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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

History Is...?

Today, June 4, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tianenmen Square Massacre in China. In it, pro-democracy students were mowed down by the army. If you want full details of the event, just Google it. There are plenty of newspaper articles on it today anyway. We still don't know how many people died because the government suppressed all that and made sure that future generations wouldn't hear about it.

But this is a far more linked-up world than it was, and whatever did get out is known everywhere else. It gets to show the importance of studying history - rigorously. One government in this country wants it known what happened to the indigenous people over the last couple of hundred years, the next government declares this is a "black armband view" and decrees that children will be taught all about the heroic(white) pioneers and explorers instead. So, even in Australia, history can be what the government of the day decrees. At least till the kids get online, anyway. Or even books - they can't prevent books from being published, though the current conservative government has recently stacked the board of the Prime Minister's History Award with conservative old men who are likely to hand out the prize to the books that support their view of the world. (I should mention here that one of my children's books, Starwalkers:  Explorers Of The Unknown, a history of space travel, was shortlisted for a NSW Premier's History Award. I was highly chuffed!).

To get back to the topic, few years after the Tianenmen Square massacre, an Australian writer, Alan Baillie, wrote a YA novel, The China Coin, which featured the event in the course of a young girl's trip to China with her mother on family issues. It was only a few years after, and no doubt the author thought it contemporary fiction, but for me it already felt like history, even though the incident was fresh in my memory from the news,  and it changed my perception of historical fiction. Twenty-one years later, will it feel even more like historical fiction? I admit it has been a while since I read it.

It told me that historical fiction doesn't have to be set a hundred or five hundred years in the past. It can be about something that happened in your lifetime. So when I had my first commission to write a short story set in the past, from Ford Street Publishing, for the anthology Trust Me! I decided to set it on the day of the first moon landing. For me, it was a part of my life, but for the children who would be reading it, it would be history. Researching for it in old newspapers at the State Library, I was amazed at how much the world had changed since 1969. I was a lot younger then and it was just everyday life, so I had forgotten.

History is people. It's only a small amount about kings and queens and politicians. It's nit for nothing that there are oral history projects and that children are asked to go and interview their grandparents. I live with history even in my working life. The very school where I spent eight years, our current senior campus, was once a school set up in 1913 by the owner of Sunshine Harvester, after which the suburb was named, to get apprentices for his factory, and in the 1940s it was visited by Helen Keller - yes, THAT Helen Keller. I remember one day when an old gentleman walked into my library and told me all about the people in the 1920 staff photo. He had been dux of the school in 1927! That was history. Well, for me it was. For him it was just his life. 

So, what is history to you? Any suggestions? There will be a copy of my children's history of crime in Australia for the answer I like best. You have a week. Local or international. Don't forget to put in your contact details.


Trevor Cairney said...

A great post Sue. Timely! A good reminder too of Allan Baillie's excellent book.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Trevor! Welcome to my blog. I think I've heard your name before...