Historical Accuracy, Representation and Ancient Egypt

I don’t talk about race much (not just here, but anywhere on the web). I don’t really feel qualified, despite reading and thinking a lot about race, because, well. I’m white. Whiter-than-white. White-bread white. I know enough to know that my understanding of racial issues is a second-hand one, so I usually feel it’s best for me to keep my trap shut and promote the words of more qualified (often under appreciated) speakers who are usually more eloquent on the subject than I am anyway.

However, there is one area which I do feel pretty qualified to talk about, even on the subject of race, and that’s Ancient Egypt. I’ve been studying it for half my life, first as a hobby and then professionally. I’m certainly not the foremost expert on it, but I’m knowledgeable enough to make reading historical fiction set in that time and place a bit difficult for me. Assuming I can find any in the first place of course. But when I do find a historical fiction or historical fantasy set in Ancient Egypt, I’m always hugely excited to get my hands on it, and usually somewhat disappointed by the end. But rarely am I angry. Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes changes are made deliberately to facilitate the story. Reading fiction is all about suspension of disbelief. I do my best to just suspend my inner Historian and enjoy a well-told narrative. But sometimes the deliberate historical inaccuracies are Not Ok. Sometimes they are rage-inducingly Not Ok.

I (relatively) recently began listening the audio version of a book set in the same village as my own WIP. It was a historical fantasy with obvious magical elements, but I enjoy those when done well. This one had achieved a certain amount of acclaim, so I had high hopes, despite some scholarly differences with the version of the world as I encountered it in the first few pages. And then we got to the deal-breaker. A female character, one who the signs pointed to being the primary love-interest, was encountered by the main character. The female character was described as extraordinarily beautiful…and blonde and blue-eyed. She had a local name, and was heavily implied to be of local ancestry, but she was clearly being described as white.

Ancient Egyptians, like modern Egyptians, were brown and black people.

That’s all there is to it. I have never heard of an authentic case of an ancient egyptian being blonde haired or blue-eyed. Some of them had lighter brown hair, a few are believed to have had green or hazel eyes. But they’re people of color as we say now, not white. It’s doubtful the average Egyptian would even have SEEN very many truly pale people. Blonde hair and blue eyes would have been so unusual as to elicit not just comment, but probably also a certain amount of superstition and perhaps even suspicion.

There are two issues here, historical accuracy and representation. Both are tightly intertwined, but they are separate. To trounce on historical accuracy in order to take away some of the all-too-small percentage of representation enjoyed by people of color is really rather reprehensible. I didn’t actually continue listening to the book, but shut it off immediately in order to preserve my blood-vessels. Perhaps the author found a way to justify this deviation within the story. But I doubt he would have found a satisfactory justification for stealing representation from a dramatically under-served segment of the reading population.

Representation is important for it’s own sake too, even if you need to trounce on historical accuracy to achieve a wider range of it (which you usually don’t, for the record). Representation for oppressed and minority populations is hugely important, both for the people who are represented, and for everyone else. Stories tell us who we are as humans, and if we consistently see characters represented and portrayed in very narrow parameters, we start to believe that’s all there is to humanity in the real world. If you can’t see why this might be a bad thing for all concerned, then I’m afraid there’s not much else to say. We need a wide range of characters. People need to see themselves in stories, in a variety of positions. And people from the dominant groups in society need to see other people, people who don’t look like them, in a variety of stories. We need it as people, and as a species.

So, I will not be reading any more of this author’s work. I’m sorry I bought the audio-book, and feel like I wasted my money. Some authors deserve a second chance. Some don’t.

On the bright side, this did inspire me to work all the harder on my own novelization of this particular Ancient Egyptian village. Mine will be bigger, and better, and truer, and better at representing the amazing badassery of the villagers.

I hope.

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1 Comment

  1. April 20, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    I agree, the lack of representation and accuracy are a few of the reasons I don’t read in the genre anymore. It is sad because I still have the want and love for what the genre could be.


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