Earlier this year, Hayden White died. White came up with the concept of metahistory, the idea that writing history is always shaped by literary concerns. Narrative drives everything. We are haunted by our desire to tell a compelling story about the past.
In this issue of PEN Transmissions, we asked four writers to reflect on different aspects of how they write the past: from personal history to a country’s official (or unofficial) past, from heroic narratives to fragmented memories, how do we incorporate the past into our writing?
We spoke to Spanish author Javier Cercas, author of the Man Booker International longlisted The Impostor, a ‘novel of truth’ about Enric Marco, a man who lied about almost every aspect of his life, including his supposed imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Doaa Mohaisen writes to us from Qatar about the historical amnesia surrounding the heroic narratives about Gaza, her home. Kenyan writer Peter Kimani tells us about the dual narratives of history. And finally, Norman Erikson Pasaribu delivers a stunning personal history of growing up queer in Indonesia. I strongly recommend reading Norman’s poem ‘On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Parking Garage at fX Sudirman Mall’ as a companion piece.
Writing the past is messy, complicated and always political. In our conversation, Javier Cercas argued that the past that interests him ‘is still a dimension of the present, [a past] without which the present is mutilated, without which the present can’t be grasped’. Arguably that is true for most aspects of history, in one way or another. You never know which bits of history will be utilised for a political purpose. What a relief, then, that we have writers to help us make sense of it all. I hope that this issue of PEN Transmissions will act as a starting point on that journey.
Until next time!
– Theodora Danek, Writers in Translation Programme Manager, English PEN