Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Sir, You Are A Liar!

I got an... uh... interesting email a few weeks back. I get these every now and then: fuming attacks by people that are sure they hate me and my novel about Hannibal, Pride of Carthage. Thing is, they rarely stay on topic that long. They quickly make it clear that they haven't even read my book. They don't seem to know that the book has been published in nine languages, read by many intelligent folks around the world, and that it did quite well in... well, Italy, for example. And, try as they might, they can't help but reveal their true colors (so to speak).

Here's an example of what I mean, unedited in any way - except that I've removed his name:

Sir, you are a liar. Truth always matters. I have studied Hannibal and war all my life and the idea of Hannibal being of southern African appearance is a re-write of history, just as it was wrong to depict the flag raising by the fireman at ground zero of the 911 incident as having a black in the group of three men who did so. When lies are perpetrated upon a people for what ever dreamed up noble reason it tends to lead to rebellion and the rejection of the values of those who perpetrated the lie by future generations. The reliefs of Hannibal and other Phoenician’s that we have closest to the time of his life depict him and they as (Caucasoid) and you know it.

Could there and was there mixing of the blood, possibly but we also know from history that ethnicity and nationalism mattered much more in history than it does today and among the elite classes it would matter even more. These same stupid arguments are made concerning the Pharaohs and Jesus as well.

Jesus was a Jew, a Semite (Caucasoid). While he came for everyone and all races are equally precious in God's site it just so happens that the Jews were Caucasoid. He blended in to the normal Jewish society so well that Judas had to kiss him on the cheek for them to know who to nab in the Garden of Gethsemane. I guess you believe the Pharaohs were from the southern African tribes as well and that they used to fly above the Pyramids. Alexander the Great, Salah a-Din, Gen. Washington , Gen Patton, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and many other very famous people were Caucasoid.

Genghis Khan, Confucius, Admiral Yamamoto, Mao and many other famous people were Mongoloid. Shaka Zulu, the Queen of Sheba, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and many other famous people from history were/are Negroid. When writing history and making points to touch the minds and hearts of future generations let us always strive for the truth and never settle for the lies or political agendas of convenience. It is sad that touchy/feely emotions are more important to you than truth.

Vr,

B.

First off, Pride of Carthage "touchy/feely"? That makes me chuckle.

Second, this left me wondering what "Vr" means. Could be Velvet Revolver. Or Voltage Regulator. Variable Resistor. Valve-Regulated. Vacuum Residue. Voltage Rectifier. Vehicle Representative. Visa Revocation. The possibilities are endless. It's possible it means Very Respectfully, but I'm not sure I buy that...

More seriously, I've never claimed - in fiction or otherwise - that Hannibal was a "southern African". I assume the author meant Sub-Saharan African. If he had read my book he'd find that my descriptions of Hannibal and his family are specific in ways that allow the reader to interpret that specificity as suits them. To me Carthage was an interesting, complex fusion of Phoenician and North African influences. The cultures mixed and mingled in many ways, and there are plenty of historical examples of intermarriage (often to solidify political unions) between Carthaginians and the various tribal powers of North Africa. I didn't have to look any further than Livy or Polybius for examples. All of this is why the root word for Punic was coined to describe them, and it's why Publius Scipio was called the Conqueror of Africa after defeating Hannibal - as opposed to Conqueror of the Phoenicians.

All of these are details that you'll see in any non-fiction work on Hannibal or Carthage. In many ways my version of things is fairly traditional. The difference, to me, is that I didn't want to whitewash the realities the moment I began writing creatively about this material - which I think we often do when visualizing the ancient world. (Friends, honestly, there's really no reason to think that ancient Romans and Greeks were Anglos that spoke with lovely British accents, but that's the norm of recent movies set in the period. It's silly. Though I like a British accent as much as the next person.) I wanted to keep the racial complexity in the book, and to keep it in without most of our Twenty-First Century, post Atlantic Slave trade baggage. That, inherently, means a colorful cast of characters that in all likelihood would not please B. Again, he probably wouldn't like my book if he read it, but my point is just that he didn't attack me for what was in the book; he attacked things he assumed were in the book. I'd argue he brought those assumptions with him, and pounced on me the moment he got me in his sights.

If he wants to base his argument on the use of the term Caucasoid he won't find my book in disagreement with that. But how many people know what the term Caucasoid really means anymore? (Here's the Wikipedia definition.) In its broadest sense it refers to the indigenous populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and India. That territory includes peoples of so many different skin tones and cultures that I'm confident B doesn't actually mean it.

For example, how would B feel about Hannibal looking like someone from Somalia, or Ethiopia, or India? I don't think that Caucasian is what he means at all. He means white, which is a selective, very limited usage of an old term that's no longer in scientific usage. He means white, which has very little to do with the classifications he uses, but has everything to do with our lingering modern hangups.

But what about those "reliefs of Hannibal" closest to his time? Two things. First, almost none of those images/bust/statues are really from the ancient world. Two of the most famous statues, for example, were from Sebastien Slodtz (1655-1726) and Francois Girardou (1628-1715). We're talking thousands of years removed from Hannibal's life. Second, none of the coins/busts from the ancient period are certifiably authentic images. Sometimes books that show these images mention this fact. Sometimes they don't.

The bust here is from the 2nd Century AD. So it's about 300 years after Hannibal's death. That's a lot of years. But from a modern perspective it's damn old and therefore has a feel of authenticity. Only problem is that it may not be Hannibal at all. It's not like there's a carving in the back that says "This is Hannibal Barca". Sorry. There's just not. I took this image from the Wikipedia page on Hannibal. If you look at the text below the image you'll note that it says "This image may not be authentic". Exactly. The more you look up images like this and cross reference them, the more it becomes clear that none of the images we have of Hannibal were made during his life by someone that saw him in the flesh. For me, it's not wishful thinking to question the authenticity of any one image; it's just the opposite.

But, anyway, did I say somewhere that Hannibal was black? No. I've spent a lot of time talking up that Phoenicians and North African mix, and arguing that I can't really know exactly where he'd sit on the complexion spectrum. I've argued that instead of black and white the truth is some shade of brown or tan or copper. I've said that I can imagine Hannibal being considered black if he was somehow transported to the modern era and dropped down on some city street - but that's only because we've defined black so very, very broadly in America. I wrote: I think that because we'd see a brown-skinned man with curly hair, burnished by the Mediterranean sun. That's not exactly a fanatical position. It's filled with possibility, not limitations. That's the way I'll always think of Hannibal, because we're never going to know anything more definite for sure.

How did I respond to B's letter? Well, I wanted to respond with a level head, based on the facts in question and how they relate to my book. I think there are likely a whole lot of ways B and I don't see the world the same way, but I neither felt a need to try and change that with my response nor to use it to vent. Here's what I wrote back:

B,

I never said or wrote that Hannibal was of "southern African appearance". I can understand how you would find that frustrating, and I certainly know that lots of people use figures like him for their own political/social agendas.

About as far as I ever went with Hannibal was to say he and Carthage were the product of an interesting mix of Phoenician and North African influences. That's all. I was always specific about the region being North Africa. And no, I don't have any reason to believe the pharaohs were from Southern tribes or that they flew above the pyramids. That last would be silly.

I can see that these issues frustrate you quite a bit. Personally, though, I've not proposed most of the things you seem to think I have. It seems clear to me that you have not read my book. If you had, I don't think you would have felt the need to write to me as you did. I'm not saying you would have loved everything about it. That seems unlikely. But you'd at least know that I'm not driven by "touchy/feely emotions".

David.


As of yet, I haven't received a response. Thinking maybe I won't. And that's just fine.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Incubus Jax said...

Vagrant Rectum?

I haven't read Hannibal. I want to. So you probably don't get email from me about it yet. That seems to make sense... maybe I'm crazy.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Ethan Iktho said...

Seems obvious to me that
Vr stands for "Very racist"

And he signs B because he's just a bullshitter

Just yesterday I went on YouTube to find videos of Grigoriy Leps, a Russian singer I love, and in the "Text Comments" of his clip "Rumka vodki" I found what the deadringer of B wrote:

"only look at whom you are praising, he is nothing and his song could not be worse !"

B's bro signed: "Oberstgruppenfuhrere"

Grigoriy Leps is a Jewish guy, as you can guess.

If all B dittos had a distinctive colour (say, green), it would be easier to know who you're talking to, but apparently Mother Nature decided it depended on each of us to choose to become a schmuck excuse my French), or not, whatever the colour of our skin or where we come from. And it seems to me it's much better that way, even if it's harder to spot Bs all around the world.

Best from Paris,

Ethan

6:22 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

To note: the author did sign the note with his name. I've just abbreviated it to B out of... er, courtesy.

6:38 PM  
Blogger The Real Deal said...

Wow. Very restrained response, David...bravo.

Guy Who Doesn't Really Know What He's Talking About: 0

David (who undoubtedly researched the subject matter far more than "B" ever will): 1

7:11 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Thanks, Real Deal.

Look, I did live with Hannibal and Punic Wars for several years, with it as the research and creative focus of my life every day. Does that mean I'm an expert? Nope. I'd never say that. And I'll readily admit that all my research was done with an eye toward writing a good story, toward blending the history with invented material to make it work as fiction. That's clearly a very different thing than what classicists do.

But I do think it means I know a breadth of details about this period that are more complicated than sound bites. Also, I feel like I learned a lot by reading lots of different nonfiction works about the same subject. I list the major ones in the back of the book. What I loved about reading different takes on the same material over and over again is that I saw how much variety there is, how many contradictions, how often what one author assumes as fact another author footnotes in a way that questions that or casts it in serious doubt, or says "No, that's complete rubbish. Here's why..."

The simple truth is that nobody has irrefutable claim to one version of the facts that trumps everyone else. As a novelist I love that. It allows me to feel around in the material for what feels right to me and my fictional project.

If, on the other hand, someone reads one book on Hannibal or watches one documentary and then thinks that they have a mastery of the facts they are mistaken. History is terribly subjective. Truth is hard to find and impossible to verify when dealing with the ancient world.

That's frankly perfect for a novelist, but it makes for an unsteady platform from which to launch self-righteous attacks on others.

I believe that B has been on this earth longer than I have. I figure he has studied history and warfare, as he says. But I also know from what he says that 1) he's hung up on racial aspects that color his opinions and 2) he's probably not updated his opinions with a comparison of contemporary approaches to this subject matter.

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Stephe said...

Pride of Carthage: A Novel of Hannibal. A novel. NOT historical reference.

Anyone who freaks like this over something marketed as fiction has a Race Button. Very unhealthy.

D.A.D. for the win.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

That's a very gracious answer on your part.

But I also think it's the right kind of answer. With people of that emotional level, they want, I think, to raise an angry response out of you so they can fuel their anger. I'll be interested to hear if he writes back.

4:46 AM  
Blogger Anubis said...

Great comment, Mr. Durham. Makes me want to read Pride of Carthage.

I enjoyed The War with the Mein for exactly the same reason I liked this post: It brings up matters like ethnicity, race, imperialism and cultural domination in an unobtrusive and interesting way. I knew I could only appreciate a fantasy with a non-eurocentric setting, and finding out it had a good story made it even better.

9:31 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Stephe,

Yeah. True enough. It's a novel. Which really does make his opening line absurd. I'd forgotten to note that. I do think it's a novel with a lot of real history in it too, though, which is why I do engage with questions of historical accuracy.

Kate,

I'll let you know if I hear from him. It's already been a few weeks, though, so I'm thinking he didn't get whatever shouting match he was hoping to get from me.

Anubis,

Glad to hear this gets you interested in Pride of Carthage. I think you might like it. A lot of what I did in Acacia I first got a handle on by writing about the complexity of Hannibal's war. It made for a great model of how such big conflicts work (and don't) in a real world.

Wondering if you read novels in English or German? Alas, Pride isn't in German yet, but maybe we can convince them one day!

12:21 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

I have nothing but admiration for you and your gracious response, David. Not many people would be able to restrain themselves so well against such a ridiculous onslaught. Personally, I would have just ignored the letter all together (the guy's a tool, so I doubt he'll appreciate your attempt to get him to see reason). But in any case, bravo for being so mature.

2:34 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Truth be known, being "mature" isn't just a stoic or noble position. It also feels kinda nice... ;)

3:15 PM  
Blogger Anubis said...

I read The War with the Mein in German, because I hadn't heard about the book before this guy from the German publishing house recommended it to me. So I just walked into a bookstore and bought a copy in German. But I'm sure I'll read the next book in the series in English, as I usually do.

Perhaps I'll try Pride of Carthage when I've finished Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy. And I promise I'll write a review about it.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that probably Hannibal was very similar to modern day northern Africans. I remember reading that, 18th century's dramatic notions of "population replacements", "terrible invasions" and extinctions, in reality agricultural populations don't die so easily. There was for example a genetic study of Great Britain that revealed that there's no genetic difference between "Celtic people" and "Anglo-Saxons": the invaders brought their language and their culture but didn't replace the people who lived there.

Northern Africa was a civilized region with an high population density, the Arabs brought their religion and culture but the DNA of the people living there is probably for the most part of Numidian and Phoenician origin.

Of course you can make of this what you want, most people don't know that "whiteness" is only a (mostly Northern American) cultural construct, in Europe for example the language you speak and the area you were born are usually much more important; a "white" Romanian has not an easy life in Spain or Italy, where the locals are somewhere more similar to Northern Africans than to the archetypical "white".

7:00 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hey Anonymous,

Great point about the "agricultural populations". That feels very right to me. I certainly know there has been tons of shifting and movement and conquest etc, but at the same time I bet the DNA of a region has historically been pretty resilient. The modern world may have changed that in many ways, but I'm sure it holds true in many cases.

I certainly believe that "whiteness" is a cultural construct. As is "blackness". For better and worse, though, those constructs have shaped people's lives for some time now.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you noticed this NYT article a few months ago? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/31/science/31genes.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

Read "19th century" instead of 18th, of course. It's sometime baffling to think about how many of our ideas about the past are just the product of 19th centuries fantasies, the role of women, for example, which was very different in the real Middle Ages from what most people think, or racial superiority or inferiority, which didn't exist as a concept until the 17th century or even later. Look at Alessandro de' Medici.

Or even in Roman times, nobody makes a great deal of the "blackness" of Indians, or Nubians, nobody finds strange if a few Roman emperors are of Northern African (the Severan) or Arabian (Philip) origin.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Gordon said...

I dislike when an offended person states that the offending piece of work is destructive as it offers a differing view of the 'accepted norm'. World views differ. Countering views/interpretations are not good nor bad. They just are. It is insulting when the offended states that a differing view will cause destructive confusion. We all have the ability to examine countering points and make our own decisions. To dismiss a countering point of view in such a way is ignorant and combative.

1:39 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Anonymous,

Interesting article. I missed, but thanks for the link!

Gordon,

You give me pause for thought. I agree with you, but then I start thinking about projects that I find historical inaccurate in ways that concern me.

Like 300, for example. I bet a lot of people uneducated about the subject matter leave that film with highly inaccurate conceptions of Spartans and of Persians. It's not like Zack Snyder and Frank Miller created an arguably authentic version of ancient Persians. Instead they used their name and a few details for their own purposes entirely. Considering that we're (the US) at odds with modern day Persians it does feel unfortunate that they were depicted in the ways that had so little to do with the historical record. (And, no, that doesn't mean I'd prefer a "touchy/feely" version of Xerxes. It just means I think you could get a good film out of something more accurate as well.)

I suppose I could have written Zach hate mail of my own. I didn't. 1) because it wouldn't matter in the slightest. 2) because it wouldn't occur to me to do so. 3) because if Zack ever wants a piece of one of my books he'll be my new best friend. 4) as a person of color my outrage has been tempered by a long, long history of misrepresentation and outright lies. It's a fact of life and has been for a long time. For me, the way to change that is by being proactive, not reactive.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Anubis said...

@Gordon:

I don't know if what you're saying really explains the situation. B said that he knew the truth and DAD was a liar. He didn't say that he has a worldview that differs from DAD's worldview. He rather was supposing that he and DAD were talking about the same thing, only that he was zealous for the truth, while DAD was spreading lies about it.

I think that when our worldview is concerned, or something we consider important (for whatever reason), we really are convinced that it is the truth we are saying. At least I never heard people uttering things like 'I really do believe people should be free to decide on their own, but if you prefer to obey some dictator's orders, that's alright as well' (or at the very least, I never found it convincing when people say things like that).

I believe we rather should start asking questions like 'how do you know what you're saying is true?' or 'why do you believe this is important?', because accusing people of lying on the one hand and saying that worldviews differ and there is no discerning good and bad on the other hand – those may be different in the outcome, but both never even touched the crucial question: why do we think something is true (or good, or right), and how did we get there?

9:54 AM  
Blogger Brendan McGinley said...

We took a similar tack on "Hannibal Goes to Rome" though of course we had to commit to some kind of look. The simplest thing to do seemed to be to shoot for Hannibal who looked like a modern-day Tunisian, even though the Berbers and such had yet to pass through Carthage.

I don't believe I gave the artists any direction as to how he looked in the script but when the final designs came in, I did ask them to darken his skin so he could be more ambiguously Semitic/North African/etc.

There was a pretty nifty special on The History Channel awhile back that used a black actor to portray Hannibal. Great! It is a reasonable portrayal. You can see how that would easily be so. Our middle eastern Hannibal? Also a reasonable portrayal. Not reasonable? Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hannibal. Sure, it's possible. We don't know much. But what we know suggests it's not likely.

If you look at our earlier chapters, the art coming in did make the Punic army look pretty European, so I made a joke about "Let's not get into it" and asked the artists to diversify the multi-national in future issues. Would I like those earlier issues to show a more African Punic army? Absolutely, but I didn't have the time or budget to have the artists go back and touch everything up. But you can see that from the start the Numidians look more African than the Phoenicians, who look more African and middle eastern than the Carpetani, etc.

As you've said, David, there was plenty of inter-marriage in the area, and "race" wasn't really the concept we make it to be.
People back then defined each other far more by their clan/tribe/nation.

Plus the Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture so it's not like a major metropolitan nexus is going to stay purely Punic (whatever Punic was in the first place). How much did that touch the nobility? Hopefully a bit, as you'd hate to think the ruling class were simply intermarrying for 500 years. Genetic testing's going to show we're ALL Punic and Latin and whatever other empires sprawled across half the world. And I say that's awesome. I can't wait to discover I'm secretly...I dunno, Russian or Chinese or Khoisan or something. But only because it's fun to find these things out.

Regardless, this fellow B is on weak ground because the original settlers were Semitic, and while that's obscure to us too, at the very least modern Semitic groups assuredly don't look terribly Western European.

I did have one prominent comics reviewer tell me he wasn't interested in our strip because Hannibal wasn't "African" enough, which grated me a bit. That seemed pretty unprofessional to me, not reading an otherwise acceptable book because of an historically undefined point that doesn't affect
the story. I mean, that makes me out to be some sort of racial revisionist, which I'm assuredly not.

It's an extinct civilization from 2000 years ago. Even if the question were ever settled, it's not going to put a feather in anyone's cap. I mean, I'm half Irish, but that doesn't mean I have anything to do with Patrick Pearse. I don't even have anything to do with George Washington, and at least he's from the same country as me.

Basically it boils down to "Who knows?" and really, from there, "Who cares?"

Eugh. Sorry for the rant. I guess I've been sensitive about this ever since that guy made me feel like I was somehow out to prove Hannibal was what this fellow writing to you believes.

5:43 PM  

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