Historical fiction has always been somewhat of a literary enigma for me. You can mention it in the same breath—for better or worse—as other genre fiction staples: mystery, thriller, romance, etc… But, at the same time, it often belongs on the same shelves as literary juggernauts.
Take Shawna Yang Ryan’s The Green Island: it is deeply influenced by Tai-Pei’s troubled history and begins amid a nationalist uprising in 1947. It is, by all accounts, at least part historical fiction as its plot and narrative are wrapped up in real world historical events. But, like all good genres, The Green Island transcends its own boundaries and slowly turns into literature with a capital ‘L’.
Shawn Yang Ryan is currently on a west coast tour for The Green Island and visited the Lake Forest Park store last month. Her audience spilled out of the den and into the regular stacks. But because the prose in her book is so lush and lyrical, the reading remained intimate as lookers-on continued to arrive.
It got me thinking: what is it about historical fiction that seems to capture audiences and readers differently than other genres of literary fiction? Because historical fiction is defined by its genre elements, it can be hard, sometimes, to take it seriously as literature. Literature, as opposed to thrillers or detective novels, is defined precisely by its lack of genre archetypes: it provides subtly complex characters in familiar, though inflated, situations. The questions literary novels ask evolve and expand throughout the reading. Meanwhile, genre novels deal with clear questions posed at the start: Who killed the guy? Will they fall in love? Is that a ghost?
What keeps us reading a mystery is the nagging need-to-know. But what keeps us turning the pages of The Green Island? We already know what happens, historically. Many people are, in fact, still living through it. But like all readers of literature, we want to know that our experiences are not an anomaly, rather shared and universal.