Today, we take a closer look at Secunda #2: Afra’s Tale and the historical background for the issue:
The Story of a Doll
“…my doll is a hero!”
In Secunda #2: Afra’s Tale, Afra mentions in passing that she once had a doll, much like Secunda’s. “You had a doll?” Secunda asks. Afra nods. Secunda must know more: “Afra, come on! Tell me the story of your doll!” So Afra begins the doll’s story, but it quickly becomes apparent that the story is about much more than the doll. Afra’s Tale is the story of Afra’s ancestors. An epic journey that begins in the heart of Africa and ends in the heart of Rome. The doll is merely the thread that links it all.
During each phase of Afra’s ancestors’ journey, the doll is there, passed down generation to generation, a physical reminder of the memory of one family’s heritage. As memories faded, replaced by myth and archetype, the doll remained. As loved one’s passed away and their names were forgotten, the doll remained. In Afra’s Tale, the doll is a symbol of who Afra is and where she came from, but where did she come from?
Who Were Afra’s Ancestors?
“My ancestors lived in a village deep in the heart of Africa…”
Deep in the heart of Africa, in modern day Nigeria, there once lived a culture we now call the Nok culture. Emerging around 1000 BCE and finally disappearing around 300 CE, not a great deal is known about this culture. Like Afra’s fictional ancestors and their doll, so much of this ancient culture remains only in the form of innumerable terra-cotta figurines. Though we do not know the exact function of these ubiquitous figurines, they do offer us at times a surprisingly personal glimpse at the individuals that made up this ancient people.
While some of the figurines depict strange, often monstrous anthropomorphic beings, the majority we might well call portraits. Though highly stylized and standardized in overall form, the faces of these figures all show such distinct personality, one can instantly see in their mind’s eye the real-life people of whom these dolls may have been a likeness. So personal, so individual are these figurines, that one wonders if they were crafted as portraits, physical memories of people once living.
Afra’s doll is one of these figurines, and somewhere on the fringes of Nok culture lived Afra’s earliest ancestors.
100 Faces of Nok Culture
“Without their souls, they did not respond to their names…”
When I set out to write Afra’s Tale, I first had to decide where exactly Afra was from. Clearly, she was from Africa, but Africa is a pretty big place. I began studying ancient African cultures. I was looking for a culture with a strong material heritage, to which I could anchor my historical-fiction tale, as well as my illustrations. In my studies I came upon the Nok culture and their beautiful figurines. Instantly I knew this was the culture I was looking for; every figure exuded such personality: the expressions, the clothing, the hair… For a story about people, about family heritage, where I needed to illustrate so many different individuals, the diversity of faces these figures portrayed made them exactly the sort of material culture I was looking for. That settled it: Afra and her ancestors were from the Nok culture.
Myth, History, and Fiction
“Then the doll embodied the spirit of my ancestors…”
While visually based on Nok figurines, and possessing one themselves, Afra’s ancestors and their story are fictional. Afra’s Tale is about a family and their journey through space and time. It begins in the fantastic realm of myth and moves ever toward the historically documented times of the Roman Republic and Empire. Yet, although the story is hinged upon real places and events, it does not care to linger on them much. It is not the places or the events that matter, it is one family’s collective memory of their past that is the focus.
As Afra tells her tale, readers see an Africa colored by these memories: memories of drought becomes boundless deserts and dead trees; memories of fertility become dense, lush greenery and fruits; memories of a wicked witch become a monstrously cruel visage. Astute readers will take note of the real life places and events treated in this issue, but to Afra, it is not that the God-ruled kingdom of Egypt was real or that once prosperous Carthage fell that really matters, but the perseverance, struggles, successes and losses of her family.