They do things differently there

The opening line of The Go-Between penned by L.P. Hartley, and later taken up by historian David Lowenthal, was the first insight I had into the discipline of history back in high school. The past is, indeed, a foreign country. I have lived as a foreigner in the USA for four years now, and I am coming to realize that this axiomatic phrase is much more complex than it appears on the surface.

Working on my dissertation research during the day, and trying to write a few pages of my novel in the evenings, I have been thinking over the ways that these two practices intersect and diverge. With my historian’s hat on, I comb through the wills of merchants who lived over five hundred years ago, trying to get inside the heads of people with radically different views of life and death to understand the ways that they prepared for the world to come, always taking care to avoid imposing twenty first century motivations and mores on my subjects. In the evening, when my historian’s hat comes off, and my writer’s hat goes on, I attempt to build a world that is almost,, but not quite like our world. Or rather, almost, but not quite, like Chicago in 1893.

In historiographical terms, we talk about “denaturalizing.” This process involves examining what seems natural, concepts like madness, illness, and death, and exposing them as historically contingent. Historians, or historians of my particular leaning, seek to show that our experiences of these apparently universal experiences are shaped by specific cultural, social, political and geographical contexts. They change over time. We cannot assume that people in the past interpreted an act that looks to us like the same act we might perform in the same way that we do.

David Orr’s essay in last weekend’s issue of the New York Times unpacks an interesting inversion of this process in fantasy fiction writing. Speaking about George R.R. Martin’s world-building in A Dance with Dragons, he discusses the role of realism in Martin’s writing;

“When people are stabbed, they die; when kingdoms ignore debts, the bankers show up. The characters understand their world, and we understand the characters. But this view of Martin’s books is incomplete, because the magical elements of the book are not, in fact within the characters’ understanding at all…In this sense, “A Dance with Dragons” is a kind of fantasy within a fantasy, and Martin must find a way to let us feel the strangeness as the characters themselves do.”

This is the high wire act of the fantasy fiction writer. A careful balance between creating a world that has enough points of contact with our world that we’ll go along for the ride and invest time and emotional energy in the characters while still maintaining a sense of wonder, of Otherness, as Orr writes. Even China Miéville’s disorientingly phantasmagoric imaginings allow us some tenuous hold.

Back in June I went to hear Neil Gaiman speak to Patton Oswalt at the Staten Theater on his American Gods tenth anniversary edition tour. Did I mention he’s my absolute, all time, most favorite author before? Well, he’s my absolute, all time, most favorite author. And the interview only cemented his position there. He related an entertaining story about his fans, and the fact that the one thing in his book that they thought was for sure made up, was the one thing that was absolutely true. People in Minnesota, where he lives, really do try to see how far out onto frozen lakes they can get their cars  before they fall through. It’s just what people do. (Having spent four years in Chicago, where the cold makes people go a little screwy, I think I found this less far-fetched than the Los Angelenos in the audience.)

Maybe being a foreigner helps. Both with the history and the fiction writing. When I first heard the phrase, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” I had never been to a foreign country. It was a phrase that conjured up images of exotic locales. Places absolutely and tantalizingly Other. I’m sure these impressions had a lot to do with my youthful dreams of pursuing an academic career.

I moved to a foreign country to pursue a doctorate and was plunged into intense coursework and culture shock at the same time. I didn’t expect to suffer culture shock. And the little things got me every time. The normal, natural, everyday, commonsensical things that no-one thinks to tell you will be different, because they can’t imagine that anyone would do something so simple any other way.

My friends love to tell the story of how, shortly after I moved, I tried to get my keys cut at a shoe repair store. Confusion on all sides. Then I tried the drug store, because that seemed to be where everything got done in this country. (Honestly, I am yet to recover from the fact that I can fill an Rx, pick up a microwave dinner AND purchase a kettle. All at once!) And, finally, I called one of my friends and was informed that I would probably need to find a hardware store. The little things.

Being a stranger in a strange land, a land that, at first glance, seems to be familiar, attuned me to the oddities and idiosyncracies of human culture. More than that, it made me aware that those things that we consider “normal,” the things we take for granted, are very, very weird to anyone on the outside.

I think this makes me a better historian than I could have been at home. I hope it will also make me a better writer.

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~ by medievalness on August 19, 2011.

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