History archives offer rich resources for details, characters, settings, and plots; the story I've been working on recently mines historic archives to create a world that explores the effect of the past on contemporary life.
Stephen Muecke. "Experimental history implies a gap between what has made sense in the past, and what no longer makes sense, whether it is past events or new ones demanding to be gathered into the fold of meaning." It used to be that people believed "objectivity" could be achieved. But now, no longer can readers accept "one story" that may reflect the dominant group in power. There is more than one gaze: male, female, and in between. There are many cultures on any point on a map, and many political perspectives. There are many species. There are class differences. Multiple subjectivities bring all of us closer to "the truth." The experimental form allows for more points of view and more connections.
Of course, the historical record should reflect the materials in the archives and empiric evidence. Initially the juxtaposition of the word experimental with the word history may seem problematic, but certainly it is a more sensible approach. Experimental does not need to mean fictitious. It refers to the process and structure of the narrative. Perhaps it might bring together old sound recordings with artifacts, images of now extinct species (for it is not only humans who have cultures), and old documents. Perhaps it might overlay maps and narratives and crop reports to reflect changes over time. The writer of fiction and poetry often embraces juxtapositions, a variety of voices, and other surprises. In the final form, the story must be believable.
What does experimental history look like? Merle Patchett kept a blog, Experimental Geography in Practice: exploring correspondences between geographic research and experimental and artistic practices. She wrote:
Through my PhD research I developed an experimental historiography that drew creative resource from the purposeful assemblage and rehabilitation of diffuse historical fragments to form unorthodox archives. My adoption of a form of historical ‘assemblage method’ (Law 2004) is to be read as a challenge the historian’s fidelity to conventional empirical and archival evidence, in that I attempted to make the materials I assembled count precisely by not forcing them to fit within a pre-determined narrative, recognising instead that materials themselves can create knowledge, or at least encourage open and imaginative thought.
In this way I sought to craft a form of historiography that is alive to the ultimate alterity of past lives (human or otherwise), events, and places, recognising that what remains of them is always going to partial, provisional, incomplete and therefore what is being presented is always already, to invoke Derrida, “sous rature” – under erasure.
I am now attempting to develop my form of experimental historiography into a form of curatorial presentation.The phrase "the ultimate alterity of past lives" suggests that each historic personage holds a degree of complexity. One version or one interpretation can be discarded over another version or interpretation. This scholar of geography and creative artist brought together sound recordings, old photographs, and excerpts of documents into beautiful and haunting presentations that allowed her to interrogate the cultural bias and assumptions of past explorers. These disparate elements, when placed in close proximity, express much more than a single-threaded narrative. They serve as collaborating evidence, and even more, the reader/viewer grasps possibility, tension, and meaning in the gaps.
Narrative has also a potential for healing. For awhile, the term "cultural competency" was used in human service organizations as they attempted to understand and provide services to diverse populations. A better term is now arisen: cultural humility. We should not presume that we can know enough about a person, a culture, or a landscape to make blanket statements. Deep listening helps a writer build believable characters and good poems. In poetry, a spare style will evoke multiple meanings. It's best to avoid assumptions, and to listen to the gaps and silences.
Creativity can be a transformative force that gives breath and sustenance to people who are suffering. Artistic and activist memory work recognizes the effects of past atrocity on landscapes and their new inhabitants. Mapping Spectral Traces is a group of scholars, writers, artists, and activists who attempt to address trauma in communities. The Creativity and Madness conference in Sante Fe, intended for mental health professionals, investigates the psychology of art and artists. Madness is analyzed in relationship to creativity.
Lewis Mahl Medrona, MD, PhD, spoke about the power of story-telling and history in the practice of narrative medicine. This practice can be surprising. He related a case study, the mental health treatment of a Native American man who suffered from alcoholism, diabetes, and post-traumatic stress from childhood. Medrona's brilliant intervention involved a ceremony giving the man a new childhood. The line doesn't necessarily have to be drawn between fiction and nonfiction. What he offered this man was a new interpretation of his life, and new possibility. Interpretations of a real event demonstrates vastly different perspectives among eye-witnesses; different possibilities evoke different outcomes.
In "A Long Note on New Narrative" by Robert Glück, the author identifies and defines a method of literary practice termed New Narrative:
We were thinking about autobiography; by autobiography we meant daydreams, night dreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language.This writing acknowledges multi-faceted life. If we lack imagination, we lack life's necessary tools. New narrative is conscious of meta-data, similar to other experimental forms. Many writers and poets employ these methods to present a more complex and bigger story. Experimental history, or literature, or music offers us new perspectives and new patterns. This dynamic and creative field brings new gifts.