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 David Anthony Durham
The first story I wrote as a “serious” undergraduate writer was called “Hannibal, on an Elephant”. It was about an elementary-aged black kid growing up in a conservative, white neighborhood in the 1980’s. This kid – Marcus, I think his name was – was the only person of color in his class, and he felt it like a glowing stamp on his forehead each and every minute of the school day.
The story begins as a catalogue of small, racially influenced events. Marcus overhears two kids making a racist joke in the lunch line. One of them sees him, gets awkward, says, “We don’t mean you. You’re not like them.” During a dispute over a pencil trade, a kid calls Marcus a nigger. The teacher notices the altercation, calls the boys up and asks what happened. Marcus admits that the boy called him a name, but doesn’t want to say it. The teacher – with the entire class watching – makes him say the word. Nigger. The weight of it, the pain of having heard it, of having to say it, of naming himself in front of the entire class… is too much. Marcus breaks down in tears, which only makes it all worse. There are a few other similar incidents.
As children will do, Marcus internalizes all of this, places the blame on himself, and wishes he was different. If only he wasn’t black than all these uncomfortable situations wouldn’t happen!
Okay, let’s get to the turning point. Another day Marcus is out in a store when he bumps into an African-American friend of his parents. The man asks him about school, what he’s studying, etc. When Marcus mentions that he learned about Hannibal and Rome the man asks him if he knew that Hannibal was black? Marcus is stumped. What? Dumbfounded. What? No, he certainly had not! Days later, the man sends him a calendar with “Heroes of the African World” in vivid illustrations. One of them, sure enough, is Hannibal.
That night, Marcus stares up at his ceiling, watching images of an army mounted on elephants marching over the snow-covered Alps, dark-skinned men in armor, with weapons, figures from history with a skin not that different than his own. It is, for him, a great awakening. Suddenly the world is bigger than he knew, much larger than his suburban neighborhood. History is longer, more complex, much more multi-hued.
That was my first real story. You know what they say, of course. Early stories are likely to be autobiographical. That one was. I was Marcus. I experienced all those moments, and in some variation had that cultural awakening, spurred by images of Hannibal. My awareness may not have happened in the tight time frame of the story, but the motion of it is accurate as far as I can remember. It marked the connection with history – and with the history of people of African heritage – that became fundamental to my life ever since.
I’m a novelist now, and my first two novels, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness, dealt with African-American history. My third, Pride of Carthage, is about Hannibal’s ancient war against Rome. When people ask me how I came to the subject, I can’t help but remember the boy I was and how important that revelation was to me.
My Hannibal novel is by no means a black and white conflict. It’s not about our contemporary racial hang-ups. I’ve grown to love complexity, and Hannibal’s war with Rome is that in everyway: multi-ethnic, international, polyglot, all about allegiances across tribal and regional lines, featuring convoluted disputes on which no side has complete claim to virtue. That’s the kind of story that I love and that has become the focus of my professional life. I trace its birth to that afternoon in my boyhood when some friend of my parents (I don’t actually remember who any more) so casually – and profoundly – rocked my world by introducing me to African history. I’m sure that man, long lost to me now, doesn’t know the effect he had on me, but his influence on my life will forever be part of my history.
In 1999, while living in France, David embarked on an historical novel set in the American West, featuring black homesteaders and cowboys. This novel, Gabriel’s Story, was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Best of 2001 pick, and a Booklist Editor’s Choice. David followed Gabriel’s Story with Walk Through Darkness, a novel of a runaway slave and the Scottish immigrant hired to track him. His third novel, Pride of Carthage, is a fictional exploration of the Second Punic War between Carthage and the early Roman Republic. Pride of Carthage was a Book Sense 76 pick and a finalist for the Legacy Award for Fiction.
David’s fourth book, Acacia, is a speculative novel set in an alternative world.
I did an interview with David for Fantasy magazine, which many ABW readers will find very interesting. In it we talk about creating multicultural worlds within fantasy structures. It’s awesome, though I say so myself.