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Story Excerpt:


Dorothy Winterman's "African Amazon" outfit

It is day 15 of our arduous journey through the veldts of Nigeria (or are we in Cameroon yet?). Our tracker Adeola has discovered new tracks and scraps of fibers from obviously foreign cloths. She can find a single iguana track amongst a bevy of crocodiles, this one can. We listen intently that these “men” are probably several hours, if not a day away. We find evidence of them through their encampments, their excrement and their litter. Yes, litter. Can you imagine- these foreigners, these soldiers, these baby snatching, people annihilating, genocidal rapists also throw their unwanted refuse upon our beautiful, sacred ground. Well if you can march hordes of innocent groups of human beings to ships waiting to whisk them away to be enslaved, massacred and destroyed in a whole different place on this globe, throwing down unwanted garbage must not mean much. I guess it truly lies in one’s perspective, does it not?

I think to myself, “Did I travel back in time for this?”

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"The Adriatic has its Venice and its gondolas,
The Atlantic has its Ganvié, so much envied.
I will praise you everywhere, Ganvié,
Venice of my country, you will soon be
The center of the world, and men from all horizons
Will be dying to come and dream on your waters,
Around your magic and haughty huts,
Amid your slender and light canoes"

by Eustache Prudencio


Overhead view of Gavnie. Click for source.

Ganvié is a water town situated on the northern edge of the Lake Nokoué in southern Benin. Marketed as the 'Venice of Africa', Ganvié is probably the most well-known and foremost among other lacustrine villages in the same region. Ganvié is a favourite among tourists to Benin with the government policy aimed at transforming the town into a major tourist attraction. As Ganvié is considered a rarity on the African continent, due to the fact that the town was built on a lake, information on socio-economic activities, the physical environment and the modern-day ecological effects of human settlements on the surrounding Lake Nokoué is readily available. Incidentally, I learnt of Ganvié from a magazine article on the impact of climate change on the region. Less information is readily available on Ganvié's fascinating history; Ganvié was founded by people in an effort to escape captivity and enslavement in the Americas.

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Elsa's steampunk'd folding walking cane, made in accordance with walking canes for the visually-impaired. Designed and crafted by Michael Salerno.

Before I can begin telling you about eyepatches in the steampunk community, I should probably explain why I'm qualified to discuss the issue. I was born with cataracts. I was fortunate enough to maintain the sight in my left eye, but I can't see anything out of my right. I would wear an eyepatch, but unfortunately since I'm not allowed to wear contact lenses the ability to accessorize with a patch is completely out of reach. Not only that, but I carry a white cane because I have no depth perception. Those of you who have worn an eyepatch probably have experienced this issue. This is what I have to talk to you about today – why on earth would someone choose to impair themselves for fashion purposes, especially given that the disability which you are using is often one that comes with serious emotional attachments. To be clear, I wear corsets, and so do a lot of other people, but rarely is the dialogue associated with a corset one in which the individual wearing it says that they wear the corset because of an injury.

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The City of Light is the journal of the travels of Jacob D'Ancona, a 13th century pious Jewish merchant. Readers follow Jacob on a three-year journey, starting from his hometown of Ancona in present-day Italy, overland through Damascus and Baghdad, and then by sea, stopping at various ports and places until he reaches the city of Zaitun, modern-day Quanzhou, where he stays to buy goods and talk to the scholars of the city. It consists of equal parts travelogue/memoir and a philosophical discussion of medieval Jewish and Chinese ideas.

This was a time when Jews had restricted access to jobs or freedom to run their own lives. In medieval Europe, Jews often had to wear physical signals of their faith: yellow stripes or stars. Jews had restricted job and social opportunities: they were often forbidden from interaction with Christians. In Muslim lands, the restrictions for Jews were somewhat more relaxed, but Jews still paid higher taxes than Muslims did -- though not as high as those paid by the non-"People of the Book".

Jacob himself is an interesting exception to many of the typical rules. He travels with both Jews and Christians, and frequently mentions his young female Gentile servants' romantic lives. Furthermore, Jacob is a jack-of-all-trades, a Renaissance man in pre-Renaissance times. He's a traveler, a merchant, a scholar, a physician, an authority who is consulted by Jewish and Chinese communities alike. He speaks and writes in fluent Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Nearly everyone who meets him likes him. He's a bit too good to be true: in modern terms, he's a pretty big Mary Sue.

But the most compelling parts of the book are not Jacob, but the world he's seeing for the first time. The descriptions of Chinese life are vivid and lengthy, and the variety and extensiveness of the Chinese market was stunning and often unbelievable to European eyes. Jacob engages in lengthy discussions (through a translator) with Chinese scholars and even spends several weeks stuck in the sordid underworld, full of gambling, prostitutes, and illicit sex.

There's also political intrigue, and the threat of very real danger: At this time, northern China was under the rule of Kublai Khan and there was a very real threat of invasion by the "Tartars" -- for Europeans and the southern Chinese alike. Meanwhile, the Chinese community of scholars was divided itself between old and new ways of thinking.

Jacob finds many points of contact and connection between himself and several of the Chinese scholars, especially a man named Pitaco, who like Jacob was worried about the lack of respect in the younger generation, the stability of the country's morals, and the justification of trickle-down economics. Perhaps most fittingly for a book about contact and conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, Jacob's habit of pontificating ends up rubbing many Chinese scholars the wrong way. As the inhabitants of the city get upset about the amount of influence the foreign Jew has in the city, Jacob concludes his business and leaves in a hurry, fearing for his life.

There's really just one problem with the narrative: Jacob D'Ancona may have never existed.

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Aetherfest took place between April 29th - May 1st, 2011 in San Antonio, making it the first steampunk convention in Texas. I've been in touch with Pablo Vazquez for about a year now, and when he hinted last fall about an upcoming convention, I was more than thrilled to make my first Texan debut at his con. I was looking forward to meeting a new community, but was a bit nervous going myself. Luckily, Lucretia Dearfour accompanied me on this adventure, and we discovered that The Emperor of the Red Fork Empire was also a featured guest here. While at Aetherfest, the three of us interviewed several of the other guests and attendees at the con. That footage is still in post, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy the following reports & pictures from this event. Mr. Saturday (aka Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez III) is the co-chair for the event, and talks about what went on in prep for this con and how he thought it turned out. Author O. M. Grey writes about her experience as a special guest, and Lucretia Dearfour relates her con experience as well. All pictures are provided by me, unless otherwise noted.

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Note: While enjoying Wiscon this weekend (con report forthcoming), check out my latest review over at Tor.com. Delayed updates to Con Extravaganza & Asian Identities, Crossing Borders will be posted later this week.


During the Tribeca Film Festival, I managed to catch a showing of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Watching the preview, this film promised big set pieces, lots of fiery explosions, and awesome martial arts action. A film that has Chinese alternate history and features a detective worthy of Sherlock, a black market underground beneath the Forbidden City, and a plot involving the mechanics of building a 800-foot tall Buddha—it all sounds pretty steampunk-esque. When a post about it went up on Tor.com Steampunk, people scratched their heads about whether it would qualify, or if, yet again, a fad word had been plopped in by marketing.

I think it’s steampunk in the way James Ng’s art is, the way Shweta Narayan’s “Eyes of the Craven Emerald” is, the way that Yakoub Islam plans to write a Muslim steampunk story set in the twelfth century, and the way that Aether Age plays with the concept of highly industrialized ancient civilizations. So for any nay-sayers who are not calling this steampunk, then I suppose these don’t qualify either. But examining how technology can—and has—developed independently from Western influence is an idea that shouldn’t mark something as not being steampunk.

But enough squabbling about labels, because in the end, this is one kick-ass entertaining film in its own right.

Read the rest over at Tor.com.
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A portrait of Malik Ambar signed by Hashem (C 1624-25); photo courtesy V&A Images, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; A painting showing Jehangir shooting arrows into the severed head of Malik Ambar signed by Abul-Hasan (C 1616), © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (www.cbl.ie)

Earlier this year, my attention was drawn to a discussion on ‘India’s Elite Africans' held at the University of London:
“The dispersion of Africans is generally associated with slavery and the slave trade. Most Afro-Asians have been written out of history. Within this scenario, how was it possible for Africans to rule parts of Asia, not just for a few years but for three and a half centuries? Three scholars will address this issue and consider the current status of Elite Africans in India today.”

Due to my interest in Afro-Asian history, I know of relations between India and Eastern African states and kingdoms in history; however, I remained largely ignorant of elite Africans in Indian history. Malik Ambar is perhaps one of the most well-known Elite Africans due in part to his important role in Ahmadnagar history and to standing up to the Mughals.

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Bulgarian soldiers from the 19th century

My post’s title says it all--or at the very least I hope it does. At one point I figured that I’d like to write about the probability of Bulgarian steampunk developing as a genre niche and war, more or less, found its way into my writing. I believe that war is crucial for steampunk as it’s crucial for Bulgaria, in its different manifestations.

Speculative fiction fuels itself with war. The most dynamic stories are born in troubled times, as epic fantasy has shown readers time and time again. Urban fantasy thrives on shadow wars led in the dimly lit streets and hidden underground worlds, while science fiction marches its fleet in the great cosmos. Steampunk is no different. Steampunk runs on war. It’s the “punk” part. It’s the mechanical force that propels the cogs of the genre onward.

Whether it be used as a dramatic background in order to showcase a human story as done in “Boneshaker” by Cherie Priest or as a force behind the plot as demonstrated by Westerfield in his World War reimagining, war and unrest and upheavals give readers that adrenaline spike, that sense of dire severity and intensity, which can hardly be achieved at times of peace. It’s also the factor that makes us hiccup in adoration at the corset-bound, revolver slinging femme fatales and automations, which can as easily destroy as they can create. It’s why I consider Bulgarian steampunk to be a fruitful pairing.

It’s impossible to mention Bulgaria, look it through the prism of the past and not discuss war.

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The current war fought in Libya in these days is drawing attention on that country and its history. This article is about the history of Libya from ancient times until World War II.

Only in recent times has the term "Libya" been in use, indicating the territories between Tunisia and Egypt; before its colonization, the area was called Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, two territories that had a separate historic development for centuries.

Libya before Italian Occupation: A Brief History

Tripolitania was initially under the control of Phoenicians while Cyrenaica was under the control of Greeks, who between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE founded Cyrene, Arsinoe, Apollonia, Tolemaide and Berenice: this territory was called Pentapolis, for the five cities present. Tripolitania passed from Phoenician influence to Carthaginian and after the Punic war, during the 1st century BCE, under Roman control. Cyrenaica, on the other hand, was under Persian influence (6th century BCE), then became a part of Alexander the Great’s Empire and afterwards, was put under the Hellenistic Reign of Egypt.

In 75 BCE, Romans took possession of the Cyrenaica, creating the province of Creta and Cyrene. In 46 BCE, Tripolitania was organized in the Africa province.


Arch of Roman emperor Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 146–211) in Leptis Magna.

Roman domination was limited only to coastal regions where cities had a relevant development. It is to be noted that Libya, for the Romans, was an integral part of the Republic/Empire and not a colony in foreign land: from that part of the Empire came emperors, philosophers, and Popes.

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This Monday is the first night of Pesach, or Passover. In the days when the Temple was standing, every Jew was required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple and make an offering there. Around the world and on six continents, Jews still follow the same structure for a Passover seder, as outlined in the Haggadah nearly two thousand years ago. But Jews are not monolithic: each community adds its own variations and customs to the mix.


A picture from the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world. The Haggadah is the text that contains the order and the ritual traditions of the seder meal.

 


There are roughly three different strains of Jewish cultural movements, all of which have many different subgroups. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans forcibly removed Jews from their homeland and scattered them throughout the Empire. Thus, three distinct cultures emerged. The Ashkenazi Jews come from Central and Eastern Europe, and make up between 70 and 80% of the worldwide Jewish population. The Sephardi Jews settled in Spain and flourished under Muslim rule there: after the expulsion of Jews in 1492, many fled to Portugal, the Netherlands, and Southern Europe, including the Ottoman Empire (especially present-day Turkey and Greece). Finally, Mizrachi Jews, from the Hebrew word for “east”, were descendents of Jews who lived in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

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Vlisco model. Click for source.

“A picture of a pipe isn't necessarily a pipe, an image of “African fabric” isn't necessarily authentically [and wholly] African”.

These above words are quoted by Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian-British contemporary artist known for his amazing artwork using African print fabrics in his scrutiny of colonialism and post-colonialism. What is commonly known as “African fabric” goes by a multitude of names: Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais. I grew up calling them ankara and although they've always been a huge symbol of my Nigerian and African identity, I had no idea of the complex and culturally diverse history behind the very familiar fabrics until I discovered Yinka Shonibare and his art.

I know I personally felt shocked upon learning that the “African” fabrics I grew up loving and admiring were not really “African” in their origins (or is it?). This put things in perspective, however, as it suddenly made sense that my mother's friends regularly travelled to European countries, including Switzerland and England, to purchase these fabrics and expensive laces to sell them again in Nigeria. In an attempt to join this lucrative business, my mother once dragged me with her to a fabric store while on holiday in London. I was not 13 years old then and I recall being surprised to find such familiar fabrics on sale outside Nigeria. Regardless, I never imagined that the history of this African fabric, henceforth referred to as Dutch wax print, spanned over centuries, across three continents and bridging various power structures.

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Note: This is cross-posted with permission from Edwardian Promenade.

Madam C.J. Walker
"I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!"

Contrary to public opinion, Madam C.J. Walker did not invent the hot comb or relaxers, and neither was she the only African-American beautician during the Gilded Age. What the former Sarah Breedlove was, however, was incredibly intelligent–a savvy entrepreneur, pioneering businesswoman, and shrewd marketer, she turned African-American beauty culture into a multimillion dollar empire never before seen. In the post-Reconstruction period, black women were alternately neglected by the vastly increasing companies catering to women’s haircare, cosmetics, and beauty, or sold toxic concoctions by greedy companies which promised “lighter skin” and “straight hair”, but ended up creating more problems for black women desperate to conform to the very narrow standards of beauty of the late 19th century.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1871 title page. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Did Verne create “steampunk” characters in his novels? Though I cannot define Verne as being a steampunk writer, I can say that Verne’s works, while written in a cut and dry cataloguing style, nonetheless emphasizes moral and social qualities as much as it does scientific ones. Given these circumstances, I will consider what are considered important values that a person should have according to the characters in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1 and The Mysterious Island. 2 Moreover, by investigating the value systems these characters hold, we can compare how they hold up to the characters in today’s modern steampunk books.

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Moses Mendelssohn

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews who lived in Europe -- called Ashkenazim -- lived entirely separate lives from their Christian neighbors (who occasionally turned into their Christian persecutors). By monarchs' mandates, Jews were forced to live in ghettos (generally the worst part of a city), barred from most professions, and made to pay higher taxes. (One monarch forced Jews to buy rejected porcelain that his factories couldn't sell on all celebratory occasions.) Jews had to wear a yellow patch on their clothing and were frequently forbidden to travel or even leave the ghetto. The blood libel that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for rituals became common, and entire communities were either forcibly converted or murdered because of it. Some countries expelled all Jews from within their borders, including England. The idea that a Jew could be noble or trustworthy was laughable.

Even without these restrictions on Jews, Jewish communities knew to remain separate from the outside Christian world: there's even a line from the Ethics of the Fathers that warns against getting involved with the government.1 To marry outside the faith was seen as an act of rebellion, of rejecting the basic precepts of Judaism, and those who did were considered dead to the community. Most Jews in Eastern Europe could read and speak Hebrew but not the language of the kingdom in which they lived: in their daily lives they instead spoke a dialect of Yiddish, reserving Hebrew for prayer and study. A relatively small number of Jews lived outside of the ghetto, protected by their position and wealth.

The state of Jewish thought in that time was relatively poor. While most men and women were at least literate in Hebrew in prayers, few had any personal connection to the words. For the most part, Jewish thought was learning by rote the sayings of the generations before them. The people frequently reverted to mystical beliefs and messianism -- most famously Shabbatai Tzvi, the 17th century mystic who many thousands of Jews believed was the embodiment of the Mashiach, the one who will bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. When in 1666 Tsvi was given the option of death or conversion to Islam and picked the latter, Jewish faith was thrown into disarray.

Jewish standing in the world changed perhaps irrevocably because of the Enlightenment, which preached -- for the first time in the history of Western Civilization -- that all people are created equal, including the Jews. Along with the Enlightenment rose a new movement, the Jewish Enlightenment, called the Haskalah, which comes from the Hebrew word for "intellect".

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Note: This is the final segment in a four-part series by Eccentric Yoruba about Ancient Africa & China, cross-posted with her permission. Also, check out parts 1, 2, and 3.


Monument of Zheng He located in the Stadthuys, Melaka, Malaysia. Click for source.

Zheng He’s 7th expedition was his last and after years of moving back and forth between the East African coast and China, all contact ceased. Some people may look at this and say that the Chinese turned their backs on Africa, but if you look at the situation within China in that time, it sheds more light on this situation.
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage.

…Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared. The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels. (Source)
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Note: This week features Noah Meernaum, with a dual review of ROBOTIKA and its follow-up, ROBOTIKA: FOR A FEW RUBLES MORE.



Wherein the graphic series Robotika is seen to be mounting up and continuing into further outbound territory proclaimed to be steadily aided by an additional scribe (causing much trepidation upon the reviewer).





Robotika: For a Few Rubles More by Alex Sheikman (writer/illustrator), David Moran (writer/script), Joel Chua and Scott Keating (colors). Archaia Press, 2009



Alex Sheikman’s resplendently rendered comic concoction Robotika was (as serial albums often intentionally are) left largely open-ended regarding its leading characters and had rather boldly proclaimed that its odd cast would be drawn further forth within the sequential sequel subtitled For a Few Rubles More. I reckon most readers will recall that this secondary heading is an exchanged refrain rung from Sergio Leone’s notorious noodle western For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965) aptly referenced by Sheikman as a flipside further molded by Russian relations. This inflected impartment reflects upon Sheikman’s personal experience living in Russia and tenders due currency toward maliciously ‘made men’ or marked outlaws.



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Note: This week, Noah Meernaum (who previously wrote for Beyond Victoriana about racial representations in Weird West comics) returns with a dual review of ROBOTIKA and its follow-up, ROBOTIKA: FOR A FEW RUBLES MORE. The first review is below, and its companion piece will be posted on Monday.



Steampunk is currently continuing to be abundantly referenced to describe a vast array of fictional works that have presently arisen in the revitalized interest around this peculiar fantastic amalgam. Amid this extensive fictive outgrowth there is an increasing concentration towards advancing beyond any given geographical location, fixed elements, or customary Western outlooks surrounding steampunk. These alternate positions and views, while being openly encouraged as further imaginative formulations enlarging upon the allowable confines of this compound term, are sometimes held as far flung adoptions disproportionately conjoined of disagreeable parts or disparate plots.

One such decisive adaptive outthrust of steampunk is graphically pronounced in the comic series Robotika, that through its principal creator Alex Sheikman’s descriptive reference as being informed of a “samurai steampunk” is sure to directly incite those opposed to such an audacious concoction. Certainly this conjunction of Eastern emblems interacting with Western motifs is not novel in its projected mythical fusion. This perpetual exchange has stemmed from the pioneering films of Akira Kurosawa and continued in current re-shoots or re-slashes such as Takashai Mikke’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) and Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008). Afro Samurai (Manga or magazine format, 1999-2000) is another preceding animate example of engaging what would appear to be disparate cultural elements portrayed through alternate perspectives.

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Note: This is the second in a four-part series by Eccentric Yoruba, cross-posted with her permission. Here are parts 1 and 2. Check out the rest of her Ancient Africa & China series appearing every Friday throughout this month.

 




The Ming Dynasty's fleet of giant ships predates the Columbus expedition across the Atlantic. Photograph of the display in the China Court of the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai. Click for more info.

In 1414 a Chinese fleet heralded by the Muslim Grand Eunuch of the Three Treasures, Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) sailed into the western Indian Ocean for the fourth time since his journey to the East began in 1405. In previously, that is between 1405 and 1414, Zheng He and his ships had reached the ports of Indonesia, south-west India and Ceylon. However, the trip in 1414 was special because the fleet was advancing into more distant regions beyond South Asia and the Arabian Gulf and in the process, covering a larger total of water than any seafaring people had before.

Zheng He is frequently referred to as the Chinese Columbus and today he has become the personification of maritime endeavour for China. I am personally not fond of this comparison between Zheng He and Columbus; Zheng He was much cooler they shouldn’t even be compared. They are not on the same level in terms of their maritime adventures. Really to me calling Zheng He the Chinese Columbus actually dims his shine.

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Note: Cross-posted with permission from Yakoub Islam from his website The Muslim Age of Steam on The Steampunk Shariah.

Middle Eastern Astrolobe. 1291.
Middle Eastern Astrolobe. 1291.

In Summer 2009, I made the bold decision to write a full-length novel. It seemed like the perfect solution to a troubled and difficult decade, which had largely centred around caring for my autistic son: a return to an old passion – creative writing; a therapeutic outlet following a period of mental and physical illness; and perhaps a means of drawing together the various intellectual and spiritual threads that have informed my faith and eclectic reading over the last 20-odd years. I began by exploring the imaginative possibilities surrounding the first recorded Muslim visit to England, allegedly made by the twelfth century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. A small cast of characters was assembled, along with possible subplots, themes and a couple of draft chapters. Yet after twelve months of research and writing, the various elements of my intended novel remained disparate, and I almost gave it up.

I wondered whether the problem wasn’t down to a contradiction that I’m sure many writers have experienced – between creative and publishing ambitions. I wanted to write a one of a kind book, but who would want to read it?

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Note: This is the second in a four-part series by Eccentric Yoruba, cross-posted with her permission. Part 1 is here. Check out the rest of her Ancient Africa & China series appearing every Friday throughout this month.





Tao Xian purchasing Mo He." Ink sketch by Chen Xu





Kundun Servants as Magical Knight-Errants & Slaves




In my previous post I mentioned that I had read somewhere that two slaves given as gifts to the a Chinese Emperor by an Arab delegation were the first Africans to enter ancient China. This may have been wrong really because dark-skinned people were talked in China as early as the 4th century. They were referred to as kunlun, a term which had many previous meanings but by the 4th century was at attached to the people with dark skin.



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