This morning, as I was thumbing through the hordes of #OWS tweets from yesterday (Happy Post May Day!), I came across one from Orbit books. “Read about how fantasy authors steal ideas from history,” it said, and directed me to an article by author Karen Miller (KE Mills) of the Rogue Agent series titled, “Stealing from the Fantastic Past.” Great, I thought! I’m a historian-apprentice, I like fantasy, don’t mind a little theft, this should be interesting. And it was.
Miller contends that some of the best fantasy novels are those that study and draw from our historical past, and suggests other writers might find it (history) a useful resource. Overall a worthy article and one I can agree with for the most part–though the academic in me cringes every time a student refers to the graphic novel turned over-the-top CGI sword-and-sandal flick 300 in a paper, mistaking a clear bit of Frank Miller (no relation to author Karen Miller) Orientalist vs Occidental fantasy for history. But, that’s a minor quibble, and a whole notha’ blog. What did make me frown and slow-chew in the middle of my bowl of morning Kashi and organic blueberries, however, was this:
Those who critique and comment on the fantasy genre often wonder why so many authors choose the European medieval period as an historical period to plunder.
I can’t answer for anyone else, but I know why I’m drawn to Europe’s sprawling history: the period spanning from the final collapse of the Roman Empire and its partition into the Western and Eastern empires, through to the installation of Henry VII on the throne of England, gives us some of the most fascinating, dynamic, cataclysmic and downright exciting events the world has ever seen. There were religious, political, social and economic upheavals, the rise and fall of dynasties, conquest, epidemics . . . and the devastatingly personal journeys of men and women born into wealth and privilege, or who found their ways to it by marriage, circumstance . . . and murder. Add magic to the mix, the element of supernatural surprise, and why wouldn’t a fantasy writer leap at the chance to explore and reinvent that incredible past in fiction?
Okay. So where do I begin….
First off, I should say this is not to bash Miller or her article. She’s certainly not stating anything that’s not true. The default for fantasy has been, and remains, some version of medieval Europe. These settings can be almost saccharine, Elf-ish and Hobbit-ish as in JRR Tolkien’s creations, or they can depict a sexually dysfunctional (and highly rape-prone) brutal and hygiene-challenged landscape as offered up by George RR Martin. And there are of course versions that fall between both extremes. But Europe is it.
From the clothing, to the weapons to the names, to the folklore, fantasy is dominated by a fascination with medieval Europe. When I was a kid, I would often place myself into my favorite fantasy realms from literature–the lone PoC, complete with knight’s gear, somehow sucked into a medieval European-based world. As I got older, and a bit more cognizant on the issues, I’d actually root for the swarthy bad guys–because at least the Haradrim and their giant mûmakil came from someplace that veered away from the Eurocentric norm. Yet even then, as I tried to create my own fledgling fantasy tales early on, I found my mind sometimes unable to imagine beyond broadswords, armor, medieval castles, dwarves and lots and lots of SNOW.
What the heck did a more “tropical” medieval fantasy world look like? What other weapons did I slay trolls with? For that matter, were there trolls or “things-like-trolls” outside medieval Europe? If so, what were they called? (It would take a few college courses to ask whether I should feel the need to go beating up on trolls to begin with…but again, whole notha’ blog) How about my armor? Did this non-European place have mages? Cuz I’m sure as heck not calling anyone a “witch doctor.” Are there taverns outside medieval European fantasy realms, and if so, do they still carry ale? Do all non-European dwellings for people who don’t live in cities get called some version of “hut?” And how exactly is a “spear” different from a “lance” anyhow? I didn’t know where to begin!
Back then I hadn’t read the likes of Charles Saunders, who in the 1970s was creating
sword-and-sorcery sword-and-soul fantasy that took place in a completely non-European setting, with not only non-European faces but non-European weapons, names, monsters and magic systems. By the time I was reading fantasy, his works had conveniently disappeared from many bookshelves. So I had to do my own historical and cultural studies, and find out just what the rest of the world was doing during the medieval era. I’d soon learn that the very term “medieval” was inherently European in perspective, and that there was a huge neglected world of stories to pull from. I mean freakishly, immensely, ginormous huge. And this brings me back to Miller’s article.
I don’t know which critiques of the fantasy genre’s near singular-focus on medieval Europe Miller was referring to, but the one’s I’ve read (like Stacy Whitman’s great “Beyond Orcs and Elves”) have mostly asked if the genre can perhaps spare a glance at the Earth’s other five habitable continents. Just a smidge.
Medieval Africa sees the rise and fall of large Western Sudanic Empires like Ghana, Songhai and Mali. There’s the Fatamid Caliphate in the North, not to mention other polities like Kanem-Bornu and the Swahili States, or the Kongo Kingdoms further South and those of Zimbabwe. We have Axum/Abyssinia in the Northeast, along with the Nubian Christian kingdoms. All of these feature “fascinating, dynamic, cataclysmic and downright exciting events” for which any fantasy writer should salivate. Abyssinia even has a castle called Gondar–no kidding! Gondar!
The world’s largest and most populated landmass, Asia, is brimming with medieval histories. From the complicated intrigue that sees the rise and spread of Islam in Western Asia, to the nearby Sasanids (Iran) and later Safavids, the numerous Caliphates, the expansive Gupta period of India, the Tang to Yuan dynasties of China or Queen Himiko of the Yamato to the Kamakura Shogunate, Asia has all the “religious, political, social and economic upheavals, the rise and fall of dynasties, conquest, epidemics” that should keep both fantasy writers and readers satisfied through the Butlerian Jihad and possibly the discovery of the spice melange!
I don’t even have the blog space to touch on the continents of North and South America–from mound builders in Mississippi to pyramids in Mesoamerica. And the best thing is, all of this offers us not only diverse faces, but (most important in my estimation) wholly different folklore, mythologies, cultural dress, weaponry, building structures and more to inspire our dreams. So the question remains, why is the fantasy genre so self-limiting? Why is it so few writers have bothered to expand beyond the western end of Middle Earth and give us instead stories out of Far Harad?
The answer I normally get to this is, if such things are missing then PoC need to fill the niche. Agreed to a point. And many certainly have. The aforementioned Charles Saunders fantasy tales of Imaro and Dossouye have both used pre-colonial Africa as a backdrop, pulling on African kingdoms and cultures to create their story. Milton Davis’s indie series Changa’s Safari, pulls heavily from our medieval past. But rather than Europe, Changa gives us a swashbuckler (cut more so in the image of Sinbad than a man of Tolkien’s Gondor) from the Swahili States who traverses the Red Sea and Eastern trade routes. His adventures take him from East Africa to Indian kingdoms to wars in medieval China, making Changa quite possibly the most well-traveled and multi-culturally versed hero in the fantasy genre.
Writer Miyuki Miyabe uses Japanese history and culture as a source of influence for her popular YA novels, while author N.K. Jemisin Inheritance Trilogy creates a fantasy world that manages to pull on so much of earth’s history and culture, they’re almost unrecognizable yet ground-breaking in their diversity. The same can be said for the Japanese folklore weaving of Nahoko Uehashi or the feminist/womanist take of the Hindu epic Mahabharata by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Nigerian-born author Nnedi Okorafor, in what I like to term “futurist-fantasy” pulls greatly on African landscapes and culture for her novels, including her modern YA magical realism work Akata Witch.
But this remains just part of the answer. Because despite these great efforts, there is still a yawning gap. Walk into any bookstore and let your eyes do some traveling around the fantasy section. It sure don’t look like the UN. Euro-fantasy fills the genre. It’s so bad that publishers, fearful of deviating away from this manufactured normalcy, have at times gone as far as to remove PoC from the art on novel covers–fearful any hint of diversity will cause readers to balk. This whitewashing, or racebending, has grown so prevalent that blogs like The Book Smugglers in 2010 blasted the practice and exposed it fully for the world to see. Sadly however, it hasn’t stopped, as TBS reported another infamous case just this week involving Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules–and that’s set in a futuristic America, not even a fantasy past.
The truth is, it should not be left up to PoC writers/creators singularly to bring diversity to the fantasy genre. It’s not our burden to shoulder alone, while the rest of the fantasy world remains landlocked by some literary Ural Mountains. PoC don’t even make up a significant portion of fantasy writers. And readers shouldn’t have to wait until some PoC tipping point to see something that dares to challenge the norm. There is no reason, except perhaps fear and complacency, why more fantasy writers can’t expand beyond their medieval European based imaginings.
Yes, as Karen Miller alludes in her post, it will take quite a bit of reading. It will take some research on culture and languages. And it will be hard to resist the temptation of falling on exotic “othering” stereotypes when writing about lands that are set mostly with PoC; but that’s not to say it can’t be done. Some well-known non-PoC fantasy authors have certainly done so already. Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga manages to introduce a medieval European-based society to a medieval Japanese-based one, while the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series breaks away (somewhat) from its main medieval-European setting with the arrival of the Seanchan Empire, a quite culturally diverse society complete with a black Empress.
Both of these series at times fall back on exoticisms that would make Edward Said wince, but they’re at least modest attempts. Better yet have been some non-PoC authors who have decided to take the plunge and create their worlds outside of the regular Euro-fantasy settings, ranging from Aztec Mesoamerica to Medieval Asia. You can find a recent list of some of these at The Mad Hatter’s blog. Yet the fact that we have to “compile lists” of such things says something in itself.
Once again, I’m not writing to bash Karen Miller’s original article. I certainly agree on her larger premise of history’s usefulness to the fantasy genre. Though she makes medieval Europe her focus, in earlier examples she does briefly cite both ancient Hittite and Egyptian examples of relatable history. Her article states quite plainly why she prefers to set her works in medieval Europe, and it should go without saying that in the end every author is free to write about what he or she pleases. But writers should also know that there’s another part of the library. And in those other sections, there are histories and cultures no less intriguing or resourceful than those of medieval Europe. Miller states in her conclusion:
I believe the best stories, in the end, tell us about ourselves. They show us ourselves at our most heroic and our most craven. They take us on a journey deep inside the human heart, mind and soul. That, to me, is the power of fantasy fiction. It’s also the power of history. Put them together, and you’ve got an unbeatable combination.
I couldn’t agree more.
*blog art by artist Paul Davey – “Cold Dossouye”