How Novelists Recover History’s Marginalized Heroes
This post originally appeared in GrubWrites, July 2016.
I started off as a fiction writer with one goal and one goal only: create and bring to life protagonists from off the beaten path. I wanted complex, accurate portrayals of LGBTQ people. People of color. Poor people. People living with disabilities or without families or struggling with PTSD.
I wanted all sorts of stuff. In all sorts of books. And with so much of that raw material existing in our day-to-day, it’s disappointing that canonical literature largely continues to stick to a particular—shall we say—bent.
I was determined to go on a quest as a wannabe author. I was going to hunt for my own heroes, dammit; heroes I wanted to see. Man, I was going to be so awesome and worldly and deep. I was going to tear the roof off this thing. Pulitzers everywhere.
Take the subject of my current novel: queer pirates of the 1700s Atlantic. There might be a few stories out there, I figured, and I’d find them if I just quietly crashed enough university libraries.
And so I did. I hit up institutions both public and private, scoured the internet, and read the most boring primary resources on seamanship you can imagine.
Over an excruciating length of time, I slowly discovered that my queer pirate heroes had indeed existed in history. Nay, they didn’t just exist; they dominated the pirate culture I was researching…and yet I hadn’t come across that crucial fact until I was already six months in.
Here I was, hoping to uncover maybe, maybe a story or two, and instead I ended up with the knowledge that my entire queer community has simply always been bamf. And they were right alongside the piratical Jews, who fought back after they were kicked out of the Old World, yet forbidden to hunker down in the New; people of color, particularly African and Native American escaped slaves, who sometimes represented up to 98% of a pirate ship’s crew; and the debilitatingly poor, because, hey, poverty really fueled desperation, and many people decided to fight for survival instead of just dying on the street.
But finding these lost stories was not easy. Information on queer people’s existence came to me in scraps. The God-abiding world of 1700s England didn’t want commoners to know that there were people out there fighting against the monarchy and heavy taxes and straightness, and so these people were stricken from the record.
Turns out the best way to ensure commoners don’t follow in the footsteps of rebels is to destroy as much documentation of the rebels as possible, to deny that they had ever existed at all or, at the very least, paint what little remains of them as dangerous. (So, basically, nothing new.) Ultimately, the problem with trying to uncover true-to-life protagonists that have been forgotten in history is, well, that they’ve been forgotten in history.
Or, rather, lethal mixes of whiteness, masculinity, Christianity, and capitalism not only slaughtered my heroes, but then tried to burn the proofs of their existences. These Four Horsemen of the Ass-Ocalypse made every effort to bury my badasses both literally and figuratively. Many heroes have become nameless because of attempts to deny people existed outside of the status quo. Factual evidence that they truly existed becomes muddled because most of these queer heroes existed in times or places where literacy had yet to be the hip new thing. Surviving facts are twisted against their favor because history is always told from the side of the victors. The heroes I was trying to recover weren’t supposed to be found. Heaps and heaps of privilege dirt had been dumped upon their bodies. The Four Horsemen have spent hundreds if not thousands of years not only eradicating those of us on the margins, but erasing us. And they’re still doing it.
I’ve been researching and writing my manuscript for four years now and I’m still luckily stumbling upon books I’d never seen before at Goodwill and seemingly random leads to primary sources on Geocities; stuff that’s out of print, off the map, and otherwise erased…
Of course, just knowing my queer pirate siblings existed at large (and in respectable quantities) wasn’t enough, especially when you think about what the Four Horsemen have done to the image of pirates. Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t a bunch of straight white guys getting drunk on the beach; they were social outcasts struggling tooth and nail to survive. They ran to the unregulated seas in droves so they could be themselves, could be treated like people, even if that meant killing and stealing. That’s how important freedom is.
That’s where we as novelists come in. We need to fill in the gaps so we can revive forgotten heroes and create a more complete story. I truly believe we can bring the last, dimming slivers of forgotten heroes back to life, one story at a time.
So now we’re at the point where you cry out, “Milo, this is fiction! This isn’t the place for an uninvited, namby-pamby, political identity hootenanny! It’s for letting our imaginations run wild and producing something that’ll entertain the masses.”
Who says it can’t be both? Venn diagrams, people. We indeed need creativity and pleasure and escapism and fun. But I’m a firm believer that fiction can also better humanity. It can be used to educate, to enlighten, to encourage tolerance and understanding between various identities by portraying them as—gasp!—human. Coaxing empathy through entertainment. I like that.
Fiction can change the world by changing minds. It’s often far more accessible and digestible than non-fiction. And since so many true stories of the struggling masses have been ripped to pieces, fiction is the place to revive them. We can’t claim everything in our stories as completely factual due to those damn missing pieces, but we can portray them as close to fact as possible by getting creative with the truths we find. And perhaps getting at some objective truth isn’t even the aim here. Perhaps it’s more about inspiring a new generation of people, for them to simply know that their kind existed in ways and times they’d never thought possible.
It’s the act of taking an entire novel to say, simply: You’re represented. You existed. You matter.
For those of you who get these messages through your mass media on the daily, this will sound like nothing, perhaps almost laughably basic. But to those of us who rarely hear it, it’s everything.
Characters like my queer pirates are my heroes. They’re all of our heroes. To know how hard our ancestors fought in the name of equality gives us strength to keep fighting those battles still raging today.