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Manitoba History: Bull in a China Shop: Making Fiction at the Archives

by Margaret Sweatman
Toronto, Ontario

Number 54, February 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The following is a transcript of the talk given by novelist, playwright, and poet Margaret Sweatman at the 42nd Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner held at the Fort Garry Hotel on 20 January 2007. Ms. Sweatman is the author of the novels Fox (set during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike), Sam and Angie, and When Alice Lay Down with Peter. Her plays have been produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange, Popular Theatre Alliance, and the Guelph Spring Festival. When Alice Lay Down with Peter has won numerous prizes, including the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the Carol Shields Winnipeg Award, and was named the McNally Robinson Book of the Year. In talking about the process of writing historical fiction Ms. Sweatman’s suggests that, “History is personal. It’s gendered, it’s sexual. And it’s aural – we can hear the voices …”

Bull in a China Shop

Margaret Sweatman spoke on her experiences writing historical fiction at the 2007 Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner.

I had a perfectly adequate essay written for you when I came home to Winnipeg for the weekend, and I chucked it last night, to try to give you something different, something far more personal. I was trying not to write too much about my own work, but I decided that that was dumb. So I hope you will forgive me if this seems to be self-indulgent.

I always wanted to be a writer. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was “an author” and so was my teacher in elementary school, the one who taught me how to read. Of course I wanted to write a novel, but there was this problem of “the plot.” My life had gone rather smoothly. I grew up in a wonderful home on Kingsway Avenue, in a big house that my grandfather had built and that my father had “bought back” – a retrieval that seemed to me to be only just. My great love was the Manitoba Theatre School, where I met drama teachers from England. And where I met kids from The North End.

I was a South End girl. Sort of. I was a geek living on Kingsway Avenue. At theatre school I met my first Jewish intellectuals, and my first Communists, never mind that they were twelve years old. It was obvious to me that I was fraudulent – culturally-speaking. So that was Strike One against me.

If you want to be a writer, you have to have something to say, some terrible crisis to expurgate – and not the death of the Golden Retriever. You have to have something to say, and you have to know how to put the details in such an order that a reader is going to fall into your story. You have to know how to write a story. What is a story? I couldn’t figure it out. That was Strike Two against me.

I did know, right off the bat, that writing is a disguise. It’s code. I never liked confessions and, I confess, I had very few friends. Writing was a wonderfully foreign interpretation of my fraught inner life. But when I approached reality, the crazy shimmering world, it turned into drapery and costume, the soul of it expired. I was mimicking other writers and it was all a big mess. Strike Three.

I began to write sketches of an imaginary upper class set of young people. These characters were more wealthy and more excessive than anybody I’d ever known, but they felt somehow familiar and real to me, and they seemed write-able (which is not a word). But there was no drama, no conflict. Tommy loves Susie and who cares. So and so has a hangover. Somebody’s being mean to somebody else.

Then I thought about the North End and the South End of Winnipeg – which, when I was young in the 1950s and 60s and 70s and even the 80s – I was young for a very long time – I thought about how the city was drawn in half, rich and poor – to over-simplify – Northern European and people of British descent, Tory and Communist. It was a bit of a cartoon, but it was also valid. Winnipeg was an anti-Semitic, racist, repressive colony. Among other things.

I was studying literature with Robert Kroestch, the brilliant post-modern poet, essayist, and novelist. I was studying Mikhail Bakhtin, who was a Russian theorist of language and the novel, among many other things. I was reading Mikhail Bakhtin’s collection of essays, The Dialogic Imagination. Bakhtin was outlining the concept of the marketplace, and the forum, as a model of civic discourse. It was the structure – the forum – Old Market Square – with (literally) many points of entry – that could contain an argument, could permit many voices, a polyphony. Bakhtin’s work completely and suddenly, on the road to Damascus, freed me from plot, freed me from my little geeky self; Bakhtin’s work on the dialogic gave me a new model for story, that would be paratactic, have almost no connective tissue and no hierarchy. It was a chorus of voices, speaking from individual perspectives, in many dialects, from multiple vantages. All I needed was a container, so it would be like a big noisy box. I didn’t have to have a plot – this is, then this is, so therefore this is, and hang on to your hats because then … Chuck story. Bring in Event. Historical Event.

The Winnipeg General Strike. 1919. Far enough away in time to regain some glamour, yet intimate to me, a fracture in my own middle class happylife soul.

So I wrote a novel I called Fox. Or at least I wrote two hundred pages of voicings occasioned by civic strife, by injustice, by fear, by the larger picture – the Russian Revolution – by great minds – Karl Marx, Jesus, and Isaiah. All this beautiful language. The Millennial hope inspired by Lenin’s Revolution, taken on its local journey by people like Fred Dixon, Bobby Russell, J. S. Woodsworth. Hope and anger and bravery, in a situation, here, in my city, one that left its scar – maybe, it’s a good scar – on my own home and, in a real way, my own life.

So History is personal. It’s gendered, it’s sexual. And it’s aural – we can hear the voices – especially the voices of the people involved in the 1919 Strike, who were writers and great orators. So I was having a very good time. And when I had two hundred pages, I called it a novel. And to my utter astonishment, nobody called my bluff.

So that was Fox.

But Story, Plot, these terrible monsters still lurked out there. And I was determined to learn: What is a story?

So I wrote a novel I called Sam and Angie. I wanted to wean myself from the public record, from research, from the archives. And I demanded of myself, that I’d get it, this Story-thing. I don’t know. My husband tells me that it’s a good book but he likes me. It was a novel written out of unhappiness.

Then – I got happy. I was so happy, that I wanted to write a comedy. I had been studying, again with Robert Kroetsch. A course in Comedy. We read Ulysses, The Diviners, Gertrude Stein, all kinds of wild models, investigating these works in the context of the theories of Comedy. So there I was, happy, wanting finally to write a comedy, and I phoned Kroestch and said, hey, what’s comedy again? And he said, I can’t remember.

So I read Northrop Frye. The Anatomy of Criticism. And found the Green World. I was living a Green World. In St. Norbert. By the river. It was very beautiful, and very difficult.

We lived on Marchand Road. Our neighbour on the west side was Victoria Marchand. Vickie. Vickie was in her early 80s when we lived there. Her home was a modified trailer in her garden. Her acre, two acre yard was a garden. She rode the roto-tiller like a buckin’ bronco. She cut her lawn on a great big tractor that kept tipping over on top of her, and she’d yell, Marr-garett! And I’d have to leave my desk to go and pull her out.

She was a widow. Her husband’s name was Eli. I think that Eli was Métis. In her youth, Vickie and Eli owned the entire ox-bow. Our yard was once her strawberry patch. The entire ox-bow was a garden. And she would haul the produce by horse from St. Norbert to “the North End” where, she said, “the Jews” would see her coming and cry out, “Blondie!” According to Vickie, she was quite a looker in those days, with blonde curly hair, and the biggest – tomatoes at the market.

I was living in the Green World. And the Green World was suffering – birds and animals were extirpated or made extinct by people like me coming and taking advantage of Blondie’s necessity, the seemingly inevitable subdivision of land. The history of a place is the history of extinctions, and of real estate.

I was living on haunted land. I wanted to run a plumb line through its entire existence. I started my research with Lake Agassiz. Then I read about the buffalo. The history of the use of Seneca, and wild rice, and the Great Heron. I read about the Cree. The Métis. Then I read about the fraud that had been perpetrated on the Métis, the stealing of Métis land. We skied at La Barrière Park. I was at my desk and looked across the river and I could see Riel there, hiding from Wolseley’s drunken soldiers. I didn’t think that I was writing historical fiction; it actually didn’t occur to me, I don’t think. I was writing a ghost story. And a fantasy. I thought I was writing a comedy about my beloved home that never really could belong to me.

The passage of time makes us funny. Change is painful, yes, but it’s also comedic. The King might be on his high horse, but the horse is moving and the King falls off. We can’t hold on to anything; everything is being ripped from our arms even as we try to hold it – even our opinions, our knowledge of anything, it’s all in motion, it’s in transition, a constant unseating of the King.

I kept two books on my desk while I wrote a novel that I would call When Alice Lay Down with Peter. Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. And Ovid’s Metamorphosis. These are histories, if you think of historical literature as a memory song, if you remember the adage, “All history is born of song.” These were my structural models. Just as Bakhtin had provided me the paratactic structure of Fox, Homer and Ovid inspired the structural principles of Alice, the game plan: which were the principles of transformation, of change, of always becoming, never being There, never being Complete. Ovid’s rapes and transgressions, the fury of the action, is transformed by the quickness of the narrative. There are no shocked pauses. No one ever gets to be Right.

Canadian Historical Fiction is often post-modern – that is, self-reflexive, often parodic, a bit of a joke. There are many theories as to why this is so. I think that we’re unwilling to settle on an official version. We’re an unsettled country. We’re – I think – turned off by nation-building. We seem to be inveterate deconstructionists. We’re wary of the Master Narratives. We’re post-colonial. Maybe. Maybe we’ve got there, seems we’re in the throes of becoming post-colonial. I mean the CBC is all anxious about diversification.

So what happens when you’re a writer, and you’re writing about some of our big Collective Stories, our collective myths, our National Myths? Louis Riel’s Provisional Government of 1869, the so-called Rebellion of 1885. The Winnipeg General Strike. The On-to-Ottawa Trek of 1935. The Mackenzie Papineau Battalion – those so-called “premature anti-fascists” of 1936. Premature anti-fascists. They not only got the politics all wrong, these idealists going off to fight with anarchists, socialists, communists in the Spanish Civil War; they didn’t understand Historical Progress, they got way ahead of the big parade. Dummies. We’ll punish them by writing them out of History. They get no History after dinner.

Somewhere in When Alice Lay Down with Peter, I wrote, “It takes more than mortality to make somebody dead.” One of the game plans for that novel, was to keep characters in play long after they were dead. The drooling ghost of Thomas Scott hangs around for many years, filled with spite and dire predictions. Eli’s adoptive mother, a Métis woman named Marie, stays forever on the ox-bow – which is irritating for the narrator, whom I named Blondie – to have to live with her dead mother-in-law.

Stories are oral by nature. I remember Bob Kroestch saying once, “Well, writers are failed story-tellers, really.” Stories are alive in their re-telling, and rely on the physical impression of your breath, making sound, in the rhythms of repetition. Oral stories, re-tellings, become smooth and compact as stones. They are very different from the complexities of writing a novel, with the psychological shadings of your characters, with multiple narrative lines, with all the strange contradictions and mirrorings of human behaviour, desire, motivation.

Historical novels are very different from the memory songs, but novels can contain songs; they may be constructed around riffs, repeated patterns. An historical novel may be burdened with detail, with the information that has been painstakingly researched. Research is heavy. It takes a lot of patience. Facts can be terribly inconvenient. (Writers are fools for facts, if we remember that “fool” is a Latin word, for windbag.) Historical timelines can really screw up your pacing. How do we take the weight of History, the record of the past, and spin it into yarn? When you put a bull in a china shop, you break things. It has to be a special kind of bull.

History, when it’s fixed to fiction, becomes something of a scandal. I have worked hard to be accurate and true to the historical record, and I’ve also played with it, played fast and light. I’d like to say that I have not lied but I’m too honest. Maybe it’s just Heisenberg, maybe it’s just the light we shine on what we see, that shifts things so. The imagination heats the air. We’re trying to breathe life into a story. We’re trying to keep the ghosts in play. The land around us is a palimpsest; we’re building over, writing over what has gone before.

Amnesia serves commerce, effacing our memories in often brutal ways. I think of our ghosts as our allies, as sort of our left-wing guys, our colleagues. And they are innately funny because they’re ghosts. They’re drooling, they wear funny clothes, they’re all wrong. They remind us that we’re not There yet, that there is no There, no Right ending, no One Story. Their lack of perfection, their imperfect and incomplete qualities are necessary to us. To resist the idea of an end of history, to remember our hilarious imperfections.

Page revised: 5 November 2012

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