Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Frederick Douglass Reading

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014


Come participate in a communal reading of Frederick Douglass‘ “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?”  The free reading is on Wednesday, July 2nd at noon at the Boston Common/Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Memorial. Hosted by Community Change, the co-sponsors include Mass Humanities, The Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice, Museum of African American History, NAACP New England Area Conference, YWCA Cambridge, and Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

What Do We Owe to History in Our Art?

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

When artists explore a period of history through their art, what is the artist’s responsibility to that history? Which truth – historic or artistic – is of greatest importance? As Karen Shepard, author of the historical novel The Celestials, asked in Part I of this discussion, “What could I make up about history? Could I only write what I knew had happened, or could I also write what I knew hadn’t happened?”

What do we owe to history in our art?

Sari Boren, writer and Exhibit Developer, Wondercabinet Interpretive Design
In my professional work as a museum exhibit developer – the content person on an exhibit design team – my job is to make the public believe we owe history, at least, the recognition of history’s reach. I’m complicit in how museums build narratives of public history through edited stories, selected objects, and exhibit themes that filter history through a specific lens.

In my own, memoir-based writing I’m trying to integrate my parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors into an understanding of my own life. In some ways, children of survivors are like museums. We are repositories and interpreters of history, and we feel responsible for housing the remembrance of traumatic events that happened to our loved ones in another time and place. The question of what I owe the survivors and the dead, even just my family members, let alone strangers, is central to my writing. I wonder, if by placing narrative themes over my family’s experiences – even trying to use the conventions of history museums to interpret how trauma filters through generations – if I’m honoring the past or exploiting it, illuminating history or distorting it. I’m not certain what I owe history, but it sure has its claws in me.

Susan Rivo, director of the documentary Left on Pearl
We owe it to history to tell its hidden stories. In March 1971, International Women’s Day marchers turned left on Pearl Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and took over a Harvard University building at 888 Memorial Drive, declaring it a Women’s Center. Left on Pearl depicts a little known but highly significant event in the history of Second Wave feminism. The ten day building occupation by hundreds of women highlighted the hopes and triumphs as well as the conflicts and tensions within the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and led to the establishment of the longest continuously operating community Women’s Center in the U.S.

I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about this period – the fact that help-wanted ads were segregated by gender, that a woman could be fired from a job for being pregnant, and that she couldn’t get credit or open a bank account without her husband’s permission. These things changed because of the hard-fought battles waged by Second Wave feminists, the granddaughters of the suffragists. Marginalized by backlash, those First Wave feminists were unable to transmit their history to the next generation. Second Wave feminists did not have access to this buried history until they began to uncover it for themselves. As a filmmaker, I see Left on Pearl as part of a larger effort to preserve our history and pass it on to the next generation.

James David Moran, writer and Director of Outreach at the American Antiquarian Society
I don’t think art owes anything to history but I do think that artists who choose to create historically-based art should try very hard to be accurate to the time they are seeking to envision, just as at some level all artists should seek to find and illuminate the reality of the world that surrounds them today.

To me good historical art is like a marriage with one partner history and the other art. As in any good marriage both partners need to be equal and meeting the needs and desires of both is a challenge that often requires creating a delicate balance between the two.

All art should transcend time by getting at what is the essence of the human experience. Often this starts with the very specific: we seek to find what is true in our own place and time and then explore what transcends our moment to become universal. Historical art needs to also explore a third space – the historical time period being recreated. It needs to truly and completely honor the way people spoke, dressed, moved, thought and felt in that time – without any of our own contemporary concepts about those experiences. Before we can transcend any time – present or past – we need to truly and completely live in it.

Susan Thompson, playwright, director, choreographer, and teacher
I often use memory and storytelling in my work. Unforgettable: Letters from Korea, my latest play, is based on love letters my parents wrote while my father was an infantry platoon commander in Korea and my mother was a senior at UCONN. While certainly an homage to them and their love, the play is also an exploration of the disconnection between a soldier’s battlefield experience and those who are left behind on the home front.

Last summer we had the honor to perform Unforgettable for a group of Korean War Veterans in D.C. I have to admit, it was intimidating. What do we owe history in our art? Well, when history is sitting in front of you in the audience, you owe them quite a lot! We fretted over the details of the production from dog tags to C-rations, but what really concerned me was getting the story right for them; we wanted the vets to recognize their own stories in the story of these two young people.

“You told it like it was,” was the comment that we got over and over after the show. We realized that, although the landscape and personalities of war change, the disconnection between peace and war – home and the battlefield – continue. Read more.


Sari Boren will read at the Four Stories reading series in Cambridge on June 11th. The night’s theme is: Revisionist History: Tales of Recollections, Misremembering, & the Past.

Susan Rivo’s documentary Left on Pearl will launch a crowdfunding campaign in September to raise finishing funds. Sign up for the project’s e-newsletter to keep in the loop.

James David Moran, along with overseeing public programming at the American Antiquarian Society, is also a writer, playwright, director, and producer.

Susan Thompson is a core member of Pilgrim Theater Research and Performance Collaborative. The troupe plans to bring Unforgettable back to D.C. this summer to perform for the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the truce between North and South Korea.

What do YOU believe artists owe to history in their work? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Image: the parents of Susan Thompson, subjects of her play UNFORGETTABLE: LETTERS FROM KOREA. Images courtesy of the artist.

Karen Shepard: What Do We Owe to History in Our Art?

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

When artists explore or evoke a period in history through their art, it raises questions about the artist’s responsibility. What facts, what details, what people, are fair game for reinvention? What truth – historic or artistic – is of the most importance? (For an interesting take on this, read Hendrik Herzberg’s essay on what Stephen Spielberg and his collaborators get wrong and right in the film “Lincoln.”)

In her new novel The Celestials, to be published in June, Karen Shepard (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’02) explores 19th-century North Adams and a true-life event: the arrival of Chinese laborers to take the place of striking workers at a shoe manufacturer.

As she gets ready to publish this work of historical fiction, we asked, What do we owe to history in our art?

Well, of course, the short (and glib) answer is: a whole lot.

Until The Celestials, I had never written anything historical of this scope before, and it all seemed hugely daunting. As we all know, historical events mean different things to different people. The arrival of all these Chinese strangers in a contained community like North Adams was no exception, so I knew there would be a flexible, omniscient viewpoint, able to swoop in and out of anyone’s mind, able to linger or not in those minds as a way to reflect that variety of views.

But then you get into the knottier aspects of writing historical fiction. What could I make up about history? Could I only write what I knew had happened, or could I also write what I knew hadn’t happened? I imagine I would answer these questions differently for each different historical project. For this one, I felt that I had to get the building blocks right but at some point I had to take the facts as I’d learned them and make something truly imaginative out of them. It was like building with Legos. I had all these many-colored, differently shaped facts, but I had to build the spaceship. So, for example, the character Alice, the mixed-race baby who shows up about a third of the way through the novel, is invented but the building blocks for her were there. In an imagined version of history as I understood it from the facts, it could have happened. Again, I might feel differently in another project, but in this one, Alice felt like an imaginative leap that would help explain and explore what I found most interesting about this story.

And, finally, historical fiction has its own particular brand of a writer’s fears about getting it right. Of course we fiction writers want to get it right whether we’re writing straight-up autobiographical fiction or sci-fi. But, that said, there is no way to get everything right for everyone. I remember one reader objected to a name I had given a character because it was also the name of a “famous” knitter, and it was confusing to this reader. But, writing historical fiction, of course I was worried about all the experts in the world who know way more than I do about everything. All I could do was try to do my research well. And I’m lucky to teach at a place like Williams College, so I had some of those experts vet the manuscript for glaring errors. On top of that, I had an extraordinarily diligent editor and a copy editor who was even more obsessive than I am. I’m more concerned, however, with the people in the world who may be connected to this story in more personal ways. Many of my characters have descendents with a personal stake in this story. I hope that nothing I’ve written offends them, but I can’t guarantee that, and my worries about that couldn’t be something I thought about while writing. It was like writing autobiographical fiction and thinking about what your mother might think. That way madness lies. I hope that all my readers will feel that I haven’t treated my characters with kid gloves, but that I’ve treated them with the rigor and honesty that real people for whom I have enormous sympathy and respect deserve.

–Williamstown, May 2013

Read Part II of this discussion, as artists from a range of disciplines weigh in on this topic.

Karen Shepard will read from The Celestials at the MASS MoCA Book Club in North Adams (6/6, 6 PM), Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley (6/11, 7 PM), Newtonville Books in Newton (6/13, 7 PM), and more.

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, Don’t I Know You?, and the forthcoming The Celestials. Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, and Ploughshares, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe, among others. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, novelist Jim Shepard, and their three children. Learn more at

Images: cover art for THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard (Tin House Books, 2013); Karen Shepard, photo by Barry Goldstein (Photography Fellow ’07).