When I hit my first funding goal on my Egypt Research Trip fundraiser I promised to do a livetweet rewatch of The Prince of Egypt and then make a video comparing it to The Ten Commandments. I’m still working on that vid, but I was inspired to make this one first!
I love PoE more and more each time I watch it. And I discover new wonderful, subtle things woven into it each time as well.
I hope you enjoy this (admittedly long) video and look forward to the next one. If I hit $1000 on my fundraiser I’ll livetweet while I watch Exodus: Gods and Kings. You want me to rip that movie to shreds, don’t you? Well, as of this moment I’m less than $200 from that goal…
Today is the close of women’s history month! It doesn’t quite loom as large, or as annoyingly, as Black History Month in terms of the kinds of narratives it perpetuates about women. There’s still probably far too narrow a focus on what Women’s History means (I see a bunch of suffragette stuff bandied about). The thing that interests me most about women and history is how different history looks when women write it.
Take the research I’m currently engaged in. The novel I’m writing is a historical fantasy novel set in a real time in earth’s history. I’ve spent over a decade reading books and journal articles about Ancient Egypt for various versions of this project. A few years ago I hit a point where I decided that I just wasn’t going to read any more books on the subject written by men. The more I began to understand my research subject, the more I could see how much patriarchal nonsense plays a role in how everything from artifacts to culture are interpreted and presented.
I recently picked up Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman and found in the introduction a reaffirmation of the observations I’d made.
…another problem I encountered was the sexual and religious bias of many of the erudite scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of the available information in both archaeology and ancient religious history was compiled and discussed by male authors. The overwhelming prevalence of male scholars, and the fact that nearly all archaeologists, historians and theologians of both sexes were raised in societies that embrace the male-oriented religions of Judaism or Christianity, appeared to influence heavily what was included and expanded upon and what was considered to be minor and hardly worth mentioning.
…Despite the discovery of temples of the Goddess in nearly every Neolithic and historic excavation, Werner Keller writes that the female deity was worshiped primarily on “hills and knolls,” simply echoing the words of the Old Testament. Professor W. F. Albright, one of the leading authorities on the archaeology of Palestine, wrote of the female religion as “orgiastic nature worship, sensuous nudity and gross mythology.” He continued by saying that “It was replaced by Israel with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism and its severe code of ethics.” It is difficult to understand how these words can be academically justified after reading of the massacres perpetrated by the Hebrews on the original inhabitants of Canaan as portrayed in the Book of Joshua, especially chapters nine to eleven.
This part in particular caught my eye, given my proclivities:
In 1961 a series of mistakes was described by Professor Walter Emery, who took part in the excavations of some of the earliest Egyptian tombs. He tells us that “The chronological position and status of Meryet-Nit is uncertain, but there is reason to suppose that she might be the successor of Zer and the third sovereign of the First Dynasty.” Writing of the excavation of this tomb by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1900 he says, “At that time it was believed that Meryet-Nit was a king, but later research has shown the name to be that of a woman and, to judge by the richness of the burial, a queen.” He goes on to say, “In 1896 de Morgan, then Director of the Service of Antiquities discovered at Nagadeh a gigantic tomb which, from the objects found in it, was identified as the burial place of Hor-Aha, first king of the First Dynasty. However later research has shown that it is more probable that it was the sepulchre of Nit-Hotep, Hor-Aha’s mother.” And again he tells us that “On the mace of Narmer a seated figure in a canopied palanquin was once thought to be that of a man, but a comparison of similar figures on a wooden label from Sakkara shows that this is improbable and that it almost certainly represents a woman.” Yet, despite his own accounts of this series of assumptions that the richest burials and royal palanquins of the past were for men, rather than women, in describing the tomb of King Narmer he then states, “This monument is almost insignificant in comparison with the tomb of Nit-Hotep at Nagadeh and we can only conclude that this was only the king’s southern tomb and that his real burial place still awaits discovery …” Though some pharaohs did build two tombs, one might expect a “possibly” or “probably” rather than such an absolute conclusion and the implied dismissal of the possibility that, in that period of earliest dynastic Egypt, a queen’s tomb just might have been larger and more richly decorated than a king’s. (emphasis mine)
If you’re interested in this subject you should read the entire introduction because I can’t excerpt all the good parts here.
When God Was A Woman was written in the 1970s, but lo these almost 40 years later, this is still a problem. That’s because many of these foundational ideas of archaeology aren’t being challenged, they’re being taught. So new discoveries are often analyzed through these faulty, patriarchal lenses.
It’s not just men who do this, mind you. On one of my trips to Powell’s I came across a book I should have wanted to buy immediately: Nefertiti: Egypt’s Sun Queen by Joyce Tyldesley. But when I read the introduction I came across a paragraph that made me shut the entire thing and fling it back at the shelf.
The women of the 18th Dynasty enjoyed a freedom that made them unique in the ancient world. They had the same legal rights as men, and were permitted to own property, to work outside the home, and to live alone and raise their children without the protection of a male guardian.
Pause right here. This kind of paragraph can be found in many books or articles that tackle the subject of women in Ancient Egypt. These conclusions are based on several things, including existing records around Egyptian law, plus first person observations of historians and travelers from ancient times. This is where I wish most of these paragraphs would end. Yet there is always a But. Or, in this case, a:
Nevertheless, few women received a formal education and, in a country where maybe between two and ten per cent of the population was literate, few women could read or write. Women were not expected to train for careers.
Pausing again to slam my fist on a table. Because first, no one ever backs that bit about the formal education up with actual data and, second, what is the criteria for “formal education”? Is it “training men receive to do jobs generally done by men in these times”? I bet if you asked Joyce Tyldesley if masonry required a “formal education” she’d say yes, but if we asked her if weaving required one, she’d say no. And she’d be wrong.
Also, that line about “few women could read or write” is always, ALWAYS included in these things. But if less than ten percent of the population could read or write then that means few men could read or write, so why are we taking this time to single out women?
And finally, what constitutes a career in Ancient Egypt? Once again I’m going to bet if we asked, the answers would reveal this is some patriarchal nonsense. Because:
They were expected to marry and produce children, and mothers enjoyed a position of great respect within the home and the wider community. Nefertiti was no exception. Born a non-royal member of Egypt’s elite, she was married as a young girl to the most enigmatic individual in Egyptian history. By the age of thirty Nefertiti had borne at least six children and had transformed herself into a semi-divine human being. Meanwhile her husband, Akhenaten, had instigated a religious revolution and founded a capital city.
I don’t have time to dismantle all the nonsense around the idea of women being wives and mothers means they couldn’t have careers or read or anything, because this would turn into a book and other people have written far better ones on this than I could. But do you see how she positions Nefertiti as a person who was just expected to produce children, which she did, proving she was just like any other woman, but hey she was married to an extraordinary man! This is a book about Nefertiti.
You see why I put it back on the shelf.
And yeah, Joyce Tyldesley is a woman, and she still falls under the sway of patriarchal nonsense, because she was educated by the institutions that uphold it. That’s going to be true for many of the books I come across in my research quest. Still, of the books about Egypt, and about history in general, that I read, the ones I see stepping out of the shadow of patriarchy are all written by women. I’m more willing to give those books my time and money.
Many of the research books I’ve come across in the last few years are written by women who seem to acknowledge that early pioneers in this field had unexamined biases and that their conclusions and conjectures need not be dismissed, but rather re-examined in that light. Still, they are willing to step back and see new things, reach different conclusions, and present a different paradigm.
And that’s so important, not just in archaeology, but in many disciplines that examine the past. The assumptions and base viewpoints of the scholars doing the research will always have an impact. And it would not surprise me to find that across many different history categories there are women writing books, papers, articles, and more that are more willing to poke at those paradigms. It probably costs them to do so. That’s another good reason to seek out their work.
Here are my current favorite books that touch on Ancient Egypt written by women. I’m always on the hunt for new ones. If you know of any, please do share them in the comments.
This book doesn’t focus on Egypt specifically, yet it’s been very valuable to me as I try to construct a matrifocal culture for my book. Stone talks about the evidence she found for how spiritualities and religions with goddesses at the center as well as how women were treated in the cultures where this was prevalent. Then she goes into how matrifocal cultures were invaded and replaced by patrifocal ones. It’s all fascinating and still relevant many decades on. More relevant right now, I’d say.
The way Dr. Roberts illuminates the story of the goddess Hathor through textual, mythological, and archaeological evidence is amazing. Hathor is so much more than just Egypt’s Aphrodite, and is so intertwined with the other major female deities as well as the history and evolution of dynastic Egypt that I’m surprised more alternative Egyptologists don’t spend more time on her. The author is not necessarily of that alternative set; I do find it interesting that the press where she chose to publish this leans heavily toward books on spirituality and not serious books on Ancient Egypt.
If, like me, you have ever tried to read the Pyramid Texts or the so-called Book of the Dead and went: “The hell? This doesn’t make sense…” you need to read this book. It’s a new translation of the texts by a woman who understands poetry, knows multiple languages derived from Ancient Egyptian, and views the texts from a spiritual perspective most of the original translators don’t. The middle of the book is the straight up translation, but the first and third parts go through the texts line by line, column by column, explaining the author’s conclusions and readings. It’s so wonderful.
I haven’t read this one yet! I’m recommending it, anyway, based on the reviews that I’ve read, including this one from a woman Egyptologist on Goodreads. Hatshepsut may be the protagonist of my next book in the Steampunk Egypt books, so this is near the top of my To Read pile. I am side-eyeing that cover, though.
I do have a few other go to Egyptology books that I always keep around written by men. So let’s not hear any of you saying BUT BUT BUT YOU’RE MISSING OUT BLAARRGGG because I’m not. Going forward, though, if an Egyptology book isn’t written by a woman or a trans person or a non-binary person, it’s going to have to prove itself to me in several specific ways before I get too deep into it.
For those who venture into the comments, which books about history written by women are your favorites?
- Matrifocal is a new term I heard at this year’s ICFA conference. It encompasses matriarchal and matrilineal, which aren’t exactly the same thing. It’s a nice umbrella term.[↩]
Winding down Black History Month by talking about The Black Present, which is more important. History is important to know and understand so we can work toward a better future. But the present is where we live, and Black people’s challenges aren’t a thing of the past. The thing that’s gonna get us through and into that glorious future all humans want for themselves and the people who come after is art, and it’s crucial that artists at a social, cultural, or class disadvantage get all the support we can find for them.
Support Black writers and artists and performers and playwrights and filmmakers and other creative people. Support them by buying their books and art and jewelry or going to their shows or movies. Support them by boosting the signal about their art on social media, to your friends, or to influencers such as editors, publishers, gallery owners, venue owners, museums and the like. Or support them directly through Patreon and crowdfunding sites and tip jars.
For that last one, I challenge you to peruse the list below and back at least one of them, preferably two or three.
Taneka is a black queer tumbleweed and the co-founder of Beyond Press, a small press responsible for the award-winning Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi & Fantasy Comic Anthology, ELEMENTS: Fire an Anthology by Creators of Color, and the newly launched Passion Fruit: A Queerotica Anthology by Queer Creators. Genué is a queer xicana who has been sharing fancomics and pinups for sites like Tumblr and Filthy Figments, but has finally pushed through to the other side with her debut in ELEMENTS: Fire and as the colorist of Full Circle.
Together, we’re finally ready to share our worlds with you.
Love Circuits, is a comic that was born out of a rotten deal with a publisher that no longer exists (HOORAY). After paying to get our IP back, we have full control of sharing the adventures of Yvonne King, a new kind of sculptor living in an alternative Miami, and Lucos, a refurbished android companion.
Demonomics (or “Business is Hell”), is a fun little doodle comic about demons in the fashion industry starring Reyna, Amon, and Luce. We’ll tell you now, the devil definitely does wear Prada and looks amazing in Louboutins.
From his Patreon page:
Do you like podcasts? What about video podcasts? Do you like writing about video games? What about cookies? Do you also like jokes?
Because I’m doing all of those things.
You should hop over there and look at the whole list, but for me, this cinched it:
Fanfiction Theater is a 10-15 minute podcast where I read crossover fanfictions accompanied by classical music.
Y’all. Come on. Give him a dollar for that at least.
Joyful Reads by Kristen Carter
From the GoFundMe page:
I’m starting a monthly subscription box called Joyful Reads. Joyful Reads is a subscription box committed to marginalized voices and books that reflect the world around us. I would like to open in May 2017. Our target demographic is teenagers and young adults who love Young Adult literature.
You can also support Kristen via:
From the Patreon page:
So look, here’s the thing: For the past decade, I’ve been writing, talking, thinking, teaching, and learning about philosophy, comparative religion, magic, artificial intelligence, human physical and mental augmentation, pop culture, and how they all relate. I think about, talk about, write about, and work toward a future worth living in, and I want to do all of that with you.
I mean a future where we have the option but not the expectation to self-cyborg. A future where, when we’re confronted with the new and unprecedentedly strange kinds of minds we’re likely to meet in this century, we can embrace the new and the strange, and use it to make ourselves even more than we already are. A future where everyone has the data, information, knowledge, and ability to conduct their lives in their communities, the best they know how.
I’m doing this work at both AFutureWorthThinkingAbout.com and, now, Technoccult.net, but to do all of this—to write, talk, read, converse, and write some more to, with, and about leading thinkers-and-doers in many fields of philosophy, science, art, technology, magic…so many thing—takes time, and so much of all of our time, these days, is spent trying to make money, and, to be honest, some of the ways we spend our time making our livings can drain the will to live, let alone do the kind of work we love and want to be doing.
That’s where you come in.
Her photos are amazing!
From her Patreon:
I am a native New Yorker and street photographer. Capturing ordinary people living everyday life is my passion. I have been doing it since 2007, when I decided to seriously nurture my life-long interest in photography. Now I am working towards getting my work in front of a wider audience. Your monthly pledges will help me do that! With your donations I will be able to send initial contact packets to galleries and art dealers, self-publish photo books (including hiring professionals to help me with the layouts),enter prestigious photo contests, and have my photos printed and framed for exhibitions.
My name is Odera Igbokwe and I am an illustrator and painter. You might know me from projects such as”Odera Redesigns the cast of Sailor Moon”,FEM4FEM,”Pepperbreath!: A Digimon Fanzine”, or Black History Month: Celebrating illustrators/painters of the African Diaspora.
I am constantly creating more inclusive illustrations, that celebrate the diversity of people of the african diaspora, and show that we exist in fantastical realms.
With “Melanin Mythologies” I will produce 2* illustrations a month. One illustration is exclusive to patrons, and the other is open to the general public. These will range from character illustrations to original paintings. (*2 illustrations a month can happen if we reach the $500 goal!)
Your support on Patreon will provide me with the resources to create more inclusive illustrations. As an illustrator, many of the assignments I take on continue to exclude people of the african diaspora. With your support I can take on less of those assignments, in favor of showing the world more of our black resilience, intersectionality, and magic aka ~melanin on fleek~
OliveOilCorp / Alone
Alone is a romance comic about the budding relationship between Jack, a quiet widower, and Sarah, a former musician, as they both try to reconcile with their pasts.
While a love story at its core, Alone also deals with themes of grief, family, prejudice,addiction, and the effect music has on our lives. You can read all of the story up to this point for free at alone-comic.com.
I’ve been posting Alone online for the past two years, but between juggling school and other jobs, updates have been…sporadic at best. Supporting my Patreon will help me dedicate more time to working on the comic and other side projects along the way.
Hey y’all! I’m here with a group of talented artists and writers to create my first Sword and Soul graphic novel series, Uhuru. Uhuru is based on my novel series Meji, but expands the world of the epic fantasy with new stories and new characters. If you liked Meji, you’ll love Uhuru.
Agents of the Realm is a College years coming of age story, taking influence from a number of timeless Magical Girl themed tales. Shortly after beginning their first year of college at Silvermount University, Five young women; Norah, Adele, Kendall, Paige and Jordan, discover that they’ve each been chosen to help protect not just our world, but a newly discovered sister dimension as well. As they venture forward through their college years, their lives start to take on forms of their own, providing them with new opportunities to learn just how much power they have over their destinies. This is a currently running webcomic that updates twice a week on Sundays and Thursdays.
I Need Diverse Games is my full time job thanks to I Need Diverse Games becoming a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization as of August 13th, 2016. Because of this change, I’m dedicating all my time and resources available, but doing this doesn’t generate a lot of money to keep the lights on, pay for miscellaneous things that you need daily. In fact, keeping I Need Diverse Games afloat would cost me what little I had to spare when I was employed.
If you can help me support myself while I do this work it would be great. Thank you in advance for any help you can give so I can continue to do this full time.
From his Patreon page:
First rule of Write Club is talk incessantly about writing, because everybody out there has questions about story and I don’t mean just of the written variety. I mean story. Life. So we talk. We might understand something essential maybe around the 27 trillionth conversation had.
I love fiction. Worlds imagined, worlds altered, reshaped or totally twisted. Anything that fires the imagination is a gift from the gods. As such I try to only write fiction that I feel, something that resonates between us beyond the financial transaction. I want to add vitality to that 27 trillion-and-one conversation.
I can do that with your help. Maybe you like blogs on writing. Maybe you don’t mind some slice-of-life. My “Posts” page is for you; we can play however we like there. I’ll write for you, I’ll honor you and, most importantly, we’ll get to listen to each other. That, my friends, is a conversation worth having.
I have been working on my webcomic Star Trip for three years now and both the comic’s art and writing have improved significantly. I am currently working on Book 2 and the completed comic will be THREE Books in total with around 400-500 pages per book. I really enjoy working on this comic and I am very proud of how much it has grown!
THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN! Your contributions per month will give me enough of a safety net to help me stay on my feet and keep creating. In return for your patronage you will receive exclusive Patreon only posts of concept art for the currently running Star Trip chapter, Patreon exclusive monthly wallpapers, early access to my mini comics, scanned sketchbooks, and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes with helping an artist do what they love while keeping them housed and fed!
From the Patreon page:
I host a radio show called the Black Swan Collective. When I announced this show, I mentioned that I had larger intentions for it than just music. I wanted to feature artists of all types and give them a platform to showcase their work. So this is what I’m going to do as soon as possible.
I am planning to launch a daily (weekday) show to give Black women artists of all types a platform. I want to talk with women in music, film, theatre, writing, poetry, painting, sculpting, fashion, comics, mixed media, anything they use to express themselves creatively. Furthermore, I want to talk with activists whether or not they use art to address their social issues.
You can also support them via:
I’m a speculative literary author of YA and adult fiction. Raising my voice in a world trying to silence me.
Follow her on Twitter @bcmorrow.
Support her via:
Astria Legends is a Christian Fantasy series that is being adapted into novels, comics, animated shorts, dance and spoken word productions as well as other visual/performance arts mediums.
From the Patreon:
Podcasting, like mainstream media, has become another male-dominated medium. Even the spaces occupied by people of color tend to amplify male voices over women’s.
I want to change that. My goal is to build a podcast network of shows made by and for women, primarily women of color. My dream is to hear women’s perspectives on everything from music to pop culture to politics, sports, and activism, in a thoughtful way, always considering intersectionality.
You can help make this vision reality by supporting this Patreon. Donations will be used to cover the costs of shows already in production (Black Girl Squee, Ratchet Research) as well the creation of new shows that will be the foundation of the premium podcast network (i.e., the Building Fund).
I am rebuilding my jewelry business and to do that, I’m experimenting with selling some poetry. Subjects will include job hunting, Memphis life, and the struggles of living between the margin and the center in the Trump era.
Did I miss you? Go on and add your links and/or pitch in the comments :)
When I was a wee Tempest by mother took me with her on a business trip to New York City. We had tickets to see the original Broadway run of Fences with James Earl Jones playing the lead. After the play, we went backstage and I met him. I don’t know how she pulled that off. My mother was a magical fairy of some type. It didn’t completely sink in how amazing that moment was when it happened to me, but I do remember being fascinated with the play. I was too young for it, probably, but I understood enough.
The only reason I have not yet seen the movie Fences is because I still have the memory of that performance in my head. And it was so powerful and so wonderful I don’t want to do anything that might change or erase it.
Still. Everyone needs to see Fences. It needed to be brought to the big screen. Because everyone needs to experience the power of August Wilson’s plays.
You can buy his Pittsburgh Cycle/Century Cycle plays, of which Fences is one, as a bound edition. And if you read them, you will start to understand Wilson’s brilliance as you also come to understand the Black American experience he was trying to illuminate. It’s just that reading plays is never the same as attending them. They weren’t meant to be read–though Wilson of course knew that some folks would only ever get to read and not see them. This is why I say the movie is important.
Rent Fences, buy Fences, tell your friends about Fences, understand Fences. And then read all the rest and write letters to Denzel Washington begging him to please, please keep going and make all of these plays into movies.
This is the point where I cry out I’M JUST ONE PERSON! And also admit it was a bit of a major task to set myself to post something every single day. But I got through several awesome books and authors, and I have something similar planned for next month. Plus, this has got me back into the mood for doing Tempest Challenge stuff.
For this post I’ve decided to take advantage of other people’s awesome collections of Black authors and books you should read. Thus, this Black History Month linkspam.
- 12 Lesser-Known Black Authors We Should All Be Reading This Black History Month and Beyond
- 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read
- 8 Awesome Black Female Authors on the Books That Inspired Them
- 8 Amazing Audiobooks by Black Authors
- Comprehensive List of Published African SFF
- 15 New Books by Black Authors to Dive Into This Summer
- 30 Black Comic Book Writers You Should Know
- 13 Young Black Poets You Should Know
Please add any relevant links in the comments.
Since we’re rolling into the middle of the month I’m going to suggest multiple readings for you in one post. Honestly, with the number of things I’ve highlighted already, you have enough reading to last you half a year. But you can never read enough words written by Black people!
Today it’s all about fiction anthologies and single author collections. They are mostly speculative fiction. I have never been shy about my biases.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones edited by Sheree R. Thomas
Here, just watch this.
Sycorax’s Daughters, edited by Linda D. Addison, Kinitra Brooks PhD, and Susana Morris PhD
A Horror Anthology of fiction & poetry by African-American women. From Book Riot:
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban, son of the Algerian sorceress Sycorax, is enslaved, but his male voice remains, to curse, to argue, to beg forgiveness. Sycorax, dead by Prospero’s hands long before the story begins, cannot speak.
Sycorax’s Daughters summons the silenced voice.
“This nation holds that Blackness, and therefore Black people, are the ultimate horror,” writes Walidah Imarisha in her foreword. The evening news is rife with cultural bias conflating blackness with monstrosity, even as the Black experience of “gentrification, white supremacists, brutal cops, and…slavery” makes the most brutal supernatural horror tropes appear “almost banal.” Many stories in the collection cast the Black female protagonist in a role that, from the outside, seem to mark her as the monster, even as her experience of the world has dictated her response.
Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture edited by Ytasha L. Womack
From Sofia Samatar’s review:
…[this book] provides a lively introduction to an important black aesthetic. Womack’s subject is the creative output of a diverse group of artists: they are “[v]isual artists, graphic artists, musicians, poets, DJs, dancers, writers, and filmmakers,” and all employ “black characters or aesthetics to deconstruct images of the past to revisualize the future” (p. 22). The “Afro” in Afrofuturism is Africa and the African diaspora; the “futurism” is an expressive mode concerned with imagining a viable black future. Womack’s use of the word “revisualize” indicates Afrofuturism’s oppositional stance: in a world crammed with negative images of black people, cultures, and history, Afrofuturistic artists strive to see the world over again, to read it differently. They reread the signs, repurpose them, remix them, refuse them, and recreate them.
…Afrofuturism, as described by Womack and others, is not only about the future, but it uses the future as a source of energy. Consider Womack’s remarks on space:
Space is a frequent theme in Afrofuturist art. Whether it’s outer space, the cosmos, virtual space, creative space, or physical space, there’s this often-understated agreement that to think freely and creatively, particularly as a black person, one has to not just create a work of art, but literally or figuratively create the space to think it up in the first place. The world, it seems, is jam-packed with bought-and-sold rotated images, some as stereotypes and others as counterimages that become stereotypes mounting into watershed debates about “positive” and “negative” images in the media. (p. 142)
This is really a comment on the present, on the world we know, but it’s written in a way that demands a future: art is in the future; art is what comes after the space that must be created in order to make it possible. The urgency—one “has to” create both space and art, in order “to think freely and creatively”—flows from both the present and the past. It flows from opposition to the “rotated images” that fill the world, images that make the black past and present seem irreparably damaged, and the future impossible. While pessimism is not the prerogative of any one group, it has a particular hold on Africa and the African diaspora. As the sociologist Alondra Nelson tells Womack: “There’s something about racism that has produced a fatalism that has impacted futuristic thinking” (p. 41). Nelson explains that this fatalism is countered by black prophetic traditions, and it’s interesting to see Afrofuturism in that context: as a mode of futuristic thinking that draws on spiritual understanding and practices, and adds an emphasis on the power of technology.
Lonely Stardust: Two Plays, a Speech, and Eight Essays by Andrea Hairston
From a review by Rubén Mendoza:
Employing a hybrid mixture of voices, registers and sources, Hairston’s essays cover a wide-ranging archive that draws illuminating transdisciplinary connections across the fields of literature, film, performance, theatre, popular criticism and scholarly critique. While her plays at times reflect a bit too much of an underlying academic orientation (an aesthetic expression overly intertwined with and explicitly reflective of critical discourse and theory), taken together with her speech and in conversation with these essays they work to help flesh out a larger, more complex mixture of aesthetic and critical discourses that provides valuable insight into the films and literature Hairston analyses, as well as her own creative process and aims.
On the surface, Hairston’s book might be mistaken for a collection of disparate works that do not quite cohere into a whole, particularly given the inclusion of her plays and speech after her essays and the broad, unruly scope of varied works that they cover. … In many ways, though, it is the brief essay ‘Heretical Connectedness’ that is key to this complex, wide-ranging collection. … ‘Heretical Connectedness’ mounts a science-oriented defence of Lynn Margulis’s science treatise, Symbiotic Planet (A New Look at Evolution), and the Gaia theory of symbiosis and mutualism that it forwards. At the core of Hairston’s politico-aesthetic project is precisely the kind of symbiotic mutualism for which Margulis argues. And as the title of this short but packed piece implies, embracing such a symbiotic approach, both in science and aesthetics, is heretical. This is not just because such an embracing runs against the grain of compartmentalisation and specialisation but because of the disavowed connectedness it reveals in systems of interlocking oppressions. …as Hairston argues through analyses of films, plays, novels, critical receptions of aesthetic works, and even moments of interaction with others in her own life, in the context of an empire of ‘American Capitalist Wasteland’ and white male heteronormativity that is ‘invisified’ through universalist mechanisms of normalisation which seek to disavow and erase difference and connection – connectedness is heretical.
Filter House by Nisi Shawl
From the Tiptree Award website:
Publishers Weekly, which selected Filter House as one of the best books of 2008, described it as an “exquisitely rendered debut collection” that “ranges into the past and future to explore identity and belief in a dazzling variety of settings.” Tiptree jurors spotlight Shawl’s willingness to challenge the reader with her exploration of gender roles.
Juror K. Tempest Bradford writes, “The stories in Filter House refuse to allow the reader the comfort of assuming that the men and women will act according to the assumptions mainstream readers/society/culture puts on them.”
Juror Catherynne M. Valente notes that most of Shawl’s protagonists in this collection are young women coming to terms with womanhood and what that means “in terms of their culture, magic (almost always tribal, nuts and bolts, African-based magical systems, which is fascinating in itself), [and] technology.” In her comments, Valente points out some elements of stories that made this collection particularly appropriate for the Tiptree Award: “‘At the Huts of Ajala’ struck me deeply as a critique of beauty and coming of age rituals. The final story, ‘The Beads of Ku,’ deals with marriage and motherhood and death. ‘Shiomah’s Land’ deals with the sexuality of a godlike race, and a young woman’s liberation from it. ‘Wallamellon’ is a heartbreaking story about the Blue Lady, the folkloric figure invented by Florida orphans, and a young girl pursuing the Blue Lady straight into a kind of urban priestess-hood.”
Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due
From a review by Eric J. Guignard:
Ghost Summer is a first-rate foray into horror that doesn’t have to be shocking or violent or gruesome to be effective, but rather finds its success in quiet, introspective, and atmospheric tales that wind readers down a lovely meandering path of curiosity and subtle dread before they find they are lost inescapably in some dark forest with a menacing breath coming from over their shoulder.
…each [story is] a character-driven piece that continues to affirm the author as an exemplary storyteller. The tales run the gambit between suspense, horror, post-apocalyptic, and magical realism. …There’s no reliance on gimmicks, but rather a confident literary voice that fills Due’s writing with allure, thrills, and equanimity.
So these are just a few of my favorites. there are more. Share them in the comments.
When I teach writing classes I always warn my students that they’re going to get tired of me saying “Samuel Delany says…” because Nisi and I quote him so often. Over the course of his multi-decade career he’s written almost as many insightful essays on writing as he has fiction. So his book, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews, has a permanent place on my syllabus.
However, there’s one other non-fiction book of Delany’s that also had a big impact on my writing, and that’s 1984. It’s a collection of letters Delany wrote during this year and is the first book of letters I read that made me want to be a better letter writer. I wrote about it for NPR a couple of years ago:
Out of print and sometimes hard to find, this collection of 56 letters is worth the effort to procure. They chronicle a year of renowned science fiction author Delany’s life from his own perspective — we never see his correspondents’ letters — in a way that is part memoir-distant and part close-friends-intimate. The letters offer both a wide angle view of life in 1980s New York City, and a narrow window into the life of a working writer, IRS issues and all.
Been rereading this book thanks to the Month of Letters. One day I’ll even get around to posting about it. What always strikes me about Delany’s letters is how frank they are, no matter if he’s writing about sex or the realities of writing. I also appreciate that, when writing letters to friends about craft or books he’s reading, his casual, conversational tone makes his ideas easier for me to grok.
Delany’s essays are often like his fiction: brilliant, complex, and sometimes impenetrable upon first read. You’re highly rewarded for reading and rereading and gaining understanding, but sometimes it takes much work. This is why the Four Letters part of About Writing is the most well worn part of my copy.
Whether you’re interested in history, in the art of letter writing, or in mastering the craft of fiction, both of these books should be in your To Be Read pile.
Here’s the post where I admit that while I am a big reader of books by Black authors, I have not yet read much by African authors. That’s due to many factors, including a huge To Be Read pile. Still, I didn’t want this month to go by without mentioning some African writers you should read, and so I asked for help.
Author Geoff Ryman pointed me to his series on Tor.com exploring African writers of SFF. There are only two posts so far, but they are extensive. Super sweet. One author I had heard of and have her book in my large pile is Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I’m reposting Geoff’s entry on her book Kintu in full here, but that doesn’t mean you should not go to Tor.com and read the whole long post and the one before it about SFF writers from Nairobi.
It is dusk. Miisi is sitting on a three-legged stool near the angel’s trumpet shrub with his back against the hedge. He double-storey house is a ruin. The roof and parts of the walls on the top floor are in disrepair. A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered in bees. He has a single hair on his head as thick as a big rope.
“Get up and come with me,” the man says.
Miisi knows he should ask: who are you? Come with you where? But instead he whines, “You know my hip is bad” as if he and the man have known each other for a long time.”
Miisi and the man are standing on a hillside. They are surrounded by trees. The place is familiar even though Miisi is sure he has never been there. The bee man touches a tree and looks it up and down. “This tree will be at the centre,” he says as he walks around it still looking it up and down. “It will make the central pole.” Miisi is puzzled but the man adds, “Find a tall man, ask him to take ten strides,’ the bee man takes a stride. “in every direction around this tree and build a dwelling.”
Now they are standing at on the other end of the hill Miisi and the bee man have been taken together on the hillside for years now.
‘This is Nnakato,” the bee man points to the ground. “You must retrieve her and lay her properly.” He looks at Miisi. Even his eyes are bees….
—From Kintu, (Book V, Misirayima (Miisi) Kintu)
Kintu is a huge book. Huge as in big—big time span, many characters. Its first hundred pages recreate the politics, family structures, conversations, and beliefs of the Buganda kingdom in the 1750s. It is one of the surprisingly rare attempts in fiction to imagine an African culture undamaged by invasion. It tells the story of how a curse is directed at all the descendants of Kintu Kidda.
Kintu then leapfrogs over the colonial era, to show how the curse has affected four modern Ugandan families. It saves up Idi Amin until you have read many other things you don’t know about Uganda, but then really gives you the devastation of his downfall and the war in two major stories. It saves up any discussion of neo-colonialism until it is sure you’ve absorbed a lot of less familiar information. It bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the 2000s, showing you the same cities and towns in different eras. Four branches of the Kintu clan are each given a book each around a major character. Scores of secondary characters also have key roles in the plot, detailed in roughly 450 pages of succinct, powerful writing.
The hinge between the historical novel and the contemporary one is a grandmother relating the legend of the Kintu Kidda curse—and that version differs from the historical reality. We hear different versions of the story and are shown the flexibility and practicality of oral literature. In one tradition, Kintu has disappeared completely and only his wife Nnakato is revered. Tradition survives alongside modernity, but continually overwritten (or rather over-spoken?), useful, alive.
Kintu is huge in impact. Richard Oduor Oduku who we met in Part One, Nairobi said this about Kintu, unprompted during his own interview:
“That book is so big here. It presents a world that has its own integrity and social relations. There is no recourse to external explanation for the curse or for undoing it.
“Sometimes we—you—get surprised by how much you don’t know about who you are. For me Jennifer’s book is a link to an on-going world that has not been intruded upon and does not have to pay homage to a disruptive force. Something we have longed for a long time.”
There is not a white character in the book. The colonial era is not described (one of the oldest characters, an obsessive Christian, remembers colonialism with fondness; another character’s grandparents are mentioned as living through it). For the most part, except towards the end, Western education and the diaspora are irrelevant.
Its author is well aware that the book, in its own world, has gone mega.
“Jacob Ross one of its first readers said that Kintu is the kind of novel that would become a national book. There was a genuine excitement about it in Uganda that I’d never seen before, a buzz about it. People had been saying that Uganda was a literary desert. There were so many misrepresentations that Ugandans didn’t read. Instead it kept selling out editions in East Africa. I got a letter from the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Buganda (a cultural entity inside the political one of Uganda.) It tells a Ugandan story in an Ugandan way.”
Until very recently the usual way for an African author to succeed was to win an award, or to publish in the West and be validated there. The success of Kintu came with African publication. Just before this interview, Kintu finally found a publisher in the USA (Transit Books). No UK publisher has as yet been found—for a book that is already regarded as a masterpiece. Most UK publishers said something like “It’s too African.”
Too African? The highest possible praise.
Kintu was submitted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize and won first place, meaning that Kwani published it in Kenya for distribution in East Africa by the Kwani Trust. Since then it’s been accepted for publication in West Africa by Farafina Press. Within Africa, on African terms, it became a bestseller.
The same year as first publication (2014), Jennifer won first the African region, then the overall Commonwealth Fiction Prize for “Let’s Tell This Story Properly.” Kintu went on to be long listed for the Etisalat Prize in Nigeria. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a name to be reckoned with.
Book One: Kintu Kidda establishes the importance of twins in the Ganda culture. Kintu marries two twins, one for love, one for reproduction—his beloved wife, Nnakato, seems infertile. The second wife’s children are treated as if they belonged to the first.
Book Two: Suubi Nnakintu is set in 2004 tells the story of Suubi and Ssanyu, two twins. They therefore have the same actual names —Babirye and Nnakato—as Kintu Kidda’s wives. But the name Nnakato would give that away, so Suubi gives herself the name Nnakintu. It’s a lie. Any Ugandan would know someone called Nnakato is a twin. That’s something that Suubi wants to overwrite. This is only one of many subtleties of plot and culture that this Western reader did not get.
Her twin Ssanyu Babirye died as a child and haunts Suubi, enraged at being denied.
The first (attack) happened eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half-awake in bed when a sensation of being “locked” —she could not open her eyes or move or scream—came over her. Yet she could see a young woman standing above her bed looking down on her. The woman looked exactly like Suubi only she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all. Her skin was dry, taut and scratched. Her hair was in thick tufts. She even wore Suubi’s floral blue dress with an elasticated waist-band, yet Suubi had discarded that dress ten years earlier.
‘Who are you?’ Suubi had tried to ask.
‘Who am I, who am I ?’ The woman was very angry. ‘I am Ssanyu, Ssanyu Babirye, you chameleon! Stop telling lies.’
Says Jennifer: “The story of Suubi and Ssanyu is of the duality in the novel. The duality that is Uganda. We are both Europeanized and Ugandan. We speak both traditional language(s) and English. Someone goes to church, but then will go to the traditional healer. Someone is a scientist but will have an intense spiritual life. We have this saying in Uganda: God help me, but I’m going to run as well. We think two ways at once.”
This duality of holding traditional and modern together is fundamental to Makumbi’s own life story. In the critical element of her PhD, which also consisted of a draft of Kintu, Makumbi talked about her own biography.
One of my earliest memories is of story time in the evening in a village with my grandfather. Another is in the city foraging through my father’s bookshelves of adult books looking for something readable. The most vivid memory however is of my grandfather, who was traditional, and my father, who was thoroughly colonised, arguing about where I should live. My father insisted that I should be brought up in the city where I would get a ‘proper’ education while my grandfather argued that I should remain in the village to get grounding in tradition first, that schools there were just fine. A compromise was reached when I was four years old: I would study in the city with my father and spend term breaks with my grandfather. From then, the conflict between my father and grandfather took on the multiple facets of urban vs. rural, modern vs. traditional, Western vs. African, written vs. oral. Little did I know that this nomadic existence would be replicated at an international level: shuttling between Uganda and Britain as an adult.
In the village, the Luganda language was protected from outside influences. In the city, Jennifer was forbidden to speak Luganda, which was called “vernacular.” BBC English was the standard, and her father force-fed her Western literature. Her first experience of storytelling was in the village, retelling Goldilocks or Cinderella as new tales in Luganda. This novel Kintu could be seen as reversing that process—retelling traditional material for modern audiences.
The same PhD thesis describes Kintu as being a hybrid of forms—the Ganda myth Kintu ne Nnambi hybridized with the Christian myth of Ham.
Kintu is divided into Books to mirror the form of the Bible, especially the four gospels, and the story is crossed with the Biblical story of the curse of Ham—the most poisonous of all Biblical stories for Africans. Ham was reinvented as the cursed progenitor of all black people, assigned by God to slavery. The story of Ham is laced through the book. However this intrusion only appears in parts set in modern Uganda. Kintu of the 1700s has his origins in the first man on earth according to the Ganda, Kintu. It is important to note that you also see Christianity evolve from the stiff English version followed by the characters Kanani and Faisi to an Africanised version in 2004, where forms of traditional African worship are firmly entrenched in the Christian worship.
Really? Biblical? I didn’t get that at first reading at all. My first impression was of being lowered into the Ganda culture as it exists independent of Western intrusion.
OK, like Ham, there is a curse—a Tutsi man’s son is adopted by Kintu who slaps the boy once in reprimand—and the young man dies. His biological father Ntwire lays the curse—and all the subsequent history of the clan can be read as a struggle between Kintu’s protective spirit and Ntwire, who is determined to blight their lives.
How does that echo the story of Ham? Ham was cursed by his own father, Noah, for mocking his drunken nakedness. No adoption, no accidental homicide, no curse of one family by another. The sanest interpretation of the Biblical story is that Ham was made a servant of his brothers for his lifetime only. But colonialisation drove itself and its religion crazy. Apologists for slavery made the curse inherited, so that Ham’s children were slaves, and as a mark of the curse, their skins were darkened.
Makumbi’s thesis says:
Kintu Kidda is a trident character, a kind of an unholy trinity figure. A fusion of three characters, he is a nameless and timeless ancestor of the author whispered about in family circles who brought the curse of mental health problems in the family. He is Biblical Ham, son of Noah, from whom Africans supposedly descend. But most of all, he is Kintu the first man on earth in the Ganda creationist myth, Kintu ne Nambi.
The first surprise is how close personal and close the story is to the author herself—essentially the family is Makumbi’s own. She herself is a daughter of Kintu.
The second unexpected element is how this actual family story is ANOTHER kind of hybrid—of tradition and science, or at least a psychiatry-based diagnosis.
But how does it resemble the Biblical myth of Ham? Again, from the thesis:
Biblical Ham brings to Kintu’s character in the novel the idea of the potency of a person’s curse to another and the disproportionate severity of the retribution in relation to the offence committed. Biblical Ham also cements the notion of perpetuity through inheritance.
In other words, Noah’s curse was unfair. Though Ntwire’s only son was taken from him, the ruin of so many lives over hundreds of years is disproportionate.
Is there a recognition of God’s unfairness, implicit in each Book’s tale of suffering? One of the key characters is called Yobu/Job. There is something of Job in each of the Books of Kintu, including an undertow, like the Biblical book, regarding the inexplicable unfairness of God.
Each of the books focus on one terrible life after another—Suubi, starved by an aunt, and nearly kidnapped to be sold as a human sacrifice only to be haunted by the ghost of her dead twin. Kanani, made one-dimensional by a dour colonial form of Christianity and the betrayal of his children, who bear a child between them. Isaac Newton, unable to walk or speak until six because of child abuse, living through the post-Idi Amin war, and who is convinced his beloved only child is infected with HIV. Miisi, who not only loses his sanity but 11 of his 12 children to war, violence, and AIDS.
Humanity is made to suffer. Kintu is also the name of the first human in Ganda mythology. “Kintu” is a variant of the term “obuntu” or “Ubuntu” which means humanity and leads to the term Bantu which means humans in Luganda.
So the third prong of Kintu Kiddu’s origins, being the first human in traditional Ganda belief, universalizes these Books of suffering to include us all, European and African, American and Asian. In this sense, we are all of us children of Kintu, cursed to suffer disproportionately for history laid down centuries ago. I find this reading touching; since, I suppose, it includes me.
It’s not just Job or his twin sister Ruth who have Biblical names. You might need to speak Luganda to see that many of the characters have names from the story of Ham. Most significantly, the first son of Kintu named in the opening, and who is unfairly lynched for theft is called Kamu—Ham. Other characters are named for the sons of Ham—Puti (Phut, Ham’s son), Misirayimu, the long form of Miisi is a form of Mezraim, Ham’s son and Kanani is the Luganda form of Canaan, also Ham’s son. The name of the major character, Isaac Newton, manages to reference not only the Bible, but also the intrusion of European history and science.
This use of hybridized Christian/traditional names is not unique in works of what can be called African traditional belief realism. In her PhD dissertation, Makumbi points out that in The Famished Road, the figure of the abiku child, a birth from the spirit world is called Azaro, a form of Lazarus. Her thesis also examines Ng?g? wa Thiong’o’s transposition of the Jesus story to Africa, The River Between.
Though I noticed some sacrificial lambs in the ending, Makumbi’s dissertation points out other resemblances to Christianity at the end—there is a father, a mother goddess, and a son.
However, Kintu has as its epigraph an 1863 quote from John Hannington Speke, the first European explorer to encounter the Ganda. In the quote, Speke sees Africa with its sons of Ham condemned to slavery as “a striking existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” And of course that meant their position as servants was ordained by God.
The real curse of Ham is colonization. The stories of Kintu also embody the deformities of culture and character inflicted by the curse of colonialization.
“In school as a child I was taught that we Africans are Hamites. I hope this version of ‘History’ is no longer taught in Uganda. This idea that I am a descendant of Ham was deeply engrained in me until somewhere in secondary school we were taught that we are Bantu—which means human, really.”
The last two Books of Kintu confront Europe through the character of Miisi. Miisi is a more familiar figure from African fiction than most of the characters. Miisi is the Western educated man who returns. Miisi, in fact, was educated in both the Soviet Union and Oxford, so he combines many strands of Western thinking—imperialism but also a strand of European resistance to it.
As a controversial writer, Miisi pens an African fantasy that retells Frankenstein in Africa (much as the child Jennifer Nansubuga retold the story of Cinderella). It reads like a new myth called Africanstein. Makumbi, alert to issues of language, tells us Miisi writes it first in English and then translates it into Luganda.
Buganda unlike the rest of Africa was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under the chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house.
Africastein is unlike any other passage in the Books of Kintu. Stories get re-told but only orally. This one is a highly symbolic, single-author fixed piece of written mythology. It stands out, though quite short. It strikes the most piercing note of anti-colonialism in the novel.
As I said, please go check out the other African authors Ryman talks about at Tor.com.