This Monday morning, despite having had a relatively busy weekend at the Oxford Literary Festival, I found myself at the Bodleian Library doing research for the next novel. After arriving a bit late, I found someone sitting in “my” chair, but no worries, no disruption, he was just leaving. I sat down and got to work, wandering here and there in the research, fully amazed at the conflicting historic “facts” offered at various times from diverse sources.
Undaunted, I read on despite birth dates conflicting (1780? 1785?) and places of birth not adding up (Louisiana? Haiti?). In the late 1700s did it matter when you were born, where you were born, especially if you ended up on the Frontier in North America, where things appeared a bit of a tossed salad anyway? Who kept notes, who cared? Apparently many did, from the Merchant Navy with records of crew, musters and log books, to the Catholic Church with its registers of baptisms, marriages and burials (even movement from parish to parish), but often without enough documentation for an author to truly connect the dots.
Good news for me. I learned a new term over the weekend at the Oxford Literary Festival: critical confabulation, which sounded a bit like plain old storytelling to me. However, according to Saidiya Hartman, professor of English at Columbia University, critical fabulation is “the combining of historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative to fill in the blanks left in the historical record”.
Glad tidings, especially for the historical fiction I am now writing. Information abounds, but much of it contradictory and from a century when the real facts may not have played out well, meaning basic survival depended on subterfuge. So, again, music to my ears: I didn’t need to turn myself into a pretzel to get things to line up exactly, as long as the events appeared probable.
Paterson Joseph, who shared this juicy bit of information about critical confabulation, is the author of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, a novel that tells the story of an eighteenth-century Great Black Briton, a tale that required probable connections, but isn’t that the nature of fiction anyway? Probable connection? I might have been thinking just this as a horde of young folk spread through “my” quiet, sun-filled Upper Level Reading Room. One beautiful, innocent, Scandinavian-looking young woman headed straight to me as if I were her mother (probably grandmother) and mumbled, “I don’t know what to do. They won’t say what it is. Should I just go? Should I run?”
It took me a few minutes to pull my head out of the past and realise she was speaking to me and she was scared witless. Just as I was about to open my mouth, a dark-haired solid woman came rushing in behind the “children,” shouted with flailing arms, “GO! EVACUATE. EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY.” I nodded to the young student and said, “Yes, go. Fast.” She was already gone as I swept up my work, shoved my laptop into my bag and fled down the rumbling wooden stairs as fast as anyone.
Outside in the sunshine, beside the walls of the 420-year-old library, I had only one thought: keep walking. I have only been in one bombing, and I remember the Irishman beside me saying run, and don’t come back. Where there is one bomb, there will be two. If they don’t get you in the first carnage, they will get you in the second. I kept moving as far and as fast as I could away from the Bodleian Library and the cordoned-off roads with their police presence. No one knew anything, except, nope, not a fire drill.
The presence of that young and luminescent woman has stayed with me. Her absolute panic, her fear, her terror ripping such an indelible scar across that face of innocence. It has awakened in me the knowledge that this young generation has grown up with not just the knowledge of the possibility of a massacre of some sort, but the probability. While she may not have saved my life, I certainly had insight into hers.
It wasn’t until much later the bomb scare turned out to be false, but as I walked home through my lovely, springtime, magnolia-blooming, 1,000-year-old Oxford town I imagined what if. What if those ancient walls came down, ancient manuscripts blown into obscurity, the streets strewn with human carnage?
I am speechless. I cannot say. I cannot connect the dots.
I offer you this April to consider what part you might play in turning the tide in a world where, as impossible as it may seem, the young acknowledge that they may lose their life in the simple act of living, going to school, studying in a library, dreaming the next big dream, anything, even how to save humanity.
Photo by Stephen Barnes | iStock