Inspired by the great queens of East Africa (e.g. Arawelo in Somalia and Gudit in Ethiopia), I have been researching a fantasy story about a matriarchal culture for the past two years. That research has led me to a story that I'd like to tell in an alternate history version of the Kingdom of Aksum (~500CE).

The cultures represented in this story would be distinctly different from those of historical Aksum, but given the under-representation of nonwhites in fantasy settings, I'd like to keep my story in a majority African setting. The problem, however, is that I am white.

Is it cultural appropriation if I keep the geography and place names the same, but replace the religion, government, and family dynamics in my story with ones that work for my plot? In this post it was described as "juxtaposition", but I feel like the rules may be different when you aren't working with majority cultures.

NB: "cultural appropriation" may be the inverse of the term I'm looking for, since the elements I want to replace are the cultural ones. My concern is that the rarity of africans in SF will lead to unfortunate implications when the readers assume that my fictional culture is the one that actually occurred.

  • would suggest 'alternate history' only works if your audience knows the original history; how many will know that of Aksum? (@Standback: always pays to ignore the trolls)
    – Tony Linde
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 15:01

3 Answers 3


Is it cultural appropriation? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the historic people you're writing about have the culture of someone else. No, because the story has them as having that culture. It's a lot of a grey area.

Additionally, is the cultural appropriation a bad thing in this manner? Probably not. It'd really depend on what sort of government, religion, and family dynamics you have. If you made everyone Christians living in a Feudal European society in ancient Africa, that'd probably be a bad thing. If their religion is a fantasy one and their government not a mirror of any existing one (I'd stay away from putting too much European influence in their in any case), probably not.

I honestly can't say much about family dynamics as they're not something I'm familiar with.

  • Actually, the government-approvied faith in Ethiopia was Christian at this time, and Judaism was dominant in several surrounding countries. Muhammad wasn't born until 570CE, so this predates the rapid spread of Islam in that region. Of course, prior religious groups still had some influence, especially in western areas.
    – papidave
    Commented Mar 12, 2017 at 12:10

I suggest that you clearly state at the beginning that this story in an alternate historical fiction and not historical fiction. Either that or change the names and call it a fantasy kingdom set in Africa. People will always try to see vaguely historical fiction as being the depiction of true events, unfortunately. You can also add an afterword where you add some facts about the real kingdom of Aksum at the end.


What I would do is do a whole lot of research and, if really needed, visit it. Also it would give a good impact if they were to find out that you went through all this trouble, learning about their culture even though you are white, to give them a good book written with good intentions. ;> So don't write fiction write real.

  • I can't see how this helps OP. If he wants to write fiction (and has been working on establishing his world for 2 years), why would you tell him to "write real"? Do you mean something else than non-fiction?
    – storbror
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 6:32

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