such novels has almost always helped to enrich my classes and they have been well received by the many students I work with in a variety of teaching setting. Nevertheless, there are some problems with this approach. A primary drawback is the reality that even the best and most consiensious historical novels are created to entertain. The teaching of history, even for the most scholarly fiction writer, is at best a secondary concern. My goal, however, in choosing such materials has always been precisely the opposite. Thus even the best historical novels often fulfill less well the informative goals I look for. After all, stopping to explain a cultural phenomenon in the middle of a dramatic scene is hardly helpful in carrying along a narrative.
It was with this weakness in mind and of course with the attraction of taking on a new intellectual challenge that I set out during the late 1980s to create a historical novel specifically designed to introduce students to Sino-Western relations during the nineteenth century. The choice of topic and period was for me a no brainer. I had just finished a five year period during which I first produced a dissertation and then two books, Transferring Technology to China: Prosper Giquel and the Self-strengthening Movement (Berkeley 1985) and the Journal of the Chinese Civil War 1894 which had left me deeply aware of the circumstances of Sino-Western relations on the nineteenth century coast of China. The historical personage I worked on, Prosper Giquel, was particularly interesting because Giquel's life itself which I had chronicled from the perspective of an academic was extraordinarily varied. He had served in the Anglo-Chinese Occupation police during the Second Opium War, gone on to work in the famous Chinese Maritime Customs Service, ran a Sino-Foreign military contingent along with the famous Chinese Gordon during the Taiping struggle and then went on to help found and direct the Foochow Dockyard and finally ended his career directing Chinese educational missions to Europe.
For a time I considered trying to fictionalize Giquel's life. I certainly knew enough about him but despite the drama of his career there were limitations. A good story requires a romantic element and Giquel's personal story, his emotional life, at least as much as I understood it, could not have been more boring. And the greatest drama of mid-nineteenth China, the revolutionary movement known as the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace led by the communalistic orientated Heavenly King who fancied himself the little brother of Jesus Christ had seen Giquel only outside its gates leading armies hoping to destroy it. Giquel had never made it inside that fascinating community. So, I finally decided to create a fictional character and to drop him into the middle of the world I knew so well and let him and my future readers find their own way.
On the question of readers I should mention that my target audience
was the "generic" eighteen year old college student who largely inhabited my classes. As a practical matter that also created some problems later since I had aimed at an audience that per the publishing world was neither fish nor fowl, a book aimed at bit above the the young adult market but not filled with enough sex and violence to fit the market for adults. But that is an issue that came up later.
I invented a character, Jason Brandt, who would as our story unfolds run away from the Hong Kong home of his father a New England missionary in order to take part in the excitement of the developing 1858 Opium War. The story follows the teenager, and over time the emerging young man through his years serving in the Anglo-French occupation forces that held Canton during the late 1850s through his journey to find the famed Nanking based Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace and his eventual establishment of a career for himself as a journalist in Shanghai a decade later. The story was designed to complement my emphasis on Sino-Western relations and the lives of Chinese young people. Knowing my audience would be young adults I created two other important characters, a young member of the Chinese Scholar gentry class who had disgraced himself in the Confucian Civil Service exams and a young woman who had been cast off by her family for infertility. Both of these characters were created to carry along the bookís sub themes of Confucian culture and the experience of women in traditional China. Especially important was that each of the storyís three main characters were growing into adulthood throughout the novel - a devise I hoped would be help my students identify with them..
I mapped out a novel that turned out to include 230 pages broken into 26 chapters. In a larger sense the book was divided into several subsections: First the Canton section which covers the young manís departure from Hong Kong and his work with the allied forces. It includes his developing friendship with the young disgraced scholar and his first encounter with the traditions of the infamous Taipings.
The next section introduces two new element to the novel. First the introduction of the female character Black Jade who is used to tell the story of the tensions and problems associatged with the lives of traditional Chinese women and the beginnings of their quest to find the famed Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
Much of the middle section of the book deals with first the trip toward Nanking and then their lives within the Taiping Kingdom. Here the lives of our main characters diverge as each of them, no longer together, seek to build a new life for themselves. For the two Chinese characters this means building a life among the heretical Taipings and for Jason the beginnings of an effort to establish a career for himself as a writer. The individual stories of each character were carefully mapped out to teach about aspects of life within the Taiping world.
The last third of the book turns on life along the coast of China as Jason traveled to Shanghai and at last established himself within that famous treaty port as a journalist for the most famous newspaper of the era, the North China Herald. These chapters were of course designed to teach about life in the treaty ports in the late 1860s but as well through Jasonís continuing relationship with his Chinese friends to carry on the story of the Taipings through the kingdomís ultimate collapse. Through a combination of political and social experiences the lives of each of them is demonstrated by developments within the story.
Having written the book I then set out to test it. The first version was shown around to a large number of people a few of whom knew traditonal China well and some of whom had no background. Their comments were invaluable and in the end forced a change in the ending of the book. As it turned out my obsession with historical accuracy had led me to kill off the bookís heroine as a device to involve the students in the horrors of the famous Tientsin Massacre of 1870. Historically it was a great idea but for my readers too emotionally unsatisfactory to work as a conclusion for the novel. I had after all worked hard to get people to appreciate these young people and killing off one of the most important ones was not at all appreciated. A rewrite was then required.
Once that was accomplished I discovering a local firm that served as the printer for a large number of well known national publishers and arranged to run off a professional looking copy of the novel to test it more widely. Once that was done I used it in one of my classes though I shoudl admit somewhat dishonestly since I did not tell the students I had written it. For that first semester at least, I believe my deception worked. The student evaluations did seem to appreciate the book and most importantly the formal papers were, given my goals, the best I had ever read. Clearly the more obviously pedagogical goals of the novelís author made it easier for the students to deconstruct the book per the required assignment. Lessons learned from these experiences where incorporated into another run of the book.
At this pont one might expect the story to turn to the search for a commercial publisher but while I did make a few efforts this turned out not to be the path I chose. Although I had been relatively successful working directly with publishers on non-fiction academic works, knowing that the market for fiction was quite different I set out to find an agent for the book. That effort, carried out to a limited extent was not very successful. The general issue seemed to be that the chosen audience - eighteen year olds created problems. I had created a book that was not quite young adult - not quite adult and none of my efforts to find agents worked out.
But historians study change and we are living through a communications revolution which I found much more interesting than sending packages of manuscrpts out all the time. What I understood was that modern computer technology now allowed single individuals to produce professional-looking books ts that would have taken an entire editorial department to produce in earlier years. And new production technologies allowed for the production of limited run books s at much more affordable prices than ever before. So I decided to create a publishing company myself. I sought out a name that had not been used. Surprisingly Silk Screen Press was available and I applied for ISBN numbers from Books in Print.
By the early 1990s I thus had my own publishing company with its own press run of the novel in both paperback and hard cover. Clearly having a commercial press do the project would have been easier and certainly more potentially lucrative, but I have always been more interested in learning than earning and had by then become more interested in learning about the world of publications than in making the book a commercial success. This was after all the first time I had gotten to this new element in the world of books. Neither of my earlier experiences, with Asian Press at Berkeley and the University of Hawaii previously or my more recent work with Franklin-Watts or Stryker -Post has let me explore the business side of the world of books I so admire. In that context all this was an intellectual feast.
As a practical matter all this took place during the early 1990s. At that early point the ongoing technology revolution had allowed an individual author to create an attractively bound book at an inexpensive price that would have been impossible in earlier years. Moreover, the fast growing Internet distribution groups offered the possibly of lowl cost advertising. But there was a major hitch. While technology had bridged the gap on the production and list serves could be used to inexpensively spread the word about new boos distribution was another matter.
Local distributors could be approached to carry the book and that was done but what I learned at the time was that book publishers donít normally buy from publishers. They purchase through intermediary book suppliers who demand enormous percentages of the profits to carry and distribute the products of publishers. Their commissions were so high that despite the low production expenses involved I could not sell the books at a reasonable rates vis a vis my own costs. In a sense I could produce the book and spread the word about its existence but not distribute it in a cost effective manner.
But then more recently the Web arrived and a new communication world opened up even further. With the birth of on-line book sellers like Amazon.com, which were willing to work directly with small publishers and sell through their interactive web sites, the final steps may have been taken to end the monopoly on publication of a few large publishers and book dealers on the production of books.
Now these new technologies with their built- in ability to eliminate many "middle men" can work for small publishing houses and do so in a profitable fashion.I write of these issues not because I claim to have been a big success with my effort at producing historical fiction directly for the classroom but to say that the opportunities for doing so are enormously more possible today than they once were. The publishing industry has been in a crises for years and we all know that the needs of the industry for huge sales has often gotten in the way of the production of more literary or in my case specialized fictional efforts. But that world is gone and it seems more and more possible for academics to try their own hand at finding new ways to teach their subjects. And those works that result will be judged for how well they fulfill the mandate under which they were conceived not the needs of publishers for large mass audience books.
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History and MultiMedia Center * Department of History * University at Albany