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On history in fiction – Michael King

January 6, 2013

In one of his essays, Michael King expresses his concerns with regards to historical writing:

I have to confess to being uncomfortable and sometimes displeased at the way in which some writers of fiction use history. Historians, for example, seek to reconstruct the past according to its own patterns, not contemporary ones. They seek to contextualise human behavior and to represent it and explain it in terms of what people knew and believed at the time. So that you don’t, for example, blame a colonial administrator of the 1840s for knowing nothing about Gandhi, Martin Luther King or James Belich, any more than you blame an eighteenth-century Maori navigator for being ignorant of Galileo or Copernicus. …

One of the worst examples of this kind of fiction is Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Matriarch, in which the heroic characters are brimful of knowledge and attitudes that are simply not contemporaneous with their lives. This novel also falls over because the author credits other historical figures, Prime Minister Peter Fraser, for example, with characteristics and values that he not only did not have, but which he abhorred. And this failure is plain and simply one of the author doing insufficient research. The best that can be said about this novel is that it is the longest written thus far by a Maori writer. Another one that comes to mind is Maurice Shadbolt’s Lovelock Version….” (70-71)

I include this criticism of The Matriarch in full because it is interesting and because Ihimaera’s evocation of the matriarch reciting her whakapapa at the hui she was not invited to is one of my favourite pieces of writing. Obviously, I don’t intend to omit other criticisms of his work, of which there are many glowing ones! I just have to get to it…

Ref: (blue bold emphases mine; italics in original) Michael King (2011) The Silence Beyond: Selected writings by Michael King: With an Introduction by Rachael King. Penguin Books: Auckland. 

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