Erika Harlitz-Kern is a historian and freelance writer with more than ten years of experience from teaching, writing, editing, and publishing. She is an Adjunct Instructor at the Department of History at Florida International University and has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Gothenburg. Dr. Harlitz-Kern has been published by The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Week, Ploughshares, Foreword Reviews, Book Riot, and Quirk Books. She has been featured on The Story of God with Morgan Freeman on the NatGeo Channel and on Counterpoint on ABC Australia.
On December 17, 2019, I published part two of my ongoing series for Tor.com, History and SFF. This time I wrote about how N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to tell the story, and to contradict that same story, of her award winning trilogy The Broken Earth. Enjoy!
History and SFF: Historical Sources and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy
History is the interpretation of the past based on written and recorded texts. These texts are known as historical sources and they are the sine qua non of history writing. Over the past centuries, techniques have developed for how to categorize, evaluate, and analyze historical sources. Being a historian means that you dedicate a substantial amount of your time mastering these techniques in order to make your interpretation of the past valid and reliable.
In The Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to tell the history of The Stillness, a seismically overactive continent where human civilization is repeatedly destroyed through prolonged cataclysmic events known as Seasons.
One more article for The Week ends 2019 for me, a year that has been something of a roller coaster ride. This year I decided to become more serious about freelance writing, and these articles that I have been writing for The Week is the result of that decision.
Please enjoy this investigation into how and why Cleopatra continues to intrigue us more than 2,000 years after she died.
Happy New Year!
How Cleopatra Became a Canvas for Society’s Anxieties.
Two-thousand years after her death, Cleopatra continues to enthrall us. Earlier this year, the British tabloid The Daily Star reported that a new movie about this last Pharaoh of Egypt was in the works. According to an anonymous source, the movie will be “a dirty, bloody, political thriller told from a feminist perspective,” as opposed to the movie Cleopatra of 1963 starring Elizabeth Taylor, which had been a historical epic.
Our fascination with Cleopatra endures because we know surprisingly little about her. And what we do know is based purely on speculation. This lack of information makes Cleopatra the perfect canvas onto which…
On December 1, 2019, I was back on The Daily Beast, continuing my coverage of the connections between modern racism and pre-modern history. This time I expressed my take on the ongoing debate on whether or not the term “Anglo-Saxon” should be phased out because of its racist meaning. Enjoy!
Academics Are At War Over Racist Roots of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies
At the RaceB4Race symposium held in Washington D.C. in September 2019, medievalist Mary Rambaran-Olm took to the podium and called out the inherent racism of the term “Anglo-Saxon.” She asked the prestigious professional organization called the International Society for Anglo Saxonists, or ISAS, to change its name, and then declared her immediate resignation from that organization.
Rambaran-Olm’s speech sent shock waves through the world of experts on Anglo-Saxon England—and in the months that have passed since then, colleagues have turned on each other in a heated debated over the use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” and whether it constitutes white supremacy.
This debate might seem like an example of typical academic hair splitting with little to no relevance to the general public. But in the case of “Anglo-Saxon,” what might look like academic inside baseball has, in fact, major implications for wider society. This debate cuts to the root of the polarization that we are currently experiencing in the United States and the United Kingdom.
On November 29, 2019, I published the following piece for The Week. I honestly didn’t expect editor Jessica Hullinger to choose this topic out of the several pitches I sent her, because Moomins are a bit obscure in the US. But I am very happy that she saw the appeal in this alternative reading of the first two books about the Moomins that Tove Jansson ever wrote. Enjoy!
What the Moomins Can Tell Us About Fighting Climate Despair.
Climate change is real, no matter what some would have us believe. In this past summer’s heat wave over Europe, the Arctic region of Scandinavia experienced temperatures up to 101 degrees, while the ice cap of Greenland is melting at the rate projected for the year 2070. Meanwhile, Australia is experiencing yet another year of unprecedented drought, at the same time as the American Midwest has been fighting against the overflowing Mississippi River after too much rain. It is becoming increasingly clear that climate change is not a problem we will need to deal with sometime in the future. It is happening now.
Grappling with the magnitude of climate change causes what is known as climate despair, which is the overwhelming sense that…
On November 18, 2019, I published the following article on Tor.com. This article is Part 2 in the series I am writing for them called History and SFF. I am really happy about this post because I have wanted to write about how Wesley Chu uses history in his Tao trilogy ever since I first read it. The fact that Chu tweeted that he was happy with this article makes it even better.
The Great Man Theory and Historical Change in SFF.
The question of what factors drive historical change has intrigued historians from the very beginning, when the earliest scholars first turned their attention to studying and interpreting the past. To find the answer(s) to this key question, historians make use of social science theories. These theories help make sense of the inherent contradictions found in human behavior and human society.
On October 24, 2019, I published the following post on Mental Floss.
12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones
Runestone Sö 106. Source: Riksantikvarieämbetet/Swedish National Heritage Board.
Vikings. The word evokes ferocious warriors, swords, battleaxes, and bloodthirsty raids. Most of what we know about the Vikings, however, are exaggerations written by people who encountered them. There is a way for us to hear the Vikings speak for themselves: by reading messages carved on runestones…
On October 15, 2019, Tor.com published the following post, announcing the launch of the column I will be writing for them. I am really excited about this column. Not only because it’s about history and the historian’s craft, but because I have been wanting to work with Tor.com for a long time.
History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column.
Welcome to Tor.com’s new column on History and SFF!
My name is Erika Harlitz-Kern, and I will be your guide during the coming months in discussing the ways that history is used in fantasy and science fiction. But don’t worry—I won’t be dissecting your favorite story digging for historical inaccuracies and judging its entertainment value based on what I find… The purpose of this column is to take a look at how authors of SFF novels and novellas—with a focus on more recent works, published after the year 2000—use the tools of the trade of historians to tell their stories.
When any scholar does research, they use a set of discipline-specific tools to make…