Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2013 23:03
Photo by Lily Yengle ‘13| The Lafayette
Geraldine Brooks delivers this year’s John C. Hatfield ‘67 Lecture.
A Wampanoag who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665; a woman who was pierced by a swordfish but saved by her breast implants; an Afghan girl who stole her education under Taliban rule by eavesdropping on lessons. These improbabilities are the stories that inspire historical fiction writer Geraldine Brooks, who spoke at this year’s John C. Hatfield ‘67 Lecture.
“It’s those implausible truths I’m always on the hunt for,” Brooks said, and her fascination with the seemingly unrealistic has its roots in her family history. Her father was a big band singer in California when he fell in love with Brooks’ mother, who at the time was married to a powerful man in show business. “It was a ‘you’ll never work in this town again!’ moment,” said Brooks. They moved to Australia where her father took the name Brooks from an advertisement for Brooks Brothers suits.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Brooks said.
Besides the stolen name, Brooks inherited something else from her father – his passion for newspaper. At age eight, Brooks visited her father, who was working as a proofreader for the Sydney Newspaper, where he let her hold a copy of the paper. “Literally hot off the presses,” she said, an experience that left her with the ambition to be a newspaper reporter in her hometown.
Brooks far exceeded this ambition.
After working for The Sydney Morning Herald she won a Greg Shackleton Memorial Scholarship which she used to get a degree in journalism at Columbia University. She then worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, for which she traveled around the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.
She produced two pieces of nonfiction, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Correspondence: A Penpal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over, before moving onto fiction writing.
Brooks writes historical fiction based on interesting anecdote she discovers, like her book Year of Wonders, which is based off of the mention of a housemaid in Derbyshire, England, who survived a plague in 1666. Brooks says she likes to write from the point of view of those people history has forgotten.
“An obliging friendly ghost shows up,” Brooks said of her source of inspiration. “Often the voices that speak to me are the voices that are unheard.”
Often these voices are women, too, who, historically, were not taught to write and so little record of their voices can be found in historical documents.
Brooks came up with an ingenious answer to this problem – court documents. She used the transcript of court cases in which women spoke to get an idea for their voices. “Verbatim testimony,” Brooks said, “the only way you can hear what they thought.”
It is not only women that Brooks gives voice to though—her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March follows the absent father of the characters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and his time in the war.
Brooks credits her husband with her discovery of the historical characters she writes about. “Because of me, he was dragged around the world,” Brooks said. “Because of him, I was dragged into the past.”
And as for where she gets her inspiration to start writing: “They loved, as I loved,” Brooks said. “And that is as good a starting point as any.”