Fantastic History #10: Come and Write with Me–When the Fiction Becomes the Source by Christopher Kastensmidt

Reading through the articles here at Fantastic History, I can relate. I’ve been working with The Elephant and Macaw Banner universe for twelve years now, and I’ve certainly faced every challenge mentioned here along the way: historical fidelity, anachronisms, researching in a foreign language and all the rest. The Elephant and Macaw Banner (let’s call it EAMB for short) is a series based on sixteenth-century Brazil: a period marking the beginning of European colonization and a massive clash of cultures along the coast.

Similar to what Tim Powers does in his works, I rigorously follow historical events, while at the same time mixing in the supernatural. In this case, my supernatural elements include creatures from Brazilian folklore and miraculous powers associated with pajés (native shamans) and religious characters (like Jesuit missionaries).

The Headless Mule, a well-known Brazilian myth (artist: SulaMoon)

About 90% of my research is in Portuguese, with the other 10% English and Spanish. The sixteenth-century is by far the least-documented period in Brazilian history. For one, Brazil had no printing press at the time (they were, in fact, illegal in the colony until the nineteenth century). That means that works from the period only got published if they somehow made it back to Europe—a rarity. There are about a dozen relatively reliable first-hand accounts from the period and not a lot of in-depth secondary works. While that has made my research a challenge, it has also created an interesting reverse effect, where the fiction itself has become a reference.

To support that conclusion, I’ll have to provide a little bit of history. The series has passed through multiple stages over the last twelve years, which I’ll try to summarize here.

Phase One: Prose

I started work on the stories in late 2006. I read some 20 books before I wrote the first story, a number that would quickly surpass 200 as I made my way through the series. That first story was published in Realms of Fantasy in 2010, and after a Nebula nomination in 2011, the stories soon reached an international audience. They were published in several languages, including a series of pocket editions in Brazil.

To my surprise, the stories were quickly adopted in schools as an alternative method of introducing several cultural elements, including: folklore, slavery, colonization and others.

A school play based on A Parlous Battle Against the Capelobo, the second story in the series (school: E.E. B. Professora Erica Marques)

Phase Two: Adaptation

Parallel to the stories being launched, I began working on adaptations. The first of these, a graphic novel, came out in late 2014. Thanks to sponsorship through a government program, the graphic novel was donated to hundreds of public school libraries in the states of Sao Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina.

A flashback to the Kingdom of Ketu, in modern-day Benin, from the graphic novel adaptation (artist: Carolina Mylius)

The graphic novel format is extremely accessible to young readers and helped the series reach an even greater audience. In 2015 alone, I participated in over 30 events and school visits in the states where the donations had taken place.

Phase Three: Interaction

In late 2017, I launched a table-top RPG based on the world of the stories. It was a success beyond my greatest expectations, selling out in just four months. Half of the copies went to public schools in eight states. The RPG gave me a chance to synthesize my (at the time) eleven years of research into an accessible and interactive format. I was able to present historical details such as measurements, currency and professions alongside statistics for fantastic creatures.

Pages from the RPG (art by Marcela Medeiros and Cássio Yoshiyaki)

Just seven months after launch, I know of dozens of schools which are already using the RPG in the classroom to teach students about folklore and sixteenth-century history. I receive almost weekly messages of people telling me how they’re studying history for the first time in their lives, so that they can create their own adventures in the setting.

The Elephant and Macaw Banner RPG in the classroom (school: Dom Walfrido Teixeira Vieira EEEP)

Phase Four: Community

The biggest surprise has been adoption by the community. The RPG is quickly becoming a reference in the area and has brought many readers back to the source material. It paved a clear path for people to tell their own stories in the world, in turn giving them a sense of ownership. That feeds back in a loop, with the community creating material for itself, thus expanding the universe and inspiring new creators. The fans are actively participating in every aspect of the future of this universe, providing feedback and ideas for future products. It has been a marvelous and humbling experience.

Examples of fan-written content for the EAMB RPG (content by Jan Piertezoon, Gustavo Tenório and Arthur Pinto de Andrade)

For those looking to know more about ABEA, the stories are available in individual editions at the moment on Amazon, but I recently signed a contract with Guardbridge Books (yeah!), and we’ll be replacing those with a definitive, revised edition in electronic and print formats. That edition will be launched at the World Fantasy Conference in November. Catherine’s Comment: !!!!

The stories are also available in Spanish, through Sportula, in Chinese, through Douban Read, and Portuguese, through Devir. The RPG should be out in English in 2019, and other products are on the way, such as a video game based on the RPG.

My thanks to Catherine and Fantastic History for the chance to publish this article. Congrats on the wonderful blog!