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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Even the Best Books Aren’t Perfect

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of about half a dozen “comfort reads” that I return to repeatedly. It’s a sort of prequel to her space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. Really two books combined, it details how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, married, and the events surrounding his conception and birth which heavily influenced who he was in the series. But much as I love Miles, I don’t read it for him. I read it for Cordelia, Miles’ mother. She’s an amazing woman, one of those characters who help me define who I want to be in life. She falls in love with an “enemy”, leaves her planet and family to be with him on his (to her) backward and barbaric planet, and is dropped into the highest levels of politics, civil war, intrigue and assassination. Through it all she maintains an outward calm, and dispenses wisdom, kindness, and common sense to all those around her. All while being completely bad-ass, and without being even a little bit Mary Sueish.

But as much as I love, adore, and continually re-read this book (and many other Bujold books too), there are a couple of problems with it. There are two big ones. The first is a lack of racial diversity, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today (it’s an important point, and worth noting, but not one I usually feel qualified to write about. I’m sure others have written about it somewhere on the web however).

The other problem is also an issue of representation, but it’s an issue of sexuality not race. There’s a scene where a political enemy of Cordelia’s husband Aral is trying to blow up their (very happy) marriage by telling her “scandalous” things about his sexual history. The enemy misjudges his target pretty thoroughly, as what he (and much of the Barrayaran society) considers scandalous, Cordelia considers entirely normal and perfectly logical. Particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender roles. The whole scene is a couple of pages, and it’s generally clever and wonderful and satisfying in that “ha! take THAT you unmitigated ass” sort of way. But right in the middle is this:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

And there’s the problem. Here, written bluntly out in black and white is an incredibly bi-phobic statement, one which is often used by narrow-minded people of all sexualities to justify to themselves why they won’t date/marry/love bisexuals, no matter how delightful the person might be otherwise. They want a monogamous commitment. Bi people aren’t capable of commitment, or we’re greedy, or we’re born cheaters, or whatever.

This is all complete tripe of course. Bisexuals are monogamous, non-monogamous, equally attracted to both sexes, or attracted to a whole range along the gender spectrum, or mostly attracted to one gender with the occasional crush on the other, or sometimes even asexual (though then they’re usually referred to as bi-romantic I believe). We can be bisexual without ever experiencing a relationship or a sexual encounter with one whole gender. There is no one way to be bisexual. But the important point here is, bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. Lemme repeat: Bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. 

Nor is bisexuality something you “used to be.” Bisexuality is not a “phase” we grow out of. This myth stems from the tendency for lesbians and gays to identify as bisexuals on their way to their true sexual identity in an effort to soften the “blow” to those around them. But they’re no more bisexuals than closeted LGBT people are straight. And their misappropriation of the label doesn’t negate the truth of it as an identity for actual bisexuals, and I sure wish people would quit trying to use them as examples to prove it’s all a phase and we’ll grow out of it, one way or another. Thank you, but no I won’t.

One of the things that makes me saddest about this little bit of ignorance (for, given her writing on other topics relating to sexuality I do believe this bi-phobia grows from ignorance on the author’s part, not malice) is what a missed opportunity it is. Here Bujold has set up a major supporting character from a very popular SF series, and he’s bisexual. But also happily married, successful, and his life is not ABOUT bisexuality. It informs his past, which has repercussions on his life during the course of this book. But with this one line, she completely negates all the good that was possible. She blatantly states that his bisexuality was a “phase” and he no longer “counts” as bisexual because he’s monogamously married to a woman. It’s such a tiny mistake to have made, and yet so very damaging to a certain portion of her readers.

This is one of the things that terrifies me so much about writing. If one of my favorite authors — a woman whose writing I admire and wish to emulate and a multi-award winning novelist — can make such an egregious mistake in representation, then what’s to keep me from making one just as bad? I want to write good representation in the characters I create, but I often feel paralyzed by doubt. I read and read and read stories and theory and advice by those whose lived realities I would like to reflect in some way in my fiction. And yet it is still possible, nay even probable, that I’ll make a misstep as grievous as this one, or perhaps even worse.

Writing is a scary business, especially when writing from a perspective not your own.