The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

History and Fiction

Creative writing professor investigates the interplay of the political and the personal
  • UMass Amherst Professor Sabina Murray sits beside a colonial-era fireplace.

“The connection of history and fiction and research—an interest in the world, in politics, in people, in different fields of study—all of that finds a home in fiction.” –Sabina Murray

For Sabina Murray, professor of English, histories—both public and private—are a constant source of inspiration. She is currently completing her latest novel, The Human Zoo, which is set in the Philippines during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.

Murray’s short stories are anthologized in collections such as The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, Manila Noir, Charlie Chan is Dead II: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian Fiction, and xo Orpheus, a compendium of updated, retold myths edited by Kate Bernheimer. Her screenplay for Terrence Malick’s The Beautiful Country was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. She has written on topics as varied as Wordsworth for the Paris Review, time theory and historical fiction for Lit Hub, and Rodrigo Duterte for Vice.

It was her article on Duterte that gave rise to The Human Zoo. “I conceived of the book in April 2017 and started mapping it out,” Murray relates. “I was in the Philippines doing the article for Vice: why is Duterte so popular when he’s a dictator? People didn’t understand why poor people who were being victimized by Duterte would support him. Vice wanted someone who was familiar with Manila and would know who to talk to to figure out why he was so popular.” Murray canvassed people ranging from cab drivers to students. And she notes, as so often happens with her research, “Everything ends up turning into a novel eventually.”

For instance, Murray began research for her collection The Caprices as a way of understanding her mother, who as a child experienced the Japanese invasion of Manila. The stories in The Caprices tell of the Pacific campaign of  War II. Murray characterized writing the collection, which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, as “the experience of creating something large and historical, but that had something personal at stake.”

Murray’s novel Valiant Gentlemen, a New York Times Notable Book for 2016, explores the relationship between artist-adventurer Herbert Ward and revolutionary humanitarian Roger Casement. Their personal dramas play out against the backdrops of the Belgian Congo, the Irish uprising of 1916, the Parisian modernist art scene, and World War I.

“The connection of history and fiction and research, an interest in the world, in politics, in people, in different fields of study—all of that finds a home in fiction,” explains Murray. “These different areas of interest, I want to put them into novels and short stories, because we remember stories and people. I’m putting the people back in these different studies or topics or moments in history.”

When you read history, she emphasizes, “You want to know what happens to people, too. [Fiction] can take you through in a more pointed, intense, and personal way.”

Sometimes the personal is the key to reconciling the contradictions in history—such as why so many people in the Philippines support a dictator like Duterte. “A lot of people and Americans in particular think he’s very stupid and thuggish,” admits Murray. “And it’s a persona, he’s a brilliant lawyer, he comes from a ruling family. His father was in President Marcos’s cabinet. Yet a lot of people love him—he is their guy. He is an ordinary man in their minds. So how do these narratives get out there? A guy on the street whose job is collecting trash or is a street sweeper—they look at him and they feel a kinship with him. And he created that kinship, he manufactured it.”

She compares The Human Zoo to The Quiet American by Graham Greene, and other works situated at moments in history that seem so fraught. “I wrote a novel about what it might be like being in Manila at this time. An intimate novel about an aristocratic family in Manila trying to stay afloat. A small novel in some ways, buoyed by a tremendous moment of political upheaval and fear.

“I was racing to write it while it was still relevant,” she continues. “But no matter how long ago something happened, you can’t write something that’s ‘cooked’ and in the past—there’s a reason why you are writing it now.”

Tying her new novel into the body of Murray’s work is the theme of colonialism, which she has explored in recent works like her short story collection Tales of the New World. “We are living in a post-colonial world where the legacy of colonialism is still very powerful. The work of The Human Zoo,” she says, “is to show the complicity that everybody has.”

Murray finished writing The Human Zoo with the support of a Samuel F. Conti Faculty Fellowship, which gives faculty a year’s release from teaching and service in order to concentrate deeply on a project. Murray is using the last months of the Conti for the final edits of the novel, slated for publication in early spring 2021.

Murray’s next book after The Human Zoo is to be what she calls “an indulgent entertainment project”—a book of ghost stories. “I do so much research-based stuff,” she confides. “Sometimes you just want to scare someone. I would write these…stories, and they would come fast and furious—I’d just bang them out. They’re usually almost exactly 20 pages long.” She warns, with relish: “These are very dangerous—they freak people out.”

Murray laces her research-based works with “historical bon mots” in order to give a reader a sense of the significance of the story amidst the parts and players of the real world. “You have to have an orientation in order to understand. As much as these historical pieces allow you to enjoy the momentum of a story, the orientation is important to me as a writer: to give that sense of context. It’s a story, but the context is just as important.” She puts it even more succinctly: “The context is in service to the story, but the story is also in service to the context.”

Laura Marjorie Miller