My first young adult novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, is historical fiction. It’s set in 1959 Virginia, during the civil rights era, and it follows two girls, one black, one white, who fall in love while their school is being integrated for the first time. Though their story is ultimately hopeful, it isn’t exactly an upbeat adventure story. There’s a lot of unhappiness as the girls find themselves stifled by the time and place they live in.
So I never know what to say when I get asked ― as, I suspect, many writers of historical fiction often are ― “If you could travel to any time in history, what would it be?”
Honestly: If time travel existed (which it can’t; I know because I could never quite understand the plot of Twelve Monkeys), I would never want to travel backward.
As much as people like to romanticize the 1950s, calling it a “simpler time” and oohing and ahhing over the fashions on Mad Men, the actual 1950s were not something I’d ever have wanted to experience.
In 1959, when my book takes place, Jim Crow laws throughout the southern United States allowed stores and restaurants to ban gay customers. Women weren’t allowed to open bank accounts without their husbands’ permission. Being gay was a crime in all 50 states.
I enjoy a pretty vintage cocktail dress as much as the next person, but time travel to the mid-twentieth century? No thank you. I’ll stay in the twenty-first, please.
There’s no period in history that’s safe from this problem. Sure, if I teleported back to the Regency era I’d get to see some gorgeous parties and genteel folks. But the women at those parties, as fantastic as their wardrobes might’ve been, still weren’t allowed to vote. Similarly, the antebellum South had some incredible architecture, but it was built by slave labor.
I understand the tendency to romanticize history. We think of the past as glamorous and uncomplicated, and that can be appealing. But that’s because we’ve taken for granted the more advanced understanding of human rights and equality we have today.
We’ve still got a long way to go on that front, of course. Slavery still exists, though in different forms than it once did. Millions of children still live in poverty. And in too many places around the world, girls are getting married at thirteen or fourteen or even younger ― and embarking on lives no one should have to live.
So whenever I’m asked what era I’d time-travel to, I always say the future. Let’s say, 50 years from now. We’re making huge strides right now in reducing extreme poverty and other crises. If we keep working at it, we can create a dramatically better future for the next generation and the generations that will come after it.
In the meantime, though, we’ve got to keep writing about our history. We’ve got to keep telling the stories of the mistakes we made in the past. It’s the only way those future generations will know what not to do.
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