Elizabeth: The Dominant Narrative

A few Wednesdays ago I posted that I was planning to attend a virtual writing convention.  It was a plan that, sadly, went awry, due in large part to my writing the reminder about the class down on my calendar in the wrong month.  I realized my mistake today, one day after the conference had concluded.

Quel dommage!

Thank goodness I had forgotten to register as well!  On the whole, I wasn’t too terribly devastated. A four-day virtual conference was always going to be a bit of a stretch for my attention span.  Though I was sorry to miss the Prizes! Prizes! Prizes!

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the only virtual learning event on my calendar.  I happily spent a portion of this past Friday and Saturday at another, shorter virtual conference and came away with more than I expected for my $25 fee (though, sadly, without prizes).

The event got off to a bit of a slow start, with the kind of Zoom-technical-difficulties that have become commonplace in our Age of Coronavirus, but once everything was straightened out we were up and running.  First up was a talk by LaQuette entitled “An Intimate Conversation about Representation and Authenticity in Fiction”  I wish I had taken notes, since I’ve already forgotten almost all that I heard (fortunately, I can listen to a replay of the session later), but she was definitely interesting, engaging, and someone I’d like to hear (and read) more from.  Coincidentally, she’s teaching a short course that I’ve enrolled in, which starts in . . . just a few hours.

Writing outside of your personal, generational, or cultural experience can be a treacherous road to travel for today’s author. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to create problematic or harmful content when you’re unaware of what you don’t know. Learn how to use literary theory and criticism to view your work through an alternative lens. By using literary frameworks, you can gain insight into alternative perspectives that can help you identify and eliminate problematic and harmful content before you publish.”

Though I was just rejoicing, a few hours ago, about having completed the final exam for a grad course I was taking, I’m looking forward to learning something new in this course.  And this time I’ll take notes.

The rest of the virtual conference had its ups and downs and I was reminded yet again that there are many paths to Oz and different strokes for different folks.  A class that had me wandering off to do a jigsaw puzzle had others enraptured, and I no doubt found things interesting that others did not.

An unexpected session turned out to be the one that caught my attention the most.  It was a Royal Navy Primer, taught by writer Elizabeth Essex.

From Bow to Backstay and Captain to Capstan, this workshop will cover the basics of 19th Century Royal Navy life at sea to give veracity to your sea-faring romance. 

Now, I haven’t written any sea-faring romances and have no plans to do so any time soon, but the session was particularly engaging nonetheless, and not just because Essex and I share a first name or because she has a degree in Nautical Archaeology (who knew such a thing existed?).  The session talked about all the people you’d expect to find aboard a ship in the 19th century, but what made it so interesting was the discussion about range of diversity that existed aboard ship.  There were men and women; people of varying nationalities; people with varying levels of ability and education and social status.  From a writer’s standpoint, shipboard life provides an incredible range of characters to include in a story/write a story about.  Several times during the course of the session Essex used a phrase that resonated with me so much that I actually wrote it down.

The dominant narrative is not the only narrative.

Regency romances, for example, may predominately include straight, white, aristocratic characters, but that doesn’t mean those are the only people who actually existed during that time.  Those may be the characters addressed in the dominant narrative, but there are other narratives out and there to explore and other characters to spotlight.  Essex made a comment about readers having no problem accepting stories about hundreds of dukes existing in the Regency, when there were only really a handful, yet balking at the thought of ethnic or differently abled characters.  It reminded me of something similar that Beverly Jenkins had said during an interview about readers/writers having no problem relating to vampire or werewolf characters but balking at a black hero/heroine.  It also tied into a comment LaQuette had made earlier in the day that, during the time of slavery, not everyone who was black was a slave, though that is what the dominant narrative makes it seem like.

All in all, the session was very interesting and really got me to thinking about exploring new narratives.  Definitely a good thing.

Plus, I now know far more about life aboard ship than I ever dreamed of.

So, I’m going to give this virtual conference a thumbs up.  I learned something new, plus I was able to do so from the comfort of my own home, without having to put on shoes or change out of my sweats.

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Dominant Narrative

  1. Sounds like a good conference! My theory about subscribing to magazines has always been that if there’s one article every month that I get something from, it’s worth it. And I sort of feel that way about conferences, too. If there’s one session that resonates with you, it was worth attending.

    Speaking of the dominant narrative, I find the program “FInding Your Roots” hosted by Henry Louis Gates eye-opening in that regard. He interviews about equal numbers of white and African-Americans who want to learn more about their ancestors, and the range of African-American experience is remarkable—I’ve learned about black homesteaders, publishers, writers, preachers, entrepreneurs, going back hundreds of years. It’s not always possible to trace a person’s history, made much harder for African-Americans whose ancestors came over on a slave ship, but even so, sometimes the researchers can make remarkable discoveries about how people lived.

  2. That sounds like so much fun! Even if we’re trying to stay home, it’s still possible to explore the world and learn something new, isn’t it?

    The thing about the dominant narrative is that it makes things easier, sometimes. We don’t have to stop and explain to skeptical readers that this WAS a historical fact, or why that works as a solution. We can assume that the reader has read the dominant narrative many times, and we can skip some of the boring description, because “everybody knows X”.

    But that’s also the problem with the dominant narrative . . . everyone “knows” X, but X is almost certainly not true in every instance, and may be actually quite rare.

    For example, I went down a rabbit hole last week trying to track down that trend of wetting down muslin dresses to show your form in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Apparently, the trend is popular in a lot of Regency romances, and online pop-culture sites like the Daily Beast claim that it was “all the rage” — a somewhat dominant narrative. But other websites claim that it was quite limited to just a few socialites. And if it was mostly done by the merveilleuses of Guillotine France, it kind of makes sense that they went a bit nutty and avant garde with their styles and fashions. But, again, extremely limited. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incroyables_and_merveilleuses

    Of course, you are talking about true dominant narratives, where slavery (for example) was the experience of most Black Americans in the early 19th century. These are important narratives, but hearing about alternative narratives — particularly when told by Black voices — are also important.

    I’m an immigrant myself, and don’t have full, adult command over my second language, so stories about literate Muslims who were captured, enslaved and brought to America sounds like it would make a fascinating book! (I ran across this narrative on Twitter, I think.) Just trying to confirm something, I stumbled across this Voice of America article about Muslim slaves in America — how they left written records in Arabic, and also left stories re-told by their descendants. Really interesting stuff! https://www.voanews.com/usa/all-about-america/americas-first-muslims-were-slaves

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: Marginalized Characters – Eight Ladies Writing

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