Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Charlton Cussans, a regular SLP author.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I first got into AH during my GCSES, so aged 15-16.
My first foray was onto the Alternate History Wiki, where I was involved with the '1983: Doomsday' Project. Most of that involvement took the form of toning down various things-one particular thing I remember is having to make the point that post-WW3 Michigan shouldn't have more helicopters then the OTL RAF in 1983. More constructively, I was involved in the development of the militaries of the Celtic Alliance and the North American Union.
From there I moved on to Alternate History Dot Com, as so many of our community did, and then the SLP Forums.
As for what appeals to me, it's two main things: firstly, of course, is the natural appeal of "what-ifs", particularly positive "what-ifs". This ties into my second point, which is that there have always been people in real life who describe problems with their states and societies and propose good, honest solutions to them. Even in the unlikeliest of places and times. Thaddeus Stevens, Helen Suzman, Albert Luthuli, Roy Jenkins. Empowering them and seeing what shakes out is to me what is ideal about AH.
Your first published SLP book 'Ruimtewedloop' is about the darker side of a Star Trek like future. What inspired that story?
'Ruimtewedloop' started off as a one-shot vignette around the theme of "the more things change, the more things stay the same"-humanity in the story is an interstellar species, still divided into nation-states but united in this grand Commonwealth-the local Federation Expy. All the rhetoric and idealism of liberty and democracy and progress, but rooted in a past of war and environmental ruin. Prosperity and freedom for all, but without any real attempt to create new methods of thinking about ourselves or each other.
When this was turned into a short story, it was matched with an idea that came from my Doctoral Research, that being that there was "no colour bar in the British Empire"-but obviously and clearly there was, from White Australia to Segregation in South Africa to Anti-Chinese racism in Canada and of course the wholesale conquest of states and peoples. So that then became "okay, so I've got a setting wherein the central premise is the survival of our worst impulses despite all this technology and progress, how does that operate in practice when the Offical Line, as it were, of the main human government is that bigotry and discrimination are bad and illegal? Hence, 'Ruimtewedloop'.
You're an academic specialising in British Southern Africa. What's been the most rewarding thing about your research into that area and what are the most surprising and interesting things you've learned during that time?
A couple of things have struck me over the course of my writings. One of the major ones is the boundaries of "Whiteness" as a social, political and ethnic construct. This has been a major theme in American history of course, but White Americans are a national majority. Nowhere in Southern Africa were whites ever a majority except in local terms. Yet up until fairly recently, they were a socially, politically and economically dominant minority. In South Africa, this infamously culminated in Apartheid, the triumph of a conservative, reactionary, masculine sort of Afrikanderdom-with other whites just sort of brought along by the promise of ingroup prosperity and security but not ideologically celebrated as such. But you had other visions of whiteness-ones which were anglophone and imperially centred, ones which were anglophone and nationally centred, ones which were very much Pan-White and imperially centred. That covers Hendrik Verwoerd, Charles Coughlan, Ian Smith and Jan Smuts. All white supremacists, but not the same.
This leads onto my second point, which was white dissent from segregation and later Apartheid. You of course had white ANC members like Ruth First and Joe Slovo. But you also had white liberals like Helen Suzman, who used her parliamentary privilege to expose the crimes of the Apartheid regime. In earlier periods, you had men like Adolph Malan and Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr-the former a war hero who saw Apartheid as similar to the Nazis he had spent years fighting, the latter the "cleverest man in South Africa" who saw that segregation and Apartheid were incompatible with the growing education and economic levels of non-white South Africans. Hofmeyr himself publically stated at one point that either non-whites would have to be given rights or they would turn against the very structure and state of South Africa itself-and he was correct, as it would turn out. Both men were, as might be guessed, Afrikaners. Both men also died relatively young. So there are two WIs? right there.
You have an upcoming book due out about South Africa, how much of your writing is inspired by your work and how much distance do you keep between the two? As in if you encounter something in your academic research that you want to write fiction about, do you do that alongside the essay or only come back to it once the academic work has been done?
'Our Free And Happy Land' was inspired by people and discussions that were happening in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in the 30s, 40s and 50s, but they also include political, social and economic thinking that came out of the end of Apartheid in many ways, as well as post-colonial and anti-authoritarian thinking from across the world. So whilst I might have come across Malan as a result of my research, the Malan of OFAHL is a different one from OTL-he's not got Parkinson's, for starters. Beyond his opposition to the disenfranchisement of the last few non-white voters in South Africa, trying to find what Malan in OTL believed is actually rather difficult. But anyone who fought the Nazis as a fighter pilot and then came who and, as a white Afrikaner man, opposed Apartheid, had both courage and convictions. Yet Malan in OFAHL is not the real man-I'm trying to remain true to what he was like whilst also using him as a vehicle to advance the narrative.
That book 'Our Free and Happy Land' about an earlier end to Apartheid, is due out by the end of 2022. Many people have said that writing optimistic Alternate History where in tragedies are averted is actually much harder than dystopic fiction, as a writer what appealed to you about that glass half full AH scenario?
Which I suppose addresses this point in many ways. Apartheid and the Struggle against it produced many titans of history-Nelson Mandela most famously, but also Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and a host of others. The ramifications of Apartheid affected the entire world. It indirectly caused the largest post-WW2 tank battle in African history. And whilst I'll freely admit that it is a happier world than OTL, wealthier and more egalitarian and freerer and less damaged by climate change, this is I think a consequence of putting men and women who had, in OTL, to expend all their energy fighting for basic rights into what amounts to a relatively standard liberal democratic system. How does Steve Biko with all his fire and energy respond to the HIV/AIDs crisis? What does Helen Suzman do to resolve the liberal stance on the land question? How does Nelson Mandela deal with 60s Cold War diplomacy?
How much do you care about historical accuracy in Historical Fiction, as both a writer and a reader? Would you as heavily research an area you wanted to write in as you would if you were studying it or just not sweat too many of the details?
This neatly leads us on to the question of historical accuracy. I don't know how rare I am as an AH writer when I say I by and large treat AH writing as a branch of historical fiction. AH discussion, on the other hand, I treat as a branch of history. What this means is that I had an endpoint for OFAHL when I started, certain scenes and things I wanted to happen and write about, but all within the boundaries of who these people were and what they did. Nelson Mandela basically creates post-1994 South Africa in 1965 but adapted for the time and place. But in part this was to enable me to write Oliver Tambo as the 2nd democratically elected PM vs Fascist Portugal in the 70s. The trick is to use your imagination and explore possibilities without insulting who these people were or what they did-unless they were an arsehole like Saddam Hussien or Gaddafi, who are the villains of the 70s and 80s in this story. As I suppose is France in some ways, but that's something I want to explore in vignettes.
Alternate History still has a reputation for imperial apologism. What do you think can be done by the community to improve on that score and avoid perpetuating harmful fiction?
Listen to indigenous people and people of colour, recognise that you can't do gentle imperialism in any way or form, and recognise that whilst Empires make fascinating subjects for writing they were terrible for their subjects. Try not to ride in the baggage train of conquerors. Charlemagne might have restored Rome in the West, but he did it by rape, murder and pillage. Cromwell was a fascinating man, but literally committed genocide. Writing AH about them is fine in of itself, but if your AH is "what if Cromwell secures a permanent constitution settlement for the Commonwealth of England", try and at least be a little sympathetic to all the people who would have suffered from that.
History is full of cruelty as well as heroism, and we are beholden as both historians and human beings not to confuse the two. Hannibal storming Rome would make a fascinating and rather exciting AH. Said storming would also have been as much a nightmare for your average Roman citizen as the OTL Sack of Carthage was for that city's inhabitants.
You have a short story in the 'AlloAmericana' anthology about a fictional Dutch American folk hero during the American Revolution. Where did the idea behind that come from?
I've occasionally joked that it's basically "The Joker in the American Revolution", but it's partially that, partially Spring-Heel Jack, partially "Killroy was here" and partially propaganda images and memes from the OTL Dutch War of Independence vs the Spanish. I wanted a character who wouldn't be out of place as a Sea Beggar or setting up a base in Chile or defending Antwerp.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I'm not sure to be honest. I've got to make Phd Corrections now that my viva's done, and I've got an academic journal article to write and jobs to apply for. As I mentioned earlier, I want to return to the world of OFAHL and examine North Africa and the Maghreb-particularly the how and why and fall of the ALT Gaddafi. I do want to write a long-form sequel to Ruimtewedloop, but I've yet to really sink my teeth into a good narrative hook for that. In the meantime, I'll be writing vignettes and responding to competitions. I did write a very well-received four vignette set during the Balkans Wars, but I'm quite happy with that standing on its own. So, like I said, it's all up in the air-in the best possible way!