Why I Read Historical Fiction From Around the World

” I read historical fiction because I can. I read it from many sides and in many voices because I should.”

Thanks to the lovely and charming Alice Poon, (you can read my interview with her here) I just discovered and read Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain, by Yong Jin Yong.  Think “House of Flying Daggers Meets the Hateful Eight,” and you have some idea. Apparently he’s the Steven King of Cantonese Kung Fu (or wuxia) novels.

Why would I spend my precious long weekend reading a translation of a novel by a Chinese author I’d never heard of, about a time more than 500 years ago? Because I can. It’s available on Kindle, in a very readable translation. It’s the same way I discovered some of my favorite story-tellers:

  • Arturo Perez-Reverte- this Spanish author and his Captain Alatriste novels are like the Iberian version of the Three Musketeers. The history is mostly an excuse for sword fights, illicit romance and drinking, but damn good adventure stories.
  • Leonardo Padura Fuentes (better known as just Leonardo Padura) is from Cuba, and while the 80s might not seem like history, just ask your kids if it was a long time ago. His police novels are not only good procedurals, but they show life in Cuba beyond cool old cars or Cold War machinations.
  • Alexandre Dumas. Don’t laugh, the old master still can tell a tale, and the Three Musketeers (and its 4 sequels, all of which I’ve read) and The Count of Monte Cristo are still world-class reading today. Okay, I discovered him when I was 12, but addictions die hard.

But why read these authors when there are so many easy-to-find Anglo/American/Canadian writers telling stories from those periods? Because for me part of the appeal of histfic (as the kids call it) is empathy- to learn how others felt and acted at that time as well as to learn about events we don’t know well.  The Civil War from both the Southern and Northern perspectives makes for good fiction (and while I have precious little time for revisionism, i’m happy to read it if it’s well done). Agincourt was both a glorious victory and a humiliating defeat, depending on which direction you were facing at the time. Oh, and if I have to read about Henry the Eighth and his bloody wives and daughters one more time I may behead someone myself. Give me something fresh that I haven’t read a dozen times already.

In all the hubbub about cultural appreciation, and who has the right to tell what stories, I believe this heresy: anyone can tell any damned story they want. If i want to tell the story of a ten year old half-caste orphan in Acre, I can do it. You can read Acre’s Bastard and let me know if I did it justice or not. Odds are it would be a different book if written by a Syrian, and I’d love to read that book. The problem is when people aren’t allowed to tell their own stories. I’d rather hear from them, we just don’t often come across them either through intentional white-washing or just lack of opportunity in general.  Seriously, if someone has a Crusades epic from the Arab side, in a decent translation, please let me know. I’m dying to get my hands on it.

So I read historical fiction because I can. I read it from many sides and in many voices because I should. It makes me a better writer and, I believe, a better person. When was the last time you read something in translation, or from a different perspective than your own? Don’t you think you oughta?

Let me know… who do you read that I (and our visitors here) should know about?

 

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Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a writer, speaker and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institue. Originally from Canada, he now lives and writes in Chicago. He lives with The Duchess, Her Serene Highness, and Byron, the world's crankiest cockatiel.

3 thoughts on “Why I Read Historical Fiction From Around the World”

  1. What a perceptive post! Thank you for this, Wayne! You make me blush…

    It would seem that many of the historical novels that I’ve read are translated novels (many from French and some from Russian), and I’m hoping to widen my scope to other translation works. The problem is always: too many books and too little time! Oh, and, The Count of Monte Cristo has been on my to-read list for too long – you’ve just reminded me to push this one up.

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