“Each turn of a writer’s imagination creates a different history”
It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.
Today’s Guest Essay is by Charles Saunders
History influenced my writing from the get-go. In a way, fantasy fiction offers a different perspective on history – the perspective of mythology and folklore. It’s like looking at history through a kaleidoscope. Each turn of the tube yields a different image. And each turn of a writer’s imagination creates a different history.
Part of my motivation for writing the Imaro novels and other African-oriented fantasy stories was to make a new kaleidoscope for African history, because the one that existed at the time was flawed. The African-history perspective in fantasy and sword-and-sorcery fiction was either distorted or missing altogether. What I wanted to do was to reclaim that history, and bring what was lost or hidden back to light.
Three outstanding books on African history formed the foundation for the setting of the Imaro novels: The Lost Cities of Africa by Basil Davidson, The World and Africa by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Cheikh Anta Diop’s The African Origin of Civilization. Interestingly, Davidson was a white British scholar, Du Bois was African American and Diop was Senegalese. Yet despite the differences in their backgrounds, their works are remarkably similar.
Together, those books illuminate the African history that was hidden or destroyed in an attempt to foster the illusion that Africans had no history before their continent was colonized by Europeans. The fantasy fiction of the time when I conceived Imaro and his setting (that would be the early 1970s) replicated that illusion.
I used real history to change fantasy history – a reversal of the usual mode, in which fantasy history is a transmutation of real history. Were it not for the historical sources provided by the books of Du Bois, Davidson and Diop – along with many others that line the shelves of university libraries – I probably never would have started writing at all.
(Extremely) Selected Bibliography
Gimmile’s Songs, in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000)
Yahimba’s Choice, in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004)
Why Blacks Don’t Read Science Fiction – Windhaven #5 (1977)
Why Blacks Should Read Science Fiction – Dark Matter (2000)