The table was covered in books and scraps of scratch paper. Lines of varying design crisscrossed among squares and circles winding this way and that. The room was quiet, except for the occasional page flip.
Names and dates were scribbled amid the gnarled knot of shapes and lines. Birthdays. Days of death. The occasional occupation. At the base was a familiar name. The name of my classmates. Or me. It didn’t seem to matter – the trees looked the same, interwoven and tangled as can be.
At one point, a classmate of mine raised her hand.
“I’ve realized that in my family, there’s a bunch of stories that each generation chooses not to pass on about either themselves or others. They do it for some reason, I guess. Sometimes we just forget. Other times, we don’t. Some stories we don’t tell because we want those to just die, I guess.
“But the downside to that is that,” she paused, “Eventually, all we have are fragments of our loved ones – a lifetime of a human lost to time. What do we do then when we want to remember?”
I shrugged, unsure of an answer at the moment. Glancing down at my own paper, my eyes focused on my great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side.
A few nights ago, my parents and I were tracing our own family story when we came across this man.
Not missing a beat, I interjected, “He was a general in the Japanese military. That’s why he was in Korea. I remember when Nana told me.”
There was silence on the other line.
“No,” my mother said. “He was a tailor.”
The room was oddly silent. It was the moment after something big, potentially earth-shattering, had dropped in the middle of the class. My professor closed his mouth and looked around the room, trying to gauge how well my classmates and I were taking the news. The emperor, it seems, actually had no clothes.
Glancing around myself, I noticed a few of my peers shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A few others held concerned or shocked looks.
“The evidence,” he repeated softly, as if he was afraid to shatter something nearby, “just isn’t there to support a historical conquest of Canaan as the book of Joshua describes it.”
One of my peers raised his hand “But doesn’t that mean…”
He trailed off, still processing what he was about to ask.
My professor waited for a moment before suggesting, “…that very little of this is historical?”
The student nodded.
“Does it matter?”
One of the strongest memories I have of high school is of my English class. It was raining softly outside, the kind of which would otherwise be perfect for staying indoors to wrap oneself up in a blanket along with a mug of hot chocolate or tea.
Inside the classroom had been slightly chilly. The radiator responsible for the chilliness was a cantankerous bloke which could never make up its mind whether to do its job at the given moment. One could tell it was going to work only when a mess of rattles and clinks tumbled out of the ventilation shafts and onto the floor, interrupting anyone who wanted to speak. Yet, one could never be too sure when such an act would occur.
My teacher, Billy, seemed unfazed. He had taught at the school in that same room for long enough to become a bit of a legend among students. He was unique. Cool, even, in those days. Billy would lean against his desk as he taught us uninterrupted by the radiator. We would lean in close to hear what he had to say during those times.
More often than not, he positioned himself so that the sunlight from the window on the far corner of the room reflected off of the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses concealing his eyes. We could never be too sure where he was looking. Not that we had to worry about it today of all days. We were engrossed in the book which we had been reading for the past week. Most everyone had something to share about it.
One student, sitting across from me, spoke up. “I honestly can’t believe that O’Brien made this stuff up. I don’t think I can trust anything he writes anymore.”
She held up her book, pointing out a little noticed detail until then. On the back cover, in small print, were the words “Historical Fiction.”
We were speaking, of course, of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work focused on O’Brien’s account of the Vietnam War. And until that day, all of us students had believed this work was entirely factual. Of course, that belief could have been remedied by looking on the back cover of our editions, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book that many of us had the rug pulled out from under us as O’Brien explained the difference between happening truth and story truth.
Billy nodded and unfolded his arms, gesturing to my classmate.
“So what?” he inquired, “Does it matter whether it’s factual or not?”
There is a fine distinction that O’Brien makes regarding the relationship between truth and correlation to reality. “Happening Truth” describes what actually happened at a certain point in time. Truth and actuality overlap, and the narrative is historically verifiable. “Story Truth” describes the emotional truth of the moment. Here, truth and potentiality overlap. The narrative, in terms of matching up with a physical reality– that is, how things really played out, may be sacrificed for conveying a deeper meaning to the audience.
The problem with retelling a story word-for-word is that the subjective experience of the speaker is lost somewhat as the emotions, the surrounding context, everything is compressed into the boundaries of brittle symbols on a page, and what isn’t defined by the syntax or meaning of the words themselves are cut out, leaving behind an unfinished narrative.
Sometimes, it might be necessary to construct a skewed sense of reality to better convey the significance of an experience holistically or to fit one’s own context in a new or relevant manner.
For some in the room, it must have felt as though a sick and twisted version of the empty tomb played out before their eyes.
What if Christ was missing? What if all we had were the rags?
“One of the things we have to realize,” our professor started to say as he turned toward the student, “is that the expectations of the literature to be historical in our understanding of it didn’t become a thing until the twentieth century at least.
“But in case that’s not a satisfying answer for you,” he continued, moving his arms out, “here’s another thing: the power, truth, and reliability of Joshua is not dependent on its historicity. It was thought to be mostly written when the Israelites themselves were in exile and they wanted revenge on their oppressors.
“They wrote this text from the fragments they had alongside the situation they were in. This was as a means of forming in their people a sense of hope and identity even as they were out of the land that they were promised.”
Then, anticipating the mental thread some students were following, he added, “Plus, the Old Testament treats Joshua completely differently than how the New Testament treats the life and work of Jesus. We should be aware of what kind of animal we’re dealing with here.”
My parents and I began discussing what we knew about my great-grandfather from the stories my mother had from childhood.
It turns out all there was were fragments. Quick snippets from life. Of my grandmother growing up on an orchard in Korea. Of my great-grandfather sending my grandfather a tailored suit from overseas that fit to him perfectly. Of my grandmother fleeing Korea with her family as the communists invaded.
I hung up the phone, sitting in the silence of my room. The sun had begun to set a while ago, the sliver remaining casting long shadows in the room. What were we to do with the rest? Moreover, what did that mean for our family? For me?
After a moment, I stood, grabbing a dry-erase marker from a nearby shelf. Scratching out the fragments out on the board, I studied the facts.
When it comes to the truth of the memories of this man I never knew, of the life he lived, did it matter if I didn’t have all of the exact details of his life? What I had instead was the community of people still around profoundly impacted by him. Perhaps I could write something that could explain a bit about the influence he had.
Slowly, at first, but then picking up speed as I continued, I began to write.