History and Literature
It is the objective of many novels to bring history back to life. The history in textbooks focus on the powerful, the decision makers. Often the worlds of the powerful and the powerless collide and that is most often the only reason progress happens. Fiction exists outside the world of history and at the same time, often gives a more accurate account of reality than textbooks. When we discuss a novel, when is it appropriate to bring in a discussion of culture and history? Obviously, no writer lives separate from the time and place of their society. They inherit the language of the people around them by merely existing. They became writers because of their deep thoughts concerning the issues of their time. At the same time, a writer constructs a world in and of itself, detached from reality. The words are all we have. History appears in the story only when the writer reconstructs it or reimagines it through the eyes of the
narrator or characters.
In The Kite Runner, the protagonist Amir, in a way, becomes Afghanistan. It’s in his blood, even when he leaves. His father picks up a pile of dirt before they go and puts it in his pocket. His life is forever connected to the country: every time something happens to Afghanistan, it is somehow connected to his own experiences. It’s up to the reader to figure out the nature of that connection. Just as Amir’s guilt slowly destroys and occupies his unconscious mind, the Russians and the Taliban destroy Afghanistan. Even when he lives in California, gets married, and becomes a writer, his childhood haunts him. When 9/11 happens in the story, he, like the rest of us, has to figure out what it means.
How are we connected to the news of the day? How are our lives, in a small way, historical? The past few years has made this question a little easier to answer. How do people have relationships with places? How do people identify with a nation or feel alienation in their own country? These are all questions great writers like Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, Chinua Achebe, John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jane Austen, and James Baldwin wrestled with. They saw themselves and their characters tangled up in the relevant matters of the places they called home. They saw the family as a microcosm of a time and place. Their audiences laughed and cried about the generations that came before them, their ancestors, and then they decided to be someone else, to be slightly different. To be better.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers