Authors Discuss the Challenges of Striking the Right Balance in Fictioning Archives

March 4, 2021
From left: Namwali Serpell, John Keene, and TaraShea Nesbit

By Lisa Kraege, Humanities Council

The Humanities Council Archival Silences Working Group hosted its last event of the 2020-2021 academic year on March 2 with the webinar “Fictioning Archives.” The panel of invited speakers included writers and professors whose works interweave fiction and archival research.

The panel was moderated by the organizers of the Archival Silences Working Group, Emma Sarconi (Special Collections), and Kinohi Nishikawa (English, African American Studies).

The discussion covered a wide array of topics, but centered on the relationship between the historical archives, especially those which are fragmentary, neglected, or even entirely absent, and fiction, which has the potential to navigate or fill in those archival silences. How can the writer represent and navigate the gaps in the archive through fiction?

In writing his book Counternarratives, a collection of stories and novellas that builds stories around archival records, John Keene (Rutgers University, Newark) said he was trying to “embed a critical function in fiction.” Counternarratives often includes images and excerpted text from the archive as part of its story-building, bringing the archive into close contact with fiction to mediate the gaps in the archive and yield a new kind of look onto the past.

One of the ways that TaraShea Nesbit’s (Miami University) novel navigates this representation of archival material is through perspective. Her novel, about the wives of the scientists who created the atom bomb, The Wives of Los Alamos, is narrated in the first-person plural. She said that this formal choice enacted societal pressure to become a collective “we” and the complicity that comes along with that. She wanted her novel “to create a criticism in the destabilization of a strict ‘I’ identity,” which can present a deceptively cohesive view of the past.

The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell’s (Harvard University) novel about three intertwined families in Zambia, spans multiple generations and multiple genres. Her approach to form isn’t analytical, she said. Rather, she is interested in “dramatizing the epistemological problems of the archive.” Her use of multiple genres is one way to do that. As an example, Serpell cited some cases in which the history being recorded already sounds fantastical, so she chose to build on that through magical realism, a genre that is “obviously fantastical.”

The panelists agreed that fictioning archives requires a delicate balance. Faced with an archive full of gaps and ambiguity, the author may feel a desire to complete those gaps. Fiction seems to demand a certain “smoothing,” as Serpell put it, in reference to the differences between her novel and her current project, a biography of Edward Makuka Nkoloso. Nonfiction work, in contrast, can lay out a number of potential explanations based on the rough and often-contradictory archival material.

Conveying the uncertainty and multiplicity of the archive while also telling a compelling story is a challenge, but it is also the driving force behind the panelists’ work. “In a sense,” Keene said of the archive, “I’m always thinking with it and thinking against it.”

Humanities Council Logo
Italian Studies Logo
American Studies Logo
Humanistic Studies Logo
Ancient World Logo
Canadian Studies Logo
ESC Logo
Journalism Logo
Linguistics Logo
Medieval Studies Logo
Renaissance Logo
Film Studies Logo