Using Fiction to get at the Essence of Truth in Family History
Presenting a family story as fiction gives the writer license to stray from the constraints of layered facts, illustrated by quotes, to delve instead into the essence of the truth. That is, after all, the fiction writer’s job, to make us experience and feel, sense and question. Fiction requires mastery, but for a growing number of nonfiction writers, their material has exerted an uncontrollable pull into the imagination. A remarkable case in point is Jeannette Walls’ book about her grandmother, Half Broke Horses, written in a form she dubbed “true life fiction.” A Canadian equivallent is Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day. Like Walls, Grady started out writing a well-researched, complex nonfiction account that morphed into fiction.
Emancipation Day sprang from Grady’s chance discovery that his father had African American ancestry—a secret he had buried deep in his past because he was able to pass for white. Grady challenged his father with irrefutable research that showed both his parents had black ancestry, but he dodged the conversation. He said this was news to him, and stuck by that position to the end of his days.
For Grady, however, this revelation sparked questions and, like all family history, it became a search for self. He spent years researching his African American roots, compiling details for a nonfiction book that proved difficult to write. The rigid parameters of the form didn’t allow him to delve into the deeper, underlying issues. How did his father’s secret life form and twist his personality? What was the impact of his willful separation from the people who loved him? And how did it impact the next generation? Grady delivers his answers with insight and compassion, in a story that holds the reader’s attention from the first line to the last. He portrays complex characters who are nuanced and unpredictable. His sparklingly clear prose, rich with simile and metaphor, entices us into the story’s core, to understand the multifaceted negative impacts of racial prejudice in Canada’s post World War II era.
Emancipation Day is a first novel for Grady, though he has written many critically acclaimed nonfiction books and has translated dozens of novels from French.
The real life context of Grady’s book makes it all the more compelling. There’s a second one in the works, digging into earlier generations of his family. Meanwhile, my next read will be Sally Wishart Armstong’s novel The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (thanks Ian Douglas for the tip!) Like Grady, fiction has allowed Armstrong to move beyond a jungle of facts to give us an experiential account of an immigrant’s life in 19th century Ontario.
A really fine review of the process involved in writing E-Day. I think you’re right, that by writing it as a novel I was able to address questions that nonfiction can’t. I don’t think I could have written a nonfiction book that conveyed how my father’s secret must have twisted him up inside. That’s a great observation on your part.