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Writing Historical Fiction As History Repeats Itself

Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Getty Images

You can’t write a novel that doesn’t, in some way, deal with time. It’s one of the textural elements in storytelling. It gives us a sense of perspective and place. We can measure how much things have changed. How much they have stayed the same. When I’m trying to figure out how I want to use time — linear, circular — it helps for me to live for a time in those moments I’m trying to create.

The novel I’m currently writing requires me to go back to the latter half of 20th-century America to explore how the strange disappearance of a father irrevocably changes the lives and fortunes of a family over the course of a generation. When I hop in my time machine, one important stop is Detroit in the summer of 1967. It is a relatively short season in the lives of my characters, but significant in that it’s when things begin to fall apart for them personally. It is also a time in which Detroit was convulsed by racial unrest and set alight during riots that contributed to the reshaping of the city. It has been nothing short of surreal living in those historical moments while at the same time having a foot in the world of today. Just as in 1967, we are now seeing unrest spill into the streets. Voices across the country are crying out for racial justice.

I wasn’t around in 1967, nor did I grow up in Detroit, so I have been relying on the memories and stories of others, the archival images of a time my characters lived through — five days of riots and a violent police response that left dozens dead and hundreds of businesses looted and burned with whole blocks reduced to smoldering ruins. More than 50 years on, what happened that summer is seen by many as less a riot than a rebellion, the inevitable consequence of oppression and segregation. Getting a firm understanding of what happened is the typical approach to writing fiction grounded in history. But now, living through the urgency of this moment, I’ve found that writing that part of the historical record required something more of me.

After the protests started, I realized I had to go back and rewrite those pages set during the uprising. When I first began drafting those scenes, I didn’t fully understand what drives people to burn down their own neighborhoods, as happened in Detroit. I had a difficult time relating to that kind of rage and despair. Even though I am Black. Even though I know what it feels like to be followed through a store by security, to be called a n- - - -r and be told to go back to Africa. The thing is, I also grew up middle class in a white neighborhood, where I was well acquainted with the feelings of otherness and frustration but unfamiliar with despair and desperation. For me, it took living through this enough-is-enough moment in 21st-century America to be able to write convincingly about the emotional conflagration of 1967 Detroit.

But it was important to find just the right balance. To keep that broader history in the frame, with the focus tightly fixed on the personal histories of the characters. To not slip into sermonizing. Soapboxing. Sentimentality. That’s not what I’m looking to convey in my writing. My first novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, was and remains deeply personal; I drew from elements of my own experiences in recovering from an eating disorder. When I began work on that novel, I was some years past that difficult chapter of my life. Enough time had passed that I could write with the benefit of hindsight. As personal, as emotional as something may feel, for me, it’s necessary at some point to put myself at a bit of a remove to tell the story.

This happens to be a lesson I learned in my day job. I have been a journalist for much of my adult life, starting out as a print reporter for a wire service before moving into television newswriting. In addition to the books I read as a kid, the images I saw while watching the evening news with my dad — the Iran hostage crisis, the Challenger disaster — made me want to become a storyteller. It was as a journalist that I honed one of the tools necessary for any writer: the ability to slow down and pay attention. In fact, if there is a writing superpower, that is it. Even in the face of our own emotions and our own personal stories, the ability to step outside ourselves is invaluable. It allows us to really hear what someone else is saying. To bend time in a way that lets us see what matters.

In other words, it’s not my story I’m telling, but it’s mine to share. It’s my job as a fiction writer to make the story real with just the right balance of a journalist’s detachment and a novelist’s connection. To tell the truth. And to create it too.

Anissa Gray is the author of the novel The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls.

Writing Historical Fiction As History Repeats Itself