On the 14th of September 2021 Retrospect Journal sat down with Professor Kara Cooney to discuss her new publication The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World, as well as her experiences within academia and publishing. This is an edited transcript of the event.
You are about to publish The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World this November. Can you give us a brief overview of what we should expect from this new publication?
I’m not really sure myself, and it is (to use an American expression), a ballsy turn that I am taking with this book. It is a critical examination of Egyptological studies but also a critical examination of Egyptian Pharaonic history and I don’t know what the reception for this book will be. But it is something that I felt just coming out of me. It’s something that I needed to write during this time period with all that we’re going through globally, especially discussions of authoritarianism, I needed to write a book about absolute power. And who understands absolute power better than an Egyptologist? Instead of being an apologist for the pharaohs whom we study I thought it was time to dig a little deeper and do a different kind of examination. That’s where I’m coming from, and openly coming from. But I suspect there will be a lot of pushback for this kind of work.
Within this project you are focusing on Khufu, Senwosret III, Akenhaten, Ramses II, and Taharqa. What drew you to write about these specific kings?
I wanted to pick the kings were at the top of their game, at the top of their dynasty. We all are the recipients of the work that has gone before us, and some people are granted a great deal of runway from what their fathers and forefathers purposely have done before them. For anybody who studies ancient Egypt, for 3,000 years of history you see the ups and downs. Sometimes you’re in a building frenzy, and it’s a very prosperous time period. Other times are in a trough of an intermediate period and civil war. And I study intermediate periods of civil war in collapse. This is where my academic work finds itself, but I wanted to look at what creates those intermediate periods. What the runway into them is. And so I looked at the apex of power at the tops of those curves, if you like, and I didn’t mean to do it, but I was thinking ‘who’s the most famous king of the Old Kingdom?’ (it’s clearly Khufu), ‘who is the most famous king of the Middle Kingdom?’ (Senwosret III). Ramses the Great as well, they’re just ‘duh’ moments, like of course you would pick that king. Then Taharqa for the Late Period is another well-known, but he also adds the colonial edge that I thought was lacking if I just chose native Egyptian kings. But then is Ramses the Great even a native king if we’re using certain definitions? These are the kinds of questions that I’m bringing up.
Do you think that their understanding of power set them apart from their peers?
You’re asking the elemental question of ‘is it the decision making of one man or is it the habitus in the entire nurturing experience of being in that situation at that time?’ and of course it’s both. It’s the two sides of the rectangle that make the area that we’re searching for. There’s no other way to look at it. All these kings are of their time, and all of them have received a great deal of knowledge, and planning, and problems from their ancestors. Yet their decisions within that context make it interesting to see which direction things go in, and if the king had made a different decision, what would have happened instead? Or is there even a different decision to be made in this kind of system? It really does become a book about systems of absolute power and how they trap us, how they lock us in, and how, potentially, even people with the best of intentions, though that is hard to see in the data that we’re looking at, couldn’t do anything but what was done.
Your first two trade books, The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt (2014), and When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (2018), have focused on telling the stories of women in power – what prompted you to shift your focus for your new project?
Yeah, I kind of freed myself of the trap of women’s studies as it was shaping up to be. Yes, I could do biographies and I have done that for Hatshepsut – although it takes a lot of time to write a biography like I did with Hatshepsut, to try to hypothetically create a decision-making process through her life. And how would I even do that for Nefertiti or Tawasret, what kind of evidence is there? It’s a tough one. So the data didn’t really allow me to go a whole lot farther along the chick-lit nonfiction route. Also, it was the zeitgeist of the times, I was writing this during the Trump administration and during a pandemic, all of these things just seemed to be spiralling towards this story of power that needed to be told. Make no mistake, when you get to the conclusion, or if you just read the introduction and the conclusion, it remains a very political book, and it is placing a non-binary, non-patriarchal way forward throughout as an alternative. Now that we can make – and our system is pushing us to make – other choices that include those people who cannot be included in a traditional patriarchal system. Remember that when I do women’s studies, and when I wrote When Women Ruled the World, I would have fights with my sub-editor who kept saying ‘well this is a tragedy’, ‘well this is depressing’, ‘you can’t keep saying that this is all about the patriarchy’ and I would retort ‘but it is’. I cannot make it a story that it’s not, I have to put these women in the patriarchal context from which they came. So, even having a woman in the highest position in the land does not mean the system changes. This book is asking: what makes a system change? Are we still a part of this system? And my answer is that right now we are. We are just the same as these kings. We think ourselves so different but we are just the same.
When discussing the lives of ancient people in power, women especially, you speak of a necessary amount of speculation when seeking to understand their daily lives and emotional responses to significant events. How do you embark upon the research for such discussions?
I do so rather intuitively, which may upset some more careful researchers. I’m doing so with the decades of knowledge that I have of the ancient Egyptian system and what a person would do in a system like this. And the hypothetical supposition, it’s obviously tricky, but I like to place things within their systems and take away much of the individual choice making that we scholars often impose on these histories. As if the choice of Thutmose III to go through the central path in his battle of Megiddo made all the difference, but that’s what they would want us to believe. My hypothesis making is very much about the people who inhabit the system, based on knowledge of that system, and as such it’s much less risky than some might have you believe. It’s simply looking at how choiceless so many of these people in power were, and how so many of their decisions were geographically based.
Even when you get into an intermediate period, where anything is possible and you have a different way of distributing power, and the great kings are gone, there seems to be a hunger to return to some sort of status quo. Certainly, by the elites and provincial power sources, there was a desire for power to be organised in a top-down hierarchical way, at least in Egypt, which is really interesting. Why do we crave this and why do we want it? It’s perhaps a bit of a leap for some people to say that Egyptians craved hierarchical power. When I hit that wall and I say, ‘oh I don’t know what the ancient Egyptians wanted’, that’s when I slip back into my modern voice and my modern world and question why we want it. And the one thing I really wanted to do with this book was to take down this modern exceptionalism. From the perspective of an American, we are going through a time period when our American exceptionalism is rightfully being exposed as the sham that it is. The emperor has no clothing. And I think we also need to do this for our modern world. We’re going through a pandemic in which we are laid low. We don’t know what to do. So this idea that we’re so different from these primitive ancients – I think – needs to be rewritten and reworked. I want to fetishize the ancient Egyptians less and learn from them more, as if we are them and they are us, which really puts the back up of a lot of Egyptologists. Various scholars say ‘no, no you can’t do that, you must contextualise, you must particularise. These are not your people; you are imposing your Western ideas’. My answer is that all of history is that kind of an imposition. So, given that we are imposing in that way, we might as well in some cases (as with this book) push the boundaries of modern versus ancient and get to the bottom of the system of power.
How did the planning, writing, and editing process develop for The Good Kings? In what ways did the final product differ from the proposal?
This one was interesting because of course I am writing it during a pandemic, and I’m writing it during a period of time when I worked harder, arguably, than at any other time since I made a TV show. For those of you who were in positions of responsibility during the pandemic you know that we rolled out of bed and you are on a zoom by 8am and you did not get off of zoom until 7pm some days. So, during that stress I had to find a way to write this book efficiently while doing all of the other things that I was already doing.
The way that I did it was that I took the proposal that I had written for National Geographic Books and I crammed it into a syllabus. I taught a class on Egyptian religion, and I told the students that it was going to be about divine kingship, but that it was going to be very political as well. So, for a class of two hundred I just workshopped my way through the ideas of the book, taping my lectures, and twice a week we would meet up and the students who would have questions, and I would have answers. There was so much going on – with the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the taking down of statues around the globe. And so, all of these conversations were happening about what society should be, what government should be, what leadership should be, what the social inequality that we’re dealing with is. These things were informing my lectures as we went along, and it made the class more of a modern/ancient conversation, a call and response dialogue. When the class was done, I did something rather crazy and I took the lectures that were taped, making them into transcripts, had them cleaned up and gave them to someone who knows what the names are (you can imagine how some of the Egyptian names are spelled if a transcriber doesn’t have background knowledge). Then I didn’t have to write the book from an empty page, rather starting with a mess of thoughts in the form of the lecture series. I shaped it up and added primary texts and other analysis. Because of this structure I was able to get this book out more quickly, I would say, because I packaged it together with a class. Luckily at UCLA I’m given so much freedom about how I teach my classes that I was able to do that.
Do you think that the style of this book has become more conversational because of its origins in a lecture series?
Yes! It’s a wonderful thing when you are not writing from an empty page but from my spoken words, from the way that I communicate to my students. I’m writing with an educator’s voice, but an educator who is trying to entertain. That was a starting place of tone, which meant that I wasn’t going to be using big jargon, I wasn’t going to be throwing around difficult words all the time. This is not that book. This is trying to get 18 or 19-year-old undergraduates to pay attention and not fall asleep during a pandemic when they’re probably listening to me from home. You need to try to grab attention and that’s the kind of tone that I’m taking within this book.
In terms of then balancing writing with your role at UCLA, did you find that you had to create a set structure for yourself working from home?
I like to work in coffee shops, I need the energy of all the people around me to get me off of social media and get me back to my screen where I’m writing. I like that energy of people around me to spur me into saying something. During the pandemic especially, we all know what it felt like to not go out, to not see the sun, to not have to rush across a campus to get to a meeting you’re late for, to lack that adrenaline but have a different kind of zoom adrenaline. It was a pretty difficult thing. So, writing this, without the coffee shops, without the energy of a society around me, I ended up doing Facebook Lives because I would be working on something, get an idea together, and then I need to present that idea to an audience. And so I did these Facebook Lives which ended up being much bigger than I thought they would be. It was a way, I realised in retrospect, of creating a community that I couldn’t have without my ability to go walking in my neighbourhood and find a place to write in that wasn’t my home.
And we all know what it’s like to work at home, you sit down to work, but then you decide you have to do the laundry, or you realise there are dishes to be done, rather than doing my work. So, a lot of this book I actually wrote in my garage that is purposefully a mess, and it’s a space where I don’t have to worry about it or see the house. I have all kinds of tricks to try and get me to do my writing! Writing is hard for me. Some people just can’t help but write. Speaking is easier for me. When I talk and when I teach, I don’t have as many hang-ups. I don’t get the writer’s block as much. But when you sit down to write to an empty page—I’m sure many of you know this—you feel everyone’s judgement immediately, you feel what they are going to say about you, you feel the knives come out and you feel less brave. And so, I needed to put myself into spaces where I could be brave again.
Academia is an extraordinary thing, the way academia takes brave, passionate people, and it crushes them and makes them into something where that bravery is gone. We are made to put our bravery away, someplace else where it cannot operate anymore. You can’t be brave here and you have to do things in a certain way, use certain vocabulary, and then you can be accepted into the subculture. But if you don’t do that then you’re breaking the rules and it’s highly problematic. So, I had to make sure that when I was writing this, I put that critical voice away, although it will always be there at the back of your mind. Especially if you know what they’re going to say about you, or you know what they’ve written before. In this way the Facebook Lives particularly were very empowering and catalysing for me because I could see a hunger amongst the public of wanting to know my ideas, and wanting to learn about history from thousands of years in the past. What does it mean to us today? What can it teach us? And the more I felt that interest, the more it was possible for me to write this book without feeling the judgement, the academic judgement of the future.
It’s all about balancing out the voices of the critics with the people who are obviously lifting you up in terms of supporting and talking about your ideas. There’s a wonderful saying that I heard on a podcast somewhere, to ‘write bad, fast, and ugly’. I tell my students this, writing is one of the most difficult things that you can do because you are sharing your intellect and you are putting it out there for people to skewer if they like. It will eventually be locked down on a page for people to point out, like when you are having an argument with a friend who argues that you said something which you don’t remember, but they have a text message of you saying it. And you’re like ‘damn it, I did say that’, and then the argument changes. So, putting something like that down in a written form locks you in. But if you write bad, fast, and ugly, and you don’t write with an editing mind, the process will run far more smoothly. Then you’re able to get those ideas out without thinking of the future haters, because you can never successfully write when you are thinking that way.
Having now published three trade books, and with Recycling For Death and Ancient Egyptian Society: Challenging Assumptions, Exploring Approaches in the works, how has your experience of publishing changed from book to book?
When I wrote the Woman Who Would be King, I had a little baby who was tiny and so I had to write that book in snatches and fits, and it took me a good four years to get through that process. And now he’s eleven I have more time and space for myself. So, now I work with my graduate students, and my fellow colleagues, trying to shepherd the department through certain processes and take on a leadership role. That’s been, I would say, the hardest thing, and yet I was able to write this book. As chair of my department at UCLA, I have to delegate tasks; I have to try and create efficient hacks wherever I can to be able to get these things done.
I’m more confident I would say now, and I write in different ways compared to the first book that I wrote where I created an outline, did all the careful research, and made sure that I was reading everything first before I wrote the book. This time is the first time that I haven’t done this. I actually didn’t want to read much of the scholarship before I wrote it. I didn’t want to have another scholar’s voice for Ramses II in my mind while I was writing this book. I’m not saying that I didn’t check a primary text or check a date or when certain things happened. But we’re talking about Khufu, Senwosret III, Akenhaten, Ramses II, and Taharqa and most of these I have taught about and worked with before, so I wrote it intuitively without reading the academic work first and having another voice other than my own. I wrote the book and then footnoted it later which I teach my students to never do when you’re writing a dissertation, it’s death! But with this book, if I had written it from the scholarship first, I wouldn’t have been brave, it would’ve had a different tone, I would have been derivative of that scholarship. So, I put it all away and decided that I could footnote it later, but to write your impression of Ramses II, of Senwosret III from what you know, what the primary texts tell you. There were a couple of horrible all-nighters where I had to go through and do all the footnoting, trying to remember who argues for this, who has said this thing, and put these people in their place. Of course, in a trade book these footnotes don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to document where these ideas come from, giving credit where credit is due. But to write the book in this way, especially the footnote process, was horrific and I had to go back and retrace my steps in a way that I wish I had done differently when I was in that process/ But then I realised why I did it that way.
I couldn’t have written my first book that way, nor would I have been allowed to write my first book that way. The Woman Who Would Be King had to be footnoted six ways to Sunday and I knew it did. So that’s what I did. In some ways The Woman Who Would Be King is probably the bravest and craziest thing that I’ve done. Writing a book from the cradle, or before the cradle even, as I did with Hatshepsut, is something that I look back on and think ‘oh my god I can’t believe I did that’, especially during the sleep deprivation of early motherhood.
Do you find then that you’ve been treated differently from book to book? Are you given more flexibility to write in a way that you find comfortable?
Yeah, I’m in a very lucky position. I’m in a good place. If I want to write another book, then I go to my editors at National Geographic Books and ask them what they think of an idea. I was given so much more reign (if I am the horse in this analogy!), to just go. I remember the conversation with Hillary Black where she’s like ‘just go’. Last time I was held back, we hadn’t decided as a society that the patriarchy was the water in which we swim and that we needed to criticise it. Last time it was like ‘well this might upset readers and we’re not sure’. I remember I had to pull back on ‘grabbing them by the pussy’ and I was like ‘it’s a quote, why can’t I have that in the book?’ And it was a whole discussion of them wanting to take it out, debating the fact that their readers might not like the word ‘pussy’. There were not many moments with this book where they pulled me back, in fact I don’t think they’ve pulled me back at all which is rather scary.
In the last book (When Women Ruled the World), I compared Cleopatra to Jesus and that was also taken out. She’s killed in a sense, or removed, and then the Isis cult spreads, and one could make the analogy that for some people Cleopatra could have become an equivalent religious figure. And what is Christ but redemption against something like the Roman Empire. Simple analogy, but it was considered too much and that had to go. Even when “grabbing them” by the pussy had to go, I made it about sexual assault that was unpunished, and I used the words ‘sexual assault’ and that was okay with me. So, I work around these strictures, and I do understand why they exist. I’m not a publisher or an editor who has to deal with lawyers and lawsuits and other potential problems. I don’t have to speak to shareholders and the CEOs of a company. I’m the one who is trying to blow things up.
Continuing the reflective tone, in the years since you earned your PhD, how have you found the academic landscape has changed, especially for Egyptology?
If you take the reaction to my first trade book, The Woman Who Would Be King, some of it was not a kind reaction and it was not embracing. A lot of scholars reacted by saying ‘well how can you hypothesise? How dare you try to think what she was thinking. This is all contextual; you are imposing Western ideals, your feminist ideals on her’. All those points I can take on and discuss, they’re all interesting points, but there were not a lot of puppies and rainbows and love surrounding the release of that volume. Then with When Women Ruled the World, I had to deal with the criticism that I was taking these women down. Scholars were saying ‘no, these women did amazing things, why are you being all doom and gloom and depressing?’ I remember giving book talks and I would have arguments with these women about just this issue. Women are the best tools of the patriarchy, if they’re from a certain socioeconomic background, if they’ve had a certain education, and they benefit directly from the patriarchy. The amount of pushback from that particular idea was considerable. If I were to write When Women Ruled the World again today, I could be much more forward in my thinking with that book with the current zeitgeist that we’re dealing with because people see things more clearly as a population than they did before. Even just teaching my class at UCLA, Women and Power in the Ancient World, I used to have to spend a good week proving that women do not have power – because white women especially in my class were previously like ‘what are you talking about? We’ve made it, everything’s fine, it’s an equal playing field’. I would have to go through the economic realities, the military realities, the political realities, and the religious realities of the position of women in the modern world. But now I don’t have to do that. Now everyone is like ‘tell me about it’. I can start at the baseline of it being fucked up and not have to begin with an angry feminist rant.
How do you feel about your platform now, has it changed your idea of the power of academia?
I find myself in a place of privilege as a white woman of upper middle class and I can use that place of privilege to push back against the white male patriarchy that combats me and my ideas. When I say ‘me’ here, I don’t mean necessarily me personally, but what I’m representing. For instance, if a black woman were saying some of these things about Ancient Egypt, unfortunately she would be quickly stereotyped and put into the category of angry feminist, more quickly than I have been. If you go on my Facebook especially, but other platforms like Twitter as well, you’ll see that I’m often engaged in political discussions with white males, white females too, about the world we live in and what the way forward is. How do we see ourselves, and what does history have to do with any of it? The amount of hostility there is significant. But then, I have a PhD so I have a place of authority from which to speak. I might also be listened to because I am a white person, so I can say things that I think would be harder for somebody else to say. Also, because my Facebook grew out of a television show on the Discovery channel, there are specific demographics for that which now influence my following. This also means that I get a great deal of hostility and betrayal from some of the old, white dudes following me when I speak in a way they don’t expect or wish. But I engage in these conversations and walk straight into the fire, which is an interesting place to find myself. So, I’m going to use that privilege to have those conversations because we need to realise and recognise the water in which we swim for what it is.
Finally, what are your current projects? What’s going on in your life at the moment?
You guys all know that I have a podcast that’s out now, it’s me and my current graduate student Jordan Galczynski chatting away about certain topics. We realised that she would be the person to do this with because she’s my lead TA in my Women and Power class, and she does such a good job of keeping me on point and keeping my scattered brain going in the direction that answers an actual question. The other thing that I’m working on is a big coffins volume, and it might be a set of volumes, but this won’t be published for a while now. I have that little Cambridge book out in the Cambridge Elements series which is great. But I still need to get the data and the evidence that I have been collecting published. It’s funny when you sign a trade book contract, you get that out and then the academic book gets pushed aside. I need to make sure that I complete this academic thing this year. So, at the moment I am reading every file in my coffins book folder, which you can imagine after 15 years of research is massive. I hope to start re-drafting what I’ve written for that and do that in the fall, which is madness. Hopefully I can get it published in the spring of 2022, so watch out for that!
This event was hosted and transcribed by Alice Goodwin, and edited by Professor Kara Cooney.
Professor Kara Cooney’s new book The Good Kings: Absolute Power in Ancient Egypt and the Modern World is set for release this November and is available for pre-order here: https://www.booksoup.com/pre-order-signedpersonalized-copy-good-kings-kara-cooney
Her podcast, Afterlives, is available on all streaming platforms. For more information and to follow Professor Cooney, see her social media pages:
Facebook: Kara Cooney – Egyptologist https://www.facebook.com/karacooneyegyptologist