AWP2018: The Historical Women: Reimagining Past Narratives Through the Contemporary Female Perspective

Panel Participants: Chanelle Benz, Amelia Gray, Min Jin Lee, Danielle Dutton

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“Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul,” said Coretta Scott King during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. What can we learn from reimagined female historical narratives? What is their timely relevance in the current political climate? This panel will also discuss the craft of shaping a nonfiction tale to a modern-day story, and how to create female characters that break barriers and make a history of their own.

In a panel addressing how writers give voice to characters from the past, fiction authors Danielle Dutton, Amelia Gray, and Min Jin Lee provided advice that transcended genre. After each read from her work, moderator Chanelle Benz asked a series of questions about how they began creating their historical fiction works, decisions about point-of-view, research, and why giving voice to historical characters is meaningful now.

On beginning

Danielle Dutton’s novel Margaret the First examined the life of the eccentric Duchess Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth century poet, feminist, and science fiction writer. Dutton said that when she began writing the book, she was writing about spaces in London. She explained that as she researched, she allowed her fascination to lead her down research rabbit holes about seventeenth century gardens and plumbing but eventually, Margaret Cavendish captured her interest.

Amelia Gray started writing Isadora, a portrayal of dancer Isadora Duncan. In the beginning, Gray planned to write about her life as the “it girl” of her time. But then, the Sandy Hook massacre happened at the same time Gray was reading about the drowning of Duncan’s two children. The author pivoted to focus on how Duncan processed her loss.

Min Jin Lee said she always starts her books with a premise. First, she wants to see if the idea or argument is true. Then, she builds the characters. In Pachinko, Lee was interested in telling the stories of people who were poor and died without having any choice in their path.

On point of view

Dutton started writing in a close third perspective. When others read first drafts of her manuscript, they provided comments like, “The writing is beautiful but I couldn’t get close to the character.” She switched to writing in first person which helped her get to know the character better. But since Margaret the First was the tabloid celebrity of her day and treated as a spectacle, Dutton also needed to keep the perspective of third person.

Gray wrote in first person present but then also wrote from other perspectives. She said research provided backfill.

Lee added that POV is the most important decision but often, the first choice is not the correct one.

On the importance of historical voices in today’s world

Lee said that history is incredibly urgent right now. She said one of the commonalities between most writers she meets is that we care about justice. However, too often, we ignore in our writing the fact that most of the world’s population makes decisions based on religion.

Gray grapples with how someone becomes a vessel for evil or how we look at power, legacy, and religion—all contemporary issues.

Dutton said the story of Margaret Cavendish shows how a woman will be called mad because she is smart and bookish. In spite of her accomplishments, Cavendish was forgotten for two hundred years. Even Virginia Woolf was conflicted by her feelings about Cavendish saying of her that she was like a cucumber that grows in a garden and kills the flowers around it. Dutton said that we need to continue singing women’s lineage.

On being a woman writer

Lee said she likes being a woman writer, a Korean writer, or a Presbyterian writer stating that the characteristics of being a woman, Korean and Presbyterian are her “riches.” She encouraged women to pull up a chair and have a seat at the table.

Dutton said she hates the term women’s fiction because women are writing about diverse topics and are not “a thing.” She also said she enjoyed writing about Margaret and living inside her ambition. As an educator, Dutton has female students who are apologetic when they approach, beginning their conversations with, “I’m sorry but I have a question.” Her male students, she said, never apologize for having a question or needing her to provide a recommendation.

On expertise, or needing to get the details right

Lee said she feels a burden of representation. She also told the audience that she does hundreds of interviews.

Dutton recalled attending a Margaret Cavendish conference where fans assemble every two years. She was nervous that she would be confronted for getting some detail wrong but instead, the attendees were incredibly excited that she had written about one of their favorite subjects.

Gray said that there are a lot of experts who study Isadora Duncan and dance her in a kind of worship. She told of a woman who approached her and asked if she had seen a film in which “they make (Duncan) out to be a lesbian,” as if that weren’t true. Gray said Duncan was known to be bi-sexual as well as a lush. Gray said, “I think the best of Isadora is all of Isadora.”


Sheree Winslow received her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her B.A. from Vassar College. She’s published journalism in the Orange County Register. Her essays on the intersection between leadership and aunt-hood appear on SavvyAuntie.com. Born in Montana, Winslow is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. She lives in Southern California where she’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her body and struggle with food addiction.


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