09 April 2007

Can I Quote You On That?

My latest WIP is set in Mongolia in 1873. You know what that means? Research! Hurray! (No, I’m not being sarcastic -- I really do love to do research, perhaps that's why I write historical romance and not Chick Lit.)

Going through my stacks and stacks of books and pawing through numerous Google searches, I came across the historical persona of Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, also spelled Przewalski and Prjevalsky, for those playing along at home. Colonel Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer and geographer in central and eastern Asia, and the man for whom an Asiatic wild horse was named after he discovered them in southern Mongolia. He continues to remain a fascinating figure to study, both in terms of what he discovered and his larger-than-life personality. But my interest wasn't in Przhevalsky himself, but rather, the land that he studied.

I was thrilled when I learned that he had written a book, which was later translated into English, in 1875, entitled Mongolia, the Tangut Country, which described his travels throughout the precise part of the world that I was writing about, and in almost the exact same year. I did the happy researcher dance, having hit the proverbial jackpot. A primary source! That has to be even better than reading modern books about Mongolian history, right? How much more accurate can you get?

With a cup of tea and a notebook (it was a library book that I'd checked out of my local university library), I settled in to be transported to Mongolia in the 1870s. I took copious notes. How did the Chinese traders who lived in Ulanbataar (then called Urga) travel? What was the layout of the city, since there were no permanent structures other than Buddhist temples? There was so much to learn.

But then a weird thing started to happen as I read. My first clue that something was awry was when I read about burial customs in Urga. It was a Mongolian belief (which I'd read about elsewhere), that bodies weren't interred but rather taken to the top of a mountain or a distant, isolated place, and left to the elements where they would return to nature. The practice was called "sky burial." This isn't a disputed fact. However, according to Przhevalsky, in Urga, bodies were thrown into a common area not far from the city, and that stray dogs fell upon the corpses and ate them within moments. He records being disgusted by the filth of the city, and the plague of dogs gnawing on human remains, or even beggars before they had died.


I knew for certain that there were problems with Przhevalsky when he started to describe the customs of the Mongol nomads. I don't have the book in front of me (it's since been returned to the library), but I was flat out appalled when I read his accounts of the lack of chastity of Mongol women, the laziness and shiftlessness of the men, their careless work ethic. This was flat out wrong! Everything else I have read about the people of Mongolia suggested the complete opposite, including the strength of familial bonds and the hard but rewarding life of tending livestock on the open steppes.

I put Przhevalsky's book down and looked at my notes. Could I trust them now? How much of what he said was true, and how much was pure ethnic prejudice or even complete fabrication? There was no way to know. All the notes I had taken had to be put aside. I try very hard to be as accurate as I can in my work, and now everything that I had learned from the Russian explorer couldn’t be trusted. My primary source had failed me.

I did learn a valuable lesson with my experience with Przhevalsky. Personal bias or perception will always shape even the most mundane experiences. No matter how hard I or other authors try, there's simply no way for a book to be 100% truthful.


Vicki Gaia said...

Oh Zoe ~ Wow...that's definately a valuable lesson to learn. Prejudice of this time period is also a fascinating subject, and can get into your book, as well. It's so hard to find a resource that is without the writer's social prejudices and perceptions. Great post!

carrie_lofty said...

Most history taught in US high schools deals with facts and a narrative, without much time or attention paid to source work, alternate takes, and prejudices within our primary resources. I remember first coming across the concept of an unreliable narrator when I worked on my senior history thesis in college -- it took me that long. I felt offended. How dare she say something misleading or something that cannot be corroborated? The source was a diary, where people can pretty much BS all they want, but still! Where's the authenticity and "what really happened"??

Grad school soon knocked that "what really happened" fallacy out of my head. It's all about mediating the facts to find a reasonable approximation of the past. I think Indiana Jones said something like that in Raiders -- that archaeology is the search for fact, and if you want truth, you should go take a philosophy class. The study of history reveals countless facts, but the search for truth is much more elusive, subject to debate, and ultimately left in part to the imagination -- our job.

Sandra Schwab said...

Isn't it interesting that at school we're taught history in facts and dates -- as if these would convey some sort of truth about bygone ages? And nobody ever tells us what we learn as facts are only interpretations of history. This was driven quite forcefully home to me when I was doing research for a paper on the historical background of devolution in Wales and Scotland and consulted The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland, which has this to say about the Battle of Culloden: ". . . by April 1746, 5000 Highlanders faced Cumberland's 9000 at Culloden; Highlanders routed."

And that's all.


To say I was stunned, doesn't quite cover it. *g*

And, of course, it gets even trickier when it comes to historical novels of any kind.

Eliza said...

Great post, Zoe! It reminds me of how Herman Melville saw things so differently than everyone else. Typee: Omoo is a great example of this. While the rest of the world saw the South Sea Islanders as heathen and just plain wrong, Melville found such people fascinating and lovely. While civilization was cheering on missionary work, Melville saw it as deleterious.

I've run into differing stories while looking into a murder that happened a hundred years ago. Sometimes you just have to pick one source and say, "No matter what, I'm going with this." And other times you pick what bits and pieces work better for your plot. The second way is much more difficult to keep track of, though.

jennifer said...

well you could always use that as the guide for a villian characters showing both sides. you're reading it wouldn't be for nothing then.