23 June 2010

What Surprised Me: Unreliable Sources

By Zoe Archer

One of the reasons I love writing unusual historical romance is the opportunity to do research. Most sane people don't relish the prospect of lurking through university libraries, searching for the perfect primary source--but I never said I was sane, just a writer. So it's not uncommon for me to pick a subject matter or location that I'm not familiar with, knowing that I'll have to do my research prowling.

When I started outlining WARRIOR, right away I understood that I'd have to hie myself off to the library stacks and start reading up on the history and culture of Mongolia. I found a goodly amount of secondary sources, and even some first-hand travelers' accounts of contemporary Mongolia, but I wasn't just writing about Mongolia, I was writing about Mongolia in 1874. The country was a vastly different place over a hundred and twenty five years ago.

One day, in my hunt, I thought I struck research gold. It was a reprint of Mongolia, the Tangut Country, by Colonel Nikolai Przewalski (also spelled Przhevalsky). I danced the little researcher's dance of joy. Przewalkski's book was originally published in 1875--only a year later than the year in which WARRIOR was set. I wasn't too concerned about that year's difference. After all, the Mongol way of life did not and does not change very rapidly. I thought I was all set, with the mother of all primary sources.

You're probably wondering, who the heck was Przewalski? The bare bones of his life are this: he was born in 1839, a Russian nobleman of Polish descent. He gained fame as a geographer and explorer of Central and East Asia, and contributed greatly to Europe's understanding of those regions. He was also the first known European to see and describe the only existing species of wild horse. Today the species is known as the Przewalski Horse. Typhus cut his life, and explorations, short in 1888.

Imagine my glee to come across an edition of this esteemed traveler's book. Here was the writings of the premier European explorer of the exact region I was writing about, and his observations doubtless dated from the exact time period, too. Since I strive to be as accurate as I can (within reason), I settled in with my notebook and pen, ready to take copious notes.

At first, that's exactly what I did. I wrote down everything Przewalski said about the capital city, Urga (now known as Ulan Bator), including the geographical layout of the city, noting where the Russians and Chinese had established permanent buildings in a city comprised almost entirely of tents. I noted his remarks about the custom of sharing tobacco, and how Mongols treated their animals. It was all so rich! So perfect for my needs!

But then, my pen slowed. Reading further, I began to be disturbed by what I thought had been an unbiased account of one European man's journey through Mongolia. Przewalski asserted that Mongols were...physically dirty. That they were shiftless liars. That the women of Mongolia were, to put it kindly, unchaste.

Nothing, and I mean nothing of what I had read about Mongols and Mongolia confirmed this. Much of what Przewalski wrote seemed downright untrue, if not slanderous. It smacked of Eurocentrism and an Imperialist mentality.

I was surprised. Shocked, even. Here was a man who was so important to Western understanding of Central Asia that a very rare species of wild horse found only in the area was named for him. Yet he was writing things that, if they weren't outright lies, were certainly not unbiased and impartial.

This called into question everything that he had written. I felt that, in good conscience, I couldn't trust or rely upon a word in Przewalski's book. How could I, when his untruths and distortions littered the text?

With a heavy heart, I returned the book to the library, and started over with my research. It had been a difficult lesson, but an important one. No source is entirely reliable, especially now, when the internet makes it so easy to fabricate something we assume is "truth." From that point on, I made sure to double and triple check my sources, even books, those bulwarks of reliability.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I hear the siren song of the library stacks calling my name. And I'll heed that song, but as a wiser and more cautious researcher.


Anonymous said...

Despite Przewalski's point of view toward the Mongolians, which was typical of the age, I suspect you could still glean accurate descriptions of buildings, streets, food, customs, landscape, and wildlife. I applaude your detemination to use original sources, but as you found out, accounts written in earlier times are subject to the biases of the age. I ran into the same problem with my revolutionary war romance. Accounts of the day were primarily written by Americans, who depicted the British as cruel monsters without conscience and the American partisans as brave and passionate freedom-fighters. Therefore, I used these to construct my pictures of the landscape and towns, and the accounts of the battles. And at the end of the book in the Author's Note, I stated that many of the first-hand sources were biased toward the Americans. We have to remember that before the twentieth century, there was no such thing as polical correctness, and if our characters are to be true to life, they must have the same views as their contemporaries. We can temper them, of course, to make them more sympathetic to modern readers, but if we do, we have to ask ourselves if we are being accurate to history. Perhaps the best approach, if your characters are European, is a character going into a situation with one point of view, the prevalent view of their society, and learning from the experience to emerge with another. If your characters are Mongolian, which I suspect they are, then you're unlikely to find first-hand sources written by Mongolians. I would suggest that you go to Ask a Librarian on the web. It's the site for the Library of Congress, and the researchers are very helpful.

Best of luck, Cat Lindler

librarypat said...

No book is written without at least some of the bias of the author coming through. Even when they see things clearly, they may not interpret them so. This is not a literary example, but it shows how true that can be. My aunt's husband was stationed in Germany with the US AF in the late 1950's/early 1960's. She would write letters home describing villages, the mountains, and going to the market & baker that sounded like scenes from Heidi. It was lovely. She hated every minute of it. Her descriptions were accurate, but her personal feelings were just that, personal. As a researcher, we need to be able to look at a work and be able to filter out what is opinion and set it aside for use in the appropriate place. Take the rest and use it where you need to.

Zoe Archer said...

I agree with both of you, Pat and Cat. My concern was making a judgment as to what information was reliable and what was not. If I was going to write about a place and time many readers were not familiar with, I would have to do my utmost to represent them as accurately as was feasible. While I have no doubt that there was a goodly amount of truth in Przewalski's narrative, his distortion of other elements made me leery of relying on his account. Ultimately, I did use some of his descriptions of Urga as source material, but when it came to the actual customs of the Mongol people, I felt he was too unreliable for me to utilize, so I went with other sources.

Glad the post engendered some interesting discussion!

Karen Mercury said...

I've run into the same thing a hundred times too! Researching precolonial Africa, I rely on those early explorers to provide a sense of geography, biology, guns/ammo, food, etc. But obviously I can't saddle my hero with some racist attitude, so I always gloss over that part. I mean, we all know racism bad. Non-racism good. I'm not really there to preach but entertain.

Oddly in my current study of California history, when I read primary source material, I don't find much personal hatred toward the "Digger" Indians, although it wasn't illegal to kill them!