If you want to talk about “responsibility” on the part of individual authors, you can go ahead and read it from the horse’s mouth.
He really believes he is basing this story on history, and that is his response to lack of and poor representation of people of color in his stories:
So let’s talk about the internet controversy about Oberyn Martell. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I commented on my blog. You can find a more studied response there. I made a couple of comments as to what people said about that. I always pictured Oberyn Martell in my head as a — what I call a Mediterranean type. I know people attacked me for that by saying “He’s ignorant, he doesn’t know that Africa is on the Mediterranean.” No, I know Africa is on the Mediterranean. But in common parlance, when you say Mediterranean you are thinking Greek, Italian, Spanish. When you are thinking Moroccan or Tunisian that’s North African. That’s the way people talk about that.
I always pictured the Martells and the salty Dornishman as Mediterraneans, so the casting I think is perfectly appropriate with what I wrote in the books. I do sympathize. I mean, I understand.
Some people have written me some very heartfelt letters, and I’ve tried to respond to them about how they wanted to see someone who looked like them in the books, and how they were [disappointed]. They had pictures of the Martells looking like them, and they were disappointed.
I understand that, but it still wasn’t my intent to make… Even the terminology here is such a land mine. I don’t even know what words to use here “black” or “African.” I used African at one point, sort of like African American. [But] if you use “African” you are guilty for saying all Africans are the same.
I don’t know. I am drawing from history, even though its fantasy. I’ve read a lot of history, The War of the Roses, The Hundred Years War. The World back then was very diverse. Culturally it was perhaps more diverse then our world, but travel was very difficult back then. So even though there might have been many different races and ethnicities and peoples, they didn’t necessarily mix a great deal. I’m drawing largely on medieval England, medieval Scotland, to some extent medieval France. There was an occasional person of color, but certainly not in any great numbers.
^ I consider this to be a cop out. Added on to the fact that he seems more concerned about getting criticized for using the wrong word than massive disappointment on the part of his own fan base. It more or less reeks of “everyone’s so P.C. these days! Ugh!”
I mean, there is plenty of historical precedent for even large numbers of various people of color in all of those nations. You can read articles about forensic archeology and recent discoveries that have challenged these notions to the breaking point. Like, as in 20% people of color. Take 4th Century York, England. According to Dr. Hella Eckhardt:
“It helps paint a picture of a Roman York that was hugely diverse and which included among its population, men, women and children of high status from Romanised North Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.”
Eboracum (York) was both a legionary fortress and civilian settlement, and ultimately became the capital of Britannia Inferior. York was also visited by two Emperors, the North-African-born Emperor Septimius Severus, and later Constantius I (both of whom died in York). All these factors provide potential circumstances for immigration to York, and for the foundation of a multicultural and diverse community.
I can tell you the same things about Scotland, France, Central Europe…all these regions had seen large influxes of immigrants in the late Roman and early Medieval Eras. After all, these people didn’t just disappear hundreds of years later when historians decided a new “period” of history had begun! There’s plenty of primary sources and documentation that many specifically Black people lived and worked in various Medieval European cities and towns.
Also, speaking of Empires, there was also a rather important Mongolian Empire that happened firmly within an time frame that is pretty universally recognized as “Medieval”. Which, very unfortunately, brings us to the Dothraki.
Here’s GRRM, from the same interview, on the Dothraki:
People complain that the Dothraki are this one-dimensional barbarian society.
I haven’t had a Dothraki viewpoint character though.
I guess it’s too late to introduce one now.
I could introduce a Dothraki viewpoint character, but I already have like sixteen viewpoint characters. I could kill some of my viewpoint characters, to get down to the seven or eight I started with, or some numerical equivalent. The Dothraki are partially based on the Huns and the Mongols, some extent the steppe tribes like the Alvars and Magyars. I put in a few elements of the Amerindian plains tribes and those peoples, and then I threw in some purely fantasy elements. It’s fantasy.
Are they barbaric? Yeah, but the Mongols were, too. Genghis Khan — I just saw an interesting movie about Ghengis Khan, recently. I’ve read books about Genghis Khan, and he’s one of history’s more fascinating, charismatic characters. The Mongols became very sophisticated at certain points, but they were certainly not sophisticated when they started out, and even at the height of their sophistication they were fond of doing things like giant piles of heads. “Surrender your city to me, or we will come in and kill all the men, rape all the women and make a giant pile of heads." They did that a few times, and other cities said, "Surrender is good. We’ll surrender. We’ll pay the taxes. No pile of heads, please.”
*puts hands over face*
Okay, let’s talk about how and why a guy who “reads a lot of history” gets this kind of idea about Mongol people, and apparently friggin Plains NDNs people as well (TW for murder gore, rape at link and f*ck you very much Mr. Martin, jeeeeebus.)
There is no equivalent for the Dothraki in history. What people point to most often is the Mongol invasions in Asia and Europe, but these generalizations are originally extrapolated mostly from the accounts from invaded nations written by someone who had heard this or that about what had happened. I’m not saying like, “such and such never happened” I’m saying it didn’t always happen, and also that there’s a lot more to the story, and also that this narrative dominates for a reason.
We’ll do an example. Here you have something like this from UWGB, which heads up their “Mongol Values” section with a supposed quote from Genghis Khan. Here’s what the claim is, right? We have this translation of something he supposedly said here:
The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.
Okay, so basically, Conan the Barbarian. The article, which, might I remind you, is on a college site, goes on from this to say:
Or to paraphrase it in the bluntest possible modern terms: “To kill people, take their property, see and enjoy the pain you have caused their families, and rape their women as a final gesture of power.”
Okay, well that’s is a pretty big “I decided this means exactly what I already expected someone I think Genghis Khan was like would say.”Even if you did decide to take this at face value…that’s still not the casual attitude toward sexual violence the Dothraki demonstrate, it’s the opposite.
I could go into how women in Mongol culture had a great deal of power (which doesn’t necessarily translate into conquered women being perceived as equivalent, but might I remind you that Dothraki women in ASOIAF appear to be chattel with zero bodily autonomy evidence of sentience, for the most part), or how women having sociopolitical power does not equal a lessening of sexual violence by necessity….but.
I could mention that the way in which Genghis Khan was able to stabilize and actually rule such a vast empire was by giving conquered MEN to his DAUGHTERS in marriage, but then took these husbands out on campaign with him, and replaced them as needed when they died. Or that his empire was actually inherited by his daughters.
And then this article goes on to make statements about we know from Genghis Khan’s attitudes and sadistic enjoyments (more or less) that hope for humanity’s goodness will always be futile, because there will always be Hitlers and Stalins.
^^^That is their section on “Mongol Values”. D:
People who claim that GRRM’s Dothraki are realistically based on Mongolian or Plains NDN culture are pretty much in “Einstein and Hammurabi Disco Dance in a Hot-Air Balloon" territory.
Thanks to Historians like the above and GRRM, people think “Mongolian=pile of heads, nonstop rape” . There’s no Khutulun, Wrestler Princess, among the Dothraki. There is no Queen Manduhui, no Lady Hö’elün, no Empress Chabi, no Sorghatani Beki, no mention of The Great Khanum and eight princesses Ruy González de Clavijo saw and marveled at in 1403.
GRRM took a society of women who could own property, divorce at will, hold political office and positions of military command, and replaced them with visibly dirty, grunting animals being raped publicly in the dirt [tw link for an image of what i just described].
Because “historical accuracy”.
Because oh, well it’s already done and it’s too late to change it now.
Actually, all of it sounds incredibly familiar:
"We cannot simply change it"
"I could introduce a Dothraki viewpoint character, but I already have like sixteen viewpoint characters"
"I guess it’s too late to introduce one now."
It’s always too little, too late, try again, make your own, better luck next time.
So, when do we get to stop being force-fed vile stereotypes with our fantasy? When do we get wish-fulfillment and escapism?
The bottom line is, I don’t know because the this is the industry right now:
How are supposed to break the vicious cycle of whiteness in publishing, whiteness of SF/F authors, whiteness of characters, othering, misogyny, degradation, stereotypes, and a history of a Black-White Good-Evil dichotomy?
Why does it matter? Because people think this is real, people think this is accurate, people think this is acceptable, people think this is historical, including, apparently, the people who are writing these stories.
We must change the narrative to change our stories, because lies about the past are in danger of dictating our futures.
That last line is the money quote right there. THIS is why I feel like it’s a downright moral duty for every writer—not just those who are POC—to portray a variety of characters, as full, complex, fascinating human beings.
There is great power in art. To brush it off as “it’d just be too hard to get another viewpoint in here” is an injustice. There are worlds upon worlds of wonderful characters that should see the light of day, who could make readers fall in love with them and discover a little more love for their fellow people in this world.