Thoughts on the Archives

This short essay is part of a series called ‘Librarian Vibes.’ This series takes a few different forms, and in this post, I’m featuring some of the things I’ve been discussing in my Library Science courses. Want to see content like this more often? Consider supporting me on Patreon.

Here it is, our second installment of Librarian Vibes! I’m also working on a new zine that adapts a paper I wrote for class on my own ‘philosophy of librarianship.’

Below, you’ll find a recommendation for a book, along with some thoughts about the limits of archival research, considering how archives tend to favor the current power structure. The text below is what I posted to my class discussion board. I received a comment on it that I thought was not great, so I’ve got some more thoughts down there that didn’t make it to my class discussion because I didn’t want the drama, but I thought y’all might appreciate them.

This is maybe a bit of a book recommendation, or a theorist recommendation.

I am fascinated by archives. There’s something intriguing to me about being able to touch history in the way that archives allow us (whether we’re literally holding paper or simply looking at a digital collection). But of course, the archives are lacking. I’ve heard them described as violent even in the way they leave out, erase, and misrepresent marginalized communities. In looking for solutions, I find myself most impressed with Saidiya Hartman.

Hartman is a professor of African American studies with a background in literature and cultural history. She coined the term ‘critical fabulation.’ Critical fabulation uses the archives as a springboard. For Hartman, the story of a woman tortured to death during the Middle Passage can turn into a tragic romance, hinging on the mention of a second woman named Venus. From that mention Hartman constructed a story of friendship, of stolen moments of joy before a horrifying end. There is no historical basis for this story, but then again, there’s no historical basis for any story. As Hartman points out, there is no recorded account from a woman who was subjected to the Middle Passage. Conventional thinking would mean that we just let those stories, those histories, not exist, since their ‘truth’ can not be verified. But who does that serve? In search of fact, aren’t we reinforcing patriarchy and white supremacy, by continuing to deny these woman a voice, even if it’s only imagined?

I highly recommend everyone look for Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Using the archives as a jumping off point, Hartman gives voice to Black women who reinvented for themselves what relationships could be at the beginning of the twentieth century. Of course, there’s a time and place for fact, and it’s important to know what can be verified and what can’t. But where fact fails us, where it erases stories of those who were viewed as inferior, we can let critical fabulation give voice to what was, even when the records don’t show it.

I got a reply on this from a classmate who really misunderstood what I was talking about. Here’s an excerpt of what she said:

You raise a good point about archives.  I think the basis of most historical fiction writing is a hint – or the absence of a hint – in historical records.  And the writer starts to wonder, “What if?  What about?  How would this play out?”. . .Historical fiction is a way of teaching about the history of things not often talked about. . . Counter-historical fiction is an attempt to examine how things might play out differently, were a person to make different choices, or were a different person set as the protagonist.

If I’m being truly nit-picky, I don’t love some of these ideas about historical fiction. That’s really not the issue here though. What I find interesting is that she equated my description of Hartman’s work with ‘fiction.’ I’m fully willing to call myself out for not explaining the concept well enough, though. Critical fabulation is brand new, and very weird, and throwing about the term ‘tragic romance’ definitely causes one to think of fiction.

The most succinct definition of ‘critical fabulation’ I’ve found is that it’s the combining of historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative to fill in the blanks left in the historical record. I really like this definition, because it centers the fact that this is a concept rooted in academic research and critical theory, which is not something that is asked (or even expected, I feel) of historical fiction. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Hartman’s books will not be found in the fiction section of the library. In the very branch I work at, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is in nonfiction. It’s decimal is 305.4889, placing it in the ‘social science, women’ section. Thinking of this work as fiction is a little dismissive, I think. This is rigorously researched academic work, picking up the slack where the archives have failed us.

So, thanks to that classmate for ensuring I’ve provided y’all with an accurate understanding of critical fabulation, and thanks to Saidiya Hartman for coming up with it in the first place. Her work is amazing, and I recommend everyone go read her books.

Love and gratitude, as always.

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