We have received some feedback regarding our worldbuilding process, specifically our desire to rebuild a world with no colonialism from scratch rather than simply include more marginalized communities in our work, as well as questions about why we started the game with the world being a work in progress rather than completely rewritten. To try to help folks get an idea of our writing process and the choices we've made with it, we interviewed one of our writers, the illustrious Elizabeth Upshur who is one of our main writers, designers, and a cultural consultant for Ivory and Gold Coast Africa. We hope that Elizabeth's perspective can help give an idea for why we made the choices that we have!
What was the process that you went through to re-imagine previous colonized areas of the world?
EU: One of the most important things to me as I re-imagined the previously colonized areas of my region was to highlight and advance the sciences and technology that were in my region before colonization and enslavement destroyed it. I drew inspiration for my cities from primary sources like journals, from history texts, oral history, and from my own time spent in Benin and Togo in 2018/2019. However, this is an imagined game. There’s wars and tension that causes strain–and opportunity!--in trade deals, feuds that make star crossed lovers, corrupt officials or royals, spies and intrigue and potential black widows killing spouses for Estates…there’s heroes and villains to interact with in this world, just like ours.
Why did you choose the regions you worked on?
EU: I applied for the West African region because, as a Black American, I know that that is where the majority of my ancestors were from. Additionally, I had just spent nine months in Benin as a Fulbright scholar, and had the opportunity to listen to a lot of oral history on the Slave Route, so it was a really interesting and cathartic experience to reverse engineer the Slave Trade and imagine introductions between Indigenous West Africans and Indigenous American tribes, as well as Europeans and Asians with full personhood for all. Re-imagining these regions means peeling back the racism and sexism that colonization pushed into matriarchal communities, getting to celebrate our own beauty standards of teeth gaps in the Kingdom of Benin (which encompass parts of IRL Nigeria and Ghana, which did and do see this trait as attractive!).
I also knew that there was a lot Queer history that has been overlooked/repressed because of religious indoctrination, a lot of fatphobia to unpack, as well areas of Disability, ageism, and others that I had the chance to change in a meaningful and interesting way when I created my first Non Playing Characters for Romancing Jan, and I’ve drawn from my own experiences, research, and my imagination to make them possible.
I am not Deaf, but I looked for real world contemporaries like Scottish born Charles Shirreff in order to create Lachlan Adair, a sexy ginger portraitist, so I’ve also done a tiny bit of UK world building, as I write for him as well as several other UK based NPCs.
Why erase colonialism in the world instead of just including POCs like Bridgerton did?
EU: Erasing colonialism from Romancing Jan was one of the first things that drew me to the project! Its not to pat people on the back or absolve any of the countries that built the Trans Atlantic Slave trade, continue to profit from it (looking at you France, especially), but to provide BIPOC communities with a safe, stress free, and truly fantastic escapist game. Bridgerton is great, and its inclusion of POC is a great step forward (although it would be nice to see more dark skinned people of color there like there are in our world!) but as a writer the opportunity for each and every Black/Indigenous African character I get to imagine as freeborn, and that’s the norm in our world. The Abolition movement came and went inter regionally in the Empire of Mali, Forest Tribes, Kingdom of Dahomey, and Kingdom of Benin between 1603-1605, and the maximum time one could be indentured is ten years. Erasing colonialism allows us to imagine thriving BIPOC countries who are leading the world in science, technology, trade, fashion, and more. It's not a detraction from our work, but its impetus. What more do we have to offer and do in a world where we don’t have to reenact our trauma, even in our fantasy moments?
What about Black people? Are they erased if there is no colonialism?
EU: Black people absolutely do exist in Romancing Jan! Queer, straight, Disabled, old, young, pop stars, sex symbols, chefs,run of the mill dock workers, nobility, and everything in between. As a Black American myself, I knew that I would want to have the option and made sure to make a list of options for gamers to see that kind of representation and to use as inspiration. There are, of course, the West African nations where several non playing characters come from: Madame Agnes is from the Kingdom of Benin, Captain Oumar Kristofferson is a Disabled Royal Naval man from the Kingdom of Benin, Effia Danton is an androgynous, gender fluid lesbian Malian transplant, Her Grace Cleopatra Agrinya-Everbloom is a Dahomean, and of course we have Beninese Kofi, our world’s version of a pop star with his drum operas, a fat, sexy, polyamorous bisexual man inspired by if Djimon Hounsou and Prince had a baby. There are second generation mixed characters such as Daveth Trelawny (Cornish-Dahomean), Madge Kristofferson (Beninese-Beninese/Swedish), and Dr. Amaranth Greensley, whose medical side proudly stretches back far longer than the Royal Society’s Society of Medicine has been around (est in real world 1805).
But more specifically, for Black Americans like myself, there are counterparts too. The Young Kellys, for example, are a mix of predominantly Irish (beginning with Maeve O’Malley’s pirate crew in 1572) and Dahomean/Beninese/Malian, which mirrors some of early American history and our current DNA. There are Young Kellys in Ireland, England, the Malian Empire, the Kingdom of Benin, France, etc. Everywhere!
The Young Kellys have their own, newly created seal integrating their twin heritages, a unique blend of Catholicism, Vodun, Animism, and ancestor veneration. Blending these cultures and making something new felt like a great way to build Blackness in Romancing Jan and have a counterpart for Black Americans, who often have similar stories of Irish-Black marriages/couplings in their family tree.
Riana Elliot, one of our Tsalagi (Cherokee) writers, and I met in the very beginning of Romancing Jan to go over what our regions might have quarrelled over, bonded over, traded, etc.
Among other things, we found a mutual love of beadwork, of travel, of language, and worked that into our peoples introduction, the Beninese led expedition sees Chief Medical Officer Bolanle trade smallpox vaccinations with the Tsalagi, and receive the written Cherokee language in return. It was important for us to honor some of our ancestors greatest contributions that have often gone overlooked (vaccination by Onesimus in 1721, language creation by Sequoyah in 1821), and because we’re rewriting and reimagining it, we can be a little flexible with timelines. Black Africans, the Afro-Irish Young Kellys, and Afro-Tsalagi will continue to make their mark in our world, and I’m excited to keep imagining ways and peoples that will come from that.
Do you feel like this is just a revision to make the English look good?
EU: No. This is not about making the English look good. IRL, I give them no credit for outlawing Slavery with the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, I don’t believe in offering thanks or praise for finally seeing people instead of money making scheme/chattel. This isn’t about trying to make these countries (Portugal, England, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark/Norway, Spain, et al) look good or absolve them of their crimes that they have yet to answer for or provide restitution to Black descendants; Romancing Jan’s history is about providing a gaming experience where we can escape from that history and imagine where our nations might have gone in the fields of science, navigation, medicine, poetry, drama, politics, and yes, scheming while wearing fabulous gowns.
Why start the game when not all nations are represented yet?
EU: We started this game as a pandemic escape, the hope was for more writers to join us as we built up the regions in West Africa, the Americas, parts of Asia, and Europe. We did receive some interest from writers, but time conflicts kept us from working together. We still have open calls for these positions! Partly because we’re reimagining these regions, we don’t necessarily have to have a writer from each nation, as some of them don’t exist in Romancing Jan. For example, there is no United States of America, that section of land mass is known as the Westlands, as per our Tsalagi writer Riana Elliot’s reimagining. In what is known as West Africa, there is no Senegal, because its a part of the Malian Empire (pre colonization parts of Senegal were a part of Mali, so again, we’re taking some of what happened in real life as a jumping off point. Our goal is for Romancing Jan to expand, fantasize, and imagine a world where people of all races, expressions of queerness, and gender would have an opportunity to play characters like themselves on a global scale.