Creating New Mythology From Hidden History: A DisConIII Panel

In December 2021, I had the opportunity to attend DisConIII. Here are my other DisCon posts.

The panelists were: Roseanne Brown, Sharee Renée Thomas, Andrea Hairston, and Karlo Yeager Rodriguez, and the moderator was Ada Palmer.

The panel description was as follows: One of the astounding things about the internet has been the way historians—both amateur and professional—have used it to research, write, and make available histories that have not been accessible before. Histories of the marginalized, oppressed, sidelined, and disappeared are now available as the stuff of story. This panel will discuss the pleasures, possibilities, and pitfalls of the new true stories writers are discovering and using.

As a note, when we discuss “hidden histories”, think about who they were hidden from — and who knew the histories and stories all along.

Where To Find Histories That Weren’t In Your Textbooks

  • Oral stories on Youtube/TikTok/etc
  • The Storymobile
  • Listening Labs
  • Old post-copyright stuff being released on Kindle*
  • The Hidden Histories series
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
  • War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony by Nelson A. Denis
  • Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire
  • Exchange trips
  • Macmillan’ Remixed Classics

Ways To Contextualize Histories

  • For oral traditions — who is telling the story and what class are they in their culture
  • For post-copyright books
    • Some is being uploaded to Kindle with the new release date
    • Much has been disproven in the last 100 years (up-to-date stuff is often behind academic paywalls)
    • From the Mid-1800’s — accounts were often encyclopaedic, but with writer biases
    • From the early 1900’s — historians praised for ‘cleaning up’ the history
    • Historically, Germans journaled very thorough records of African culture
      • Drawings, descriptions of dances, ceremonies, public intimate encounters, etc
  • When reading historical accounts, look for the gaps — what isn’t being described or discussed? Often due to cultural judgement by the recorder — or privacy demands from the members of the culture being observed
  • History isn’t always written by the winners, often, it’s reinterpretted by those with political agendas. The French version versus the British version versus the indiginous group’s version.
  • Our textbooks often name the colonizers — not always the societies that were colonized
  • Colonizers wiped out many groups — but sometimes? Colonizers claimed annihilation of a group so they could claim the land.
    • Puerto Rico’s colonizers claimed this to the Spanish crown.
  • Be wary of misinformation — just because there are sources, or the sources are old, doesn’t mean they’re right. Roman records of their conquered lands were often biased and wrong, and they were far from the first — or the last. See who wrote the sources, and where they got their information from. If they all site the same source… see if you can verify the veracity of it.
  • Think about how Germany actively teaches the Holocaust, takes their children to the sites, and criminally prosecutes those who try to erase it. But, we don’t often hear about about their dress-rehersal in Southwest Africa’s Namibia of the Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1907.
  • Remember that many colonized/conquered peoples hid their beliefs in variations of the colonizer’s predominate religion.

Who Gets To Use The Histories and Tales

Africa so often gets talked about in so-called Western culture as though it’s just one big nation — when it’s the second-largest continent on Earth. With 55 nations and 1 principality, it has thousands of languages and cultures.

There is a huge backlash about misappropriation these days — against smaller writers, and writers from other cultures… and then there’s Neil Gaiman with his Anansi Boys.

Andrea Hairston built a relationship and was allowed to see the Gullah-Geechee dances on Sapelo Island, Georgia. The people there also follow their West African ancestor’s tradition of grave offerings — things that are said to contain the spirit of the passed — a beloved pipe or cup or spoon or book. These days, the mourners have to hide the graves and the offerings to keep tourists from taking them home as souvenirs.

Andrea Hairston also studies material culture. She’s is building a costume library — and now has boxes and boxes of authentic dresses and clothes that people wore in different eras, for different occasions.

There is a power in choosing not to share important things with outsiders. While anthropologists might shudder, a culture belongs to its people in its own context and is not owed to anyone else.

Ways to Use These ‘Hidden Histories’ in Your Writing

  1. Research, research, research.
  2. Do your due diligence, especially for real religions (or “myths”).
  3. If an adaptation is popular with neo-nazis or another hate group, see if there is another interpretation.
  4. Be careful about the lens you use to tell the story — be sure to give agency to the characters from the culture whose stories you are telling
  5. If possible, get a sensitivity reader from the culture whose histories you’re using
  6. Consider if you’re the right person to tell this story. If you have doubts, maybe don’t.

Any tips I missed? Any suggested readings?

2 Comments

  1. Writer bias, esp from the 18th-20th century, is heavy. Go for multiple sources.

    And the neoNazis – they’re stealing myth, and modifying to fit their interpretation. (Don’t ask me what I think of Wagner and the Neibelungenlied librettos.) Feel free to use the same ones, and redefine it.

    Liked by 1 person

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