As a species, we humans have been around for quite a while — about 200,000 years, in fact.
And hundreds of thousands of years of existence mean hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of history. But if that’s the case, how is it we as a society are only aware of certain figures, certain art forms, certain stories? Where are the stories of everyone and everything in between?
These were some of the questions five Puget Sound-area authors discussed and examined at a recent event in Redmond.
The event, Reclaiming History: A Panel, was held Aug. 28 at Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond Town Center and featured authors Olivia Waite, Somaiya Daud, Lauren Dane, Jasmine Silvera and A.J. Hackwith. The four — along with bookseller-slash-moderator Casey Blair — spoke on the myriad ways marginalized people have been erased over the span of human existence and why that matters.
Those marginalized groups include — but are not limited to — women, people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people.
“It’s always been the men in power,” Hackwith, whose books have featured LGBTQ+ characters as well as characters with disabilities, said about who has historically decided what is recorded and preserved.
Who discovered what?
She spoke about Sappho, an Archaic Greek poet and one of the few historical female storytelling figures people are aware of, noting that “even the ones we know we’ve lost, we don’t know the whole story.”
In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Daud also pointed out that in some cases, certain peoples have known about any given subject long before mainstream society “discovered” it.
When she brought this up, it made me think of the term “Columbusing,” which basically means “‘[discovering]’ something that’s existed forever. Just that it’s existed outside your own culture, nationality, race or even, say, your neighborhood,” according to NPR. The term refers to the fact that explorer Christopher Columbus is credited with “discovering” the Americas even though people had been living here all along.
Daud, a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Washington, also brought up how in one of her classes, they read and discussed a 12th Century werewolf story. When she brought up the fact that there is a prominent gay story line, she said her students questioned whether there were gay people back then.
Dane interjected, noting that while the students couldn’t believe gay people existed back then, they were fine with the werewolves.
LGBTQ+ folks have been around long before the Stonewall riots in 1969. There is more to black people than just slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. And Asian people are not always fleeing a war-torn country.
A few years ago, I visited Puerto Rico with my mother and sister. During the trip, we visited Castillo San Cristóbal, a fort in San Juan that was built by the Spanish in 1539. My mother remarked how the ruins were similar to Angkor Wat, the temple ruins in Cambodia. When I told her the fort was about 500 years old, she scoffed.
“Ours is 1,000 years old,” she said proudly (side note: Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th Century, so it’s actually closer to almost 900 years old).
That’s almost a millennium’s worth of stories just itching to be told that have nothing to do with war, trauma or suffering.
Waite, pointed out that ignorance can also serve as safety, as in the case of Kana Shodo, a Japanese script used mainly by women for nearly a thousand years. The language allowed women to speak and to communicate with each other and express themselves freely.
Valuing art and work
The group also discussed the topic of reclaiming the value of work and art that has historically been devalued.
Silvera brought up the main character in one of her series, a black dancer who is at the top of her field, which is a classical style similar to ballet. She discussed the challenge in trying to find art for the covers. Because when you Google “black women dancers” you mostly get hip-hop or club dancers — which Silvera said is fine, but there are more varieties of “black women dancers.”
She acknowledged Misty Copeland, the first black female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, but said there have been other black ballet dancers whose stories have rarely been told.
While most of the authors discussed erasure and devaluing in terms of race and gender, Dane came at the discussion as someone with a blue-collar background.
“For me, it came more from a class place,” she said.
Dane said this is because with fewer job choices, gender plays a different role and women can often be seen working similar jobs as men. So her characters (male and female) hold blue-collar jobs such as being barbers and tattoo artists and take pride in their work — their art.
It’s probably been done
The authors also talked about the importance of representation and visibility.
Daud said she has gotten feedback from readers who enjoyed the space opera/science fiction part of her story but were less than pleased with the romantic subplot between the two main characters. In response, she said for a long time, there have not been many stories featuring two brown characters like hers who are seen kissing on the page. For a long time, Daud said, who people of color were allowed to love was heavily surveilled and litigated. So her book is a kissing book featuring two brown people.
The group agreed that books featuring “diverse” characters shouldn’t be separated from books featuring straight, white cis-gendered characters. Because that makes it that much more difficult to normalize them.
And that visibility is not just important for people to see themselves represented, they said. It’s also important for the world to see the different varieties of people out there and what they can do and have done throughout history.
As Waite put it, if it was physically, chronologically and financially possible to be done, someone probably did it.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at firstname.lastname@example.org.