In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here). Since then, Tor.com has published thirty in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and a thirty-first essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. This column covers Imaro, a fantasy novel assembled from a series of short stories by African Canadian author Charles R. Saunders.
SWORD AND SWOLE
Coining the term “sword and soul,” Black author, editor, critic, and publishing pioneer Milton Davis describes it as a subgenre that Saunders invented when his work shifted imaginative fiction’s focus from marvels encountered in European-based fantasy worlds to those of Nyumbani, a sort of Ur-Africa. Davis’s label is an extremely apt one. Comparisons to Tarzan notwithstanding (comparisons which slowed the publication of Imaro’s sequels and hurt their sales), the book’s eponymous hero is much closer in outline and origin to Conan the Barbarian, the iconic creation of the Father of Sword and Sorcery, Robert E. Howard. Warrior and outcast Imaro’s wandering life, his magnificent musculature, and his deep-rooted mistrust of magic, all point to Saunders’s skillful repurposing of the best elements of the Conan epic. And just as Howard originally wrote about Conan in short stories which he sold to pulp magazines, Saunders originally wrote about Imaro in short stories published in a Canadian fanzine, Gene Day’s Dark Fantasy.
CALL OF THE CHILD
When I was little, I secretly adored Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan. If only I’d had these books to read instead! Charged with the challenge of adventure! Free of racial bigotry! And most important, filled with the angst of the loner—the loner I was then, the loner we all are at that young age. As Imaro grows to manhood in his series’ first volume, seeking approval, planning his stupendous feats of strength and bravery, he encounters cruel social superiors, unscrupulous sorcerers whose powers render them traitors to humanity, and other foes he fails to anticipate, driven by forces he has no way to control. Imaro is undoubtedly a man—just ask Tanisha, his beautiful, loving, yet fiercely lethal companion through much of his journey. He’s a man, but a man who appeals to the child in us all: the eternal wonderer, forever facing new trials, always asking himself if he’s ready for an unknowable future in the constant unfolding of previously undiscovered terrain.
A WHOLE OLD WORLD
With elegant phrases laid down as precisely as the finest brushstrokes, Saunders’ words paint his vivid vision of the mythical continent of Nyumbani ineradicably upon his readers’ minds. He draws from a treasurehouse of artistic materials. The nomadic Ilyassai, birth nation of Imaro’s mother, are thinly disguised Maasai; their Serengeti-esque plain gives way to forests in one direction, to coastal cities trading with far-off empires in another. Sun and moon and archetypal creatures are addressed using proper names derived from Swahili. Ruins haunted by ancient evils, rivers harboring the undead, mysterious mines, rich farms and fisheries—within these pages, Africa’s diversity is displayed with little fuss, but great deliberation and care. In two separate essays, Saunders has written about “Imaginary Beasts of Africa”—suggesting a welcome change from fantasy’s usual dragons, unicorns, so on and so forth, significant of the genre’s purported openness.
US MIGHT BE GIANTS
As he points out in another essay, “Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction,” representation is crucial in offering “an escape route into the imagination.” Most of the rest of what Saunders discusses in this piece goes into the contributions of newer Afrodiasporic authors of speculative fiction, and relevant content produced by authors of all backgrounds. Remarking on his own work only to say that it didn’t find a large enough readership to stay in print, he closes with an admonition to his fellow Black folk to “sing our songs under strange stars.” Isn’t it true, though, that someone needs to get the choir going?
At this point, twenty years along from the essay’s appearance in Dark Matter I (an anthology I’ll review in a future essay), the number of significant African-descended SFFH authors has grown explosively. Entire wikis are devoted to naming us. Also, and possibly not coincidentally, all four Imaro novels have recently been republished. Night Shade Books reprinted the first in 2006, including a new story/chapter, “The Afua.” This new episode replaced the original volume’s “Slaves of the Giant-Kings,” which Saunders deemed triggering in content in the wake of the Rwanda genocides. Night Shade also reprinted the second book in the Imaro epic, The Quest for Cush, in 2008. The third volume, The Trail of Bohu, appeared in a revised edition from Sword and Soul Media in 2009, and the fourth and final volume, The Naama War, appeared from the same publisher the same year.
WHAT’S GOIN ON AND ON
Charles R. Saunders is still living, which is one good reason for us to support him and his intensely insightful, deeply meaningful work—we readers can respond directly to his greatness and encourage more of it. We can and we should, and we’ll get results. Because yes, Saunders is still writing, editing, and influencing the field. In 2018 he published yet another new Imaro story, “Amudu’s Bargain,” in the anthology The Mighty Warriors. During the last decade he has also co-edited two anthologies (Griots and its sequel, Griots: Sisters of the Spear), as well as publishing a novel, Abengoni, and a short story collection, Nyumbani Tales. Very much a force to be reckoned with, Saunders, like his heroic creation Imaro, overcomes immense obstacles to exhibit to his admirers his inborn power: the power of story.
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, and the editor of the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.