Saturday, March 26, 2011

Real History was not Meant for Publication

    March 26 - Today's post provided by Marthe Jocelyn

     Although I did not have a stellar (or even complete) high school career – and never went to university at all – I think of myself as a bit of a nerd. I was a curl-up-with-a–book kind of kid, always looking for outsiders in the pages I was reading, whether they had really lived or were part of someone’s made up world.
      I have shamelessly used chunks of family history as the jumping off points for most of my middle grade and young adult books. My contemporary teen novel, Would You, was inspired by a family tragedy. My previous work of non-fiction, called A Home for Foundlings, was written after I learned that my grandfather was raised in the Foundling Hospital in London, England. My historical novel, Folly, is a fictionalized version of what led my great-grandmother to abandon the son who would become my grandfather.

      While doing research for all my books, I kept bumping into women who had written diaries or letters or articles or stories that either bore witness to otherwise unknown moments in history, or had unexpected repercussions on the generations to follow.
Used with permission from
Tundra Books

     What compelled these women to write? What compels any of us to insist on our own presence, to make our mark, however small, by putting words on a page?

    Scribbling Women tells tales from the lives of ten women and one nine-year-old girl, focusing on what they themselves found interesting enough to record, whether because writing was a pastime, a source of income, an art form, a path to justice, or a desperate effort to communicate with someone else in the world. I wasn’t trying to present complete biographies, but rather to look at the words certain women chose to write down.

     Although it is now widely acknowledged that many of women’s impressive achievements throughout history have been ignored or belittled, I found that buried even further out of sight were the accounts of such achievements from a female point of view. And what of the women who did not perform publicly noteworthy feats? The ones who cooked and sewed, quietly listening and watching as life went on around them?

Sei Shonagon by Uemura Shoen,
 courtesy of Kyoto Journal
     Sei Shonagon, for instance, was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako late in the 10th century. She would have surveyed the bustle and hum of the Japanese Imperial court from behind a screen, shielded from the offense of masculine contact. There is almost no information available about Sei (including her actual name), other than what she told us through her lovely descriptions, sharp anecdotes, clever poetry and spiteful observations, assembled eventually into The Pillow Book.

     “I really can’t understand people who get angry when they hear gossip about others,” she wrote. “How can you not discuss other people? Apart from your own concerns, what can be more beguiling to talk about and criticize than other people?”

     I find it most appealing that those words were written over one thousand years ago! However history has unfolded for countless generations, the love of gossip – of telling stories – has continued throughout.

Dang Thuy Tram,
 courtesy of Kim Tram Dang

     Among the other scribbling women, two kept diaries. The authors would be shocked to learn that their private thoughts have become public. Dang Thuy Tram was a North Vietnamese doctor whose diary was rescued, after her assassination, and smuggled home by an intrigued American soldier. Ada Blackjack was a nearly illiterate Innuit seamstress who accompanied a scientific expedition to the far north in the early 1920’s. Following the example of the scientists who took daily field notes, Ada wrote in a diary for the final few months of her harrowing experience, during which all the men died or disappeared. One of the grieving mothers received a letter from Mae Belle Anderson with this reminder: “Real history is made up from the documents that were not meant to be published.”

     That I believe with all my heart. 

Editor's Note:
Marthe Jocelyn is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children, ranging all the way from board books to teen novels.  She will be celebrating the release of Scribbling Women with a blog tour, scheduled for March 28 - April 1.  Details can be found at the Tundra Books' blog, Talking with Tundra or Marthe's site,  Also, as part of her blog tour, Tundra is sponsoring a fabulous giveaway of a collection of Marthe's books!   See their blog for details of how to enter.


  1. Hi, Marthe, I just read your book and it was fascinating! It must have been hard to pick the different women you focused on out of so many, but they all have fascinating stories. I was particularly interested in the story about the Doris Pilkington from Australia, since I had seen the movie The Rabbit-Proof fence about her incredible story. Will there be a sequel with the stories you left out???

  2. Loved the movie The Rabbit-Proof fence. Not an easy movie to watch. I'm sure the segment wasn't easy to write, either. It never fails to amaze me how little we hear about the true heroes.

  3. Hello! I received your new book ten days ago and it has been near the top of my TBR pile since then. Today, it moved to the top. I look forward to reading about these women, their thoughts and to read what they did write. I look forward to the Blog Tour and will be back daily to check in with everyone!

  4. Researching these documents must have been incredibly fascinating! I can't wait to read about them!

  5. Best of book tour traveling wishes for SCRIBBLING WOMEN & you. It sounds fabulous. Many thanks for bringing these interesting letter writers & diarists, to light.