Preface, Writing History: A Collection by New Writers
(Toronto: Life Rattle Press, 2004).

The authors and editors of this book became apprentices in historiography for thirteen weeks during the winter of 2004. The occasion was a new course in History and Writing, part of the Professional Writing and Communication program in the Institute of Communication and Culture at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. The calendar description promised that students would explore the rhetoric of history-writing, and I joined them as instructor for that exploration. Class members were devoted to writing but novices at history. Most of them let me know from the start that they considered academic and even popular history to be a matter of remote, boring facts interpreted by distant authorities—probably people with amazing memories and convoluted styles of writing. This book demonstrates what we all learned about history and the writing of history.

Topics and Sources

As the main assignment for the course, students developed a portfolio of pieces based on primary research. They chose one or more historical topics that interested them and that would interest others in the class. Finding topics and primary data wasn’t always easy, especially for students living in sheltered contemporary Canada. But they were available once people reflected on what they had seen around them.

Observation: Some historians as well as some journalists write history from within. We started the course by reading an excerpt from the ancient historian Thucydides, and we read the story collections written for a previous course by graduates Renate Kellhammer and Hien The Chu. Few of us had lived through such dramatic and important public events as these authors—the plague in ancient Athens, World War II in Germany, or the exodus from Vietnam.

 But we had seen the SARS epidemic and the events of September 11, and eventually students recognized that they had been part of other important events in history without realizing it. Viewing the attempted 1990 coup in Trinidad on a television screen in Montreal is indeed seeing history from within, if you are left wondering about your family home and your little dogs and your classmates. Marsha Rambert’s stories about that event illuminate the pattern of West Indian immigration and the development of multiple types of English as well as telling what happened in the Red House of Parliament. Adrian Palinic’s childhood memory of soldiers marching grimly past Grandma’s house in Croatia is also a glimpse of history. The adult author knows that the soldiers were celebrating a victory for national independence. His depiction also sums up his present unease at the militarism of his ancestral past.

Relatives: Early in the course, we read excerpts from Spiegelman’s Maus, whose subtitle is My Father Bleeds History, a painful account of the Holocaust and its aftermath. For many students also, history was something their relatives had gone through in another country. Parents and grandparents recur throughout these pieces, providing a ready but sometimes unreliable and always incomplete source of facts. Students had to come to terms with the inevitable tendencies of their relatives to go off track or offer restricted interpretations. They also found that family history doesn’t necessarily fit standard explanations and mythologies. Lynn Tremblay’s respectable Great-Grandma Lillie lied about her age, even on an official document; the government of Pakistan may not have entirely deserved the loyal support of Faaizah Salahuddin’s beloved Nana-Abbu during the turmoil of the early 1970s; and Natasha Sigalov’s Papa went beyond even the 1977 Soviet constitution in exploiting his freedom as a businessman.

Personal Interest:  Other students chose to investigate subjects further afield, though still using primary sources such as eye-witness accounts and historical records or artefacts. That might mean starting with a topic of personal interest such as censorship or public architecture or astrology or a musical instrument, then looking for firsthand evidence of its development through time and in different places.

Research:  By starting from what they knew already, students found they needed to know more. UTM librarian Elaine Goettler (herself a student of history) was invaluable in showing us how to get and use resources efficiently. Google may well be a first step, but tracking down old newspaper stories and unwinding rolls of microfilm can also become necessary—and exciting.

Students uncovered information about the hatting industry in nineteenth-century England, about what Scopes really taught in his Tennessee classroom, about who dug up what at Tom Thomson’s burial site in Algonquin Park, and about the ways the Russian Mafia operated in Canada—among other fascinatingly diverse subjects, none of which I could have predicted at the start of the course.

The excitement of the chase energizes many of these stories. So do a sense of mystery and an impetus to search further. It’s more than a rhetorical flourish that so many pieces end with unanswered questions. The mother in one story who buys a Mystery game about a historical topic is labelled as foolish, because she can play it only once before she gets the "right" answer.

Making and Presenting History

Historical theorists say that the term "history" is used to mean both the things that happened in the past and also our interpretations of those events. Nearly all the authors here found narrative the most useful way to create history in that second sense, the meaningful presentation of information. They also developed narrative techniques to deal with the inherent challenges in writing historical accounts—the need to provide context for stories of individual action, for instance, and the need to weave multiple strands of cause and effect in depicting any one event. After researching for additional background facts that their local sources could not or would not give them, students also had to make their own interpretations of what they found. This book demonstrates the multiple and overlapping visions of history that resulted.

Techniques: This volume constitutes an anthology of ways to combine exposition and personal narrative. Some pieces use journalism-style textboxes to set factual information side by side with personal accounts, providing cross-illumination and sometimes the salutary shock of a contrasting view. A number use literary techniques of assemblage, deliberately placing different aspects of the subject close to each other. Their stories imply rather than explain the connections. Students early discovered the usefulness of placing a guide within the story to mete out information as needed. Many then developed ways of showing that guides aren’t always adequate.

The other recurrent character in these stories is the narrator. These student authors are skilled in "showing" rather than "telling." The narrators in nearly all of these thirty pieces function as reflective and witty and emotionally engaged commentators on what they have seen and found in their search for history. They don’t claim to be authoritative interpreters of history in general. Readers of this collection will hear sixteen different voices and at least that many versions of history.

Using Sources: Many of the stories show considerable skill in integrating interviews, quotations, and summaries of written sources into the narrative accounts. To avoid weighing down the pieces, the authors use journalistic methods of acknowledgement—identifying sources as  they come into the story and then listing them at the end in source lists—rather than using academic footnotes or parenthetical citations. The source lists indicate the range and credibility of information used in the pieces. They’re not exhaustive research bibliographies, but traces of the processes of investigation.

Readers

Student readers enjoyed hearing and reading these pieces, first in classroom readings and workshops, then in the out-of-class editing groups run by students themselves. It is remarkable and encouraging to see a classroom full of students hanging on every word of an oral reading about a historical topic they may never have heard of,  perhaps from a country or culture they are completely unfamiliar with, but that they now care about deeply because of the power of their peers’ writing.

I look forward to sharing that power with students in future sessions of WRI320H, knowing that new students will develop even more inventive methods of writing history to meet the challenges they set themselves. I also hope and expect that other people will read this collection with interest and pleasure. I am proud of it myself on behalf of the students who created it.

Margaret Procter, University of Toronto, Fall 2004
Course website for Spring 2005 section of WRI320: http://www.erin.utoronto.ca/~w3write/WRI320index.html