Rewriting History as Herstory: A Guest Post by Oz YA Author Nikki McWatters
I’ve just written three YA books that span almost 1000 years of human history and are set in far-flung places, from the Viking Orkney Islands to medieval Franconia to the modern-day Blue Mountains – and I wrote them all in less than four years. That, my friends, takes a mega-tonne of research right there. I had to learn all I could about the last days of the Viking Era, the literary world of Gothic England, the poorhouses of nineteenth century Glasgow, the witch-burning frenzies of seventeenth century Germany, the Irish Rebellion, and the sixties protest movement in Brisbane! Phew. I now feel like a walking encyclopaedia. What would a peasant girl wear in 1478 in a town north of Paris? I’ve got that. What would they serve orphans in a slop bowl (known as a pottinger) in Scotland in 1812? Tick!
It’s a funny thing really because I loved studying history at school but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d end up being a fictional historian for a living! But I did it for a reason. Something I am passionate about. And that reason was JUSTICE.
When we are asked to name a famous artist, we’ll immediately say ‘Picasso! Van Gogh! Rembrandt!’ When asked for a famous composer’s name ‘Mozart! Beethoven!’ A famous playwright ‘Shakespeare!’ A famous politician ‘Churchill!’ Scientist? ‘Einstein!’
A quick Google search gives me a list of the top ten writers of all time – Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Orwell, Homer, Tolkien, Poe, Twain, Hugo and Wilde.
There’s something wrong with this picture! All the names? Men! Women make up half the population but if we were to rely on the history books we’d have to make the assumption that we were some rare, endangered, hardly-sighted species.
History has always been written by men about men. Listen to this true story! I recently went to my local library and looked at the history shelf (it’s a very small library thus a very small shelf). Every single book was written by a man and most of them were about war. So really, the section could have been re-labelled the ‘Big Books by Boys about Battles’ section. Did you know that the word ‘history’ comes from the Greek word ‘histor’ meaning wise man!
As I was growing up through the seventies and eighties, history books didn’t offer me a great selection of female role models. There was Queen Elizabeth the First who ruled like a boss but spent her entire life fighting off marriage proposals and plots to kill her. Or Joan of Arc who ended up being burned at the stake for daring to step out of her box and raise her voice and sword. But I knew there were lots of women hiding in the shadows of history. Women, who in small and large ways, did their own stepping out of the box, to change the world for the better. I wanted to find them and tell their stories so that teenage readers could get a more balanced look at history. I wrote my stories as fiction based on fact because I wanted to make these characters come to life and entertain as much as educate.
Research! Thank goodness for the internet. I went looking through the web and I found hundreds of stories of courageous girls.
Frida Kahlo, painter extraordinaire! Maria Anna Mozart. The sister of the famous composer who wrote her own symphonies and was arguably more talented. Wow! Mary Sidney, playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare….might even have been Shakespeare if you listen to the conspiracy theorists! Politician Maria Theresa of Austria who started public education for boys and girls and turned around the economy of her penniless country while revitalising the military and winning two wars. Scientist? Have you heard of Cecilia Payne? She was the first female astrophysicist and discovered what the universe is made of and, until recently, did not have so much as a bronze plaque on the toilet block at either Harvard or Cambridge where she attained two PhDs.
My top ten female writers of all time? Emily Bronte, Harper Lee, J.K. Rowling, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and Ann Radcliffe (who was incidentally the highest paid and most popular writer of her day and the mother of Gothic horror books).
It was hard to settle on just a few girls to focus on. I went for the most obscure and under-examined. The characters in my novels are based on real flesh and blood girls who refused to sit at home darning socks and churning butter, preferring to get out there amongst it and change it up for the better, even when it meant risking their own lives. They wield axes. They march and protest. They fight. They write. They defy the conventions of their time and break out of their claustrophobic boxes.
I write historical fiction because from the past we can learn from the mistakes we made and revel in the victories. The past is always relevant. We need to celebrate the achievements of trail-blazing women so that we are reminded that barriers have been broken before and can be again. Despite the disappointments and inevitable setbacks HERSTORY is ultimately the story of triumph over adversity. Yes. History is always relevant. Witch hunts? Thousands of women burned at the stake? That could never happen again, right? Mass hysteria? Mob terror and fear of the ‘other’? But it has and is happening again. The Jewish holocaust! The current climate of stifling Islamophobia.
Historical characters are relevant to readers today because human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. We all still feel the same when we fall in love. We all feel hurt when persecuted or discriminated against. We feel terror the same way. Fear death the same way. And desire freedom the same way. We are all more same than different even if hundreds of years separate out experiences of life. My characters were the Greta Thunbergs of their day. And the world will always need Greta Thunbergs.
I write historical fiction with strong feminist themes to fill in the blanks in our human history that has for too long suffered from an amnesia of women’s stories. Girls’ stories matter. And not only do they matter, they make thrilling, exciting and adventurous reading!
My favourite LoveOzYA female writers are…in no particular order…Nova Weetman, Karen Foxlee, Pip Harry, Nicole Hayes, A.J Betts, Wai Chim and Emily Gale.
NIKKI MCWATTERS was shortlisted in the 2010 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award Emerging Writer category. She has published two memoirs: One Way or Another (2012) and Madness, Mayhem and Motherhood (2018); and four young adult novels: Sandy Feet (2014), Hexenhaus (2016), Liberty (2018) and Saga (2019). She won the Irish Moth Award (2016) and has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Huffington Post UK and The Big Issue. She is currently the spokesperson for the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout. Nikki also has a law degree in her bottom drawer somewhere.
To find out more about Nikki and her writing, visit her website: nikkimcwatters.wordpress.com, give her a follow on Twiter: @nikkimcwatters and Instagram: @nikkimcwattersauthor and check out her LoveOzYA Author Q&A.