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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