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.


So, there’s this hashtag that’s been going around Twitter for a few days now, #DiversityInSFF. It’s great, a place where people are talking about the need for greater and greater levels of diversity (both of characters and of authors) in Science Fiction and Fantasy. There has also been a certain amount of plugging for the many great books, movies, games, projects, authors, etc that are already there in SF/F but which may not be as well known as other works. There’s also been discussion of how much more needs to be done in this arena, and why such work needs to be done. It’s really been pretty awesome, and I’ve already got at least one big list of authors to check out between now and…whenever.

You see, I’ve been actively trying to diversify my reading-material for a while now. I don’t just want to read about diverse characters though, I want to read stories by a range of different authors. I want all the different styles and viewpoints that come from authors with wide and varied cultural back-grounds. I want LGBT stories told by LGBT people. Not because I think straight/white/male authors can’t write convincing, authentic, sympathetic minority characters (they so clearly can since they’re doing it all the time now!). I want to widen the range of my listening to hear the voices it’s harder to hear sometimes. The marginalized and silenced voices. The voices of those whose stories have been stolen, co-opted and twisted by others. And I want to find those voices within the confines of the genres I love best, two of which are Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

I started reading SF/F as a child when my mother (a huge SF/F reader as well) first gave me her copies of The Chronicles of Narnia at about age 7. As I got older, I moved on to other authors, a huge list by now. But recently I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern in my reading, and one I’m not too happy about despite the unconsciousness of it. You see, almost all of the books I’ve read in SF/F have been written by white authors. Many are women, and a few are even queer women, but I’d be hard-put to think of a single book I had read by a POC, male or female, before I began searching them out. Even then, my list isn’t too long. I’ve set out to change that, but it’s been a bit of a challenge.

In fact, I feel like this has been far more challenging than it should be. I don’t feel that I should have to actively search to find diverse authors in the SF/F shelves of a bookstore or library because there are so few shelved there and not in “Special” sections. I shouldn’t need to carefully research authors to find out which ones are POC, or Queer, or whatever because in order sell books to a “mainstream” SF/F audience they’ve had to hide who they are from the casual glance. When I pick 5 new authors off of a shelf, I should have a reasonable chance that at least half of them are not S/W/M authors. I should be able to pick books based solely on the interest generated by the cover-blurb and be reasonably assured of having a diverse reading-list.

Of course, that’s NOT how the world currently is. Currently, I do need to do all those bits of careful research and specifically directing my book-searches. I find this extremely irritating (partially from laziness, but at least partially from outrage) and I do want to promote anything that changes this status-quo. Which brings us back to the discussion in the #DiversityInSFF hashtag. The Diversity under discussion there is about more than just race; it’s gender, sex, orientation, race, neurotypicality and disability and any other axis of diversity the participants could envision. I’m most interested in the race and orientation aspects, as I already read a fair variety of gender-diverse authors. But the more diversity, the better, I think.

I think I’ll leave this with two links: One is a new blog whose objective is to collect and curate information about Diversity in SF/F and the other is a blog post written by a Twitter-friend who made a list of 100 Diverse Speculative Fiction Authors.