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Lisa Goldstein, Author of WEIGHING SHADOWS, on Overcoming Assumptions About History


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Lisa Goldstein has written fourteen novels, among them THE UNCERTAIN PLACES, which won the Mythopoeic Award, and THE RED MAGICIAN, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband and their irrepressible Labrador retriever, Bonnie, in Oakland, California. Her web site is

Assumptions about History, and Trying to Overcome Them

by Lisa Goldstein

A few years ago I wrote an alternate-history story, “Paradise Is a Walled Garden,” in which Muslim Spain survived for longer than it did in our timeline. Al-Andulus, as the Muslims called it, had been the most advanced country in Europe at the time, and I speculated that if it had continued Europe’s scientific progress would have gone much faster, to the point where the Industrial Revolution would have happened in the sixteenth century.

The perception of Muslims in the United States is pretty off-kilter, to say the least, so I expected some backlash for the story. Instead, the most frequent comment I got was “There were Muslims in Spain?” And yet Al-Andulus had existed for nearly eight hundred years, from 711 to 1492 (two of the easiest dates in the world for Westerners to remember).

At around the same time I read a time-travel novel where people of color were not allowed to go on trips to the past in Europe, because those eras were considered dangerous for them. I had to wonder about this; just based on my research I knew that PoC in European history weren’t all that rare. Islam had reached sub-Saharan Africa, and some of those Africans would certainly have gone to Al-Andulus and other centers of learning in Europe. And then I found, which pretty much answered the question once and for all.

So when I started writing my own time-travel novel, Weighing Shadows, I knew I wanted to give as complete a picture of Europe as I could. I wanted to include women, people of color, people from the lower classes who’d been forgotten but who had made important contributions. I wanted to show just how rich European history is, how diverse, how different from what they taught in schools — well, my school, anyway. Not out of the goodness of my social-justice-loving heart, but because, as Medieval PoC’s motto has it, “You wouldn’t want to be historically inaccurate.”

One of the things I’d always wondered was how a matriarchal society would look. Who went out to work and who took care of the children? Who held the power, and how? What did the religion look like? Why did ancient Crete, which even the stuffiest gentleman scholar believed was a matriarchy, last for over a thousand years?

When I started to do research, though, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who had trouble imagining a society like this. A number of books on Crete called a beautiful chair in the palace at Knossos “the throne of King Minos” — but a matriarchy would have had a queen, not a king. One book, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete by Rodney Castleden, says, “‘Women’ and their children are mentioned on the tablets too, without any reference to menfolk, implying slavery and absent males.” But wouldn’t the women and children be listed because they were more important? (Parenthetically, I don’t know why “women” is in quotes here.)

I think we were all having so much trouble because it’s hard for us to get into the mindset of someone in the past, to step out of our own assumptions. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. For example, Cretans had murals on the walls of their buildings, and I wrote a description of a male artist up on a scaffolding painting one of them. Then I reread what I had written, beat myself up, and changed the artist into a woman.

Once I’d gotten the hang of it, though, it became easier — and actually kind of fun. Police, priests, advisers to the queen, bull-leapers, administrators, drunken partiers — I made most of them women. I even started writing “women and men” instead of vice versa, because my main character, influenced by what she saw all around her, had begun to think that way.

Partly as a reaction those other novels l I’d read, I made two of my time-traveling characters black, Meret Haas and Yaniel Elias. (Yaniel is of Cuban descent — a trend in Cuba these days is to give kids names that start with “y” and I had the custom continue into the future.) Crete had a navy that sailed throughout the known world, so it seemed perfectly likely that they would fit in there. Then I sent them to the library of Alexandria, another cosmopolitan nexus. (Like all the other characters in Weighing Shadows, they took sides in the schism that divided the company they worked for, so their meetings in these places weren’t entirely free of suspicion). I also speculated about black Madonnas, statues of Mary portrayed as a black woman that have appeared at important sites all over Europe.

I’m sure I made mistakes, historical and otherwise. Sometimes I think my explanation for the black Madonnas is far too prosaic, that they’re too mystical and meaningful to be summed up the way I did. Other times I’m pleased with the way I fit them into the plot. Still, it’s impossible to write a novel without misstepping somehow. And you have to take chances, or you’ll never write anything.

4 Comments on Lisa Goldstein, Author of WEIGHING SHADOWS, on Overcoming Assumptions About History

  1. Mary Waitrovich // November 3, 2015 at 5:21 pm //

    I’m reading Weighing Shadows right now, after having loved other Goldstein novels. I’m enjoying it, but I have to say I have never read a book with so many consistent typos. The word “here” is “hern” and “place” is “tace” and these errors happen EVERYTIME the words appear in the text. It’s quite distracting.

  2. That’s intentional — “tace” is a shorthand way of saying “time and place” used by time travelers. “Hern” is “here and now,” etc.

    Glad you’re enjoying it, though!

    • Mary Waitrovich // November 4, 2015 at 12:26 pm //

      Okay, now I feel really dumb! Thanks so much for clearing this up. I have loved your books!

  3. That last comment was from me, sorry. Somehow managed not to fill in the Name field.

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