Academic journal article Making Connections

Reclaiming Silenced & Erased Histories: The Paratextual Devices of Historiographic Metafiction

Academic journal article Making Connections

Reclaiming Silenced & Erased Histories: The Paratextual Devices of Historiographic Metafiction

Article excerpt

How do we know the past today? Through its discourses, through its texts-that is, through the traces of its historical events: the archival materials, the documents, the narratives of witness...and historians.

-Linda Hutcheon (The Politics 34)

When they make these intercultural, hybrid demands, the natives are both challenging the boundaries of discourse and subtly changing its terms by setting up another specifically colonial space of the negotiations of cultural authority.

-Homi Bhabha (169)

For those of us doing this kind of work, what we're thinking about is what it means to recover lost narratives, lost people, lost memories. When we enter historical cracks we have to accept that what we bring out is not necessarily going to resemble anything we wish it to resemble.

-Junot Díaz (Chi'en)

According to Linda Hutcheon, "the term postmodernism, when used in fiction . . . should best be reserved to describe fiction that is at once metafictional and historical in its echoes of the texts and contexts of the past." Labeling this "paradoxical beast" historiographic metafiction, she makes a distinction between such postmodern texts and traditional historical fiction, which is largely unconcerned with its own artifice and often reproduces the sort of master narratives that historiographic metafiction (H.M.) seeks to disrupt ("Historiographic" 3). Just as JeanFran?ois Lyotard famously characterized postmodernity as a distrust of metanarratives in favor of, as Hutcheon points out, "smaller and multiple narratives which seek no universalizing stabilization or legitimation" (The Politics 24), H.M. attempts to destabilize totalizing narratives through its self-reflexive "use[s] and abuse[s], install[ations] and subver[sions], assert[ions] and deni[als]" of "the conventions of both fiction and historiography" ("Historiographic" 4-5).

Far from being ahistorical, then, postmodern fiction, unlike its modern precursor, is deeply engaged with the past-a past which, as contemporary historiographers point out, "can only be known from its texts, its traces" ("Historiographic" 4-5). The historian Dominick LaCapra, for instance, claims that "in a documentary or self-sufficient research model, priority is often given to research based on primary (preferably archival) documents that enable one to derive authenticated facts about the past which may be recounted in narrative" (2). As, however, all texts, regardless of their "archival" status, are open to interpretation, and the often fragmentary nature of evidential documents allows room for invention to organize and fill the "gaps" of information, the truth-claims of historical narratives, based as they are on such evidence, are problematic, at best. It is little wonder, then, that postmodern fiction, engaged in self-reflexively deconstructing grand narratives of the past, would employ "a contradictory turning to the archive" while yet contesting its authority (The Politics 77-83). By incorporating the intertexts and paratexts of history and history-writing into fiction, then, H.M. complicates rather than precludes their evidential value, highlighting the fictive quality of all narratives (be they literary or historical), while contradictorily retaining their "aura" as artifacts.

The novel is a fluid and bendable genre arising out of what David Shields considers its "mongrel tradition" of borrowing from other nonfictional forms, such as letter-writing, journal entries, the newspaper report, etc., within a fictional context (Reality Hunger 14-5), which makes it a particularly apt location for critiquing the construction of history. In Shields and Vollmer's 2012 anthology Fakes, moreover, they identify a growing trend in fiction whereby the story itself takes the form of what they refer to as a "fraudulent artifact," or, in other words,

a text purporting to be a particular form of writing-a journal entry, note, a yearbook letter, an e-mail, a transcript of a speech, a grocery list, a musical score, a screenplay-which also tells a story, stirs thought and emotion, inspires inquiry, initiates action, and/or calls into question that which is-or has purported to be-real. …

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