The “Other” Histories of Fantasy

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”

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12 thoughts on “The “Other” Histories of Fantasy

  1. I’ve run into a number of these discussions that politely challenge multi-culturalism in heroic and fantastic fiction. My response? To write Sword and Soul even more furiously. Let’s see how much more noise they can make. 🙂

  2. hey,

    My apologies for resurrecting a long dead blog thread, but I stumbled across your blog whilst seeking information about fantasy and science fiction by authors who’s writing has been informed and enriched by an drawing from insights gleaned from anthropology.

    It seems that the fantasy genre has become completely permeated with unoriginal, derivative works, which draw upon the same old stale Tolkienesque, faux Medieval tropes. Dashing knights, damsels in distress, dragons, primitive, savage orcs and trolls, heroic princes infatuated by beautiful princesses, the rightful king taking back his kingdom from the evil usurper….I thought the appeal of the genre is that it allows a storyteller the creative freedom to tell extraordinary tales full of mystery, wonder, the exotic, the strange, but with popular literature becoming an industry perhaps writers have become constrained by concerns of what publisher think will sell sufficiently to make a profit. As well as being a long time fantasy and scifi reader, I’m also an avid gamer.

    Over the years I have watched as the market becoming saturated with a undifferentiated stream of derivative works. After reading through a great deal of commentary about the state of the industry I’ve concluded the noted lack of diversity is largely due to game publisher’s inherent conservatism. As game development has evolved it has come to more and more mirror the wider capitalist economy. Publishers are more and more driven by their focus on profit and to demanding that game developers emulate the latest formula for success. I can’t help but think the fantasy and scifi genre’s are driven by similar forces, which prioritize the publisher’s bottom line, over delivering an author’s authentic fresh, vivid compelling vision of the fantastic. Author’s have to eat too you know and if you want to become a professional writer, you need you need a publisher. Its no surprise that authors would be willing to compromise their “art” for the sake of a paycheck. When you want to practice your art full-time, whilst having an adequate standard of living, one must pay the piper.

    I was looking for information on writers who draw upon an anthropological perspective, because I did an introductory paper in Anthropology.. I think it helped put me on the path to looking at the world with fresh eyes. Though coming from a mixed Maori/European (New Zealand), it hasn’t completely overcome my conviction of European exceptionalism. I don’t know whether this is innate or enculturated (it was a deliberate colonial policy), but I was particularly struck by this understanding when I read Frank Yerby’s The Man from Dahomey. I don’t know if you’ve read it and I know it can’t be classified as fantasy, but in Frank’s writing I was confronted with a culture with its very way of life so alien to my own that it may well have been. I remember one scene where the main character, whose name I don’t recall, was disturbed by a sacrificial rite, which took place before a war campaign, and that had both a political and religious nature. I remembered being surprised that a person from Africa would be self-critical of his own culture. I guess I had a subconscious opinion that it was a characteristic held solely by Europeans or those who’ve come into contact with their ideas.

    I was researching this particular line of thought, because I can voice my criticism against the publishing world with integrity best by putting my own works up to scrutiny. I’m divided between writing a full-blown novel, interactive fiction, or a video game. It just may happen that it could turn into a Transmedia project similar to Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad. I can’t say I’m not ambitious haha.

    I’ve concluded that because its so difficult to step outside of our own fixed patterns of thinking, living, and behaving, that if one wants to portray a truly fresh vivid exciting, vibrant world its easier to draw upon customs, beliefs, and values that have actually been practiced in other cultures. I have long been fascinated by Africa and devoured works that involved the Continent. By the time I was in my 20s I became uncomfortable by the way Europeans portrayed Africa and African’s in particular, most especially Adam Smith. In my view, Adam Smith appear to be emblematic of Europeans who portrayed as at best passive , unresisting victims of exploitation or at worst unreasoning, ungracious savages who fail to recognize the value of the advanced culture that Europeans have bestowed upon them, rather than active agents of their own history. Frank Yerby’s book was the first novel about Africa that portrayed an African character who I could truly relate to though our world’s are so vastly different.

    I had been studying Anthropology at the same time, but I found the objective, “scientific” perspective demanded of anthropologists too sterile and detached. In The Man from Dahomey I found a book that though it remained as far as I know, relatively authentic to the lived experience of the period, allowed me to see the characters world through his eyes. Thats the kind of experience I would like to offer in my storytelling.

    I think the value of Anthropology is that its recent departure from its taint and association with the colonial project, it now offers valuable tools to assist a writer to step beyond their entrenched patterns of thinking and help them approach the material with greater sensitivity and nuance. Your own writings here on the blog have offered unexpected riches of insight, that I myself wasn’t aware I wanted. I’m hugely thankful I stumbled across our writings. Thanks for offering your fresh and insightful perspective.

    • barefoot philosopher…. u have the philosopher’s gift of gab! this took me a while just to devour. but thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough response. yes, the nature of writing outside the eurocentric is difficult–particularly for those of us, even POC, raised within eurocentric norms. i write about this in several other blogs, where i question about how people of African descent several generations removed from Africa go about creating African fantasy. i know Yerby’s work, though i haven’t read it. I think he’s best known for historical fiction–which the Dahomean will fit beneath. of note, Yerby himself wasn’t African…at least not recently…he was of bi-racial descent and was from the US (Georgia). but his desire to see different images of POC (precisely people of African descent) he often wrote works with complex black characters. anthropology was one of my studies in college, though i eventually went the way of history. it can be very useful in trying to understand cultures outside the eurocentric norm–though the discipline itself has had a long problematic history. the best thing i believe, as u state, is to immerse yourself in different cultures…try to see how people think or behave outside our own. it’s not easy…and there’s always a fair chance you’ll end up engaging in exoticism. but i think its do-able…and worth it. good luck!

  3. hey,

    Thanks. High praise from you indeed. It was your writings which inspired me to write what I did. I can’t claim credit alone. I can understand that it undoubtedly would have taken some time to digest my voluminous comment. I’m actually hoping to enrol in a Diploma in Creative Writing in the new year, because I would like to refine my dramatic narrative skills. Up ’til this point I’ve mainly flexed my writing muscles whilst engaging in regular online political and economic debates, so the narrative aspect of my literary repertoire is rather weak.

    The subject at hand is very important to me as both a long standing, avid fantasy and historical novel reader and my mixed heritage background. Its only very recently that I have recently awakened to the awareness of the distinct lack of diversity in the depiction of fantasy worlds. Here in New Zealand, POC is an unfamiliar term, because being a very newly settled nation, country or continent of origin is deemed far more pertinent than color here.

    I am though rather disturbed by the phenomenon of “racebending” which I’v found out about lately. I thought it was strange when I saw that posters of The Last of the Airbenders movie depicted an obviously European person as opposed to an Asian that naturally featured as the main character of Ang in the animated television show. Personally as someone who was a fan of the show, I find it a deplorable move by the producers of the show. I can’t believe they have such a skewed view of their potential audience that they think moviegoers wouldn’t watch the film if a European wouldn’t play the lead role. Have they not seen the success of Hong Kong action films since the days of Bruce Lee (Hollywood’s stereotypical depiction of China as either pervaded by duellng martial artists or tyrannical rulers is another topic altogether).

    I’m truly thankful for stumbling across Frank Yerby’s book, indeed it provoked somwhat of an epiphany. I definitely value multiculturalism, but I’ve seen well-meaning liberals and traumatized indigenous people swing in the other direction unfairly completely denounce and attempt to devalue all the achievements of Western culture in favor of accentuating the virtues of indigenous cultures. For me its not just harmless “noble savage” romanticization that’s been an feature of Western “civilization” since Rousseau. Its a pernicious thing, because indigenous people’s have come to appropriate it as a device to constrain cultural change or even seized upon to denounce whatever practices that someone in power doesn’t approve of. All that is necessary to condemn a practice like homosexuality is to say, “this isn’t a traditional practice”, its a cultural imposition of the neo-colonial West.

    I was actually divided between choosing History or Anthropology when enrolling at University here. In the end I decided to go for educational psychology with a minor in Social Anthropology, because I found the history courses far too conventional and conservative (Eurocentric naturally). I have always been fascinated by history, but it was only by reading Civilization by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, that I awakened to a rich and vibrant insight into a diversity of cultures, which have greatly influenced the development of Western civilization. Are you familiar with the author? The book is has its fair share of issues, at times both banal and trivial, but considering the ambition of the project not surprising.

    Thanks for your compliments and best wishes. Hope all goes well with your endeavours.

  4. This is absolutely fantastic. I’ve been trying to put non-euro cultures into my own writing and discovering I’m failing because my historical education was so white-washed too. I’m going to go read every book you listed…
    Once again, thank you!

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  8. Found this linked from medievalpoc’s tumblr post. Great stuff; gonna see how many of these authors I can find at my local library. I’m with barefootphilosopher; too much scifi/fantasy seems derivative. Why do so many writers keeping revisiting the same old themes and plots, when there’s literally a whole world of history to be mined for source material? Once I get my stack of books in progress down to just 1 or 2, I’m off to the library.

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