In Part Two, you’ll meet: a crime writer whose grandfather was a king—one who made a Western artist a priestess in the Ogun religion.
A white South African anti-apartheid activist whose sister was tried under the security laws—and introduced him to the work of Joanna Russ.
A Rastafarian from Zimbabwe whose experience of life under Mugabe has made him a free-market neo-liberal.
A South African rap/ jazz-rock star, illustrator, and author who models his look on the Wicked Witch of the West.
And I look at two or three books I consider to be stone cold masterpieces, just to answer the question why read African SF?
Part Two of the 100 African Writers of SFF series: Writers in the U.K.
Table of Contents:
- Ayodele Arigbabu
- Lagos 2060: The Writers
- Chikodili Emelumadu
- Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso
- Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
- Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor
- Leye Adenle
- Masimba Musodza
- Nick Wood
- Nikhil Singh
- Tade Thompson
- Tendai Huchu
- Writers in the UK not interviewed
Part Two: Africans in the UK
In 2009 visiting at Benue State University in Makurdi, Nigeria, I found in the university bookshop Famine in Heaven by Odo Stephen.
Two sisters, one Christian, one Muslim, lead the world into a feminist utopia. They travel in spacecraft to Venus, the Moon, and eventually heaven—but much of the book takes the form of philosophical debates.
The book was so unusual, so different from anything I’d read (except, oddly, some of the science fiction by Mark Twain) that I tried to find more African SFF. Looking at the spread of mobile telephones and cybercafés in Nigeria, I knew there had to be some.
I didn’t know it at the time, but already, in 2008, Chimurenga magazine in South Africa had published a special issue of science fiction by Africans, Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber.
Going online in 2009 I found that someone was trying to get writers and architects to collaborate on a science fiction anthology. The collective was called Lagos 2060.
In the eight years since 2008, there has been an explosion of African fantasy and science fiction. AfroSF, the anthology edited by Ivor Hartmann, was published in 2013, beating Lagos 2060 to be the first book anthology in the current wave.
The explosion is partly explained by the rapid growth of the web and of smart phones. It is easier to publish and distribute online rather than by print and road, especially in Africa. Omenana is dependable, regular publication devoted to SFF. Brittle Paper publishes an impressive range of African writing, some of it speculative.
The development of Africa’s publishing industry from Kwani? in East Africa to companies like Kachifo Limited and Cassava Republic Press in West Africa began to provide Africa with its own, beautifully published books.
But that is only part of the story.
This is the hypothesis for now: conditions for African writers now resemble the conditions in the early 20th century that led to the USA taking over from Europe as the centre of science fiction and fantasy.
One of those conditions is diaspora.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the USA had two great diasporas at once.
From 1900 to 1920, one third of Americans left farms and moved to cities—often not the old established cities of the East Coast. This migration included a huge movement by African Americans out of rural poverty in the South. Black or white, people escaped rural life often by moving up the Mississippi River towards Chicago. Chicago drained the Midwest of geeks, misfits, bored farmers, musicians, actors, bootleggers, fantasists, religious lunatics, quacks, inventors, and ambitious people of all types.
It was in Chicago that L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. It was where Frank Lloyd Wright invented much of how the future would look (and who had his office in the same building as Baum). Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pencil salesman in Oak Park, Chicago when he wrote and sold his first story, “A Princess of Mars,” in 1912. It was in Chicago that the skyscraper and the elevated railway, urban blues, and northern jazz were developed—not New York.
The other great diaspora, at the same time, was the second wave of migrants from Europe. From 1892 to 1952, 12 million immigrants from Europe arrived through one immigration centre: Ellis Island near New York. The peak year of European immigration was in 1907, when 1,285,349 persons entered the country. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants from Europe were living in the United States. Laws against immigration by Chinese or black people limited numbers from other continents.
These migrants, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe, found themselves in a country that could be hostile. They faced linguistic challenge, religious bigotry, cultural difference, and economic hardship. They did menial jobs to pay for their children’s education. Some of the children of this diaspora would number among the greatest contributors to American fantasy, from Superman to the Laws of Robotics.
Diasporas are a geographical break, certainly. But their main power is that they are also a break from a past, specifically a past culture.
America’s move to the big city meant two different cultural breaks. The first was with frontier values, the culture of the independent homestead where you made your own shoes—rather like Dorothy leaving the lonely Kansas farm and tripping to the Emerald City. The second break was with small town values, the decency enforced by constant surveillance—like Superman leaving Smallville (also, in the current continuity, in Kansas). Metropolis is most often identified as being Chicago.
Cities offered anonymity, freedom, opportunity and, curiously, a new kind of interdependence. You were alone but in a crowd. You could work in a range of specialist jobs, get any kind of service or entertainment you wanted, and have sex with a new range of people.
The European diaspora meant that second generation immigrants were, like Clark Kent, passing as mainstream Americans while nursing another identity based on a faraway kingdom, a lost past.
Science fiction and fantasy are rooted in a habit of mind that loves to see dreams made flesh and reality re-imagined. One reaches out to the future, the other looks towards a past, but I would say both come from a similar impulse. F and SF walk hand in hand.
A break with old culture opens up new possibilities in the present and for the future. Diasporans often dream of a better personal future, and it’s a short step to dream of other futures for everyone else. The loss of culture draws the gaze backwards in time, to other values.
Diasporas make you the Other. You know better what it is like to be an alien.
Your language, your dress, your food, and your religion—everything about you is strange, at least to these Others who now have power. Perhaps you begin to see yourself though their eyes, develop a cultural double vision. You modify, perhaps, how you dress, speak, write or wear your hair. You might change how you spell your name, or call yourself a name they can pronounce. You see the old country in a new light. Or you value all over again the things you have lost and have had to move away from, be they church socials in Smallville or orthodox religion in Minsk.
You know that change is possible; real change, changes that make you wonder what it is to be human.
So you begin to write traditional belief fiction, stories based on fairy tales from the old country. You rewrite Alice in Wonderland for American audiences. You begin to write stories of the future when you are better off, or the world has progressed.
I don’t think I need to belabour parallels with possible experiences of Africans in diaspora.
By diaspora I mean different things. I mean Africans who have moved permanently to the West and their children who were born there. I also mean those now temporarily in the UK for an education, or to make some money. I do mean those who had to leave for their own safety, as well.
One thing I have noticed. The work of Africans who are now in the UK or in the West is of immense relevance to Africa, dealing with African themes. Richard Oduor Oduku, who we spoke to in Part One, talks about how much Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu means to him. Tade Thompson in this section tries to account for why so many top flight African women writers are, to some degree, diasporan.
There is a sense that diasporan writers speak for all Africans. And this is because, I think, all Africans are in diaspora—in this sense:
If diaspora means a cultural break, then all Africans at home or abroad have gone through a situation in which their country has moved from them, not them from it.
In Part One, Kiprop Kimutai talked about how it has only been three generations since his family were living a traditional life, and speaking their own mother tongue.
Colonialism, and then internalized colonialism, both have wrenched African cultures away from home without the people having to physically move. Globalization, new technology, new media continue to do the same. This is a different kind of scattering, but a scattering all the same.
Tendai Huchu in the last line of the last interview of this section says, “… there is nothing special here.” The surprise for many Africans coming to the West is that there is no surprise.
Africans for generations have been educated in Western languages and on Western models. Ordinary African homes have widescreen TVs, DVD players, and fridge freezers. The internet and smartphones mean that their children have access to YouTube, iTunes, social media, and e-books. In terms of youth culture, at least, there is not that much of a difference between life in or out of the diaspora.
And that internal cultural diaspora, that break with past, may well explain why so many Africans now are turning towards traditional beliefs and stories, or looking ahead with excitement to the future, and why there is such a cultural continuity between writers in and out of Africa.
In other words, this other scattering of culture helps explain the rise of SFF and speculative fiction inside Africa as well.
For Chikodili Emelumadu coming back to Britain was such a disappointment that she returned to her Igbo cultural inheritance.
For others such as Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor the West means increased opportunity to question gender and sex roles. But as we have seen in Part One of this series, this is happening as well within Africa, despite opposition.
First, we meet Ayodele Arigbabu, one of the founding fathers of African science fiction; literally an architect of the future.
A hundred and fifty years since he had ascended to the summit of the mountain, the old man returned to find the village still in chaos. Different armed patrols from different warring factions stopped him and had him frisked. They found nothing, save his loin cloth and walking stick. Then one bright lad recognised him and raised the alarm.
“The old man is back!”
The news took on a life of its own. Within an hour, all the people had gathered in the square. The men were there with their weapons, but nobody was killing anybody at the moment, the women came a bit later with their children in tow; approaching cautiously in case it was a ruse. When the old man was sure he had an audience, he cleared his throat and addressed them in a thin voice.
“For several moons, even long before some of your fathers were born, I stayed at the mountain top seeking an end to our problems. Today I return with an answer but fear it might be too late; perhaps there is no point in telling you.”
The crowd shouted in unison:
Tell us, old man!
The old man shrugged and moved the crowd back to create more space in the center, then he drew several groups of characters in the sand and gathered his loin cloth around his waist in preparation to leave.
“What does it all mean?”
The crowd asked in panic when it seemed he would leave without interpreting the strange signs. He paused and responded in his thin voice.
“It is a complex mathematical equation you must all resolve together in teams using algebra, calculus and chaos theory.”
The bright lad came forward again.
“We don’t know these things, we’ve been fighting for one hundred and fifty years, and nobody has had much time for learning.”
The old man frowned, drew the lad close and placed a wrinkled hand on his shoulder.
“Son,” he said slowly, “now might be a good time to learn.”
—“Set Theory” from A Fistful of Tales
Ayodele Arigbabu is one of the founding fathers of the current wave of African SFF, the person who pulled together the Lagos 2060 collective and published the resulting anthology.
Ayodele is now as much a professional futurist as he is a working architect, publisher, illustrator, and author. He is in the UK to do a Masters in Creative Technology, but has a long career in many fields.
His short story “You Live to Die Once” won the 2001 Liberty Bank Short Stories Prize; his poem Livelihood got an honorable mention at the 2003 Muson Poetry competition. His stage play Moremi: The Legend Retold was staged in December 2003 at the University of Lagos Main Auditorium to an appreciative audience, and went on to be performed in Oklahoma and at the National Theatre of Nigeria.
Ayodele: “Moremi is an actual legend retold, from Yoruba folklore. A pre-eminent Nigerian dramatist called Duro Ladipo had a very good run with his adaptation of Moremi in the 1960s.
“A friend of mine—Sewedo Nupowaku—inspired my adaptation. We ran a media company together at the time. We were and still are very keen on comics, and this influenced how the play was written.” You can read Sewedo and Ayodele’s thoughts about comics at the time here.
Ayodele: “We had this great ambition of Disney-fying African legends, taking the stories we grew up with, tales told by our parents about the tortoise, re-reading the folklore.
But at same time we were seeing Disney movies and watching cartoons. We saw Voltron, Terrahawks, Thunder Sub, G Force, and Speed Racer. TV stations didn’t start till 4 PM with cartoons, so we’d get back from school, catch the three or four hours of cartoons before stuff for adults came on—a regular staple for people of my generation. We grew up on that Western storytelling, and aspired to it, but our myths and legends were also part of us.
Naturally Sewedo wanted to do a Lion King/ Pocahontas with Moremi. Someone else had started scripting a Moremi comic book. Sewedo asked me to do it as a stage play, so I took the characters, did my own research, went to town with it. We took the legend, stayed true to the idea, but took liberties with it.
Moremi was the wife of a previous king of Ife, a warrior king. She was well respected. But the new king was a weakling, who allowed people to be taken advantage of Ife. Moremi stood up for the people. Marauders were taking people as slaves. So the way we put the story was that the marauders’ land was barren, and the only way to survive was to raid Ife, a historical town, the city in the origins of Yorubaland—ironical that Ife had a history of military might but was now so helpless. The raiders appeared like spirit beings and the people of Ife were too scared. Moremi met a river goddess and bargained for support. The Goddess would help—but Moremi had to sacrifice her only son.
In the play, we had rap battles, martial arts choreography, a village priest consulting the gods by cellphone—he had a very poor connection. We took liberties with the gods, got lots of laughs.”
The play has had several productions, the most recent being in 2013. See the YouTube trailer with comments by the chairman of Etisalat communications and his wife.
“I did script a complete comic series for Moremi and we did a preview comic. Ultimately, we would have wanted to have it animated.”
Even then he wanted to get into animation, but in 2008, he set up DADA Books.
“I created DADA to publish my own anthology, A Fistful of Tales, but two other books happened first. The first was by the person who encouraged me to start DADA, Jumoke Verissimo. The title of her poetry collection was I am memory.
The second was The Abyssinian Boy by Onyeka Nwelue, a novel about a child born of an Indian father and a Nigerian mother and inspired by Salman Rushdie, using elements of magic realism. It is set in Delhi as well as Nigeria. It went on to win the T.M. Aluko Prize for first book of fiction.
At sixteen Onyeka had moved from Lagos to Delhi to research the novel—very ambitious. An Indian lady put him up. He really wanted to be a writer. I was very impressed with him; he had a story he wanted to tell. Since then he has taught a university course in African literature, taught in Mexico, and promotes jazz concerts in different embassies in Nigeria.”
“The name DADA was a slight nod to Dadaism, which I connect with as an architect, that level of being upside down and asking questions about what do you call art. At the same time Dada is a word in Yoruba culture that refers to people born with dreadlocks. Locked hair has a spiritual connotation, so such people don’t cut their hair. The whole Rasta culture—“me against the man thing” —also came into the title.
DADA is all but run down now. I have to figure how to put life back into it. Still keep getting emails from people asking if they can send manuscripts.”
In 2009 Ayo finally published A Fistful of Tales.
“The stories came out of a creative writing program funded by the British Council called Crossing Borders that paired writers with mentors. Liz Jensen was my mentor. We would write by email, with her sending me comments. Such a pleasure to work with her. She does SF kind of stuff too, so she was comfortable with what I was doing.”
The story “Warp” starts with a time warp, then traps the narrator with a mad taxi driver who claims to have revised modern physics using Yoruba folklore and developed a plasma drive…which means unexpectedly, that the car can fly.
“My Superhero Story” will appeal to SFF geeks—it’s about the gap between our fantasy culture and our actual lives. “The X12 Moonshade” is about a 15th century Japanese lamp that is also a spying device.
The stories were profusely illustrated by David Orimolade and Boma Nnaji, who also took part in the Lagos 2060 workshops.
Ayodele: “I didn’t consciously set out to say I am writing Science Fiction. At that point I wasn’t thinking in that frame of mind. I was just telling stories that came naturally to me. The book came out in 2009 but I’d written most of the stories in in 2006.
There were earlier anthologies that had SFF and magical elements in stories. I remember Jazz and Palm Wine was an anthology out from Longman’s that came out in the early 80s.
In 2012 the Goethe Institut funded an exhibition on the Nigerian National Theater called The Pop-up Theatre. My contribution was an online comic. A guy and a girl playing around the National Theatre found an exo-suit designed by a professor and abandoned there after the prof died in suspicious circumstances. In the story, they crowdsource, asking people to key in data to unlock the suit. In the real world we asked people to answer questions on the National Theatre to unlock it. A fun project. I used 3D software to create the scenes, the character poses, and to render the artwork for each panel.”
“In 2014, I was commissioned by the Heinrich Boll Foundation to create an illustrated story which I called “My City Safari,” as the first part of what I planned to be a series of illustrated stories.
“In the series, a young girl would visit cities and experience them in different ways. She’s from Makoko, a community that lives in houses on stilts on the Lagos Lagoon.
“I set out to do a comic about the Eko Atlantic City to address some of the concerns about the sustainability and social inclusiveness of the project, issues central to Heinrich Boll Foundation’s advocacy and I chose to do it through the subtle means of a child’s curious engagement with urban design and the internet of things.” Read the full 76-page comic here.
“Eko Atlantic City is being built as a gated district of Lagos, not open to everybody.
“It is better known as the Great Wall of Lagos, but it’s a bit more like the artificial island in Dubai, with sand filling in a stretch of the Atlantic about 1.5 times the size of Victoria Island—a brilliant idea for pushing back coastal erosion and gaining some real estate in the process but everyone is concerned about its impact.
“The Lagos shoreline had been eroded over at least a hundred years, so a popular beach in Lagos had virtually disappeared and a road from Victoria to Lekki was being eaten away. The solution was not just to build a protective wall to stop the erosion. The state decided to push back the ocean to the original shoreline and THEN build the wall. Being a capitalist state, it realized they were making new real estate, a new city. New towers are already filling about half of Eko Atlantic. There are problems with equality. Properties are being bought by multinationals and the super rich.
“As an architect I am in involved with advocacy issues. Who is Eko Atlantic really for? Who will benefit? Will investment all go to infrastructure to be used by the rich?”
Ayodele is an architect by profession. When I visited in 2015, he took me on a tour of the banks, condominiums, and car show rooms he had designed, mostly along the Lekki peninsula—mile on mile of new developments, prosperous and fresh looking.
As a student he was part of the team led by Theo Lawson who designed Freedom Park, one of my favorite things about Lagos. The old colonial prison has been redeveloped as an arts center with a theatre, an outdoor live music venue, a row of restaurants in the old prisoner’s mess, and an upstairs bar where artists, writers and musicians meet. Admission including live music was less than an English pound. Click here to read more about Freedom Park.
It was his interest in the social implications of architecture that led to Lagos 2060, a collaboration of architecture and fiction.
“WHAT made me do it? Restlessness? Part of it was trying to bring different worlds together—architecture, publishing, and literature.
“Ideologically, one feels that architecture has a lot to contribute to the well-being of society in several different ways. I knew not many writers were engaging with ideas of science fiction, or rather not doing it seriously enough. I was one of the presidents of a campus writers group, which exposed me to fresh talent. So the anthology was fresh talent for the sake of fresh talent. In those days, you couldn’t imagine a career as a writer. Achebe and Soyinka were too far away and we didn’t have Adichie then. This was just artistic endeavor for the sake of it.”
Lagos 2060 is one of the earliest efforts to publish African SFF—work began on the project in 2009. To be ruthlessly honest, it reads like a foundation text for a new field finding its feet, with authors who had no context for science fiction or access to discussions about it. His fellow architects who were supposed to collaborate with the authors withdrew, and the writers needed encouragement. The authors were by and large mainstream writers or journalists. See the About box “Lagos 2060: the writers” at the end of this interview.
But the anthology was a seed. One of the contributors, Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, became one of the founders and editors of the crucial online SFF magazine Omenana.
“Lagos 2060 also had a utilitarian ambition, which goes against the grain of what art should be, but what art has been in Africa. It tends to be utilitarian; we want to see a use for it. Lagos 2060 was supposed to be a tool for scenario planning, meaning you envision the future and create scenarios of what could happen. You use it as a means for planning the future… help it happen, stop it happening, preparing.”
Workshops for the anthology were held in 2010.
“I was very conscious of not prescribing to the authors what to write. We brainstormed and threw ideas around, some of the things I was toying with made it through into the stories but I didn’t force it down their throats, I wanted to see the writers own writing. I was the main architectural collaborator. But Boma Nnaji, an architect friend, and one of the illustrators of Fistful also came in to the brainstorming.
“The problem of a country like Nigeria is not corruption, but lack of imagination, not yet being able to envision the kind of future that we want. We have not pushed ourselves even to say that by 2020 we will have 12G broadband even in remotest village. We are not saying okay, if the autonomous car is being made now, put people into engineering school now to design road networks for them.”
Lagos 2060 was finally published by DADA in 2013.
“I took copies of Lagos 2060 and walked through all the state secretariats and seats of government, including the Governor’s office and his commissioners. A dumb thing to do, just going in to dump it. I just felt it was something necessary to do.”
Ayodele continues to lobby, ponder, illustrate and write. In 2015, NESTA, a British Science and Culture NGO, invited him to Britain their event FutureFest 2015 to speak about the future of Lagos as a city. British immigration processes meant that he was not given a visa in time to get to the panel, and the rest of us on the panel had to do it without him.
NESTA did, however, show his video, made together with iMagineering Lagos, the collective that emerged for the purpose—which is extraordinary. It starts out with real talking heads from Lagos now, but turns into a series of video reports from the Lagos Herald. These amount to animated tales from the future. You can see the video on YouTube by clicking here.
NESTA also recently commissioned a story “The Facility” from him about AI and the expected singularity to be published in parts. You can read it on TheLong+Short website.
“So I came back to the UK to study in October 2015 and I am just finishing the MSc in Creative Technology—a perfect program for someone in SFF. It looks at what’s new, what’s established in technology and what new things you can do with it. I did research on the history of digital TV, looked at the first devices for VR, at Disney creating the multiplane camera for animation. I am playing with the Internet of things and human/computer interface, amongst other things.
“The course meant that my experience of writing the story for NESTA was a bit different. I was writing as someone a bit more involved with the technology, I wasn’t just winging it.”
Talking to Ayodele, I get the impression that new thinking about science, technology, business, and creativity is a feature of Nigerian discourse. The contrast with East Africa with its amiable bohemianism, literary taste, and linguistic radicalism is stark. Ayodele is not the only Nigerian writer or academic or health worker I’ve spoken to who has a great awareness of branding, business, economics, and banking. He is not the only person to say that Nigerians like their art to have a function, be it teaching a moral, illustrating how to run a business, or building for the future.
“I will be doing more writing and also make science fiction animated shorts. There is a lot of quality work being done in Nigeria by people going to India or the UK to study, like Eri Umusu, who’s done a demo for a series called “The Sim” about robots and martial arts.
“Even more is happening with gaming in Nigeria because you can monetarize it more easily. Not a lot of SFF in our gaming yet; it’s targeting the mainstream—games by Nigerians for Nigerians. If successful, gaming will spawn animated clips as trailers or standalone movies and some of those are bound to have SFF elements. So I’m interested in gaming and how that can be a quick point of entry into the world of technology for young Nigerians.
“I’m also looking at working with Ore Disu, who was part of the NESTA panel with us, and Yegwa Ukpo on creating a space for the sort of conversation that birthed Lagos 2060 to keep happening. Ore runs an NGO called the Nsibidi Institute. The name Nsibibi comes from the name for a native African writing system. Her NGO does culture-related programs and urbanism-related events, preserving learning about alternative culture and futurism.
“Ore, Yegwa and I want to get together to share ideas and competencies. We will do a series of discussions in Lagos, called Alternatives and an online version of it.”
“Yegwa Ukpo runs a practical space called Stranger Lagos which provides coffee, a chance to think, and structures for collaboration. He’s into all kinds of stuff, including the blockchain technology behind the bitcoin, and is trying to create an alternative currency.”
“Until recently Nigeria was the biggest consumer of champagne in the world—yet with poor roads and no electricity but still with the third highest number of dollar millionaires in Africa and 68% of its population living below the poverty line.
“We laugh when Forbes’ list only shows three Nigerians. They are only the ones Forbes knows about. The rest are hidden in Swiss bank accounts. But we didn’t laugh when David Cameron said we are ‘fantastically corrupt,’ when the British Museum has our Benin Bronzes and our corrupt officials are laundering their money in British banks. We learned corruption from the British.
“Nigeria is the country where capitalism ran wild, set free by colonialism. The result is like nowhere else on earth.
“The government is very effective at projects like Eko Atlantic City, but the hospital where my Dad lectured for over 40 years is a shadow of what it used to be. The operating theatre when I was going to school was one of the best in Africa. Now we hear stories of operations when electricity goes off and the procedures are concluded using mobile phones for light. And that’s in Lagos, which is doing better than most Nigerian cities.”
Ayodele’s father is a neurosurgeon, his mum a nurse, and his two brothers are doing final exams in different branches of medicine, while another brother is working in a bank. Two older sisters are also doctors and a younger sister is an IT specialist in Sheffield. At the end of his course in the UK, he will go home.
“This is the worst time to go back to Nigeria. It’s in recession, a sharp drop in GDP due to low oil prices and poor economic policies. The entertainment sector will be OK; can even grow in a downturn. It doesn’t depend on oil.
“Selling oil at less than 40 dollars, we don’t have money to pay what’s called fuel subsidy any longer and anyway people weren’t getting it before because fuel was not sold at the official rate. So what did most Nigerians get out of the oil?
“This government can get some infrastructure built, but there’s little confidence in their ability to manage the economy, and you can’t build without an economy, you can only borrow. You are building a banana republic, leaving a legacy of fancy things behind but leaving people poor. We’re building with borrowed money and that’s like suicide for our children.
“Why are we not innovating? Where is our intellectual property? We need to drive the process—right now we are waiting for America to tell us what to make, but America wants to restructure and begin manufacturing again. One of the most innovative people in Nigeria thinks we can become a manufacturing hub like China. But that model just ended.
“Some of my friends say I am in diaspora, and scare-mongering. The stereotype is that diaspora people always think nothing works and are talking down at everyone while not being in touch with what is going on. I used to say the same thing, make jokes about diaspora people. But how do they get their news in Nigeria? From Nigerian newspapers, from Twitter, from Facebook, from blogs? Same as I do. I still live in Lagos, at least in my head. I’m just in London studying. I will go back. I am not in diaspora.”
About Lagos 2060
The contributors since, according to Ayodele:
Afolabi Muheez Ashiru
…has continued to write SFF, focusing on a comics series, Tales of Conquest working with USA-based artist Scot Mmobuosi. It’s still not out, but a preview is available here.
…when he contributed to the anthology, Okey was both a journalist and mainstream fiction writer for Author Me, AfricanWriter.com, and Author’s Den. Recently he had a mainstream story “Cash Money” published online by Brittle Paper.
Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu
…had been doing a lot of SF before Lagos 2060. He was probably the most committed to SFF. He’s gone on to found with Chinelo Onwualu the online magazine Omenana and to publish many stories. Read one of them, “Deletion” in Saraba magazine.
I’ve not seen anything from her. I don’t know if she’s done a lot of writing. We are friends on Facebook, but I haven’t seen her post about any writing…I found what I thought was her page under a slightly different name.
…went on to become a speechwriter for Fashola (probably the most successful mayor Lagos has ever had) and was a member of the Pen Circle as well. Not seen much of her work since then.
…was a journalist, for a local paper. I am sure he has written more fiction and some SFF as well. I know he is a member of the African Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook, where he publishes a lot of micropoetry. He tells us he is working on a new science fiction story.
…I collaborated with her on African Futures, a three-city event funded by the Goethe Institut in 2015. She did a story that I curated set in a place in Lagos called computer village where you get hardware and parts. She re-imagined it in the future. We thought it up like a game—three narratives, three different people. Their narratives get conjoined at one point.
In one town like this, not too long ago, lived an enterprising young girl. Ugonwoma, her parents called her, as she was the pride of their lives. She was so rich that she built a house in the village for her retired parents before any of her brothers could say taa! and painted it white so that under the sun it was like staring into the flare from a welder’s torch. People would use the house as a landmark in the village: “Take right until you come to the white house,” which made her parents very happy.
Her mother wore the latest cloth in the market and held her head high, for her daughter was young – had just finished university, in fact – and was doing strong things. Her father bought himself an ozo title; one could hear him laughing kwa-kwa-kwa as he sat with his friends on the veranda of his new house, drinking palm wine and eating bush meat, flicking flies with his horsetail whisk. Yes-men and boy-boys would sing his praise names from the compound below and he would get up to spray naira notes on them like manna. Life was good.
From the title on, “Story Story” starts out like a family-told tale, the equivalent of “once upon a time.” It stands back from a Western reader, who is asked to work out things from context. What is an ozo title?
A Westerner might wonder if the writing is exaggerating or even makes things a bit exotic? “…drinking palm wine and eating bush meat, flicking flies with a horsetail whisk” seems to echo Tutuola, and that horsetail whisk feels like it could be from the colonial era. Those elements could set the story in the past, until they collide with the daughter going to university.
“Story Story” signals that it is drawing on traditional belief and storytelling but is set in the modern world. Chikodili Emelumadu, the author, has lived back and forth between England and Nigeria all her life. She was born in Worksop in Nottinghamshire, and then moved back to Nigeria at age two and a half. She shows that use of local languages is a concern for some West African as well as East African writers.
Chikodili says, “‘Story Story’ was written in a purposeful style, basically a transliteration of how it would be told in Igbo as my grandmother or my mother would tell it, to get the cadence of it echoing oral storytelling.” Later she adds, “But exotic? No. Palm wine is still the traditional drink of hospitality, we still enjoy bush meat with a passion and as far as I know, flies haven’t gone extinct in my country.
“I usually let each story have its own voice. I’m finishing up a novel now. One of the narrators in it is a housemaid sent out to work by her parents to bring in extra income. She is comfortable telling the story—‘gisting’ as we say in Nigeria—and she tells it in a voice that is a bit like ‘Story Story.’
“The novel’s working title is As I Was Saying…but that might change. It’s speculative fiction. I found that with the first draft some literary elements, though carried by the characters, didn’t seem to go anywhere. There is a curse/gift passed down through the family of another character and things happen that trigger it.
“I’m very interested in ancestry and how little of it most of us know. We have lost the art of asking questions, I find. Our parents were encouraged to forgo certain practices in order to be “civilized,” to be able to mingle with a world brought to their doorsteps by missionaries and early educationists. There were some harmful practices, yes, but it all got lumped together with benign and even beneficial customs.
“For example, ancestral reverence, which is a big deal where I come from. In the old days and in certain parts of Igboland still, people will call upon their ancestors for guidance. It has spiritual connotations of course, but on the other hand, if you don’t tell stories and sing songs with the names of ancestry you will forget who they are.
“This girl, my character, knows just three generations of her family, but the gift links her with generations gone before.
“She finds out how much of her ancestry is present in her, but also how much she is a conduit for things that happened in the past she has no idea about. Spirits don’t forget. They have nothing but time.
“The novel has two narrators, maybe three. At different points, different people wanted to speak so they took over the narration. I might choose to let that be, or I might hack them all off in rewrites. Kill all my darlings.
“The first is the nanny/house help. She is not literate having come from a farming community. Narrator two is my girl who is the conduit of ancestors. I don’t want to tell you who the third person is, in case I kill him. Suffice to say, right now he is a schoolmate of the girl. And no, he is not a ‘love interest’.”
So how has Chikodili found life in the UK?
Chikodili: “Moving to London, I found my culture was presented as an otherness. That made me want to reconcile with it. I wanted to go deeper into my culture and find out things which people at home—for fear of Christianity or whatever—might not wish to talk about.
“Reincarnation is part of the Igbo tradition and religion. In none of the foreign religions (that are prevalent in Nigeria) is that allowed. You die, you go to heaven or hell. If you’re Catholic, there is the hope of purgatory if anyone cares enough about to you dedicate rosary hours to praying you out of it.
“The Igbo pre-colonial relationship with death has been disturbed. We had good deaths—old age. We had bad deaths from illness, the ogbanje phenomenon where children died early and frequently to torture their parents; and we had hard deaths—accidents, murder.
“But death was not the end. It was like another plane. You passed through and were…recycled, for lack of a better word. Now we fear death. We don’t give people death names any more. We have absorbed the Christian idea of death.”
Chikokili did not speak Igbo for a while—her first language was English. At home, she was made to speak English all the time.
“But I learned Igbo gradually. I speak Igbo very well, can read it slowly and write in ‘Central Igbo’ which is like the Igbo lingua franca. However, in everyday conversation, I prefer my dialect. Sometimes, it becomes even more casual than that, the sort you’d use when speaking to a friend or an age-mate, a mix we call Ingli-Igbo.
“So if I were to come into a friend’s house and they were eating they might say to me, ‘your legs are fine.’ That means your legs are good luck. You’ve come at the right time to have some food, so join us. ‘She picked up running’ means ‘She started to run’.”
Chikodili’s family moved from the UK to the town of Awka in Ananabra State, not her family’s hometown, which is Oba. Her first secondary school in Imo state provided some background for her novel. She then went to the Federal Government Girl’s School in Onitsha.
“I always thought I was going to be a writer. I thought everybody was a writer, that everybody had pictures in their head and reams of plot. I worked at being a writer for a very long time. I started writing plays when I was about six.”
Like so many parents, the family seem to have demanded achievement and hard work from their children.
“My Dad made us work on the farm. He grew up poor so we had to learn to do things for ourselves. My parents made us read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, which had little plays in the back. So I started to write plays. In my teenage years I wrote poems and attempted novels.”
Chikodili studied English Language and Literature at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Awka, then came to the UK in 2004 to study for a Master’s degree in Cross Cultural Communication and International Relations at the University of Newcastle. After a concentrated education in English literature, Chikodili found Britain a culture shock.
Chikodili: “My parents were anglophiles, so I had to read the classics; swashbuckling explorers on ‘the dark continent,’ tea and scones and cucumber sandwiches, that sort of thing. It was a bit of a shock coming to Britain to see that people weren’t that proper anymore.
They spat on the streets and smashed each other’s heads open on Friday nights after downing a couple of drinks. It was a bit too Dickensian and not quite as my father had brought us up to conduct ourselves. That probably sounds snooty but I’m sure some people can relate to those expectations our parents had. It’s almost as if they had to be ultra-British to ‘pass,’ as it were.
“My dreams of England had no foundation and basis—I couldn’t reconcile them with what I was seeing. Since I couldn’t be English in that way, I had to dig around in my own psyche. I started looking back at history, my own history. Both of my grandmothers were alive and taking steps towards them made me aware how much I was like a little grain of sand in the hourglass of time. I’d taken my grandparents, language, culture all of for granted. I had to figure out what I wanted to be in myself.”
She followed her MA with a postgrad diploma in Journalism at Harlow College. Afterwards, she spent time working as a journalist for the BBC World Service.
“I quit the BBC at 27 and went into short stories. I practiced using the skills of journalism in fiction, being concise, writing to length.”
She began submitting fiction in October 2013 has had a run of publications since in Running out of Ink, Omenana, Apex and others. Her story “Candy Girl” was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. Her most recent story “Soursop” was published in Apex in 2016.
For me, “Soursop” is completely different from “Story, Story.” It’s set in a joyless, post-human world. The rich have all migrated, stripping the Earth—what’s left is a wasteland where nothing grows. The taste of food exists only as other people’s memories, sold to a planet-bound workforce. The language instead of a flavorful brew of Nigerian expressions, mimics its world—techno and militaristic.
It’s undoubtedly science fiction, perhaps too crowded with backstory, but an effective dream image of Nigeria now.
Chikodili: “Right now in Nigeria, the tomato crop has failed. We don’t have proper infrastructure to transport tomatoes. We don’t even can them. So if they are not in season, we don’t have them. ‘Soursop’ is a bit of a fantasy about how there is no food.
“My parents are still in Nigeria, so the state of the country worries me. I worry at some point that the currency will become useless. ‘Soursop’ is a nightmare of stripping Nigeria in which the rich are Ascendant, meaning they leave the ground to live in space colonies. The heroine of the story, being the granddaughter of a rebel is condemned to work, working for nothing.
“Nigerians tend to be complacent. The Arab Spring, we just don’t have that. There is no sense of a coming together for the common good. There are more than 200 languages and as many dialects. It’s easy for those in charge to divide people against each other and let them fight for scraps; perceived territory, resources, whatever. And while we fight, they loot.”
When we spoke, the UK was about to lose Chikodili. Since 2006, she has been an enthusiastic blogger, and she met her future husband through blogging. He recently got a fellowship at Harvard, so the family, including Chikodili’s son, now live in Cambridge, MA.
“I am not completely gone from Nigeria though just now I’m being bombarded by newness. My son really wants to go back to Nigeria.”
Why does she think SFF has taken off in Africa?
Chikodili: “It’s a silly question: why is Africa reading Science Fiction? What does that mean? Science fiction is just a way of inventing new ways of living or doing things.
“African writers are just like you—only better… naw just joking. We have the same concerns, we have to eat, and we worry about money, children, and good health. The ways we are different are not a threat.
“Life sucks. So SF allows you not to be in life anymore. I don’t understand how people can stand not living in all possible futures, why they get stuck in their existence—bill paying, car tax, wheel-clamping. SF not only gives you a glimpse of an alternate reality but a future one. Even when I’ve shut a book, my psyche keeps thinking it over. When I started submitting, I was worried about my stuff and having it be ‘professional’ or ‘normal.’ Now I am over worrying about if I sound crazy, I just don’t care anymore.
“The kind of mainstream literature that was winning awards—child abuse, slavery, domestic violence, FGM, child soldiers, poverty, rape, HIV. That was Africa. People are so entrenched in their view of what is African that they can’t reconcile a story about people sitting in a café. It’s not African enough, they say. And that influences the way writers think about their work. I am through feeling guilty that my version of African is so different from everyone else’s.
“A lot of us science fiction types, it’s our duty to do what SF and Fantasy do—which is not conform to any norm, just break the rules, write and say what you want in any form. There is a resurgence in speculative fiction right now because literary forms are not working for us. It seems a lot more people are writing a speculative fiction element. Writing should come from a place of rebellion.
“But don’t listen to me. Just do it.”
Others stories by Chikodili Emelumadu available online:
- “Candy Girl” (nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award): A bewitched umbrella threatens a young woman’s life.
- “Jermyn” (runner-up story, South Million Writers award): A naughty but loyal dog and something like a vampire—that inhabits paper.
- “Tunbi” (Recommended reading by Lois Tilton and Ellen Datlow): Modern day spells.
Uncle Odinaka was sitting at a white plastic seat under the shade of an udara tree near the trunk. He cupped his snuff on his right palm, and with his left, he tapped it to sniff. He would sneeze and some of the brownish droplets from it would spread on his white singlet. I called the color of the singlet white because I knew when it had been that color, when Mum bought it for him as a gift. What remained of it now was something yet to have a proper name of its own. Sometimes he would use the edge of the yellow wrapper that tied across his waist to cleanup his streaming nose.
Dad parked a stone’s throw from the udara tree where Odinaka sat. As he turned the engine off, I knew what he would say.
“Don’t eat anything from anybody except the ones I approve and don’t shake hands with any of them.” I never knew at what point this ritual began, but what I could recall was that since Ebuka, my eldest brother, died, Dad suspected that my mother’s uncles killed him and would always give me this instruction if I travelled to my mother’s home with him.
We walked towards Uncle Odinaka. When he saw us coming, he stood up and started coming towards us. I realized why Mum used him as an adage whenever she felt that we weren’t eating as we ought to. “Do you want to be like a single ‘I’ like your Uncle Odinaka?” she would say. And truly, Odinaka looked like an ‘I’ with a flat stomach and bottom. He looked like a strong Sahara wind could blow him away.
From his gestures, I knew that he wanted to hug Dad as he did to Mum whenever I came with her, but Dad just smiled, standing away from him. Dad tucked his palms in the pockets of his white kaftan. Odinaka understood Dad’s gesture, so he withdrew. But I went near him and hugged him just the way Mum used to do. I knew that if the eyes were a sword, Dad would have slain me. I tried as much as I could to avoid his eyes. It was then that I told Uncle Odinaka that I was tired and needed some rest. He gave me the key to his house. I thanked him. Without looking at my father, I left them still standing under the tree.
—“The Eaters Of Flesh” from Lost Tales from the Mountain: Halloween Anthology Vol. II Edited by: Abigail Kern & Riley Guyer) and reprinted in Haunted Grave and Other Stories
The real horror in Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso’s story doesn’t lie so much in that the young hero’s family are involved in evil magic, but that he can’t tell which parent it is—or possibly both and the wider family as well.
His mother has disappeared; his father says that religion had driven her to madness, but her family blame him. Did his uncles kill his brother? Or was it his own father sacrificing his first-born? The hero can never know. The story powerfully communicates what it’s like to be in a dysfunctional family.
The story is published in a horror anthology, though I would call it a piece of traditional belief realism. The focus is not so much on the magic as the sense of paranoia and denunciation of each other by every part of the family—a nightmare of threat and doubt.
When I came out of the house, Dad was still under the udara tree. About fifteen other extended relatives sat with him in a circle. From where I stood in front of Odinaka’s bungalow, I couldn’t make out what the discussion was about. The way Nna, my mother’s nephew, who looked like a scarecrow, was speaking and was swinging his right hand up and down and sometimes pointing an accusing finger at my father showed me that whatever it was, it wasn’t funny. Toochi, Odinaka’s younger brother, sitting on Nna’s left, would sometimes shake his head. Odinaka sat on Nna’s right, using his two palms intermittently to give Nna a gesture of calming down.
I looked away….
My eyes went back to the udara tree. Virtually everybody there was standing up. I think my father was in the middle because I couldn’t see him. Whatever led to the present situation I couldn’t tell but I was certain that if nothing was done, my father’s safety was in danger. I walked over.
Immediately when they saw me, the commotion began to calm. Chidi, Ejike, Mmadu and Ude, the elderly older cousins of my mother began going to their seats.
“You have a week to provide our daughter or you will face our wrath,” Nna said as I approached them.
Families are durable, but inescapable and if they go wrong they can be unbearable traps.
“If something goes wrong it may well be that witchcraft is blamed, which means someone gets blamed,” says Ezeiyoke. The story nails that sense of spreading accusation; that sense that everyone is tainted, part of the problem.
In the end all the hero can do is flee the family, lose his name, lose his identity. Disappear like his mother? Move to Europe? In a sense the story can be read as a myth of the diaspora and loss of identity.
The story is effectively written in a style flavoured with Nigerian English. At one point the father says to the hero, “Since you were a child, I have watched you whenever I was in the car with you. You often look through the window and whenever you do, it means that you have an enormous thing under your skin.”
The location of the story emerges simply and clearly. You know at once the narrator is African from the vocabulary and tone. The names, then, might tell you that the family then that the family is Igbo. References to Arsenal Football club might mean they live either in Nigeria or are diasporan in the UK, but this last question is finally dispelled.
I ask him if the characters are speaking Igbo in translation?
“In the story they are speaking Igbo in the nearest English translation. But to be honest, I don’t think about it. From primary school age, English and Igbo coexist. They don’t conflict; each has an assigned place; Igbo in the house but in school you switch automatically in English. So I write automatically in English.”
His story “The Last Man Standing” was longlisted for the Golden Baobab Award in 2010 but did not make the final cut for that anthology. It was published in Future Lovecraft edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles. It’s an end-of-the-world story about a mutated, highly contagious version of AIDS. Science fiction crosses with horror—people say a surviving 13-year-old girl is a witch. Someone retells a story of how a local native doctor conquered an evil woman who turned herself into a giant mosquito at night. Once again, accusations of witchcraft do as much harm as any disease.
He doesn’t confine himself to SFF. He is currently at work on a mainstream novel about oil and the Niger delta. His published mainstream stories include “Spinoza’s Monad” in the anthology Africa Roar, 2014 edited by Ivor Hartmann and “Asylum X” published in the Corner Club Press Quarterly Publication. Ezeiyoke’s poetry was published in the 2010 ANA Review, an annual journal of the Association of Nigerian Authors. The poem “Woman” was shortlisted for the Ghana Poetry Prize in 2013, and “Oil of Blood” was shortlisted for the Quickfox Poetry Competition.
He was born 29 years ago in Enugu, Nigeria and came to UK to study 2013. His first degree was in Philosophy. He got an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea and is now studying for a graduate diploma in law from BPP in Manchester.
“My favourite writers? I have a lot. Stephen King, Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie. I like the big bestselling authors. Dan Brown, the legal writer John Grisham, author of The Firm. Most often in Nigeria it is this big bestselling authors that are readily available and cheap to buy from roadside booksellers. And it is impossible not to read them since the money that will buy for me a single African writer, say from Farafina, would buy me at least three titles from these authors. And just like any reader, the more the books, the merrier life becomes.
“One of my earliest favourite authors was Cyprian Ekwensi. He was a realist author but was overshadowed by Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. His novels are Burning Grass and Jagua Nana.”
“As a boy I loved Chukwuemeka Ike. I really loved his novella The Bottled Leopard. It was a about a boy who can turn into a leopard at night. I can’t forget it. It sticks to my memory even now after 20 years ago.”
“Amos Tutuola… because of the grammar he was a bit unlucky and was pushed into a ghetto of literature. People stand away from him. He has a good imagination and writes the kind of story I want to write.
“Wole Soyinka—I revere him but what he writes is so abstract sometimes I can’t understand him, so I use him to measure how much I‘ve learned how to read and when I do, I say, oh, how intelligent I have become.” At this, Ezeiyoke roars with laughter.
Getting hold of books is still something of a problem in Enugu. “In Nigeria, Amazon is still accessible, but the exchange rate makes it a big amount. But with Farafina (publishers in Nigeria) it becomes cheaper. Most of my books come from Farafina.
“I came to the UK solely because of my writing. And I would say that my MA in Swansea University was magical. Before I came to the UK for my MA, I had only one professional publication, storywise, but now merely two years after my MA, I have at least published five short stories and a publisher has requested for the collection of my fantasy short stories.”
Since the interview in May, the collection of stories has appeared, Haunted Grave and Other Stories from Parallel Universe Publications. It includes “Eaters of Flesh,” “Last Man Standing” and two other stories previously published in anthologies.
How does he view African SFF?
“In African life, where I come from, there is not a strict line that divides fantasy from realistic, these two words are meshed.
“What African writers might bring to SFF? For me, I don’t want any African writer to feel to be under any pressure that he needed to bring anything new to SFF apart from the story that matters to him, which he alone can tell.
“It is precisely this feeling of wanting to bring something unique and special that trapped African literature, stopping it from growing for a long time. African writers, in order to fulfil this need, ended up in writing stories that must have a social function to perform, say to fight colonialism, imperialism, and corruption or to educate. Most African literature ended up in becoming an anthropological-valued literature. For me, each individual should create without thinking of any constraint placed on him to invent in a particular theme or expectation from any community. It is after the birth of each story can we then be justif[ied] to begin to construct a canon to explain what is new the story has offered.”
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
It is dusk. Miisi is sitting on a three-legged stool near the angel’s trumpet shrub with his back against the hedge. He double-storey house is a ruin. The roof and parts of the walls on the top floor are in disrepair. A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered in bees. He has a single hair on his head as thick as a big rope.
“Get up and come with me,” the man says.
Miisi knows he should ask: who are you? Come with you where? But instead he whines, “You know my hip is bad” as if he and the man have known each other for a long time.”
Miisi and the man are standing on a hillside. They are surrounded by trees. The place is familiar even though Miisi is sure he has never been there. The bee man touches a tree and looks it up and down. “This tree will be at the centre,” he says as he walks around it still looking it up and down. “It will make the central pole.” Miisi is puzzled but the man adds, “Find a tall man, ask him to take ten strides,’ the bee man takes a stride. “in every direction around this tree and build a dwelling.”
Now they are standing at on the other end of the hill Miisi and the bee man have been taken together on the hillside for years now.
‘This is Nnakato,” the bee man points to the ground. “You must retrieve her and lay her properly.” He looks at Miisi. Even his eyes are bees….
—From Kintu, (Book V, Misirayima (Miisi) Kintu)
Kintu is a huge book. Huge as in big—big time span, many characters. Its first hundred pages recreate the politics, family structures, conversations, and beliefs of the Buganda kingdom in the 1750s. It is one of the surprisingly rare attempts in fiction to imagine an African culture undamaged by invasion. It tells the story of how a curse is directed at all the descendants of Kintu Kidda.
Kintu then leapfrogs over the colonial era, to show how the curse has affected four modern Ugandan families. It saves up Idi Amin until you have read many other things you don’t know about Uganda, but then really gives you the devastation of his downfall and the war in two major stories. It saves up any discussion of neo-colonialism until it is sure you’ve absorbed a lot of less familiar information. It bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the 2000s, showing you the same cities and towns in different eras. Four branches of the Kintu clan are each given a book each around a major character. Scores of secondary characters also have key roles in the plot, detailed in roughly 450 pages of succinct, powerful writing.
The hinge between the historical novel and the contemporary one is a grandmother relating the legend of the Kintu Kidda curse—and that version differs from the historical reality. We hear different versions of the story and are shown the flexibility and practicality of oral literature. In one tradition, Kintu has disappeared completely and only his wife Nnakato is revered. Tradition survives alongside modernity, but continually overwritten (or rather over-spoken?), useful, alive.
Kintu is huge in impact. Richard Oduor Oduku who we met in Part One, Nairobi said this about Kintu, unprompted during his own interview:
“That book is so big here. It presents a world that has its own integrity and social relations. There is no recourse to external explanation for the curse or for undoing it.
“Sometimes we—you—get surprised by how much you don’t know about who you are. For me Jennifer’s book is a link to an on-going world that has not been intruded upon and does not have to pay homage to a disruptive force. Something we have longed for a long time.”
There is not a white character in the book. The colonial era is not described (one of the oldest characters, an obsessive Christian, remembers colonialism with fondness; another character’s grandparents are mentioned as living through it). For the most part, except towards the end, Western education and the diaspora are irrelevant.
Its author is well aware that the book, in its own world, has gone mega.
“Jacob Ross one of its first readers said that Kintu is the kind of novel that would become a national book. There was a genuine excitement about it in Uganda that I’d never seen before, a buzz about it. People had been saying that Uganda was a literary desert. There were so many misrepresentations that Ugandans didn’t read. Instead it kept selling out editions in East Africa. I got a letter from the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Buganda (a cultural entity inside the political one of Uganda.) It tells a Ugandan story in an Ugandan way.”
Until very recently the usual way for an African author to succeed was to win an award, or to publish in the West and be validated there. The success of Kintu came with African publication. Just before this interview, Kintu finally found a publisher in the USA (Transit Books). No UK publisher has as yet been found—for a book that is already regarded as a masterpiece. Most UK publishers said something like “It’s too African.”
Too African? The highest possible praise.
Kintu was submitted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize and won first place, meaning that Kwani published it in Kenya for distribution in East Africa by the Kwani Trust. Since then it’s been accepted for publication in West Africa by Farafina Press. Within Africa, on African terms, it became a bestseller.
The same year as first publication (2014), Jennifer won first the African region, then the overall Commonwealth Fiction Prize for “Let’s Tell This Story Properly.” Kintu went on to be long listed for the Etisalat Prize in Nigeria. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a name to be reckoned with.
Book One: Kintu Kidda establishes the importance of twins in the Ganda culture. Kintu marries two twins, one for love, one for reproduction—his beloved wife, Nnakato, seems infertile. The second wife’s children are treated as if they belonged to the first.
Book Two: Suubi Nnakintu is set in 2004 tells the story of Suubi and Ssanyu, two twins. They therefore have the same actual names —Babirye and Nnakato—as Kintu Kidda’s wives. But the name Nnakato would give that away, so Suubi gives herself the name Nnakintu. It’s a lie. Any Ugandan would know someone called Nnakato is a twin. That’s something that Suubi wants to overwrite. This is only one of many subtleties of plot and culture that this Western reader did not get.
Her twin Ssanyu Babirye died as a child and haunts Suubi, enraged at being denied.
The first (attack) happened eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half-awake in bed when a sensation of being “locked” —she could not open her eyes or move or scream—came over her. Yet she could see a young woman standing above her bed looking down on her. The woman looked exactly like Suubi only she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all. Her skin was dry, taut and scratched. Her hair was in thick tufts. She even wore Suubi’s floral blue dress with an elasticated waist-band, yet Suubi had discarded that dress ten years earlier.
‘Who are you?’ Suubi had tried to ask.
‘Who am I, who am I ?’ The woman was very angry. ‘I am Ssanyu, Ssanyu Babirye, you chameleon! Stop telling lies.’
Says Jennifer: “The story of Suubi and Ssanyu is of the duality in the novel. The duality that is Uganda. We are both Europeanized and Ugandan. We speak both traditional language(s) and English. Someone goes to church, but then will go to the traditional healer. Someone is a scientist but will have an intense spiritual life. We have this saying in Uganda: God help me, but I’m going to run as well. We think two ways at once.”
This duality of holding traditional and modern together is fundamental to Makumbi’s own life story. In the critical element of her PhD, which also consisted of a draft of Kintu, Makumbi talked about her own biography.
One of my earliest memories is of story time in the evening in a village with my grandfather. Another is in the city foraging through my father’s bookshelves of adult books looking for something readable. The most vivid memory however is of my grandfather, who was traditional, and my father, who was thoroughly colonised, arguing about where I should live. My father insisted that I should be brought up in the city where I would get a ‘proper’ education while my grandfather argued that I should remain in the village to get grounding in tradition first, that schools there were just fine. A compromise was reached when I was four years old: I would study in the city with my father and spend term breaks with my grandfather. From then, the conflict between my father and grandfather took on the multiple facets of urban vs. rural, modern vs. traditional, Western vs. African, written vs. oral. Little did I know that this nomadic existence would be replicated at an international level: shuttling between Uganda and Britain as an adult.
In the village, the Luganda language was protected from outside influences. In the city, Jennifer was forbidden to speak Luganda, which was called “vernacular.” BBC English was the standard, and her father force-fed her Western literature. Her first experience of storytelling was in the village, retelling Goldilocks or Cinderella as new tales in Luganda. This novel Kintu could be seen as reversing that process—retelling traditional material for modern audiences.
The same PhD thesis describes Kintu as being a hybrid of forms—the Ganda myth Kintu ne Nnambi hybridized with the Christian myth of Ham.
Kintu is divided into Books to mirror the form of the Bible, especially the four gospels, and the story is crossed with the Biblical story of the curse of Ham—the most poisonous of all Biblical stories for Africans. Ham was reinvented as the cursed progenitor of all black people, assigned by God to slavery. The story of Ham is laced through the book. However this intrusion only appears in parts set in modern Uganda. Kintu of the 1700s has his origins in the first man on earth according to the Ganda, Kintu. It is important to note that you also see Christianity evolve from the stiff English version followed by the characters Kanani and Faisi to an Africanised version in 2004, where forms of traditional African worship are firmly entrenched in the Christian worship.
Really? Biblical? I didn’t get that at first reading at all. My first impression was of being lowered into the Ganda culture as it exists independent of Western intrusion.
OK, like Ham, there is a curse—a Tutsi man’s son is adopted by Kintu who slaps the boy once in reprimand—and the young man dies. His biological father Ntwire lays the curse—and all the subsequent history of the clan can be read as a struggle between Kintu’s protective spirit and Ntwire, who is determined to blight their lives.
How does that echo the story of Ham? Ham was cursed by his own father, Noah, for mocking his drunken nakedness. No adoption, no accidental homicide, no curse of one family by another. The sanest interpretation of the Biblical story is that Ham was made a servant of his brothers for his lifetime only. But colonialisation drove itself and its religion crazy. Apologists for slavery made the curse inherited, so that Ham’s children were slaves, and as a mark of the curse, their skins were darkened.
Makumbi’s thesis says:
Kintu Kidda is a trident character, a kind of an unholy trinity figure. A fusion of three characters, he is a nameless and timeless ancestor of the author whispered about in family circles who brought the curse of mental health problems in the family. He is Biblical Ham, son of Noah, from whom Africans supposedly descend. But most of all, he is Kintu the first man on earth in the Ganda creationist myth, Kintu ne Nambi.
The first surprise is how close personal and close the story is to the author herself—essentially the family is Makumbi’s own. She herself is a daughter of Kintu.
The second unexpected element is how this actual family story is ANOTHER kind of hybrid—of tradition and science, or at least a psychiatry-based diagnosis.
But how does it resemble the Biblical myth of Ham? Again, from the thesis:
Biblical Ham brings to Kintu’s character in the novel the idea of the potency of a person’s curse to another and the disproportionate severity of the retribution in relation to the offence committed. Biblical Ham also cements the notion of perpetuity through inheritance.
In other words, Noah’s curse was unfair. Though Ntwire’s only son was taken from him, the ruin of so many lives over hundreds of years is disproportionate.
Is there a recognition of God’s unfairness, implicit in each Book’s tale of suffering? One of the key characters is called Yobu/Job. There is something of Job in each of the Books of Kintu, including an undertow, like the Biblical book, regarding the inexplicable unfairness of God.
Each of the books focus on one terrible life after another—Suubi, starved by an aunt, and nearly kidnapped to be sold as a human sacrifice only to be haunted by the ghost of her dead twin. Kanani, made one-dimensional by a dour colonial form of Christianity and the betrayal of his children, who bear a child between them. Isaac Newton, unable to walk or speak until six because of child abuse, living through the post-Idi Amin war, and who is convinced his beloved only child is infected with HIV. Miisi, who not only loses his sanity but 11 of his 12 children to war, violence, and AIDS.
Humanity is made to suffer. Kintu is also the name of the first human in Ganda mythology. “Kintu” is a variant of the term “obuntu” or “Ubuntu” which means humanity and leads to the term Bantu which means humans in Luganda.
So the third prong of Kintu Kiddu’s origins, being the first human in traditional Ganda belief, universalizes these Books of suffering to include us all, European and African, American and Asian. In this sense, we are all of us children of Kintu, cursed to suffer disproportionately for history laid down centuries ago. I find this reading touching; since, I suppose, it includes me.
It’s not just Job or his twin sister Ruth who have Biblical names. You might need to speak Luganda to see that many of the characters have names from the story of Ham. Most significantly, the first son of Kintu named in the opening, and who is unfairly lynched for theft is called Kamu—Ham. Other characters are named for the sons of Ham—Puti (Phut, Ham’s son), Misirayimu, the long form of Miisi is a form of Mezraim, Ham’s son and Kanani is the Luganda form of Canaan, also Ham’s son. The name of the major character, Isaac Newton, manages to reference not only the Bible, but also the intrusion of European history and science.
This use of hybridized Christian/traditional names is not unique in works of what can be called African traditional belief realism. In her PhD dissertation, Makumbi points out that in The Famished Road, the figure of the abiku child, a birth from the spirit world is called Azaro, a form of Lazarus. Her thesis also examines Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s transposition of the Jesus story to Africa, The River Between.
Though I noticed some sacrificial lambs in the ending, Makumbi’s dissertation points out other resemblances to Christianity at the end—there is a father, a mother goddess, and a son.
However, Kintu has as its epigraph an 1863 quote from John Hannington Speke, the first European explorer to encounter the Ganda. In the quote, Speke sees Africa with its sons of Ham condemned to slavery as “a striking existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” And of course that meant their position as servants was ordained by God.
The real curse of Ham is colonization. The stories of Kintu also embody the deformities of culture and character inflicted by the curse of colonialization.
“In school as a child I was taught that we Africans are Hamites. I hope this version of ‘History’ is no longer taught in Uganda. This idea that I am a descendant of Ham was deeply engrained in me until somewhere in secondary school we were taught that we are Bantu—which means human, really.”
The last two Books of Kintu confront Europe through the character of Miisi. Miisi is a more familiar figure from African fiction than most of the characters. Miisi is the Western educated man who returns. Miisi, in fact, was educated in both the Soviet Union and Oxford, so he combines many strands of Western thinking—imperialism but also a strand of European resistance to it.
As a controversial writer, Miisi pens an African fantasy that retells Frankenstein in Africa (much as the child Jennifer Nansubuga retold the story of Cinderella). It reads like a new myth called Africanstein. Makumbi, alert to issues of language, tells us Miisi writes it first in English and then translates it into Luganda.
Buganda unlike the rest of Africa was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under the chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house.
Africastein is unlike any other passage in the Books of Kintu. Stories get re-told but only orally. This one is a highly symbolic, single-author fixed piece of written mythology. It stands out, though quite short. It strikes the most piercing note of anti-colonialism in the novel.
Before this interview at a reading event with writer Abubakar Ibrahim, I’d talked to Jennifer, convinced that we are to read the curse and the magic in the novel as real. For example, Ssanyu, the vision of the dead twin who haunts Suubi possesses her and predicts that the angry Aunt Kalata will die before her… and it comes true.
It would be difficult to read the events at the end of the novel (which I won’t spoil) and not begin to feel that traditional beliefs are being validated; that both the curse that the magic that undoes it are real.
I was surprised that Jennifer was quite clear that we are free to read the novel either way: that the curse is an inherited strain of schizophrenia and/or a powerful curse laid in 1750.
“That duality is very African. You will see a lot of literature like that, mental health is read in that way, representing the rational, Western way of thinking but held in a balance with African cultures. Both do work at the same time.”
Miisi, the rationalist author of Africanstein, becomes a very reluctant spiritual leader. Yet it is to him that the visions of Kintu Kidda come—as a man made of bees. The bees arrive when his son Kamu is murdered. Miisi doesn’t know this and doesn’t learn that his last surviving son is dead for some time. The bees arrive as if they are Kamu’s spirit. Then the great spirit, Kintu Kidda himself, arrives in a vision.
Protesting all the while that these visions are the product of his own trauma and mental health issues, Miisi nevertheless is the central figure of the family reunion to banish the curse. He is the prophet who tells them how to lift the curse, while all the while telling them that it cannot be true.
Miisi is the most sceptical character in the book and the one who perhaps suffers the most, and the character who paradoxically may also have the greatest spiritual power. The Christian Kanani sees Miisi as the embodiment of Lucifer. The elders see him almost as a kind of Messiah.
Jennifer, in the interview: “In the novel this is the thing that destroys Miisi who runs mad. The family sees him as failing to have a balance between these two worldviews and that failure destroys him. If you take one view that the family curse is inherited schizophrenia, then he goes schizophrenic, and of course he had depression before and his son’s death tips the balance.”
It is not a spoiler to reveal that his son Kamu is killed—that murder happens in the first chapter. But Kamu’s corpse and its fate (the body lies unclaimed) introduce each of the Books of Kintu. I didn’t get at first reading what role Kamu’s death was playing.
Jennifer in the interview: “Kamu’s death is the trigger. It is the thing that makes the spirit of Kintu decide that he has to intervene and finally end the curse from Ntwire. It is the thing that brings the family reunion together.”
But, my Western mind whispers, only in the plot where magic is real. Miisi doesn’t know Kamu is dead, nobody does, until after the reunion and ritual. In the secular plot, it has no role to play, and that feels untidy to me.
For me, an SFF reader and writer, I just can’t stop the magic being real and thus reading Kintu as a fantasy. And I think Jennifer would say that is a choice she wants me to have.
This is a clan saga, not a family saga.
In a Western family saga, a reader scans for cousins meeting cousins. A Westerner could waste a lot of energy waiting for characters from one Book of Kintu to meet their relations in another. The characters do not come together until Book VI, a gathering of the huge clan to enact rituals to end the curse. The masterful ending then shows all the characters we have met intertwine their fates and finding their outcomes—but the threads do not gather until then. Ugandans would know that there was very little chance of such a huge clan meeting accidentally.
Throughout the novel there are subtleties that simply passed me by. One of the novel’s wonderful stories is that of Isaac Newton Kintu. He is born of a rape carried out by a Kintu schoolteacher of a girl from another clan. Isaac Newton is left in the care of a grandmother and an abusing aunt called Tendo. As a result he doesn’t speak or walk until he is six years old.
Isaac Newton has the happiest of all the personal outcomes in the novel, growing up sane and healthy, so competent that he is given the task of building the encampment, the central structure for the ending of the curse. He is the character who benefits most from the coming together of the clan, but not for reasons I could not be expected to understand.
In Ganda terms, Isaac can only be part of his father’s family, never his mother’s—being raised by his mother’s family means he has no family at all. His joy at the family reunion is best understood in those terms:
Isaac’s body still shook from the intense emotion of the rituals. He sat on the ground to try and gather himself together. He looked around the campsite and thought, “This is real”. To be within touching distance of almost three centuries’ history, to be surrounded by hundreds of relatives whose presence testified to that history. Finally, his own presence on earth was accounted for and his painful life justified. When Isaac looked back at his life – at his friend who stayed with him when he was young, at Ziraba his grandmother and at Sasa—it was not misfortune he saw, it was intervention. Most of all the twins, Babirye and Nnakato had paid him a visit, though they did not stay. There was no doubt that Kintu had tirelessly intervened in his life. Isaac could not contain his trembling.
Significantly, Isaac’s own Book is titled “Isaac Newton Kintu” —the last family name being something he claims in the course of the novel.
In Book III we are presented with a family of Christian fundamentalists, Kanani and his wife Faisi. They belong to dour Church of England cult called the Awakened. Their book traces the development of more African-friendly evangelical forms of worship—something that alarms them. Kanani and his wife are parents of twins, one male one female. In Ganda culture, twins are believed to have the same soul. The parents dress the boy Job as a girl and the identities of the twins merge for a time.
Somewhere in their intimacy, the twins conceive and give birth to a child. As a young boy, his Grandfather tells Paulo that he is the son of Tutsi who made his mother Ruth pregnant. This will have great magical and plot significance later, especially as he takes the name Kalema, the name of the boy Kintu Kidda kills. Paulo Kalema sees his biological parents Job and Ruth outside the church.
…someone recognized him and called, “Ruth, your brother’s here.”
Both Ruth and Job turned. Job said, “Paulo’s not our brother, he’s our son; how many times shall we tell you?”
I knew no other way of reading this than that Job and Ruth are open about being Paulo’s biological parents. They aren’t.
Jennifer: “The tradition is that if you are a twin, you are one person so Job would be considered to be a parent alongside Ruth. The twins could speak this way and it would be very difficult for people to see the real story. The way children belong in Uganda is different. My brother’s children are my children.My son is my brother’s son. He asks me, how is our child?”
When young Ruth falls pregnant in 1972, she is sent to a secular aunt Magda who lives in the rural township of Nakaseke. One of the notable features of the novel is its use of geography to show social change:
Nakaseke was rural and traditional in ways Ruth had never known. They alighted at Nakaseke Hospital and took a narrow path up a steep hill. The path was stoney but covered in dense vegetation. The world here was quiet save for twittering birds, the odd guinea fowl scratching frenziedly or slithering lizards . As they came down the slope, they would stumble on a house here and there. The houses, sometimes as much as a kilometre apart, built with mud and roofed with corrugated iron looked squat to Ruth….The windows were small; Ruth was worried that it was dark inside the houses. Goats were tethered under trees near the dwellings. Children, especially boys in shorts who fabric had worn away at the buttocks, played in the yards.. Once in a while they came across a man wheeling a bicycle, women speaking low tones or a child rushing along the path. Villagers smiled and stepped aside for Kanani and Ruth to pass saying “See you there,” or “Greetings”. Nakaseke looked and felt like a heathen world.
It is a heathen world. Magda is a radical traditionalist—despite her name being Magdalene. In 1972, Magda runs a successful cotton farm, living in a house that looks vast to Ruth. The house—full of relatives and activity, children running to carry bags reminds one on second of reading of Miisi’s house in Book V, also rural, also enlivened by an ideology. Kanani calls her cousin—not sister—to distance himself from her. Magda finds his Christianity ridiculous; he cannot bear to stay in her house. He is shocked when she offers the simple solution of an abortion for Ruth. More about the role of strong women later in this article…
Magda shows up again in 2004, now an old woman, now called Bweeza. She has come to invite Kanani to the family reunion and is delighted to see Paulo for the first since he was born. He has a car and drives her back. Nakaseke once seemingly so distant is now a short drive away.
The new shops had an ostentatious air about them as if saying to Nakaseke, modernity has arrived can’t you see? Here hardware merchandise including cement, nails, paint and bolts were sold beside skin lotion, toilet soap, combs and make up, bleaching creams and other skincare products. One shop sold plasticware in all sorts of bright colours but on the shelves, lanterns and wax candles sat next to exercise books, biscuits, scones, and kitenge garments. Even Michelle’s Beauty Salon – which had proper sinks, wall mirrors, padded chairs and modern driers – was empty. Paulo smiled at the war between the new and the old. He wondered how long Nakaseke’s loyalty would hold out against the lure of modernity….
Magda’s huge house was old. It might have been affluent in the 50s and 60s but with age and disrepair, it looked decrepit… an old Bedford lorry with a skinny steering wheel in a black rounded cabin sat on its hinges next to a tank.
Makumbi is excellent on the meaning of landscape, how culture shapes how it is made and perceived. She is particularly good on the hilltop, flood-plain city of Kampala and its suburbs, whose topography mirrors social divides.
In 2010 I first heard Jennifer read aloud. It was the first chapter describing the lynching of Kamu, and I was knocked out. An Ugandan student in the audience said to me. “It’s very hard to hear if your family lives on the hill.” That student was correctly decoding Kamu’s social status, and knew that he would be living in the valleys.
Most of the Books focus on a different suburb or part of Kampala. So each focuses on a different ethnic mix or class as well.
“I cover parts of Buganda, mostly set in Buganda and the suburbs of Kampala. For example, Mwengo, which was the capital of Buganda Kingdom. Kampala can no longer be claimed by the Ganda. It is now everybody’s city.
So it’s a national story but the family is Ganda. The Ganda played a huge role in the history of Uganda. They invited the Christians and then flirted with colonial Britain hoping to use it to overrun other regions. But when they did, the British took it away from them saying it was still the Buganda Kingdom. The British could not say Buganda, because of the silent B’, they heard Uganda, that is how the country became Uganda. So much of the history rotates around them because of their central position in the geography. “
Jennifer studied at the Islamic University and then started teaching in Uganda in 1993. She left Uganda in 2001.
“I was not writing then. I started with poetry, just to write a diary, really. I was not one of those people who knew I would be a writer. I really first wrote in 1998, and when I came here in 2001. I rewrote it as my first novel, which was rejected and I put it away.
“I’ve been here now almost 15 years. I came originally to study. After I finished my Masters I stayed to find a publisher and agent. I’d come here to be a writer and I wasn’t going to leave until I’d published. In order to stay I had to study to renew visa, so I did a PhD in English for three years.
“It was an academic not creative PhD, looking at how African literature is read in Africa and how it is read in the West. I had been teaching literature in Africa and noticed a huge difference in the way people read a novel like Things Fall Apart here and in Africa. The West concentrates on the colonial aspect, while we concentrate on the idea of fear in the novel—how fear raised the character Okonkwo to heights and then brought him down. Westerners read Things Fall Apart still looking for themselves.
“I disagreed with my supervisor. When I raised the idea that readers in the West read African novels differently to readers on the continent she said that it couldn’t be possible because Africa was colonized by Europe and so the ways of reading were imported. Europeans in Africa and Africans in Europe can’t read a different way.
“There was a fear that if I said Westerners read differently, it meant that they read wrong. And that meant fear that maybe they can’t teach it. What they said in the end was that because there was no published research about this, my lived experiences of teaching could not be accepted. They wanted them to have been documented with references, to quote a range of authorities who would not, could not be teaching African literature in Africa. There I was thinking that I could pioneer this idea of a difference in reception of and responses to the African novel.
“I visited African profs around Boston, mainly in Harvard. They said they understood my plight but since the nature of a PhD is a western construct and I was doing it at a Western university, there was nothing they could do. They told me to go back to the UK. ‘Do what they are asking you to do or you won’t get a degree. Then come back here with your original material and do a post doc with us.’ Basically they were telling me it is the Westerners’ university, their idea of what a PhD is like, the PhD is for them, a PhD is not an African concept. The only person who would supervise a PhD like that was Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o because he too rebelled when he was told to do what he did not want to do. Unfortunately, as I was told, because Ngũgĩ did not get a PhD he could not supervise a PhD. This happened in 2008. I was not about to write a thesis which parroted western views of African audiences and which would not relate to my lived experience. The idea that lived experience is unacceptable in academia is laughable. Mocks the idea of new knowledge. Makes everything rather derivative!”
Jennifer did not get that PhD at that university. She did later, in Creative Writing from the University of Lancaster.
My Leverhulme grant is to look at the origins of African SFF, so I ask questions about early reading and influences.
“Science fiction is not a genre I was introduced to as a child. For some reason the only comics I saw were Tintin. My literary introduction was fiction for children—Enid Blyton, The Secret Seven, Famous Five, Five Find-outers, then Nancy Drew mysteries and The Hardy Boys. It was as if there was a twenty-year cultural delay.
“I did love The Spear; he was a character in a comic in a magazine called Drum published in South Africa and then Kenya. Lance the Spear is actually included in the next novel because my main character is growing up in the 1970s.
“I had romances too, lots of Mills & Boon, Harlequin, Denise Roberts. Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, Jackie Collins. These were the books we shared with each other because the libraries were destroyed. Basically if you had one novel, let’s say a Robert Ludlum or Mario Puzo, you would trade it endlessly, until it was in tatters. My trick was to lie about how long it would take me. I would easily read 400 pages in two days but I would say, I will bring it back in a week. In the three days I would trade it for another book before taking it back. When it came to Mills & Boon I would read [a novel] in four hours. I would nick it from under the pillow, where girls left them in the dormitory, read it and put it back before the girls noticed. At boarding school girls lost their novels, and people would say, go check that girl Nansubuga. But there were other book thieves in the school.
“My dad was a banker who worked for Standard Chartered in Uganda. He started me with Ladybird (a UK children’s publisher), all the fairy tales. Then put me on a steady diet of the abridged books…Dickens and Jane Austen, Mark Twain. He was set on putting me on a literary journey. He knew what he was doing, and it wasn’t African. My Dad was terribly colonized in the old way of thinking. He couldn’t talk enough about Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence, and he swore by Shakespeare.
“I only discovered African literature on his shelf by mistake because otherwise I would run out of reading material. I chose the thinnest books—Things Fall Apart, The River Between and also Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams about working in the South African mines. That was my first exposure to South Africa, and oh my God, it was very hard to recover from.
“At O level I was set a lot of Ugandan and African literature, plays mainly, Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel or The Burden by John Ruganda. At A levels we did The Concubine, by Elechi Amadi from Nigeria. It can be read as speculative fiction. It’s about a beautiful woman whom men can’t resist but men who marry her are killed. You don’t find out until the end that she’s like a mermaid, from the sea.”
One of the criticisms of Kintu from Africa is that women replace the men. Most of the men die. Miisi runs mad. His surviving child is Kusi, a female general of great renown. In the last Book, Kusi’s orders her troops to take on a particularly nasty task. In the final chapters, Magda using the name Bweeza becomes crucial to the clan organization. Above all else, the way that the memory of Nnakato is revered in Kintu Kiddu’s own region while he himself has been forgotten. Yet, mothers, apart from the matriarch Nakato, don’t count and don’t even appear in the family tree, but so many of the major characters are women—Suubi, Kalata, Ssenga Kizza, Ruth, Isaac’s mother and grandmother, Kanani’s wife Faisi.
Jennifer: ‘There was a lot of disquiet in East Africa that this was a feminist story with the men removed. They die away and get forgotten. I never thought it was a feminist story. In fact I’ve described it as masculinist because I’d told the story through male points of view. I keep saying, wait till I publish a feminist story then you would see how not feminist Kintu is. But it seems I am the only one convinced of that.”
Jennifer has just finished her second novel, The First Woman was Fish, now with agents.
“It’s about a child, Kirabo, raised by her grandparents—her mother has disappeared. Kirabo keeps asking about her mother but gets no satisfactory answer. Finally she visits a witch, Nsuuta, to get help finding her Mom. But Nsuuta is not a witch—she is called one by Kirabo’s grandmother for having a relationship with her grandfather. But Nsuuta loves the child and starts to tell her folktales.” Jennifer read sections of the novel at Eastercon in Manchester earlier this year which sound wonderfully fantastical.
Weeks after this interview we were sitting drinking tea at KroBar and we discussing again the role of the diasporan African. I repeated what some young Kenyans were saying—that diasporans lose touch with Africa.
‘‘I worry about that too. I visit Uganda often and I am always writing for Ugandans, addressing myself to them. That changes what I write and how I say it. Thinking about how they will read it. That’s what I think will keep my books current.
“The idea that you can’t write your home away from home goes against the whole idea of imagination and creativity. I wrote about 1700s Buganda Kingdom. I believe that distance has fine-tuned my perception of Uganda. When I look at the version of my novel I brought with me and the final copy, it is clear to me that in Uganda I was too close to the action. I took things for granted. But looking back, through distance, my idea of Uganda is so focused. Besides, there are so many different Ugandas it is incredible. I have discussed ‘home’ with other Ugandans who left at the same time as I did and they have said, ‘but I don’t know that; I have never seen that in Uganda.’ That is because we all occupy different spaces within Uganda.”
The success of Kintu without having been a success first in the West is one more sign that the publishing industry in Africa for Africans is developing. As Makumbi said, as we ended this exchange, “Africa is the future.”
In a plain dark room there’s a cage. On the outside there’s a singular chair. OLIVER, bruised and battered, is in the cage, he paces back and forth with a slight limp. He speaks with an Eastern European accent.
Three weeks…that felt like an eternity. Bodies dangling on the edges of the earth begging for life. Endless nights of unwanted screams penetrating your abdomen becoming a sharp unbearable pain!
Oliver stands up and looks around, speaking to the other detainees.
Brethren, the blood that has been shed will not be in vain. We will sing a new song, dance a new dance; the smell of dead flesh will not deter us…the sight of discarded bones will not DETER us.
We MUST fight…
My friend will you shut up! Making so much noise, you’re giving me a head ache.
USMAN, a Border Official walks into the room carrying a book and sits on the empty chair.
Keeping us here is illegal. I’ve been here for 1 week now…no lawyer..
When you came here, did you come with a lawyer?
It’s my right to be given one…
See me see life! Did you think of my rights when you came into this country illegally
Oliver doesn’t answer.
Instead I am forced to come here everyday and to hear people squealing like caged animals.
Usman opens his book.
So, what is your name?
I already gave my name when they put me in here.
Yes but I’m asking you.
Yes that’s me.
Where were you born Arnaud?
September 24th, 2081.
You’re pretty good.
What are you talking about?
Your real name isn’t Arnaud is it?
Usman pulls out an ID card.
A couple of days ago – a body washed up on shore, he’d been stabbed several times. We found this ID card on him.
I can explain…
Murderers and illegal immigrants are not allowed in the AU.
—From The Immigrant
This year’s Africa Writes festival ended with a performance of The Immigrant by Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor. Set at the turn of the 22nd century, it creates a future in which European migrants are trying to get into the African Union.
Joy: “I applied for Arts Council funding to develop the idea. It came from how people perceive immigrants and asylum seekers. Originally it was 1000 years in the future but when I got the money, the Council team said make it only 100 years from now.
“It’s about climate change. The winds change course. Iceland is changing from desert to a forest. The Sahara has started greening and people use solar panels for energy. The African Union becomes like the EU, a free trade area, but they don’t want people coming in. They keep out foreign companies and the locals get first dibs. They have the African dream: sunshine, money and equal distribution of income. There’s lots of high rises, and there still is poverty, but it’s hidden.
“The play’s about human psychology. People are still narrow minded. The West has decayed and people are seeking asylum in Africa. If you were a border guard in a detention center, knowing the history, how would you treat a British asylum seeker? It’s about the idea of power; the guard has power at work.
“Usman and Oliver have different kinds of confrontation throughout the play, confrontations to make you feel uncomfortable, white or black. At the end I didn’t know who I agreed with. Sometime I think, Oliver you are just the liberal dude, sometimes I’m thinking what he’s saying is kind of true. The humanity has to come through. In saying things to Oliver, Usman hits buttons, trying to taunt him, but then realizes the refugees are human by the end.
“It’s about the dream of what Oliver thinks Africa is. Usman is trying to say to him: you have bought into this dream without coming here, but you get here and find the whole idea of Africa Utopia, what is that? It’s a real place, not paradise. People are hostile to Oliver, and he doesn’t know why. When refugees come here they get treated like animals but they’ve left a hostile environment, and hope this is an opportunity for a better life.”
Joy was born in Port Harcourt in the south and east of Nigeria—the Delta, an area of much unrest.
Joy: “It’s still a dangerous place. They are pumping in more money, and have a book festival now. There are too many buildings now. It used to be like a garden.
“I grew up in Brunei for five years, then went to boarding school in Nigeria in Osun State. I came here at 16 to study, and stayed for college.
“My mother would say that I was born a writer. I read loads of books. At 11 I wrote a story “The Vampire Busters” about busters and two people who go around being vampires.
“My favourite writer was Robert Goddard who wrote Closed Circle. I loved Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I just like stories. Most of my influences are cinematic. I love French cinema. My favourite movies are Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim. I also really loved Antonioni’s Blow Up.
“I wanted to be a film maker so did film studies, which was more theory, I learned to understand film theory. Then I did a Masters in Creative Writing for Films and TV with City University.
“I made my own two shitty films. I found that I hated directing, so I helped a friend producing, and just kept on doing it. I found I loved producing. Producers are the ones who get the Best Picture Award for a reason—they bring it all together.
“There was a programme that offered 30 artists in the UK or Nigeria £3000 to work on a play. It was during the London 2012 Olympics, and we got to work with Theatre Royal Stratford East. My first version was called My Big Fat Nigerian Wedding but it transformed into a play about a mother, daughter, and grandmother. The daughter comes out and the family secrets are revealed. I developed it for Stratford a couple of years later as the play called Sunday. There is a trailer for it filmed at rehearsal on YouTube.
“I made a feature film, M.L.E., produced with two other producers (Joseph a. Adesunloye and Paul Bennoon), a comedy-thriller based on a true story about a Canadian actress looking for job in UK. She loses her leg, and becomes a spy for a rich family to keep an eye on her daughter. It’s a comedy of errors. She messes up all the way, and solves the case by accident.”
“I’ve made another movie, White Colour Black. It will be premiering at the London Film Festival this year, and we hope for a release date after. It’s about a young photographer who leads this hedonistic life in London, but when his estranged father dies he has to go back to Senegal to face a few truths and also learn about life. It’s a coming-of-age tale.”
Joy is producer of the film along with Joesph a. Adesunloye who was also the writer-director—more on the film’s website.
Joy also co-produced another short, dark thriller with Adesunloye that showed at the Raindance Festival, Beyond Plain Sight. A trailer can be viewed at Vimeo.
Joy: “I get finance from everywhere, different schemes. We have deals with the crews who get a percentage; everyone gets paid from a pot of money. We get deals with rental house to pay for postproduction. We budget carefully and make sure there are minimal special effects, where possible.
“I would love to do a science fiction film. I’d love to do a film where the Sahara is not a desert any more, a slightly futuristic world—I’m not really an outer space person. But I would love to do a film on Mars. It fascinates me. We could build an empire there.”
Joy on YouTube:
- Trailer for Pillow Talk (2010) produced by her, written by James Hickey.
- An interview with Joy at the time that Sunday premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford in 2014
- BOXX is a fictional web drama series. It follows two black diasporan London-based trans artists as they create a documentary about their lives. Produced and directed by Joy, written by Ysra Daly Ward.
- Labalaba He’ll Return is a short film from 2015 co-written by Joseph a. Adesunloye and Joy and directed by Joseph a. Adesunloye
- Extracts from the ‘Making of’ documentary which shows the story’s relation to Madam Butterfly.
- A BBC Swahili news item about The Immigrant showing a rehearsal reading at African Writes this July.
‘I couldn’t see, but when we were struggling with each other, I felt the body of this thing. It had the anatomy of what various cultures refer to as mermaids. It had the hands, and torso of a human; but from the waist down it had a single, streamlined limb that ended in a wide fin.’
The audience remained mute. Even the host stared with interest. ‘Mr Kwesi…’ he said. He scanned his notes and turned a leaf, then surveyed his audience who were waiting for him to continue. ‘You said you felt this thing’s body?’
‘Did you, erm, feel the boobs?’
Perhaps it was the inappropriateness of it, or the imaginary breasts that he squeezed in front of his chest as he said it, but the audience released and the host smirked at the loud, mucking, rupture he had inspired.
Kwesi had made the producers agree that he could stop the interview whenever he wanted to. They agreed on a sign; he would tap his left knee. He began tapping.
Leye Adenele is best known for his crime writing. Since the Nigerian publisher Cassava Republic opened up a London publication office, his novel Easy Motion Tourist is being heavily promoted in the UK.
Leye and I met after a panel at Africa Writes in which he and Nikhil Singh discussed genre in Africa. Like so many other African writers, Leye doesn’t specialize in any one kind of story—but he does champion the publication of genres in Africa to help grow an African-based audiences. For him, African writing has for too long been thought of as literary writing.
“For a long time my access to fiction was all very literary—James Baldwin, Toni Morrison. The few African writers I could find came across as quite literary. I was being conditioned to think that’s what I have to write. The Nigerian curriculum has a lot of English novels, so I chose to do science because I was being made to read The Mill on the Floss. I wanted to read about people like me. The Mill on the Floss had no bearing on my existence.
“My very first stories I wrote in school notebooks had white villains and protagonists that were set in Europe simply because as a ten year old boy I was reading all these old-time children’s books—the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Famous Five. I didn’t know they were for a previous generation. I did get hold of Asimov and I loved Lord of the Rings, but I could only get hold of a graphic novel version. It was what was available. My Dad read in my exercise book an adventure story set in England, and he said write about what you know. After that all my stories were African stories.”
Easy Motion Tourist has no real magic in its world, but it is about magic.
“A lot of Nigerian girls are sold to Italy and they don’t run away for fear of curses. People believe in it. I hate the expression ‘black magic.’ It’s traditional religion for people, like a Christian swearing on the Bible. The novel doesn’t say in any way that magic is real. But to the protagonist a mutilated body doesn’t mean serial killer, it means a ritual killer.”
The novel Leye is working on now starts out like it may be a fantasy, but the magic seems to be explained away—but then turns out to be science fiction. “No spoilers. The title is The Magician’s Child. There is no magic, but it starts in Lagos and ends up on the moon.”
His story “Those Who Wish To Rule” is a complex philosophical fantasy in which a ruler ushers the protagonist into something secret which involves all human rulers past and present, a secret room at the heart of the world that drives all rulers mad.
“The story is a word of caution if we think ruling is easy. It’s a metaphor, using science fiction. Ruling a country is more serious than anybody knows, that you have to kill people for the greater good. What they see in the third room is so terrible they have to wipe their memories, like Reagan, like Thatcher. They ruled the world and died no longer knowing the world.”
Leye has done much of his best work online for free.
“My publisher gets upset with me for putting out stuff online for free. Chronicles Of A Runs Girl is a novel for free online.
“It must be the most plagiarized novel in Africa. People cut and paste from it and don’t have my name on it. Six, seven years ago it was satire against the government, poking fun at it, me doing my bit. I felt Nigeria was in trouble and if it was funny, maybe it would get a conversation going. Then at one point it just stopped being funny. That point was Boko Haram and my then President saying it was no big deal. The website was supposed to be on-going, improvised news-comedy like The Onion. But can you make jokes about a government denying 200 girls have been kidnapped?
“‘Anatomy of a Mermaid’ is a short story available on his website. It’s about a man who believes himself rescued from Lagos lagoon by a mermaid. The story explores the tension between traditional beliefs and more generic fantasies that are imported from the West. The hero believes that though he didn’t see the mermaid, he felt an entirely Western style mermaid, and starts to talk about evolution.
“The Ghanaian woman who rescued him on the beach moves in with him, and has a different view. ‘She told him he must never go near water again and she asked if his people used to worship a water spirit in the past.’ The story then links the sexualisation of the mermaid (a talk show host asks the hero if he felt the mermaid’s breasts) with tensions in sexual relations between traditional and Europeanized Africans. This is a description of Kwesi’s Ghanaian partner:
She offered sex like she offered food. The doorbell rang and he was spared the feeling of shame that would follow, when he chose one or the other, his appetite for either making him an accomplice in this passive abuse of a person. It didn’t even jar him anymore that she would not or could not use the word ‘sex’ in her language or in any other language. See me.
The story differentiates among expectations of marriage—Kwesi’s own, more traditional Yoruba woman’s, and his partner’s. It contrasts Kwesi’s scientific explanation for what he saw, and more traditional views.
Fay, an albino filmmaker who says she was born of Africans and raised abroad, tells him that she believes in Mami Wata, the pan-African myth of water spirits. So there is a difference between a Western mermaid, and African water spirits, and the scientific explanations that Kwesi has for either.
Fay’s white-but-African face inspires Kwesi’s lust and he loses interest in his Ghanaian. Tellingly, the story is illustrated with a pulchritudinous image of a Western mermaid.
Sex, whiteness, diaspora, traditional belief, and science—it’s possible to read the very image of the mermaid, a mix of different ways of being, an image of hybrid diasporan culture.
I ask Leye how long he has been in the UK, and he says, “Too long.” Leye is Nigerian from Osogbo city in Osun State. He arrived just before the Millennium, finished a Masters in IT at the University of East London and got a job. He’s not had much call to use his knowledge of IT.
His father was a medical doctor who went to Harvard. But after owning a private practice as a doctor, he became a printer and a publisher.
“It’s in the family. I always wanted to be a writer. My father wrote a lot but never tried to publish. Mostly he wrote about the place of the black man, an alternative religion for the black person, very nationalistic and pro-African.
“My grandfather who was a writer, made his wealth partly from establishing schools. A primary school is still named after him till this day. He wrote two books in Yoruban before made being made king, Oba Adeleye Adenle the First, the Ataojo of Oshobo.”
One of the few tourist destinations in Nigeria is a shrine to Yoruban Gods that is also a breathtaking work of art by Suzanne Wenger. Leye’s grandfather gave her the chance to build the shrine and then made her a priestess.
Unlike many African writers, Leye’s education did not cut him off from his mother tongue. “My father said speak Yoruba at home and English in school. I can’t remember not knowing both. I was always reading Yoruban literature. Fagunwa (translated by Wole Soyinka as Forest of a Thousand Demons) Tutuola (The Palm Wine Drinkard), Oleku by Professor Akinhumi Isola. I got taken to see Hubert Ogunde’s plays growing up, also the Baba Sala plays. Ogunde was a cultural treasure with his troupe of performers. He made amazing movies. Truthful, not like what Nollywood does.”
Of all the African writers I have interviewed, Leye seems one of the most plugged into the literary tradition of a local language, but he knowingly writes in international English.
“I totally agree that I write in an international style accessible to anybody. I’m not writing for a specific set of people. I see my books fitting into The New York Times bestseller list. That I’m an African writer is secondary.
“However I’ve always been conscious of not imitating. A lot of writers imitate Chinua Achebe; they want to write like him. You can start picking his style, his words, used by so many new writers. You can spot it—that’s from Anthills of the Savannah. Achebe was writing for people of his time. My parents spoke and wrote like that; it was right for the time.”
Leye’s novel has had rapturous reception in France rather as did Ghanaian Nii Parkes’s A Tail of the Blue Bird.
“There it is translated as Lagos Lady. I sometimes think it’s a different book in the French translation. I do a bookshop signing and sell 120 copies. There was a three-page article about me in Paris Match. I met a lady in Toulouse who has translated Wole Soyinka. She says the next big thing is African literature and she is teaching my book to her students. It gets great reviews in France and England but I got two not so great reviews in Nigeria, maybe because it’s not literary. I’ve since had amazing reviews from Nigeria.
“A woman at an event in Lyon started talking about the book and her eyes welled up with tears. She said Amaka was the best woman character by a man she’d ever read. People ask me if I am a feminist, and I say yes. I used to call myself a humanist, but now I’m happy to say I’m a feminist. It’s like Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter, but it’s the current injustice against women we are focusing on now.
“I think of about 200 million Nigerians who spend money on cinema and music and think of them buying books. It should be an immense market. People I don’t know keep getting in touch from Nigeria asking where they can buy the book. They’ve gone to this place, that place. Distributors will only distribute books that are on the curriculum. I think we should stop killing trees and just go onto phones and tablets.”
The week that Herbert died…Yemu could not remember much of what really happened that week. She remembered their incredulity, hers and Tofara’s, and that of everyone back home who knew for a fact that Herbert had never had anaemia. The doctor surmised that the onset of this condition so suddenly could have been triggered by a change to a vegan diet, denying the deceased his regular supply of iron.
But Herbert had been a vegan for nearly a decade, Yemu had pointed out.
“Ah, yes, well, you see, it is just possible that there was something in his traditional diet that you have in your own country that replenished his iron,” the doctor had explained. Yemu had formed an image of the doctor trying to pick out the racist or at least politically incorrect bits of his theory from a bowl with a pair of chopsticks. They did that sometimes, these doctors who chose to see immigrants as anatomical oddities. Yemu recalled her first pap smear test. Staff at the surgery had never seen the elongated inner labia, a genetic present of the Khoisan people, that many Southern African women are quite proud of and decided they were proof of the Female Genital Mutilation they had heard so much about in the news.
The Boeing had touched the ground. The land of Zimbabwe. The land under which her brother now lay, waiting.
Yemu sat up. Now why did she think of him as waiting? It was the impending kurova guva, she told herself quickly. The ceremony during which Herbert’s spirit would be evoked and invited to join the pantheon of ancestors. The reason why she was flying back to Zimbabwe to join her relatives for a night of singing, drinking and dancing, during which Herbert would choose the person to possess.
Masimba Musodza left Zimbabwe in 2002 at the behest of his father.
“I’m the kind of person who will say what I think and don’t care if people are offended. This is not appreciated in Zimbabwe. My father wanted me out of harm’s way, he said, go, don’t come back, and make something of your life. It was either that or my mom would be worried to death. I wasn’t a journalist, but I wrote stuff.”
He started a degree in English and Creative Writing and became a screenwriter, writing among other things, an episode of Home Boys, a TV series that never took off. He’s also an actor and extra, and at the time of our interview, was in the cast of the TV show Beowulf: Return to the Shadowlands. He is also the author of Uriah’s Vengeance, a crime novel described by Ivor Hartmann in Story Time e-zine as “a great step forward toward diverse African Genre Fiction.”
His forthcoming horror novel Herbert Wants to Come Home deals with the diaspora in a new way. Back home in Zimbabwe, the Mutsepe family hold a ceremony to invite the spirit of Herbert, who died abroad of anaemia, to join their ancestral spirits—but they have invited a vampire.
Vampirism has been used before as a metaphor for the aristocracy, foreign immigration, homosexuality, and otherness in general—and now as a sprung metaphor for returning home with a European curse. Or even, handiliy, a metaphor for colonialism itself—dead but alive, sucking Africa’s blood.
This European myth preys so easily on a particular traditional belief—the family’s need to honour ancestor means they invite the vampire in. This too fits with so much African history.
The story is a hybrid of European and African traditions—a purely diasporan story, about the diaspora and made possible by it. And the heartfelt title, Herbert Wants to Come Home, captures a certain emotional side of the diaporan experience. No wonder that even before publication (slated for Septembar 2016), Masimba is getting emails and comments about it from Africans in the diaspora. This comes from the introduction to the novel:
I suppose going home to die is better than going home alive to face whatever issues one left, or even the ones that have brewed in one’s absence. Going home to die may be better too for the people at home. After so many years abroad, there is the fear among Zimbabweans who have remained behind that their relatives and friends have changed. Not only changed, but mutated.
Like Tendai Huchu, Masimba writes in different genres —and publishing in the Shona language is important to him.
“My claim to fame is that I wrote the first science fiction novel in Shona—a very big novel—400 pages. I had to republish it as there’s such renewed interest in speculative fiction in Africa. So it just reappeared a few days ago on my own imprint. The novel is called Munahacha Naïve Nei? That translates into ‘What was in the river?’
“It has several subjects, the spec fiction part is bio engineering, illegal experiments by the USA but in Zimbabwe through corrupt officials. The results leak into the ecosystem. So when a giant fish eats a local child, the people think it is the traditional mermaid, Njuzu.
“It started off as a dare: you can’t write complicated things in Shona. But it’s not true that you have to write science fiction in English. Shona does have names for the planets, the ones you can with and without a telescope. Venus has two names, one for the morning and one for the evening. I used Shona throughout the novel. I didn’t need to go into space so I didn’t need a Shona word for ‘orbit.’ I can’t think of a word I needed to invent.
“The educational system we inherited had Group A schools that had been white in the colonial era. After independence, they were better funded, had better facilities.
“You can tell what group someone is from by the way they talk. If you went to a type A school your accent is European. So they call us Nose Brigades or Salads. That’s like ‘Oreos’ or ‘Coconuts’ in the West. The Nose comes from when Zimbabweans first encountered Europeans and they thought the nasal sound of the language came from the long narrow nose, so they called it ‘speaking English through the nose’—kutaura ChiRungu chemumhino. A term of both contempt and admiration. I come from that background.
“As a teenager, I would get stopped by the police for having dreadlocks—they don’t treat Rastas well. But the attitude changed as soon as I spoke. In case I was the son of someone important.
We were taught English as a first language, and Shona became a foreign language. Speaking Shona means you are less sophisticated, less educated. In Zimbabwean TV, a common theme is the clumsy buffoon who can’t communicate in English. It’s divisive. Some people would be offended if you spoke English to them; others would be offended if you didn’t.
“People would be surprised that I could speak English. When I was interviewed by UK immigration, they didn’t believe that I was who I said I was, so they made me talk Shona to an interpreter. They were surprised, there was no expectation that I could speak Shona.”
His time living under Mugabe-style collectivism has led Masimba to be a free-market neo-liberal. He pins the blame for Britain’s economic problems on the welfare state. But he is NOT what is called a cultural conservative in the USA.
Masimba: “I’m proposing that people be more scientific. I feel there’s been a relapse, and that Christianity is behind it, the new Evangelical forms of Christianity that encourage belief in witchcraft and superstition in sharp contrast to the colonial missionary churches that discouraged it, are taking us back but bringing in ideas that never existed in pre-colonial times. Someone will have a degree in mental health nursing but will believe his uncles did something to his father, their own sibling, lay a curse on him to drive him mad. He is able to think in terms of what is known about mental health for other people, but not in his own family.”
Masimba is a Rastafarian, a tiny minority in Zimbabwe who are troubled by the police and the Christian church. His challenging approach confronts Christians and politicians alike.
“A pastor was preaching that the pyramids are evidence of devil worship, that it’s the triangle with the all seeing eye of Satan. So I challenged him, I said show me where it says that in Bible. So he’s going through all the pages and can’t find it and I tell him—you’re making it up. It isn’t in the Bible. So they called me a Freemason, which to them means of course a devil worshipper.
“Science has the answers, but I can understand why so many go to superstition as everything is going the other way especially in Zimbabwe. We had such high hopes at independence. Now we have a despot, the economy is going the other way. We have reached 1950s levels of industrialization. All this uncertainty. A new century, the millennium, people go mad.
“While I was in school, I wrote a novel inspired by Errol Brown’s Mariners Of Space (1949). I found my manuscript again two years ago. My story is set at time when Africa is a powerful empire and controls chunk of moon. The whole world is divided into big super-states, except the USA, which is split up into three main parts. The African Empire included part of the USA and the Caribbean. The other empires are India/Iraq, Europe and Japan. The first humans on Mars are African—and they encounter a previous human colony.
“The publishers said no one would want to read it—too far fetched, no connection to Africa, that it was not Zimbabwean fiction.
“I kept writing SF. I was an SF fan. In Zimbabwe I found a lot of Golden Age fiction—Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells. Also television—Chocky, about an alien mind contacting children about an new energy source, and Buck Rogers, Space 1999, and Star Trek. The church people in Zimbabwe are now telling people not to watch these TV shows as they are a pathway to devil worship.
“Coming to the UK, I found that there is very little accommodation for African writers of SF. As strange as it sounds, it does seem as though ‘African Literature’ is determined by non-Africans.
“Many African writers have felt obliged to mould themselves into what is expected by non-Africans, but having already challenged what it means to be Zimbabwean, this was not a route I was prepared to follow. Lucky for me, there has been a recent paradigm shift in the publishing industry. There is plenty of room not just for writers, but also for publishers and readers. Suddenly, more people are really interested in what post-colonials, minority ethnic groups living in the former colonial metropoles are writing. This is really the best time to be an SF writer from Zimbabwe.”
So what if any is the impact of living away from Zimbabwe?
Masimba: “It has been 14 years since I last walked the streets of Harare. Those streets have changed. I have changed too. I think that the Zimbabwe I knew migrated with me. Just as there are people who live in Britain who see themselves as Persians rather than citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think it is possible to place a national identity within a certain timeframe, to have a cut-off point. Why not?
“When my mother was born, she was a citizen of a country called the Federation of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland; my father and grandparents the Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia. My great-grandfather was born in the independent kingdom of Buja. I myself was born in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe Rhodesia when I was 3 years old, and Zimbabwe a year later.
“The Zimbabwe that features in my writings consists of memories I have carried with me, and projections of a past and present that I have imagined. Think of George Seferis’ poem, ‘Return of the Exile.’
“There is a large diaspora community that relates to some of my writing. This came across to me when I started posting chapters of Herbert Wants To Come Home. I was getting e-mails from people who recognised the themes of migration, returning home and finding one’s bearings again.”
This again, from the introduction:
At the turn of the century, when our generation moved abroad, it was easy to think of the whole of Zimbabwe as Kumusha/ekhaya. (small, rural communities that were where most Zimbabweans lived before urbanizaiton). This includes the urban neighbourhoods where we grew up.
Over a decade later, many of us have settled here in the West. Settled here does not necessarily mean we are the roaring successes that we thought we’d be, that we set out to be or we would have never left. There are so many broken dreams, so many shattered hopes, that a pity party for the Zimbabwean community abroad would last for months. There are so many of us right now hanging on in quiet desperation, too ashamed to catch a plane back to Zimbabwe and face what we fear to be a very judgmental, very unforgiving society. Or, more realistically, knowing that they no longer have the energy they had a decade ago to work and make things better here or back home. That too is another set of fears. Yet, few Zimbabweans would even entertain the idea of being buried here.
I never knew it would be so hard to say goodbye, especially to my father. (I leave him until last.)
“Sala Kahle, tata!” I say, bowing my face so he cannot see my eyes.
For a brief moment, he holds me close to him and I can smell the Earth: sweet, sharp sweat and the decades of cattle manure on his skin. His jacket buttons poke into my stomach – he has dressed for this occasion too. He is so like a fragile bird—a kiewietjie comes to mind for some reason—but then he pushes me away, turns and walks off in a hurry and without looking back. He has left me with a little gift, a small beige plastic digi-disc, on which I can record the happenings in my life.
I put in my pocket.
Since when did my father get so old, so delicate, so suddenly?
I look over brother and sister’s head to watch his stiff, blue-jacketed back disappear into his house. The brown door shuts against yellow brick and the late afternoon sun glints off the corrugated silver eaves and roof.
Behind our master’s house, I hear the cows sounding out as a dog barks, unsettling them.
Lindiwe is crying openly but I keep my own eyes dry. I am the eldest son; I am strong.
—The opening of Azanian Bridges.
By now many of you will know that Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges is a special book—reviews should have been alerting you to that.
What makes it special is that this is NOT another dystopia for young people who want to get their hands dirty. It’s a book by a mature man who lived through the struggle in South Africa. Though structurally similar to a thriller, Azanian Bridges draws on Nick’s life experience to shoot a sense of terror and toxic power into your heart.
It’s a good novel in SF terms, by which I mean Nick has imagined a detailed and convincing alternative present, a South Africa in which apartheid has held on. As we follow the stories of his protagonists Martin and Sibusiso, we get glimpses of the alternative fates of Mandela, Zuma, De Klerk, Terreblanche, and Barack Obama.
A mind-to-mind interface has been developed in this South Africa—the EE box. The regime wants to use the EE box for interrogation—force their way into people’s heads to find out who they work with. The ANC is convinced that if they use the EE box, white people will be forced to acknowledge the humanity of black South Africans.
There is also a third strand, the most distinctively African—traditional belief. Inside the hero Sibusiso there lurks a big beaked bird and an angry panther, and this is perceived by a sangoma who tells him to seek them out. The authoritarianism of apartheid and its agents drives the plot, but it is this spiritual dimension that flowers into the novel’s overwhelming ending.
SPOILER ALERT: This ending accomplishes two great things. First, the white main character is able to escape the full horrors of interrogation by calling up a distinguished lawyer. The character of Martin is detailed and subtle; he’s not a bad fellow, but you have to be intent to catch the full extent of his racism. His almost-friend Sibusiso knows he himself will be tortured to death. As Nick says, “White skin is power. Martin’s escape is a bitter but truthful bit of storytelling.”
Second, the mind merge box is used to interrogate Sibusiso. Beatings cost him his teeth, his joints, his eyes. But he does not reveal the names of his comrades, even when violated by the box. Instead, he focuses on his two spirit guides, the bird and the panther, and in so doing, he uses the EE box against his interrogators. They flee the room, weeping, seeing in him their own families, their own lives.
That doesn’t’ stop them killing him. The heavy-beaked bird, the spirit of his dead mother, wings him towards heaven. But the police interrogators know in their bones his full humanity. This is victory through being tortured, an earned transcendence. And he also becomes, through technology, a meme on the Internet.
It’s beautiful stuff.
Azanian Bridges is published in the UK by NewCon Press publisher Ian Whates. But it can’t find a publisher in South Africa.
Nick: “They say it’s ‘too raw. There’s too many sensibilities.’ The things publishers reveal about themselves in their rejections. It varies from no response at all to ‘Why not just make it a Struggle novel set in the 80s?’ The novel was long-listed for the Kwani Manuscript Prize in 2013, the winner being Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Billy Kahora, editor at the Kwani Trust gave it very positive feedback and hoped they could publish it.”
Nick is a clinical psychologist who came to England with his wife and daughters toward the end of 1995, to do a PhD in the cognitive development of deaf children. He had been doing work in townships and deafness was the most common form of disability among children.
Nick is not a native South African. He was born in Zambia, to a father who worked as an accountant for the copper mining industry. Until the age of ten, he lived just south of the Congo border in Mufulira and Kitwe—just north of the city (Lusaka) to which his hero Sibusiso travels, to get the EE Box copied by the Chinese.
Nick: “My parents were aware that Zambia’s economy was taking strain, with the kwacha devaluing. So we left for South Africa.
“We almost didn’t get in. We were stopped at border—they wanted to know my mother’s racial classification. She had curly hair and darker skin. They had to explain that my mom had family roots, a Sephardic Jew from Portugal.
“There was no real upside to moving to South Africa. It was all downside; I struggled to adjust. Black kids in school disappeared. There were no black kids. That was bizarre. ‘Are we still in Africa?’ It was Cape Town in 1971, the height of apartheid. Schools in Zambia were a lot more open, a lot less authoritarian. I remember we still had to learn the list of kings and queens of England in Zambia though. We learned the seasons, and they were European seasons. I’d never known snow; I only knew the hot rainy season and the mild dry season.
“South Africa had corporal punishment. If we misbehaved we’d get ‘cuts.’ A bullying kid told me that that meant they’d cut me with razors. He was just joking but I believed him and I went home and cried. Mom and Dad said it was not true—it was just caning.
“They had military cadets. I was told I was too soft and sensitive and needed to toughen up, so they sent me to commando camp at ten years old. We got sent into the mountains, were given toy guns and real knives. We had instructors in blackface pretending to be terrorists and we had to shoot them. I absolutely hated it. There were fifty boys but only two of us, me and another boy, we cried and cried, as quietly and privately as we could, to minimize bullying. All the other boys did so well, got five stars, but we both failed and were an embarrassment. They had a closing ceremony with a South African Defence Force Brigadier and we had to wait until the end, the two failures. That was my introduction to South Africa.”
Nick started to write and publish science fiction when still in high school. His first story was in 1977 in Probe, the fiction journal of Science Fiction South Africa, of which he was a member. The story was called “The Minds Of Man”. SFSA ran an annual competition and it was in the top ten. He went on to publish a fair amount of SF in the 1980s, mostly in Probe, still online. But there came a long hiatus in his work. Why?
Nick: “Young men were being forced to fight a war on the border between SWA (Namibia) and Angola. I was a draft dodger. I had military police come to my parents’ home and my parents said they didn’t know where I was. They came to my work. My boss was black. He said I’d moved on. Eventually they had far more pressing issues than me, so they finally left me alone.
“Then there was my clinical training and clinical work. I wanted to work in the townships, but there were huge problems there and it was really quite draining. There was the state of emergency and a lot of trauma, especially for people like myself working for organizations against apartheid such as OASSSA and NAMDA. (OASSSA stands for the Organisation for Appropriate Social Services) in South Africa and was set up to deliver grassroots psychological support services in the black townships, contrary to official state organisations such as the almost exclusively white PASA —the Psychological Association of South Africa.
“Basically not until Mandela was released was there any sign of things getting better. That was an inspiration, really. The stasis in the country had been broken. Before, everyone was expecting civil war. There was such a sense of hopelessness, a sense that you had to keep working to make things different. It was hard to write.”
I tell Nick that elements of his life story seem to echo parts of Azanian Bridges.
“I did say to Tade (Tade Thompson, collaborator with Nick on the novella “The Last Pantheon,” published in AfroSFv2) when he read the book that a lot of the details and incidents in the book actually happened. For example there is a scene with Sibusiso in the psychiatric institution when the canteen staff refuse to serve him curry because he’s black and not Asian. That actually happened.
“The book is partly dedicated to someone I worked with who had had traumatic experiences. He educated me in so many ways. He opened my eyes to insidious whiteness, and the power and subtlety of racism. I still have the therapeutic case study I wrote on him, now on yellowing paper, about the need for political transformation as well. I thought it would be nice to have an Internet meme immortalising him, perhaps resonating with current world memes too.
“Fear was pervasive. In protected white society there was a sense of the Black Danger, of a fragile privileged existence that will be swamped by dangerous, angry black people. Mandela’s release and the elections just made some white people more afraid. White people stocked up with food, they believed the propaganda that the county would collapse after the elections. They thought their houses would be taken, that they’d be strung up from lampposts. I thought this was absolutely bonkers.
“My wife was allowed to vote for the first time in her life in her mid-thirties. There was euphoria in the queue. Finally there was going to be a place of justice and fairness for everybody, things would change. The book is partly an interrogation of that optimistic time and the hopes that never got fulfilled, thinking about what went wrong. Racism is still rife, subtler than it used to be.
“My sister was far braver than I was. She went underground for a few years. She was put under surveillance, including being followed everywhere she went. Everyone, even neighbors, were questioned about her. She was arrested, interrogated and put on trial under the Internal Security Act—she’d been part of a motorcade for the United Democratic Front. She’d borrowed my dad’s company car for it and the car was impounded as State evidence. My dad was furious. He got a call from his boss— ‘what is the company car doing being impounded as part of a treason trial?’ My sister didn’t give a fuck. ‘You’re on the wrong side. Not taking a side is taking a side.’ The interrogation scenes at the end of the book have information that comes from her.”
His sister was an enormous influence on Nick’s reading as well, getting him pioneering texts of feminist science fiction. He shows me the beat-up paperback copies of the books she got for him.
“My sister got me into Joanna Russ. Also Jen Green and Sarah Le Fanu’s edited Dispatches From Frontiers Of The Female Mind and Pamela Sargent’s collection Women of Wonder.
“Mom introduced me to John Wyndham and Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss and Ursula le Guin, also the staples of Asimov, and the adult Heinlein, which I didn’t always gel with, I don’t know why. Maybe Starship Troopers reminded me of my commando camp. Stranger In A Strange Land was banned in South Africa. There was a book we had to read in school Hemelblom … the Heaven Flower … by Jan Rabie. It was an Afrikaans SF novel and it wasn’t bad, but my Afrikaans was terrible. Afrikaans was compulsory, you couldn’t graduate without it and I was so behind coming from Zambia. There was no SF on TV because there was no TV until 1976—the regime was so worried about overseas media.
“In Zambia, in Kitwe library they had comics. They had just published, Tintin On The Moon. It was the Apollo era, and we watched the moon landing. Blew my mind. In Kitwe we also watched Doctor Who—they showed a lot of old BBC stuff in Zambia.
“All that stopped when we went to South Africa. I had to go hunting for stuff. W. E. Johns, who wrote Biggles, had done some space stories, so I read those in primary school.
“I could find Heinlein juveniles and the Tom Swift series. They did have comics in SA, Marvel comics, and I remember when they introduced Luke Cage as Powerman. ‘Wow, they’ve got a black guy as a superhero.’ Otherwise black people were gardeners or maids. I wrote a bit about this experience later, on comics, looking back.”
Publication later in life can be a blessing. Readers meet your writing when it is matured and technically cunning—other recent examples in SFF are Roz Kaveney and David Hutchinson. The story of how Nick Wood found his writing career illuminates how the SFF community works.
“I started publishing again in 1988 or 1989 in Works, edited by Dave W. Hughes. I’d phoned him from South Africa. He was from Huddersfield and I had my thick South African accent and we couldn’t understand each other.
“My first paid story was ‘African Shadows’ in Scheherazade 18, edited by Elizabeth Counihan and Deirdre Counihan. It was 1996 and I’d just arrived in the UK. I couldn’t believe it. It was the first time I had artwork for a story of mine. Deirdre was the art editor and I went to visit them in Brighton, and they had the artwork up for me to see. Keith Brooke subsequently published it online in Infinity Plus.”
He was very proud when he finally published in Interzone, a magazine he had been reading for years. He also showed me a story of his in a beautifully produced volume, a luxurious publication called The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers. It’s a Postscripts Anthology (#22/23) —Postscripts used to be a magazine. It publishes by invitation, but Nick Gevers is from Cape Town and he thought Peter Crowther might like it, which turned out to be the case.
“‘Of Hearts And Monkeys’ was my first properly long African story in a Western publication. An older woman who speaks Xhosa is the victim of a corrective rape. At the time a lot of lesbians were being raped in South Africa, ostensibly to ‘cure’ them. I felt it was saying important things in a good publication and I got some good feedback on it. After Postscripts, it was subsequently published in the South African speculative fiction magazine Something Wicked.
Nick continues to publish in African venues like Omenana, the online magazine founded by Mazi Nwonzu and Chinelo Onwaulu. He has a story in AfroSF and the collaboration with Tade Thompson in AFROSFv2, both edited by Ivor Hartmann.
Lauren Beukes, Dave de Burgh, Diane Awerbuck, Joan de la Haye, Sarah Lotz—it sometimes seems as if white Africans are punching above their weight in terms of African SFF. Do they have more of a cultural connection to science fiction?
Nick: “I remember asking SFSA in the early 2000s how many black members they had. They said that as far as they knew, not one. They met in Jo-burg in a hitherto white area. There was a lack of representation of black people in the scene.
“It’s white privilege to an extent. Books are bloody expensive in South Africa and libraries are mostly in white areas. There are few libraries in the townships, or maybe there’s a council book bus, but that probably doesn’t have any SFF in it. It’s harder for black kids to get hold of the books.
“Western science was also a colonial enterprise and is being resisted at some level as being tainted. One of main architects of apartheid (Dr. H.F. Verwoerd) was a psychologist who used IQ tests as a weapon.
“So science is sometimes seen as having blood on its hands. Science works but there is suspicion of it, a sense that it is a white way of viewing the world. Hard SF particularly is suspect, with the Puppies into hard SF and military SF. SF is part of the colonialist enterprise, and SF stories are seen as being expansionist.
“There has been an assumption that black people don’t read SF. My first YA novella was set in the townships. I wrote about where I lived, I lived in a township for several years because my wife is black and we couldn’t live anywhere else, until the Group Areas Act was abolished. The publishers said ‘But black people don’t read SF.’ I asked them how they knew that, so they sent the book to readers in the township, and got a favourable response, so the book was eventually published as The Stone Chameleon.
“I’ve also organized to share royalties from Azanian Bridges with an organization in South Africa promoting black writing, Long Story Short.
“It’s hard for me to comment on South Africa as I’ve been out of it for some years. Whenever I go back, it helps having a partner who is black. I’ve always felt uncomfortable being white. I had to do a lot of work around about what it means to be white. You need to confront and manage whiteness if you are going to write speculative fiction in Africa. You can’t be white in Africa without embracing black.
“The world is changing, which is why SF is the best genre to write in if you are dealing with change, and are thinking about how to make the world a better place for everyone, which is why I write.”
Other stories online by Nick Wood:
- “Lunar Voices On The Solar Wind” Winner of the Accessible Futures Award, (2010)
- “Thirstlands” Just resold to SolarPunk anthology Sunvault; The World SF Blog, (2011)
- “Case Notes of a Witchdoctor” The World SF Blog (2013)
- “Dream-Hunter” Omenana 6 (2016)
- “The Paragon of Knowledge” in The Future Fire (2015)
Three battered Manta Ray kites billowed against a turbulent grey sky. A monsoon was threatening to break over Namanga Mori and the air was juicy with ionic interference. Three men in black polo necks and sunglasses smoked bananadine roll-ups on the crepuscular rooftops of the Nebula Shell Sea Hotel. They had the kites rigged up to the little fingers of their left hands, reciting incantations to each other in dead languages while they tangled up the sky. The corpse of a zebra had been strung up on the television aerials some weeks before but the parrots had pecked it to pieces. Now its guts hung like laundry, fluttering down the bricks of the old hotel, gathering flies, moths and inexplicably large beetles of the type the natives ground down for medicine. The hotel itself was a benchmark relic of the downtown waterfront district. It was located in the septic end of the city, where grimy warrens of microwave tenements cascaded drearily down to a gutted boardwalk. The streetlights gleamed like vulture-stripped ribs while neon soaked in hazy pockets along the strip. Fast Food clotted up the air vents. Rotting piers lay like skeletal remains in the hot heaving sea. Jungle vagrants stalked these labyrinthine piers relentlessly, with spears and spiritual disorders, sometimes moving in packs like starving hyenas…. Above the portico of the hotel was a beaten, retro-chic sign from another era. It read SHELL SEA HOTEL in carved stone. Above this legend, formed out of lurid-green neon tubing was the word NEBULA….
—Taty Went West
Nikhil Singh is African. That’s one of his previous bands, The Wild Eyes. Nikhil is also a key figure in the Witch House scene, reported in Rolling Stone.
His novel Taty Went West is an African novel, but again, not what you might expect. It’s not clear that it’s set in Africa. It’s not clear that there is a single black character in it—except a panther who is also a healer. What is clear that the author morphs between Lewis Carroll and William S. Burroughs, with a heavy undertow of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
It’s the novel that John Lennon or Marilyn Manson should have written, back when anyone cared. The character names sound like something from a Bob Dylan song from Highway 61.
The novel was published last autumn by the redoubtable Kwani? in Nairobi. They have done a luxurious job, including roughly 45 of the author’s full page illustrations. The dedication is to William S. Burroughs, so I was hoping to explore how Nikhil is part of the Nairobi experimental/beatnik scene.
Except that he’s not. He visited Nairobi for the first time in 2015 for the launch.
Nikhil does share the typical African facility to work across forms—he’s a musician in several different genres from electronic pop to jazz-rock, an illustrator, a filmmaker, and, though this is his first publication, someone who has been writing fiction in one form or another since age nine.
Taty Went West does seem to lack any of the content we expect from an African writer. Mehul Gohil (we met him in Part One: Nairobi) wrote this in a comment in the African Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook. “Who says an African writer has to write about Africa? Why do people want to box us in? We will write what we want to write and nobody has the right to tell us what our subjects should be.”
Despite a tendency to overwrite (perhaps in the pulp tradition?) this first novelist has a real talent for describing things, punching sights, sounds, or smells into your imagination:
Miss Muppet finished her cigarette in silence. When she was done she tossed it into the wind.
Taty looked up.
“Close your eyes.”
Taty did as she was bid and Miss Muppet raised the hand she was using to hold the gulls. She swung her bloody fist into Taty’s face, knocking her unconscious. Up on the cliff a knocking began against the inside of the car’s trunk. It was a frantic hammering, the sound of something wanting to be let out.
I haven’t seen someone changing the point of view by having character punch out the other. Miss Muppet has kidnapped Taty and will traffic her to a brothel. She walks up the cliff and keys in a code to open the rear of the car.
Hydraulics clanked as pressure seals were released. A steam of icy haze fizzed out into the turgid sea wind, dispelling quickly in the heat. Kinky Hawaiian music wafted out from the interior.
Inside, a pair of baby-like creatures sit in candy-striped deck chairs.
Two rococo cupids were sprawled across the dirty canvas of the chairs, lacerated by IVs and nasal tubes. Various cumbersome life-support machines blinked and beeped all around them. A pair of colourful cocktails balanced precariously on the ringed-glass surface of the coffee table. One of the bald babies leered, picking at its nose with a clumsy finger. It was evidently the idiot of the two. The other cupid smiled lasciviously behind enormous electronic goggles, thoughtfully fondling maraschino cherries, paper umbrellas and pineapple slices.
The two don’t feature in the plot, but that Hawaiian music convinces. Your usual South African suburban couple transformed by nightmare?
Nikhil is a key figure in the musical genre called Drag, spelled “Dr4g”—I guess for clarity in Google searches. Dr4g opens up music for inspection by slowing it to a crawl. Click here to listen to Nikhil’s Dr4g remix of a Toni Braxton track.
Taty Went West could be thought of as a Dr4g novel. Science fiction prose is often slower and more descriptive than prose in literary fiction—so much of the pleasure of reading SFF is in seeing, hearing, feeling this new world. Sometimes Taty Went West stops for a full page to look and listen. The descriptions have an authority that convinces you of the reality of the fantasy elements while showcasing their strangeness. A new drug, actually an engineered interdimensional parasite, spreads by sex and turns people into aliens. Numbers Nun and Taty have taken Cherry Cola to Daddy Bast’s surgery ship to be cured.
The nurses were all clad in ritualistic dinosaur-leather aprons and strap-swatches, their faces obscured by suffocating masks from which gurgling tubes overflowed. Their disturbing appearance seemed at odds with their role as nurses. Tanks on their backs fed gas and fluid to their faces via pipes while they limped painfully through the darkness on poised metal foot-braces. These rickety, spring-loaded contraptions, which kept the nurses perpetually en pointe, mimicked the legs of large cassowary-like river birds, lending each a sinister swagger.
Daddy Bast is an intelligent panther who smells disease and works with fangs and claws.
Daddy Bast uncorked the bottle, releasing a cloud of noxious green fumes. He took a mouthful, gargled deeply and then spewed it over Cherry Cola’s exposed back… the cat man seemed to undergo some form of suppressed fit, his large yellow eyeballs rolling back to show their intricately veined undersides. His heavy paws sank down onto the skin above the tattoo…He began to probe around her insides, hissing and spitting to himself like an old radio.
The languid pace suits the heroine. Taty has powerful reasons for fleeing to the Outzone. She has killed her brother. But that sense of urgency evaporates once she is in the Zone. Taty is also escaping her schizophrenic, alcoholic mother who keeps seeing white rabbits.
Taty is Alice’s daughter in many ways. Like Alice, once in Wonderland Taty seems to want nothing at all, is at first unfazed by anything that happens either fantastical or terrifying. But Alice is a proper Victorian Miss while Taty wants to languish by the pool in a bikini, smoke dope, listen to music and take things in her stride—things like riot, murder, new sexual perversions, and being the Messiah. These things come to Taty—they drive the plot, Taty does not.
When first kidnapped asleep in the car with Miss Muppet, she hears herself say “Mother.” She says it again much later about Numbers Nun, a reprogrammed religious robot that is blown apart by the villains. The Nun’s phone communications continue to work. So through most of the book, she counsels Taty, despite lying in fragments at the bottom of the sea. Midway in the book, Taty can no longer get a signal.
‘Come in, Number Nun…’
She eventually gave up and fell asleep. She woke up in the night as she often did, holding the communications device to her breast and speaking in her sleep.
My own reading is that deep down, Taty is searching for another family. But then there are people who tell you Alice is about a girl who wants to get into a garden.
Taty accepts becoming a new kind of prostitute, one that panders to the innermost being. The first half of the novel is about a gang war. Taty works for Alphonse Guava, a pointy-eared imp (rhymes with pimp) from another dimension. His rival Mister Sister had introduced the new drug, unaware that it has been engineered by Dr Dali to bring the world to an end. The disease brings almost unbearable pleasure but gradually turns you into an alien. Unless you eat a lot of carrots.
The second half of the novel is something of a quest story in which Taty is enrolled to help fight the sickness. Over 400 pages, Taty semi-saves the world, almost inadvertently.
The novel is at heart, more African than is at first apparent.
Nikhil: “South Africa is so old you are nothing compared to it. In Europe it feels like you have a comfortable way into the past. But Table Mountain is six times older than the Himalayas. There is a sense that there could be dinosaurs in the woods. The feeling in Cape Town is that it is paradise, but it’s a paradise that has rejected you. There is a feeling of trespass. The civilized world shies away from danger. But South Africans are attracted to offensive things, including apartheid, xenophobia. Racism is endemic.
“The town I grew up in was Pietermaritzburg. There were no Afrikaans people there. It was so much like London, even the climate in winter, and I was reading English books like Dracula. I got confused between English and SA culture. In some parts of South Africa they hate the English.
“Zululand is a model for the Outzone. The town of Namanga Mori is based on Durban, which is full of art deco architecture. It has the strongest strain of marijuana in the world. It doesn’t feel like Africa, but is this weird Jurassic town. It feels like the woods are full of dinosaurs. The mountains nearby, the foothills of the Drakensberg cast long shadows so that twilight lasts for an hour and a half. The place is full of predators —sharks, black mambas and tokoloshes.
“In high school I wanted to make a short movie about hitchhiking from the interior to the coast. I took a trip to help write the film. All along the highway the forest encroached. The land gave me the vision and brought me back to write about it.”
From about the age of two, Nikhil moved back and forth between London and South Africa—from such a young age that the pilots even awarded him with a booklet for being the youngest person to ever travel on their plane. Fresh inspiration for Taty Went West came after he returned to South Africa from London in 2009.
“I came back to the atmosphere I’d felt in school as a teenager. All my old notes for the movie were there. First I tried to write it as a screenplay, then as a trilogy, but I had a kind of war against self-indulgence and I boiled everything down to a single book.
“I was much influenced by Credo Mutwa. He is a Zulu shaman or sangoma, and an artist. He made massive metal sculptures but he also wrote books about mythology that read like Star Wars. They have praying mantis gods. There was an amazing psychedelic element to his writing. I could recognize the land in it.
“I met him when he was in exile and had a curse on him from other sangomas. It’s a varied culture but there is also a secrecy to it and they don’t reveal things to outsiders. He was a huge influence on me.”
Nikhil’s own biography is riveting.
“My mom lives on an island in Sweden and my Dad killed himself in London. My grandfather on my Dad’s side was a diamond smuggler in Shanghai in the forties—true! —while my Mom’s Grandfather was a yogi, who would often bury himself for a week, hang himself, or claim to levitate. My Mom often told me she saw UFOs and I wholeheartedly believe that I AM an alien—or at least some kind of hybridisation of one.
“As a teenager I tried to turn myself into a vampire. I ate nothing but human blood for a week. I had very understanding friends. I got sick and hungry and stopped being a vampire. I became a vegan. Which has similarities when you thing about it. With raw vegan cuisine, you are trying to eat things that are still alive.
“In Durban my dad ran clubs on the beach, a jazz club and a synth club that did things like Duran Duran cover versions. From age nine I’d be forced to sit through the soundchecks and gigs. So when I was in a band I really hated soundchecks and post-gig parties. So I never felt like I was getting away from anything by being in a band.
“I am not religious and never have been, but I really got into music because of the church, and in school they had an amazing chapel with a huge organ and I joined the choir. I got into contemporary music as a teenager, always into some weird look like Doctor Who.”
I interviewed Nikhil at the Africa Writes festival in London in July 2016. Africa Writes is very respectable. Some visitors wear traditional dress but it is in its own way as conservative as any literary festival.
For his panel on genre with Leye Andele (also in this article) Nikhil wore a faux-leather onesie that dipped low to reveal his nipples with slashes across the legs and stomach and binding leather laces at strategic points. The shawl over his shoulders hung to his knees and looked rather like dreadlocks. The effect was like a more smoothly made-up, better-looking, sweet-natured and erudite Alice Cooper.
During the interview he confirmed that part of his witchboy look is derived from the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. This triggered a long conversation about Gothic elements in the Oz films. This is a shared enthusiasm.
He speaks about walking around late at night in Durban in high heels: “After all the xenophobia hit South Africa, it got weird. I started getting thrown out of clubs. It’s dangerous for me but I don’t give a fuck.”
Would he describe himself as trans?
“No. I refuse all labels. I will do what I want. They try to box me as a trans when I wear a miniskirt and heels. I would drag up as a girl with my girlfriends and I have girl memories cause I was a girl. What I love about Burroughs is that he’s not making any statements. Neither am I. I like whatever I like.”
There is a lot of prostitution and rape in the book. Does he fear that his work will be read as a rape fantasy?
“It’s extreme, but rape is a reality. I never leave Taty’s point of view when it happens so it’s never viewed from the outside as something exciting. There is so much rape in South Africa, they practically sell rape. There are very few support systems and people just have to deal with it on their own. I have many friends, acquaintances who were raped. Some of them tested positive for HIV. In South Africa, rape is in my face—drug-induced date rape, gang rape, in middle class clubs, in townships—aggressive misogyny everywhere. To say it doesn’t happen or we shouldn’t write about it comes from a position of privilege.”
Then I asked my Leverhulme questions about how he got into fantasy and science fiction.
“As a kid, I loved Peter Pan and Roald Dahl. Later I became obsessed with SF and fantasy—John Varley’s The Barbie Murders, Philip Jose Farmer, Lucius Shepherd’s amazing Life in Wartime. I loved Alfred Bester, Fritz Lieber, Harry Harrison—the list is endless.
“Recently, I found myself in alignment with [Ballard’s] The Drowned World. He was a disenfranchised colonial and he understood the culture-shock of a wild place, zones that civilization can’t integrate with.”
Nikhil is a compulsive writer. “I tried to write my first book at about nine after reading a lot of SF. It was about a ‘Rust Ranger’ called Denguin who destroyed thousands before escaping into a robotic funfair planet. I thought if I got to about a hundred pages it would be a book so I slaved away. It taught me a lot and got me hooked on writing sci-fi.
“Right now I’m concentrating on two new novels: Club Ded is a sort of meta-portrait of Cape Town, exploring the notion of insiders and outsiders in an increasingly Ballardian society.”
This book was developed out of Nikhil’s no-budget Ballardian feature film called Trillzone, shot in 2014 in Cape Town and originally commissioned by the National Arts Festival for a J.G. Ballard symposium.
The second book is about a magical island called Casanegra, “influenced by the darker aspects of Peter Pan mixed with teleportation, arcane cartography, gothic mermaid art thieves, and time travel abuses.
“I’ve also recently completed a trilogy of horror novellas inspired by Thomas Ligotti, William Hope Hodgson, Poe, and Lovecraft focusing on doppelgangers and parasitic entities.”
Finally—he’s working on the sequel to Taty Went West.
“It’s largely set in space stations and zero-gravity beaches around the moon. In the first book we are introduced to Taty’s role as the messiah of an ancient reptile race. There are dingy space-cube ‘spook’ settlements, orbital oxygen farm jungles and a mysterious wormhole subway system called the Jellicoe Jimblejoog. Taty becomes the flower of the world.”
During the writing of this article, I learned I was sick. It was somehow utterly distinctive of Nikhil that he wrote back with this advice.
If you are still going to S Africa—there is a herb called African Potato (its not a potato at all)—this has wonderful healing properties for the urinary tract, especially if mixed with a certain water lily called umkhuze. There is also a Namibian stone mushroom used specifically to deal with cancer. There is a rooftop market (quite a dingy but relatively safe affair) atop the bus/train station in town—it’s above an adjoined mall called golden acre—when you are at the top there is a line of stalls running close to the escalators going back into the mall and a rastafarian has a stall there dealing these herbs and tonics. He’s the only rasta herbalist up there so should be easy to find.
To understand Nikhil’s writing, understand his connection to place. He has a terrific memory for detail, yes, but his fantasy inventions go beyond that. The fantasy makes the atmosphere of a place solid.
Right now I read Taty Went West as a dreamscape of white South African psychology. The sense of being separate from the land, a land still Jurassic with dinosaurs in the woods. Young people listening to pop in authoritarian suburbs long to escape it.
… lots of girls her age must have shared the urge to escape the locked-down routines of the Lowlands: the subterranean suburb-bunkers, the regimentation, and factory food, all those sky malls.
But the Outzone not only offers Jurassic landscapes—its city offers music, drugs, creativity and style but also violence, exploitation, sickness and death. It is unambiguously a colony.
Before the colony had broken down Namanga Mori had been a thriving centre of trade… Now it was decrepit, populated by smugglers, sleepwalkers and those who came staggering out of the trees looking for work.
The Zone combines urban vices with provinciality; decadent and superficially thrilling but cut off from any culture of depth, inheriting a violence that is normal and therefore invisible. Here Taty talks to Alphonse Guava, who has trapped her in a life of psychic prostitution.
He regarded her with a sardonic smile unable to help himself from picking at her passivity, much as one would pick a scab.
‘You seem angry with me,’ he teased.
She looked away, hunched like a bedraggled squirrel in her mangy fur.
‘You let those monsters do things to me,’ she eventually spoke up.
‘Was it fun?’
She blinked at him, unable to understand his reaction for a moment.
‘No it was horrible,’ she murmured darkly. ‘You let Number Nun get shot. Everybody is dead because of you.’
He sniggered without a hint of reproach—and it was at times like this she could see his inhumanity outlined in a sharp, unforgiving clarity.
‘I suppose,’ he admitted. ‘But I had a ball doing it.’
To come back to the book’s dedication to Burroughs: “With Burroughs there is such a strong sense of dream, of how dream works. Burroughs had an amazing way of describing dream reality. Dream is the atmosphere of a place made solid. Which is what Zulu storytellers do anyway.”
Told you. African.
More online resources:
- Taty Went West has a soundtrack called ‘In With the Outzone’ that you can hear for free here. It contains songs that Taty listens to in the novel and is credited to Coco Carbomb, her favourite pop star. Coco is played by Nikhil’s long-time collaborator Carmen Incardine.
- Or you can listen to Nikhil’s work with Cape Town jazz musicians—at times like a fragile Tom Waits, at times a Gothic Threepenny Opera, at times straight up garage rock. He suggests starting with the track ‘Eye to Eye.’
We surround the casket and I know who the dead man was. I have seen dead bodies before, even of family members, but none affects me as much as this man whom I have never seen before but who is not a stranger. He is bearded, with scattered grey and white hair. His face is scarred as if he ran through an entire warehouse of razor blades. His eyes are sutured shut, although the thread is small and I only see it because I am interested in such things. There is perfume, but also the faint whiff of formaldehyde underneath it all. I feel deep sorrow and surprise myself by being on the verge of tears.
Korede sidles up to me.
‘You don’t always use your cane,’ I say.
‘I’m all right for short distances,’ he says. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Upset. Why do I feel I know him when we’ve never met? Why do I feel sad?’
Korede sighs. ‘You’re upset because you feel the absence of a person like you, different from others, but not in a visible way. You feel like you know him because people like us are always aware of each other, but not in a conscious way. It’s like breathing. Most of the time you don’t know you’re doing it, but try holding your breath and I bet you’ll miss it.’ He laughs, a short bark. This close I can see all of his pores. I cannot believe this will happen to me some day.
‘Who are we?’
‘We are people who know,’ says Korede, as if that explains it.
—From “Child, Funeral, Thief, Death”. Published in Apex Magazine, Sept 1 2015
Tade Thompson may be one of the better known African SFF writers, with stories in Omenana, the Crises and Conflicts anthology edited by Ian Whates, the African Monsters anthology edited by Margrét Helgadóttir, and many other journals and collections. He has two novels to his name.
For some reason we started talking about language.
“Yoruba wasn’t my first language. I learned after seven years old. I was born in England. It was more difficult for me than my sister because she is better with languages. I was very lonely in Nigeria. We left England in an impromptu manner. I didn’t have people to socialize with. And I was taught Yoruba language and mythology in school for say an hour a week.
“I also speak Igbo from going to University for seven years in the east of Nigeria. There is no agreement on standard Igbo as there is for Yoruba. This goes back to Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He was a Yoruba who had been captured, sold to the Portuguese, liberated by the British and deposited in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He translated the English Bible into Yoruba, and tried to do the same for Igbo and set up rules of Igbo grammar, but he did no work in the north. The friends he had, the dialect of Igbo he used was a marginal one.
“I have written fiction in Yoruba—but it has never seen the light of day. I’m aware how stiff it sounds. To proceed with this, I’d need more Yoruba books. With English I have my reference books, I have my usage dictionary, but there are not the same resources in Yoruba here. A written language is a different animal from its spoken version.
“I have written a flash piece in Pidgin and will do more with Pidgin. You can toss in Hausa words; you can mould it to the local culture. I wrote it first in English and then translated it. I tend to think in images (Tade is also a painter and illustrator). So I translate into English from visual and then into Pidgin.”
One of his best known stories is “The Last Pantheon,” a superhero novella that he co-wrote with Nick Wood which appeared in the anthology AfroSFv2, edited by Ivor Hartmann.
“Superheroes have moved into the mainstream. They are broadly science fiction, but they are also another legitimate form of myth, like mermaids, minotaurs, and alien invasion. It used to be that comic books were not a topic for adult discussion. It meant your IQ was stunted. To say a character was something out of a comic book was a criticism. But the regular readers have grown up, are in the money, and it’s interesting to write for them. The movies can be good, or they can be made by people who don’t understand comics.
“It’s fun to circle back around and start writing prose fiction for adults about superheroes.
“‘The Last Pantheon’ was a whim of delight, nostalgia for both me and Nick. We’re both comic fans. I knew West Africa and he knew South Africa, so it was a chance to set something convincingly in the two locales.
“I started making comics when I was five. All I wanted to do was draw. Mom couldn’t coax me to do any reading at all. In Wimbledon I remember one day I saw a Fantastic Four (the first Marvel comics series), with the Human Torch. I remember saying over and over Mummy read it for me; no, you have to read it. Immediately I began to draw them.
“I also loved the Alice in Wonderland illustrations, by John Tenniel. I redrew them over and over in different contexts.
“When Nick and I started chatting, we both had a similar appreciation. We said, let’s write a story in homage to childhood. As well as explore the way history has been dealt with in Africa.”
One of the ways in which this alternative history with superheroes interacts with reality is its description of the disappearance—in this story murder—of Patrice Lumumba in the former Belgian Congo. Nick’s South African superhero fails to prevent his killing.
Tade: “There is a lot of rage in my generation of Africans, at the way the Soviet Union and the USA played out the Cold War in Africa. Patrice Lumumba was a victim of the Cold War. He was a left-leaning guy with egalitarian ideas, a true leader. The Congo had uranium and that would give the Soviet Union access to uranium, for nuclear weapons, so the CIA needed a leader they could control.
“On the Nigerian side, there is the murder of Murtala Muhammed, a military leader. History said he was killed in a military rivalry. But he was killed after praising the ANC in South Africa and the rebels in Angola.”
The story has two very different superheroes—one a black-power, left-leaning radical, the other a business-orientated modernizer, neatly summarizing the two main trends of African ascendancy since independence.
Tade: “We couldn’t explore all the things we wanted to explore, compressing it into one novella.
“It was important to me that my character reflects some Yoruba aspects. His origin story is drawn from Yoruba mythology. The creation myth has a guy come from the sky with a chicken and a mound of sand. I made that an alien landing. I made the traditional Yoruba markings into something like barcodes. My Yoruba superheroes were in origin aliens … with barcodes. A spaceman with a chicken is as plausible as Adam.”
Any possibility of a series?
“I would like a female writer to write the sequel with a female team of superheroes. If I were to do an anthology of African SFF, I would say specifically I want women, specifically LGBTIA writers, I would go out and find them, and I would be a pest until they contributed.
“The leading female names in African SFF are, you’ll notice, all in the diaspora. Nnedi and Sofia live in America. Helen Oyeyemi is essentially English. Chinelo has spent time in the USA as well. It sometimes feels like in Africa science fiction is not a respectable thing for women to be doing.
“The laws on homosexuality in Nigeria make me feel ashamed. The hero of Rosewater (Tade’s forthcoming novel, published by Apex) was fostered by a gay family.
“Rosewater is outright science fiction, no magic, nothing is not scientifically explained, none of it is magic realism. It is set solely in Nigeria. Even when an American visits, it is strictly about Nigeria.
“I haven’t read that much outright science fiction coming from Africa. I want to explore the extrapolation of science. Growing up, I had so many science fiction conversations in Nigeria, but they didn’t seem to translate into books or articles. There was a lot of SF thinking in Africa, but it was like it was blocked.
“Rosewater is about an extremely slow alien invasion… by microbes. Most people don’t know about it; the world changed in several imperceptible ways. One of the consequences of this is that many people including my hero Kaaro become able to sense thoughts.”
Tade’s first novel, Making Wolf, felt like a crime novel, except for one slightly speculative element. “It happens in an invented country with an alternative history. It’s based on the history of Nigeria, but with a divergence in the Civil War. It’s not the Igbo who declare independence, but the Yoruba. So you have Yorubaland. I wanted to address the experience in Nigeria without offending complicit people. I love pulp fiction. I can’t enjoy it like I did at 15, but it has a place in my heart. It’s a love letter, a thank you to Raymond Chandler.”
Tade’s story “Budo” was originally published in the Steampunk World Anthology edited by Sarah Hans. A text and audio version read by Suyi Davies is available online from Escapepod. It’s a story that intertwines traditional elements with a super-scientific hero. I couldn’t tell if he came from the future, or some kind of Afro-steampunk alternative universe.
Tade: “It was inspired by a biography of Leonardo da Vinci (by Maurice Rowden), by how otherworldly he was. They would have described him as an alien if they could. This is an African Leonardo da Vinci who has travelled the world. Africans did travel at that time. Being black did NOT mean that you were a slave. My hero has actually been around the world and experimenting with a flying machine like da Vinci. Budo is like Icarus crashing to Earth. As you can tell from the beautiful James Ng illustration. (Illustration included, add credit)
“The heroine is more in charge than he is. I wanted her to be strong and a scientist as well. She rescues him; she has all the agency in the relationship. She is modelled on many actual African warrior queens. She is also modelled on Caesar Augustus’s daughter, who had a prodigious sexual appetite, but only had sex outside the marriage when she pregnant. I liked the world, so there will be another novella set in the Budo universe.”
“Slip Road” is an earlier story, still available online from Expanded Horizons. It is written from the point of view of a ghost. To what extent is this a traditional belief story—and how far does it stray from traditional belief?
Tade: “In Yoruba culture, spirits are around us all the time, but there are three basic types: the people in the Afterlife. The people not yet born but aware and they can converse. And in the middle are the people who are alive but their spirit can be communicated with.
“The character in ‘Slip Road’ doesn’t realize that he has slipped into a different category. He thinks he’s in the middle but he has passed into the Afterlife. This is a staple of ghost stories. His wife survived but he did not; the slip road is a slip road into death.
“This story is linked to Rosewater the novel. His wife’s sister in ‘Slip Road’ shows up in Rosewater. The story becomes science fiction in the novel, though not this story. There is a scientific explanation which is quite close to Yoruba beliefs.”
“The Madwoman of Igbodi Hospital” is available online from Interfictions. It’s a strongly voiced story about a ghost.
Tade: “That story started with an image of what I witnessed when a child. I wandered into neighbour’s house and saw the husband beating the wife in silence. Not shouting, but with a blank face, not angry. She was taking the punches and not saying anything. I was eight. I stood there as if for ever, it seemed to take for ever. I can still feel the impact. It was being done with force. Before that I had only seen violence on TV.
“I needed to the get the image out of my head in some way. The story was built around that image. How would I feel if it was my mom? What would the relationship be with that kind of man?
“It’s in short sections, fragmented. It’s about memory, about the memory of a child. Narrating a story, you are constructing over time—memory is always collapsed, people remember what is unique. That’s why the story is in fragments and not objective.”
“Monkey House” is a story Tade published with the online magazine Omenana, which you can read here. For me it draws on Western models, like Kafka and Borges.
Tade: “That is my oldest published story, probably written 2000 and 2001 as an exercise. When I was writing it, I may have been reading a lot of Thomas Ligotti. He writes work that is described as Lovecraftian, beings beyond perception behind the curtains.
“The folk tale in the middle is an actual folk story, how the monkey gets tricked and caged. At the time I was in a toxic work environment and I would wander on my lunch break. I would find strange empty places in the building that had no function that I was aware of. I began to imagine that I would find something staring back at me. It’s a kind of nightmare version of the atmosphere of that place. The monkey was both me, in a sense trapped there, and my sense of fear in the place.
“We live with stories in Africa. When I was growing up, everybody believed one of the guys could glide about a foot off the ground. In my boarding school, there was a guy who said he could read in the dark. He would prove it to us—and then it turned out that he would memorize and recite the text. There were always stories… ‘someone disappeared in the market the other day.’ Interestingly, I think there is something pan-African about it.”
The story “Honorable Mention” (in the anthology Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver) is another atmospheric nightmare, about a made-up sport that exploits immigrants to the UK and involves sorcery. To succeed in the sport the hero signs himself over to the spirit of a fetish—but the spirit eats him. It’s hard not to read it as nightmare version of the experience so many migrants to Britain have.
Tade: “You cannot leave your context and stay the same person. The people who migrate always say, ‘We’ll go back to Nigeria’ but you change if you live in a different place, you become a hybrid, not accepted here or there. You become a new thing especially if you see success in a field in which you are not expected to succeed. There are a lot of compromises and the darker side might not be positive. Sometimes the choice may be between being a security guard or something illegal.
“The sport in the story, a staying-awake competition, is made up; but it is inspired by what happened to me when I came back to the UK. I took two jobs. One, I took blood samples at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. And at night I worked in a Securicor depot. No sleep, no respect.The Yoruba term for working like this is ‘Fa gburu’.
“I was made to take an English exam when I arrived, even though I was born here and went to grade school here. Also a Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board exam and a medical exam to show I was properly trained. I had no problem with that—I always do well on standard exams. But I needed to prep the exam and eat at the same time and I didn’t want to depend on my parents, so I did two jobs and spent the rest of the time studying. Basically, I never went to bed.
“I left for Nigeria in ‘76/’77 as a little boy with a UK passport and came back in ‘98. I got a bit irritated with the UK so I left and went to the South Pacific to work in Western Samoa. I worked as a doctor there for a year. I used to speak Samoan but I’ve lost a lot—I can still understand it when it’s spoken.”
Tade now works as a psychiatrist in a UK hospital. He also paints and draws, wants to do a graphic novel some day, continually writes and rather famously suffers from insomnia—one of the reasons, perhaps, why he gets so much done.
After “Honourable Mention” was finished, Filipino writer Rochita Loenen-Ruiz met Tade in Amsterdam and gave him a gift of a fetish in a little bag. “What she bought was exactly like the fetish in the story, a small creature crouched and painted black. So I said ‘I’ve just written a story about that.’ Writer’s synchronicity.”
Tade was also inspired by Jan Švankmajer’s animated film Moznosti Dialogu about a conversation that involves devouring each other (rather like the competitor and the spirit in the story). You can see it on YouTube.
Tade: “English is my first language, I was born here, it’s part of my identity. I am as much English as I am Yoruba. I am a Londoner. I’ve got a novella coming out December 2016 from Solaris Books called ‘Gnaw.’ It’s a ghost story all about British life, my British experiences.
“On the one hand I have a strong ambivalence about being called an African writer. It creates a sub category, like woman writer or gay writer. Categories exist because of oppression. I certainly don’t wake up saying, ‘oh I am a tortured African Writer.’ In my writing I try not to make that an issue. Most of the time I’m a human being. I can see the potential harm in being identified as the label, the potential for erasure.
“On the other hand, in science fiction, Africans have been erased. Except as examples of the primitive, the brutish, the Magical Negro with folk wisdom who exists only to help the white protagonist on his journey. There is only one of us on the Enterprise, or we wear the red shirt and step off the ship and get killed. Before 2009, there was a pervasive idea, a received wisdom, that Africans don’t read science fiction.
“Racefail was necessary and a lot of good came out of it. People talk about Joseph Campbell as if his ideas are universal, but the thinking is so Eurocentric. I actually threw Hero of a Thousand Faces across the room fifty pages in. Stories from China and Japan are different from that; African stories are very different from that. The Monomyth is, well, bullshit. There’s no three-act structure, the picture of death is very different. So I guess though you want to be seen as an individual, for now you have to sign up as a binary.
“I want to write everything. I am a lover of books, I don’t want to write one thing. Publishers want you to be one thing. I’m not interested in that. I want to do my crime fiction, my fantasy, my horror, my science fiction, my painting.”
Outside, back in the bright sun obscured by a thin film of toxic brown haze, he paused on the pavement. Around him were men in suits carrying briefcases. Men from around the world. Businessmen, the only type of men still allowed freedom to come to the centre of the city like this. The apparat worn on a chain around his neck bleeped a warning that his visa-pass had one hour left. Up above drones flew watching, recording everything. The businessman walked past him as if he did not exist. He made his way to the ticketdrome, walking on the spotless streets, failing to avoid looking at the electronic advertisement boards that surrounded them.
In many ways the city was cleaner. It had water and electricity, but it’d lost its soul, or so his father had told him during the great sell-out. He was to young then to understand but now he did. Third World nations heavily under debt were sold off piecemeal to Corporations or voluntarily placed in caretakership as Zimbabwe was. They were the lucky ones. Some countries had to sell people to make up the difference that kept rising with the interest rates. The sign at the ticketdrome read:
:) The Natives are Happy and Prosperous (:
:) The Future Must Be Magnificent (:
—From “The Sale”, published in AfroSF edited by Ivor Hartmann
Tendai Huchu is a name to be reckoned with not only in the world of science fiction.
Africa.com lists him as one of ten top African contemporary writers. Interestingly enough, three of the top ten writers—Tendai, Lauren Beukes, and Shadreck Chikoti—have notably written speculative fiction.
His story “The Intervention,” published in the Asian journal The Open Road Review is a strongly voiced story set in the UK among Zimbabweans on the day of the national elections. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. You can read it here.
He has also published in literary journals like Wasafiri and in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Like many new African writers, Tendai wants to be thought of as a storyteller, someone who reaches an audience. His first novel The Hairdresser of Harare was published in both Zimbabwe and the UK, a story about being a woman and making money in a glamorous industry, swimming alongside the regime, but then discovering your perfect boyfriend is having it off with another man, someone with dangerous government connections. You can get him hurt, badly.
Since the novel was published in 2010, there has been a minor vogue for hairdresser-set videos in Zimbabwe. You can see the pilot episode of the drama Salon and the comedy Salon.com here. The 2012 90-minute performance movie Big Announcement, starring Zimbabwean comic Carl Joshua Ncube starts with a joke credit to “ Hairdressers of Mbare Inc.”
Tendai’s second novel, The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician is a diaspora comedy of Zimbabweans living a sociable life in Scottish exile, unaware that one of their number is reporting back to his agency in Zimbabwe.
Tendai: “Alfonso’s affiliation is to the country and his agency NOT MUGABE.” The novel was, he says “about microshifts in personality, differences about who you are in what circumstances. I thought it was almost plotless, but it turned out to have a very strong plot.”
Tendai Huchu contributed “The Sale” to AfroSF, the first-published anthology of African speculative fiction, edited by Ivor Hartmann. The anthology established beyond doubt that African speculative fiction had arrived—that Africans did indeed write and read science fiction.
Tendai has also published a delightful fantasy in Interzone , “The Worshipful Company of Milliners,” “Chikwambo” in African Monsters, edited by Margrét Helgadóttir, and “Ghostalker” in Electric Spec.
So to what extent is he a science fiction writer?
“As and when necessary as work demands it. Genre means little to most African writers. It wasn’t what I was thinking about when I wrote, I just go with the story.”
“The Sale” is about a man trying to protest the sale of the Great Zimbabwe to China and a new joint US-China colonialism that keeps the population drugged and tame—and decides who can reproduce. Security inserts hormonal anal suppostitories into men to feminize them.
“It is about neo-colonialism, the theft of artefacts, and about how neo-colonialism is being literally emasculating.”
Tendai is long-haired, has progressive views and has written with sympathy about the situation of Zimbabwean homosexuals. Is he comfortable equating feminization with political ineffectiveness?
“I would probably have done it that way in any circumstances with a Shona main character as from a Shona cultural perspective, masculinity is power itself. I’m less happy with the alliance of China and the USA in the story, but the centre of power has always resided somewhere else.”
His story for Interzone has a lovely central conceit. Rather feline creatures in Harare make a new hat whenever a writer has an idea, and deliver those hats… but only certain people can see them. It’s a dream story, in which an atmosphere solidifies, a dream of Harare made worldwide, and of the helplessness of writers waiting for ideas. The muse is something gorgeous but sometimes unseeable, though gratuitously bestowed.
“The writer receives the hat and can reject it or work on it, but success is not guaranteed. The milliner’s story goes forward, but the writer goes backward. The story he creates is far less perfect than the idea he was given. It’s playing with the idea of being a writer, a metaphor for it.”
“Chikwambo” from African Monsters “is about wanting to be wealthy so you go to a witch (varoyi) to make a creature who will work for you—but it needs to feed on your family’s blood. The Chikwambo comes from Shona cosmology. It’s a fetish of animal remains that feeds on your relatives. In the story, it’s both human and animal, and goes rogue, devouring just anybody.”
Another story, “Sea of Photons” is set at the end of the universe. Post-humans are trying to find a way out of this universe and into another. The speculation is that what we call dark matter is the effect of the multiverse on ours. An AI archivist wants information itself to survive. “Sea of Photons” can be read at Kasma Magazine online.
“My earliest SF goes way back to primary school, old American books, a lot Greek mythology, Men and Gods retold by Rex Warner, and a book of American legends that had native American tales and the story of John Henry. Back in those days, I didn’t care for the author or the title; I just got it out of the high school library, read it and took it back. I remember Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. There were lots of those choose your own adventure books, zooming around space. There was no new material in that library, it was all old stuff.
“Crime and Punishment made me want to be a writer. I went through a Russian phase. I loved The Devils by Dostoyevsky. My first attempt at a novel was a plagiarism of The Devils reset in Zimbabwe. The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician grew out of that first MS. I wrote it when I was 23.
“Right now I’m in a Paul Auster phase. I also really like Ben Lerner now. Really into Jim Thompson, a noir author. I used to hate American writers, didn’t like what they wrote, but not now.
“Being a writer is an individual sport. I had some degree of awareness of African literature, but I only got involved with it once I was published. I like Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf; it takes me back to golden age noir. I dig that. Zimbabwean writers I rate include Shimmer Chinodya (author of Harvest of Thorns), Charles Mungoshi (who writes in both Shona and English) and Yvonne Vera. I also really dig Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi.”
Tendai wrote a short story impersonating the great Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, “The Second Coming of Dambudzo Marechera” for onethrone.com.
I read Tendai’s story as a satire on the hippie-black-consciousness style that has made Marechera the Jimi Hendrix of African letters. The story also has a reference to China Miéville, and if I’m not mistaken, to Miéville’s The City and the City, using the same sense of cross-hatched realities to describe Harare. Tendai skewers Marechera’s waywardness and pretensions, but for me, it was fun seeing Tendai writing with something of Marechera’s wildness and freedom.
“I think on Marechera, my view is more that in the general public, he is more known for his wacky antics than the literature that he produced. What I am against is this foregrounding of the dodgy biography over the work that he produced, which, for me, is a worrying aspect of his legacy.
“I would avoid joining a movement or collective as I don’t have any particular ideology. I want to be free to move around as I choose. People expect a certain consistency of content or point of view. Me, I’m completely against that. One of the things that motivates me is write books that are very different from each other.
“I would love to be able to write Mills & Boon. Nora Roberts published over 100 romances. Literature is a house with many rooms. If I have the tools to write something, then I will. There are some things I’m holding off writing till I have the tools. There is an epic war novel I’d like to do, also a graphic novel.”
Tendai lives in Scotland. When asked if he had considered living in the England, he said that he would rather not, that he found Scotland a much more convivial nation.
He was born in Bindura in the 1980s, and came to the UK in 2002, “for opportunities. The economy in Zimbabwe had tanked and you have stuff here you don’t in Zimbabwe. In 2002 you could fly over on tourist visa, then a student visa, then get a degree to work in the UK. The political structure is difficult now (May 2016), immigration is the issue; they are talking of leaving the EU because of it.
“I got a degree in Podiatry and lasted half a semester doing a degree in Mining Engineering because my Dad forced me to get a practical degree. I stumbled into literature. I didn’t do it in high school after O levels; I never thought I would be the guy writing the books. This is what I love doing now. Will I always love doing it? I don’t know.
“One of the problems here is representationalism. I am almost constantly asked to represent particular part or parts of the world. It matters more than the literature I generate.
“One of the difficulties is talking about African writing, when for most people, the ideal model is a Western mode. African markets are radically different. Ideally, I would write in my mother tongue, Shona. But I was educated in English. I only had Shona for one lesson a week in primary school. In high school, the only subject taught in Shona was Shona itself. No other subject is in Shona. Your thinking is in English, not Shona; it’s what the system was designed for. There is only one journal that will take fiction in Shona, Munyori.
“When I was growing up, Radio 2 was the only Shona station. It had a programme that would tell stories about domestic issues. There was a lot of Shona music on radio, and on TV there was one traditional storyteller for kids. You didn’t get Shona in the media, which functioned in English. The idea for any novelist in Shona was to get onto the school curriculum. Otherwise, who’s going to buy it?”
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation broadcasts some content in Shona. To live stream ZBC, click here. For an article on local-language radio in Zimbabwe by a South African scholar, click here.
“People called Hairdresser a bestseller in Zimbabwe but it sold 500 copies the first year there. You are lucky to sell 60 to 100 copies of a book. The commercial imperative, there are bills to pay, man. If it doesn’t generate revenue, you can’t do it. If no one buys it, no one reads it, what is the point?”
Tendai was one of the translators who worked on the Jalada language project discussed by Richard Oduor Oduku and Moses Kilolo in part one. For that project, Tendai translated an Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o story into Shona.
He recently had an interesting experience being paid by a German university to translate a Shona novel into English. “The people in the novel are speaking good, everyday, educated Shona. They weren’t being exotic or colourful, so I translated what they were saying into the equivalent English. The publishers were very unhappy. They wanted the characters to talk pidgin and slang. Essentially they thought a well-spoken African language translates into something grotesque or unusual in English. That is to say Africans even in their own language are not fluent.
So what kind of things are available in Shona in Zimbabwe?
“There are comedians who do Shona video clips that are really popular. Sometimes they get other comic characters to work with them. They are three minutes long and they spread virally.
“Zimbabwe dancehall kids do interesting things with language. Killer T does a lot of crime fiction and noir in his songs. Both comedians and musicians use slang, new expressions, fresh and interesting. When it comes to Shona novels, thing are a lot more conservative. If you are aiming at a school market, they won’t teach slang.
“It’s cool to say I’m a novelist, but how many people read me? Hairdresser is thought of as a big popular ‘woman’s novel.’ I didn’t know it would create perceptions. I didn’t go to literary festivals. I just bought books and consumed them and didn’t know about the literary world. Would I be able to write the novel now? I would think twice about writing from the female point of view, with all the problems.
“You get stuff about ‘can a man actually represent women, and should they?’ Now I would certainly think again before I’d do it. You get people asking would a woman do this or that?
“Zimbabweans are interested in the depictions of Harare and daily life, not the gay stuff, which non-Zimbabweans fixate on. For me at the time, that was just the story. I am surprised that non-Zimbabwe people fixate on that aspect of the story. If I knew what I know now I might have hesitated to go down that route, because it then becomes not about the book itself. It becomes about the author, or the politics. The issues become far more important that the text itself.
“African writing is irrelevant as a label. But possibly publishers realized that other people project their perspectives onto you. I was just a guy writing on his own in his bedroom. But being an ‘African writer’ is the difference between you being involved in something or not, to talk at events or being interviewed. You get invited to regurgitate positions, never to talk about interesting stuff. African this, Africa that. Nothing else about your work is interesting. Your book is about issues, nothing literary.
“Recently I was invited to a festival to talk about Landscape in Fiction, and I was taken aback that it wasn’t about Africa. Right now for me interesting stuff is form, structural stuff about how a novel works.”
I asked Tendai if he had any thoughts about life in the diaspora.
Tendai: “I generally have no comments about ‘being in the diaspora,’ I find it unremarkable and I try to steer away from the usual cliché about how horrible it all is supposed to be—that is usually how these things are framed for the ‘African.’ The West, love it or hate it, is a pretty cool and exotic place to be: beautiful native women; uninterrupted flows of electricity, alcohol and drugs in abundance; work; money; cultural spaces, etc., etc. I have no profound thoughts about it—there is nothing special here.”
There must be a reason why almost the only prose fiction I’m reading comes out of Africa.
We are all on the move from one nation to another—even if the name of the country stays the same. Sometimes even the names of the countries change—will there still be a United Kingdom post-Brexit?
We are all in a state of transition away from identities that seemed stable—national identities, ethnic identities, gender identities, identities that we didn’t even know we had.
If a sharp break with traditional culture is one of the things that inspires fantasy and SF writing then Africa might be an epitome of the modern experience of moving through change.
That change also involves looking forward to the future and at what is being lost—our connection to land, language, foods, employment, traditional belief, God and gods, our own inner being.
African fiction is getting the measure of this change, to see just how far, how fast, all humanity is moving into something new. Something that will not look at all like the starship Enterprise.
In Part Three, I will be talking to writers in South Africa. I hope to meet the sense of futurizing thrill I found in Kenya. I will be talking to Ntone Edgabe, key figure in Chimurenga, and all its initiatives and activities.
But I will also be looking at another diaspora, the diaspora of Europeans into South Africa. I’ll ask again why, on the face of it, they dominate science fiction and fantasy in that country.
Continued discussions here at Tor.com and also at:
- African Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook: for readers and writers inside and outside African—over 1000 members.
- African Speculative Fiction Society: for professional and semi-professional African writers, editors, publishers, and artists. Home of the Nommo Awards.
Writers in the UK I did not interview
… is a medical doctor from South Africa currently either studying or teaching at Imperial College in London, and a contributor the first AfroSF anthology. For most of this period he has been rather hard to get hold of.
… declined to be interviewed on the grounds that he had not published sufficiently yet. As evidence of that lack of publication and his modesty: an excerpt from his novel, a story called “Harabella” was published in Granta Magazine. His story “The Rare Earth” appeared in the first AfroSF, edited by Ivor Hartmann. His fiction has also appeared in Sable Magazine, The Apex Book of World SF, Tell Tales, Drifting, and Dreams, Miracles and Jazz. He is winner of the Shorelines—First Chapter competition. Originally from the Gambia, he has lived in many places and now works as an IT consultant in London.
… is the author of Lament for the Fallen published in England by Doubleday, set in a West African future of water pumps, AIs where an alien crash lands. The (UK) Guardian of 10th September called it “A compulsively readable, life-affirming tale and Chait does a masterful job of juxtaposing a traditional African setting with a a convincing depiction of a far-future society.” Chait is a South African who is now based in the UK, who takes part in a number of initiatives including Pikhaya Smart Street.
… is a international writing star. It never occurred to me that she would want to be interviewed by me, so I didn’t ask. She is a literary writer of novels that get long and usually glowing reviews in The New York Times, or The New York Review of Books. Her beautifully written novels are touched with fantasy or magic realism. In her second novel, The Opposite House, there is a building that opens out to either Lagos or London. Vampires trail in and out of White is for Witching. Trans-racialiasm and transexuality are compared and contrasted in her re-telling of Snow White, Boy Snow Bird. It is set in a brilliantly re-created ‘50s and ‘60s USA. Her 2016 collection of short stories What is Not Yours is Not Yours contains the story “presence” which is science fiction. She refuses to allow any limitation on who or what she writes about or how she writes it, and the author she most reminds me of is Kelly Link. Her digressiveness and unexpectedness leave some reviewers unsatisfied, as in this review of her second novel in African Writing and this review in Strange Horizons. An audience of young Nigerian SF fans that I spoke to in Lagos in 2015 picked her as one of their favourite authors.
… is not interviewed on the justifiable grounds that he is often in Ghana. His novel A Tail of the Blue Bird sends a young Ghanaian back home having been trained in CSI. Though parts of it read like a crime novel, the book starts with a strongly voiced narrative by an aged villager steeped in traditional culture and it is the contrast between diasporan man and traditional man that concerns the novel. It contains an undeniable, and for me, deeply disturbing piece of magic that has this unique, theme-bolstering characteristic: to those outside the culture it stinks; to those who are part of the culture it smells delightful. The novel was a sensation in its French translation as Notre quelque part . In France, it received le prix Mahogany, the prix Charles Baudelaire, and was selected by Lire magazine as the best foreign novel 2014. Evidently deservedly, it was awarded the prix Laure Bataillon for translation. Nii Parkes is also a notable poet, was born in the UK, but was raised in Ghana.
Michael Oshoke Irene
… is a Nigerian scholar and fiction writer in the UK for purposes of his PhD. As external examiner of his PhD for much of the time of writing it would not have been appropriate for me to interview him. His PhD novel The Seeds’ Tales is highly unusual in that it is an example of traditional belief fantasy somewhat on the lines of Amos Tutuola—though often with political or satirical purpose. Told using the forms and language of oral literature, the novel concerns the spirits of prematurely dead children accusing both the dead and the living adults who contributed to their deaths. In central sections the spirits of figures from Nigerian history evade answering for their crimes. As Nigerian women wait for the return of the White Witch—a genuine historical figure—they give voice to their stories. Not at all generic, it is certainly a work of fantastika.
… is a South African writer who is frequently in the UK. We were in touch—sheer laziness on my part meant I didn’t get an interview with her. She has an extensive bibliography, with many works written under other names. Notable for this article by being a contributor to AfroSF, edited by Ivor Hartmann, but that is only one of many short stories published. Much more information at her own website.
I met Tosin after her panel with Tendai Huchu at the Bare Lit Festival in London. She has published many outright far future science-fantasy novels. She also publishes her own children’s books in Yoruba. More information from her website.
Geoff Ryman has a Leverhulme Fellowship to study the rise of SFF in Africa and will be travelling to South Africa, Malawi, Uganda and Nigeria over the next year. He’s written SFF and mainstream novels and has won about 15 awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James W. Tiptree Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice) and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette “What We Found.” His novel Air was listed in The Guardian‘s 1000 Novels You Must Read. 253 is listed by Carmen Maria Machado on the Granta website as the best book of 1998. He administers the African Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook that has over 800 members.
Geoff Ryman can be contacted through Facebook by direct message. Request to join the African Fantasy Reading Group then befriend and send a direct message.