My Choices in Song of the Nile

February 2, 2012

The life of Cleopatra Selene is a story so unlikely that magic sometimes seems like the only explanation.

But that isn’t why I chose to include magical realism in my book. I included my heroine’s ability to commune with her goddess through bloody hieroglyphs and some dominion over the wind, because I wanted my novels to be allegorical. I wanted to say something about the faith that sustained this young woman through her parents’ suicides and the murder of her siblings. I also wanted to tap into a more authentic portrayal of the ancients, for whom magic was a real, every day phenomenon.

I had similar reasons for including rape in Song of the Nile.

I could say that I did it for historical authenticity, as if there were no choice on my part and I was merely tyrannized by the facts, but that would be disingenuous. Some have argued that editorial choices need not be dictated by history and I mostly agree with that statement. For example, it’s rare to encounter an unappealing hero or heroine even though it’s historically authentic to portray our characters as having bad teeth, bad breath, and horrible hygiene. (Okay, maybe not the latter in the case of the Romans, but you get the point.)

In short, even though history does constrain and dictate, authors still make choices about what to include so as to cater to an audience’s desires. But I would also argue that in a book where historical hygiene is an important metaphor, or illustrative of some greater point, it would be criminal to leave it out. It just so happens that not much in the artistic world hinges upon whether or not a character has bad breath.

By contrast, the constant threat of sexual violence under which historical women lived–almost entirely without recourse–is not only relevant to understanding their world, but also to understanding our own.

Rape is as omnipresent today as it was in ancient times–it’s just that only recently has it become recognized or rediscovered as a crime against women. In Selene’s time, such an offense would be viewed largely through a prism of how a rape might taint the honor of her father or husband. That’s an important shift in the progress of women’s equality and our recognition as full human beings. I believe, and have always believed, that it’s important to juxtapose our current reality with where we came from.

The Romans had a complicated history with rape. On the one hand, their origin story revolves around the famous “Rape of the Sabine Women” which consisted of a bunch of kidnappings, forced marriages and rapes in the more modern sense of the word. They were quite proud of this and re-enacted it during their wedding ceremonies. (Something I found appalling and wanted to address in my novel.) On the other hand, one of the great Roman heroines was Lucretia, who told her husband about her rape–and was believed. (Of course, then she killed herself, as the Romans believed a ‘shamed’ heroine must.)

Unfortunately, the Roman ideal of how women should respond to violation has woven itself into the very fabric of modern society. And insofar as fiction is meant to educate and enlighten, these are not trivial reasons for including a rape scene.

They certainly figured into my decision.

But art isn’t only about education and enlightenment. It’s meant to explore, to communicate, to spur the imagination and to provoke. So beyond the sociological reasons, I also had artistic ones.

Selene was the daughter of the most infamous seductress in the history of western civilization. Cleopatra was a strong and capable woman who came to be known, thanks to her enemy, almost entirely for her sexuality. This same enemy–a man who defined the respectable standards of female behavior not just in his time, but also well into our own–raised Cleopatra’s daughter in his own household until she was marriageable.

This made it imperative upon me, as an artistic endeavor, to explore his character and hers in the world I created, a combination of myth and history.

What kind of man was he, this Augustus, who was said to debauch virgins that his wife procured for him? A man who seems to have been obsessed with Cleopatra, long after she was dead. How would a man like Augustus, who was incapable of using might on a battlefield except through his friend Agrippa, have wielded power over the women in his household? (This is a man who banished his own daughter to a tiny island. She eventually starved to death.)

I wanted to know his dark soul.

I also wanted to know Selene’s soul. Her coping mechanisms. Her resilience. I wanted to imagine how she navigated the treacherous waters of imperial Rome. Why she always appears so modest in her statues, veiled and covered up. Why she was never known for any scandal during her long marriage to King Juba II. And I wanted to explore her story against that of the goddess with whom she would be linked–Kore.

You may have heard of Persephone or Proserpina but in Selene’s time, the goddess of spring who was raped by the god of the underworld was called Kore. Her story is immortal. Collecting flowers with her maidens in a field, she is taken by the dark lord of Hades. Her mother, in her grief, turns the whole world fallow. It is her mother–not her father–who fights to free Kore. Hearing that he must release the girl, the god of the underworld tricks Kore into eating the pomegranate seeds to ensure she is never entirely free of him.

Selene’s life seemed very much like that to me, so I exploited her biography and the myth in equal measure to make both come alive. That’s why I wrote a rape scene into my novel and why I’d do it again, but I don’t expect everyone to love that choice.

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16 Responses to My Choices in Song of the Nile

  • You’ve made me think and I like that. Thank you.

  • Thank you for the clarification. Obviously, a significant issue, necessary to the story, as opposed to gratuitous violence. Too many novels still seem to employ rape as an alternative form of seduction, which is grossly offensive and dangerous.

  • Good article. I think sex (especially rape) is perfectly acceptable in any _adult_ novel as long as it is written in context, and not put there merely to titillate.
    As authors of historical fiction we are telling a story – if rape or violence is part of that story then why should it not be told?
    I feel the same about infidelity: I have come across several reviewers who mark a novel down because the male protagonist has been unfaithful to the main female character. Sex outside of marriage/partnership in the past is a part of history – many wives even welcomed it to save worrying about childbirth (one in four women died because of childbirth)
    I have also received comments because my battle scenes are apparently too violent – rape, adultery, bloody battles happened.
    Readers complain if a historical fiction novel is not accurate – yet they complain about the inclusion of the nastier side of life in the past. As authors we can’t win can we? #laugh

  • Having read the novel, I feel the text achieved the goals you stated here in the post very well. I was disturbed by the rape scene and I felt I was meant to be disturbed and hurt and angry. However, feeling uncomfortable about where a novel takes me, doesn\’t take away the enjoyment of the book. If anything, it makes me explore themes to an extent that a softball approach may not be able to do. Song of the Nile was about the power struggle between Selene and a larger than life character, Augustus. I found it compelling that she suffered kidnapping and rape, plus the injustice of being blamed by her husband, yet still manages to regain some sense of power and control over both of those men.

  • Stephanie

    I haven’t read your novel yet, but am impressed by your stance. Well done for being brave enough to explain yourself so eloquently. I would like to stress two points that are more or less implicit in what you have written.

    Firstly, the modern notion of romantic love derives from the middle ages, and would have been quite foreign to the ancients. The picture of the distressed delicate damsel in a castle tower, to whom one might pledge eternal loyalty in return for a kiss, or one’s life in return for simple recognition is epitomised in the songs and poetry of the Troubadours and is a later addition to the repertoire of love.

    The second is the point Michel Foucault makes in his several volumes of the History of Sexuality: sex, since ancient times, has aways been a tool either for immediate gratification or, more importantly, for demonstrating ownership of others, or simply for manipulating situations.

    I have more to say on this in my Byzantium for Beginners blog – in a post entitled “What’s (romantic) love got to do with it”.


    • Thank you so much for your remarks. I’ll be heading over to check out your blog post.

      I just want to clarify that while I would agree that romantic love as you describe it certainly arises in the middle ages, I would argue that romantic love in the sense that we understand it to be an abiding and true (often sexual) emotion between human beings has been around much longer than that. Maybe even longer than we’ve been a species. It may even be a biological construct.

      Certainly, some of the most beautiful and hauntingly aching love poetry comes from the ancients–even as filthy as Catullus and Ovid could be, there is some real expression of romantic love in there between the lines!

      But none of this is to contradict your point that sex was used as a tool to manipulate, dominate, etc.

  • You state the point eloquently, Stephanie. Seems our choice as scribes is to either sanitize history to appease the gods and goddesses of consumerism, or to follow (if we choose) clear and powerful insights into the unspeakable past. I have experienced similar criticisms of my novel, which intentionally asked historical fiction readers to consider the abuse of women (and children) as it existed in 17th century New England. (See my Past Times Books blog essay entitled: “The Collective Ghosts of Salem”) @suzywitten #theafflictedgirls

    Suzy Witten

  • I think when so much thought goes behind potentially controversial decisions, they are never poorly made. And I am sure your depiction will be a key moment in the plot and character development. Looking forward to finding out soon…Song of the Nile is creeping closer to the top of my “To Read” stack!

  • Try not to pelt me with rotten fruit for this but in ancient rome the rape of foreign women and men and slaves was not considered rape in the eyes of the Ancient Romans. It was something Augustus convientley or delibretly left out of his Julian laws and allowed men to get arouned it. I also believe Augustus was the Roman Emperor to legalize concubinage for Roman men.

    • I was vaguely aware of this but did not go looking for a specific citation. Do you happen to have one? If true, this would, of course, support my comments about the complicated relationship they had with rape. It would also tend to confirm my decision and reasons to include the rape scene in my book.

  • In the Julian laws sex with slaves was not considered adultry although to be fair Augustus did legalize marriage between roman men and freedwomen (except for senators) and their children were considered legitimate. As for concubinage Augustus was i think the Emperor that did legalize civil partnerships such couples include Calpurnia and Claudius,Nero and Acte, and my personel faviorite Vespasian and Caenis but any children they may have had wouldnt have been considered legitimate unless they married which being Emperors they couldnt although Nero did try.