As most anyone reading this already knows, I am writing a book about my grandmothers, both born in 1916 (before women could vote) but who cut very different paths through the 20th Century. Their voices, and voices of women like them, have not been listened to or accounted for in official 'history' - so, therefore, I am meant to call what I am doing 'women's' history, right? Wrong!
While I love all the attempts to redress the balance for women (who aren't even a minority for fuck's sake and in fact are the Majority...as everyone knows but likes to ignore...kind of like poor people, who are the Vast Majority on earth at this moment in time, something like 6:1)...and people of color, gay people, disabled people, people from countries no one's heard of because they are poor and probably don't have any natural resources we can exploit, and people who speak obscure languages. I love hearing voices that have not been heard. I love reading about people who no one's ever listened to before. But I really HATE when these stories are put into condescending sub-categories.
There is something implicitly ghettoizing in this maneuver and it somehow seems to allow the 'normal' version of the subject - in this case history - off the hook. The regular history class can be taught as per usual - focusing on wars and a few white guys with a token black guy and woman thrown in to prove diversity - and the rest of it pawned off in sub-categories.
This is wrong. So wrong. Because then you have gay people reading so-called gay history, women reading so-called women's history, African-American's reading so-called African-American history, etc. The list is endless and insane. It's insane because without gay people, women and African Americans, 'normal' U.S. history would not exist. We are simply not getting the whole story.
A perfect case in point that begins to rectify this imbalance is Jill Lepore's Book of Ages, which is about Jane Franklin (Ben's sister). Through shreds of evidence and letters Jane wrote, Lepore manages to tell the history of the American Revolution from the ground level. The reader can see, feel and hear what it was like to be there and live this turbulent time. I don't know about you, but when I studied history in school, it was all about dates and wars and some political documents, but never about life on the street, in people's homes, domestic arrangements, etc. There was no real sense of who could read and write or why. Statistics flew around about this, but no sense of what this meant or felt like as it was lived by most people.
Lepore wrote a great piece in the New Yorker about writing this book on Jane Franklin that her mother had suggested years earlier she had resisted writing, in part because she didn't want to be ghettoized as a "female historian" writing "women's history" - she has made her name writing about the Big Names in American History - in other words: men.
Now, I don't have anything against men, or knowing the big events, but I do have something against the minimizing of efforts and lives that are out of the immediate spotlight, because let's face it the Vast Majority of All People Live Outside of the Spotlight. So, if you think about it, just focusing on those who are there is a really skewed version of events.
As the journalist Mark Shields once said on the PBS News Hour: they never report the planes that land.
That one sentence is genius and gives you an idea of how much we do Not take into account, not only historically but even in the daily news. The quotidian moment is where most of us live most of the time. We need to include that in our understanding of our histories to understand who and where we are now.
Perhaps this seems worse in the U.S. since we always like to tell ourselves how special we are, etc., and there is perhaps more of a pressure to be in the spotlight accordingly, but this idea - like so many of our fabulous delusions - is spreading globally. There are many young people throughout he world now who want to be famous - not for anything special - just to "be famous."
There's something wrong here and we've brought it on ourselves by focusing on the 'big events' rather than stopping, listening, learning from people who are less visible, less audible, the 'not famous' - from whom we can discover life as it is lived now...and going back into history - in my case to my grandmothers - but in your case to whomever in your past - and doing some research and deep thinking about who they were, how they lived and what made them tick, will do more for your understanding of history than a hundred Big Event books.
This is what is meant by 'micro-history' of course (which I've blogged about previously) and that term has been active for a while, especially in feminist circles...but I think it can be applied to so many categories. Worse off than 'women' for example would be the 6 billion or so desperately poor people who are on earth with all of us right now. How much do we know about these people? When are they interviewed on the news, except for when shrieking after yet another tragedy where a building collapses or a tsunami kills a million people?
We have to pay attention to what we are paying attention to and to whom. As Joseph Chaikin put it so well in his book The Presence of the Actor "The question isn't what I want, but what makes me want what I want." To paraphrase that here: the question is not what do I care about and who do I listen to and respect, but what makes my attention go in that direction? What could I learn if I shifted my POV?
I feel this so strongly because of the work I've been doing on my own book, and especially researching and attempting to sink into the POV of my less glamorous, more restricted, grandmother, Dick, and also finding out the less well-known aspects of my feminist grandmother, Jani. I have to continually bring myself to ground level, attempt to see the world from their eyes, in 1916, in 1921, 1935, 1942, 1957...etc...I know fiction writers have been doing this for ages, so it's not news, but I'm mixing imagination with research, so there's another level here (not just flying off into fictional ungrounded by fact but nor restricting myself to standard verifiability protocols). I call this now molecular history (see last post).
A great example of fictional history recently is Hilary Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy (tho waiting for number 3 still!)...a way of seeing British history as anything but the dry listing of kings and queens. In finding the humanity in this most complex person, she also seems to school us in the history of capitalism undermining monarchy - without once bringing that idea conceptually. If there could be such a thing as a lived history of capitalism struggling to break through monarchy, this'd be it...and it's breathtaking. Seriously, read her now, if you haven't.
There are formidable examples of what I am speaking of here...but I'm taking this whole idea to another level: speaking of, from the voices of, women who were never famous or lived near or with famous people. I believe their voices are so important Because of that, and because this specifically female voice of the 20th Century has not been heard. There have been many fictional men from that period who lived 'normal' lives and from whose POV we've seen the 20th Century, but not so many women who were not famous or infamous. This is my humble attempt to rectify this imbalance.
Hope to hear from any of you toiling in these fields, too. You are out there, I'm fairly certain. The time has come to get underneath the official story to tell the whole story. No One person can do that, but we can put out our feelers, hack through the weeds...blaze a trail and find one another there...
[and yeah, there's only 6 days left in the campaign, so if you want to help me finish this book I've been working on for 3+ years, here's the link: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani