Boring non-fiction? Not really

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob

DEBBIE JACOB

ONLY SPECIAL books that inspire me to write make it to the bookshelf in my office. There, I have John Adams, a biography of the second president of the US by David McCullough, who died on August 7. When I first heard about McCullough’s massive biography of Adams, I wondered why he chose to write about the second US president and not a less cantankerous president, like George Washington, or a more famous president, like Thomas Jefferson.

Adams’s biography turned out to be a lesson in exploring new angles on old stories. It shows how history has characters as mesmerising as the ones we find in literature. It demonstrated a new vision for history.

McCullough once said too many people feel history and boring are synonymous. He changed that perception as he became one of many non-fiction writers who made biographies popular. Don’t forget Ron Chernow’s biography Hamilton that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write a hip-hop musical that made teenagers swoon over history. I went to a matinee of Hamilton on a Saturday in New York City and saw secondary school students clapping and cheering their way through the Broadway production.

I have gone to secondary schools in Trinidad to read from my book Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the US and seen how excited students become when presented with stories from Caribbean history that they had never heard before. They can’t believe how much power these islands once wielded.

Students say, “But miss, these are not stories we find in our history books.”

That’s the problem. We don’t think of history – or any non-fiction writing – as stories to be told. We think of history as dates to memorise and a chronicle of events. But it’s people who drive history.

When McCullough died, The Boston Globe noted that none of his 13 books have ever been out of print, and they have sold over nine million copies. That’s all because McCullough believed history is literature.

He had his critics. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz said McCullough’s books relied on narrative at the expense of analysis. He called McCullough’s writing “an implicit triumphalism” and criticised McCullough’s work for having a tendency of “hero worship.” This, he argued, limited their intellectual value.

Other intellectuals begged to differ. Librarian of Congress James H Billington and Ken Burns, famous for his historical documentaries, praised McCullough for putting a human touch to history. They noted that McCullough, above all, was a storyteller.

We all need books that reflect our personal history – even when it is unpleasant. That’s a problem outside of academic circles in the West Indies. Writing non-fiction is too time-consuming. It is too difficult to publish and too under-appreciated as literature.

But I argue that Judy Raymond’s The Colour of Shadows would connect students to their history better than a stuffy textbook. Her book about Richard Bridgens, an English-born artist and furniture maker who became a planter and slaveholder in Trinidad, combines history, biography and art to make readers see and feel plantation life from both the slave and the plantation owner’s points of view. No academic textbook can make students feel the agony of slavery better than this book.

Abroad, non-fiction writers win important prizes for their work. McCullough won two Pulitzer Prizes for Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001), and National Book Awards for The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914”(1977) and Mornings on Horseback (1981), about Theodore Roosevelt’s early years.

His eclectic choice of subjects shows that he mastered no particular historical era. McCullough always said he wrote where his curiosity took him, as all good writers should.

Clearly, we are cheating ourselves out of a lot of good Caribbean history that comes from dedicated non-fiction writers who explore new angles for looking at history written for a general audience. We teach the same history ad nauseam in school so by the time students reach secondary school they’re bored with the same topics.

I wish more Caribbean readers and writers would visualise non-fiction as literature. Academic writing has its place. I don’t dispute that, but there is room to expand for general readership. History, biography, autobiography, memoir and science writing feature all the elements of good fiction. Non-fiction writers abroad have been proving this with groundbreaking work for years. We really need to catch up with the rest of the world.

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