Some of you may know I write historical fiction. Some of you may also know I’ve been chipping away on an Alexander the Great graphic novel. (Which this concept art is for)
My role as a historical graphic novelist has been stewing in the back of my mind for a while now. Actually, the stewing began when I first thought of The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya, but I already know my insights from that project. Be actively thoughtful. Be self aware of how your own biases and societal context influence your storytelling. Recognise the people before and around you. Use your power to bring up voices. Understand that the work of being a responsible author lasts beyond the final page of your story.
Such is the case for Alexander, The Servant and The Water of Life. What I have learnt from TCM still carries over, thank goodness.
However, since last November, I realised that Alexander is a different kettle of fish. I already knew this early on: the mindboggling breadth and scope of research material, the baggage carried by the subject, and the newness of everything. While TCM focused on a narrow historical context (Ottoman era Istanbulite migrates to Georgian era England), and had the advantage of me knowing the lead character for years prior (Zeynel, my precious nerd son…), Alexander was from scratch. I didn’t know just how many Alexander Romances I really needed to read. I didn’t know much about ancient Greek anything. I didn’t know an atom about Alexander the Great himself – really, it was zilch.
Which means my responsibilities this time have a somewhat different character. A different edge.
I don’t write historical fiction about royalties or the elite. The most I have ever been interested in is a well-to-do merchant. Even then, my merchant would have an uncommon edge; he is with the common people. That’s where my interests lie: in the common people. The ordinary people outside of the court who go about their daily ordinary lives and daily ordinary struggles. The ups and downs and ins and outs of aristocrats and royals don’t excite me as much.
Then why Alexander? Honestly, he’s an exception.
Not because he’s suddenly a royal that interests me. Seriously, no royal will ever interest me enough to make a GN out of their life, based on their biography alone. (Though King James of the King James Bible and the secret tunnel to his boyfriend make a convincing petition) Alexander came to me in a roundabout way. A trick. He fooled me to exception by showing me his resume: Macedonian king, prophecised Egyptian pharoah, Persian king, son of a god, Jewish convert, Christian hero, Muslim prophet. And he showed me how many different cultures have absorbed him into their folk mythology over 2000 years. Even as the world changed and his body laid somewhere in Egypt, his shade travelled the world. He’s the only secular figure with similar cultural-legendary reach as Jesus. King Arthur can’t claim that. Heck, even Odysseus can’t claim that. Oh, how could I have resisted? This is exactly what I am all about.
This is all Alexander by the way.
The common people’s Alexander.
The story of how different places have appropriated and localised him over time. Gave him different faces. Gave him slightly different names. Gave him quests and adventures and stories that had absolutely nothing to do with ancient Greece. Made him the believer of a pantheon into a believer of a singular God.
What brought me here is this literal embodiment of world literature. But he’s not an epic. He’s popular legend. And he doesn’t belong to any one culture or time or place. He’s everywhere.
But like I said, this kettle of fish is different.
Alexander the Great is not exactly the most obscure of histories. He’s a military idol. A national figurehead. He was a man. He was from ancient Greece. He’s claimed as a “heritage of the Western (read: white) world”, an excuse for why conquest is the legacy of the white, Western man. This is Alexander’s baggage, as I call it.
As a woman of colour (WOC) author from the global south, I’m aware of my (small, individual amount of) power to bring up unheard of histories. Unseen biographies of little known people. A glimpse into outside cultures and voices that Western-dominated media and education gloss over like wallpaper. I could have written about Puteri Gunung Ledang, or May 13th 1969, or the history of how my family came to Malaysia sometime during the Xinhai Revolution. I have no obligation to write about Alexander, because until last November, he was seriously a cultural nobody to me. I have no stake in the furthering the hegemony of Western history.
And I think, maybe not owning that stake is why it’s necessary.
Just as important as minorities writing about little known histories, minorities should write about the histories that are taken for granted. Because of our unique experiences with the consequences of colonialism, slavery, violence, discrimination, dehumanisation, etc, we look at history differently. It’s not about who wins or who loses. It’s about who is missing, who is harmed, what is lost…the gaps made by what was edited out.
With those glasses on, history taken for granted – if not already thoroughly given a critical cleansing – is shown to be what it really is: a history that isn’t as well-known as we thought. (and that’s okay)
I won’t be alone in saying I had no clue Alexander belonged to nobody and everybody (because everyone in the old world has an Alexander). For a long time, Western white history was gatekept, using the reasoning that whatever they claimed had an easy connect-the-dots relationship to their present day (even though I always knew that claim was oversimplified, anti-intellectual thinking). But, all of these things are simply whitewashed facades. The truth is that, like Greco-Roman everything, like Norse history, like Christian destiny, they are more complex, more diverse, more ambiguous, than what these facades can contain.
Just working with Alexander through the framework of the Alexander Romance already blows up general misconceptions about history: that history was a bubble, homogenous and separated from each other (“Egyptian history” “Chinese history” “Roman history”, “Christian world”, “Muslim world” “East”, “West”), rarely interacting and influencing.
And looking at Alexander’s actual biography says a lot about how open the world already was in his time. He was king of three empires. His pre-Hellenistic world was multicultural and diverse. It wasn’t all white marble statues. It was, like what reality is, painted technicolour marble statues.
The Victorian era archeologists who whitewashed those statues stripped off more than just the colour. They took off knowledge.
After a lot of thinking, I feel like I’m in a good place to make a GN about Alexander and the Alexander Romance.
It’s not a confidence thing, though tbh, I believe that as a WOC creator from the global south I cannot afford to doubt myself. It’s more about the position I am in and the new perspective I can offer about a historical-legendary figure taken for granted. And there’s my endless well of passion for multicolour histories. Alongside my desire to decolonialise everything.
It’s not a loss that I have chosen to work on a history taken for granted. Historical GNs are still dominated by the white Western cis-male perspective, both in subject and authorship. To be clear, I wouldn’t consider that particular perspective wrong or lesser on its own. My only qualm is when that perspective becomes the majority perspective, or worst the only perspective, which is given to an audience. I always think about this TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie, about the Danger of a Single Story:
“So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
Me being here, telling an entirely different story, is a statement by itself.
Even then, I shouldn’t need to justify my choice. Whether it’s to a person who tells me I shouldn’t pursue Alexander because he’s a part of the dominant narrative, or to another person who tells me that as a minority creator I must adhere to my social responsibility (responsibility demanded by whom?) to tell little known histories or stories. Again, in my case, I think it’s not a loss which way I go, Alexander or not, because whatever I write is going to be a different story.
I think the only loss is when there aren’t still yet more marginalised authors to take on both the little known histories and histories taken for granted. The project of diversifying storytelling is not demanding the few marginalised voices to choose the correct, exotic, culturally-representative dish they had to bring to the potluck, but making the table wider, inviting more voices, so that, by author’s choice, any dish can be present and enjoyed by everyone.
My choice in whatever story I desire to write, as long as it doesn’t bring harm and intolerance and it undergoes the necessary self-interrogation, should be a choice that is already given. If white, Western authors can have this freedom, why not everyone else? Why must minority voices be defaulted to never having this good faith at the start?
Is it not enough that we already suffer from a lack of representation and a lack of self-esteem? Must our hands be tied even tighter, to be told that even our own voice cannot be trusted, because that trust has been abused over and over by the dominant voice?
Every new voice that is encouraged to speak is one more step towards making the table bigger.
This is one of my responsibilities of being a (historical) graphic novelist. I am here to encourage, and to make the table bigger. I am here to say, oh look, this particular history is exciting too, see how weird and creative and large the world already was.
And for Alexander GN in particular, it’s about showing that we have shared a historical-literary figure. That Alexander (and his baggage) isn’t immune to criticism. That by bringing him back the way I’m planning to, I’m no longer just talking about Alexander of Macedon. I am talking about Sikandar. I am talking about Alisaunder. I am talking about the Alexander conceptualised by Nizami, by Arrian, by Joseph Flavius, by every hand who has ever written and drew their own Alexander.*
Already, is that not a hundred different stories?
* despite the fact all of these voices were male…well that’s gonna change
There will be time for me to write of lesser-known histories, if I feel the calling. Maybe I won’t ever. (I did tell myself The Carpet Merchant was the last historical GN I’ll ever do in forever…here I am. Nothing is predicted.) And if I’m not compelled, again, that is not a loss.
I am not the only one with a voice.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She creates the webcomics The World in Deeper Inspection, and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya; the latter of which is the first Malaysian graphic novel to be Eisner-nominated.
Currently writing and drawing a whole bunch of stuff. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur
Dec 21 – 22