Why Bother with the Past?

Photo of Barry Unsworth by Nick Vagnoni. Story by Nan Klingener.

Barry Unsworth made it worth getting out of bed Sunday morning with an illuminating talk explaining why and how he writes historical fiction, and why we read it. The talk was titled “Why Bother With the Past?”

“We haven’t got any choice in the matter,” Unsworth said in answer to that question. “The past is being forged moment to moment as we live.”

Each of us is the result of choices made in the past by our parents, grandparents, and beyond– in Unsworth’s case, his father’s decision to leave the mining work where sons followed fathers under the ground, go to the U.S. and Canada, and, upon returning to England, work in the insurance business. With those decisions, “he rescued my brother and me from that long chain of continuity, which is what happened in mining villages,” Unsworth said.

In his own life, he can trace back the influences not only of his father’s choices but of 1930s economic conditions, the aftermath of World War I, 19th century labor disputes, and beyond. Everyone has these “tracks and traces behind us which give us our identifty,” Unsworth said.

Our understanding of the past relies on and requires narrative, lines that we can follow to understand who we are, why we’re here. “Without this facility, without this necessity of story, we would be lost in the labyrinth,” Unsworth said. “We wouldn’t find our way.”

Unsworth said he writes historical fiction because he has lived outside of England for at least half his life– in Greece, Turkey, and now in Italy– so he doesn’t feel the flavor of contemporary English life and chooses not to write about fellow expatriates. And in the places he has lived “the past is always there, lying in wait for you, just around the corner. It’s screaming out at you,” he said.

In his work, Unsworth said he looks for “patterns in the past which can be applied to the present, given the differences” so that “contradictions and paradoxes serve to illuminate in some way the present.”

“The past is another country, we know. It’s not recoverable,” Unsworth said. Each of us realizes this about our own lives in remembering childhood. “But we know at the same time that we never lost it– it belongs to us; it made us what we are.”

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