In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey article “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here and here). Since then, Tor.com has published thirty-one in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and a thirty-second essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. In this column I’m looking at Changa’s Safari, a fascinating African-rooted fantasy that’s in a sense a companion to Imaro, the pulp novel covered in this series’ most recent essay.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
In fact, Imaro’s groundbreaking author, Charles Saunders, provides the introduction to Milton Davis’s stellar contribution to the subversive sword-and-soul genre. Similarities between Davis’s protagonist Changa Diop and Saunders’s Imaro are many: Both are strong Black men, both give magic the stink-eye, both journey far from the lands of their birth. Changa, however is not only a fighter—he’s a merchant, a man looking for profit at every turn and in every encounter. And he’s a more-or-less voluntary exile. Yes, he’s escaping trouble at home—trouble in the form of murderous demons raised by a mysterious sorcerer—but he’s also exploring new trade routes and establishing a healthy commercial presence in emerging markets. He’s a practical man, and his main problem with magic is that it’s just not conducive to business.
FIT THE FIRST
Changa Diop first appears to readers at the helm of his dhow Sendibada, a merchant vessel leading his fleet of nine wealth-laden ships to his newly chosen base of operations. Sleek, fast, armed with cannon, and crewed with highly trained sea-going fighters called bahari, Changa’s dhows sail south over the Indian Ocean from Mombasa, Kenya to Sofala in present-day Mozambique. Along with Changa we meet his companions: the Tuareg, a robed and veiled warrior vowed to silence, and Panya, a beautiful Yoruba healer. A chance encounter with a fugitive prince named Zakee ibn Basheer sends them on an unplanned quest for an evil talisman, the infamous Jade Obelisk, whose use by an unscrupulous sorceress threatens their world’s very existence. Changa and his comrades manage to defeat the sorceress, even fending off actual deities, only to embark on yet another adventure: a voyage halfway around the world to the home of their new allies, a visiting embassy of Chinese.
FIT THE SECOND
Again, magicians are Changa’s enemy. In Shanghai and Beijing they belong to a corps known as the fangshi, and they’re the prime movers behind an intricate political plot in which he becomes embroiled. Implored by faithful monks to rescue the Middle Kingdom’s kidnapped emperor, Changa and his companions battle immortal shamans wielding unquenchable fires, which somehow don’t consume them. They face down pirates, Mongol armies, and devil-ridden tigers, too. Ultimately, they prevail.
THE REAL AND THE UNREAL
Though this book and its sequel, Changa’s Safari Volume 2, are undoubtedly fantasies, they’re rooted in historical fact. The ruins of the Great Zimbabwe where the novel’s initial conflict occurs persist to this day. The routes plied by Changa Diop’s dhows are attested in contemporary texts, as is the floating embassy of Admiral Zheng He, inspiration for Milton Davis’s character Zheng San. This non-Eurocentric medieval background is essential to many readers’ enjoyment of the books’ swashbuckling adventure foreground, because it’s much easier to relax into pure and playful pleasure when you don’t have to expend energy suppressing (possibly unintentional) imputations of your culture’s inferiority.
In addition to subverting the dominant narrative about Europe’s supremacy in medieval times by setting his story in other regions, Davis counters it by showing China actively exploring the world rather than passively receiving expeditions headed by Marco Polo and his ilk.
And then there’s the team spirit evinced by Changa’s Safari’s ensemble cast of characters, which is so typical of the African American community and many other non-Western societies, and so atypical of the lone wolf hero of European-derived traditions.
WE ARE FAMILY
Before the book begins, Changa rescues the Tuareg from the same gladiatorial fighting pits he himself has recently escaped. The bond they share is deep, their trust in each other unquestioning, despite possible misunderstandings caused by the Tuareg’s vow of silence. Though born of different parents, in different nations, they are brothers.
Changa’s relationship with the Yoruba woman Panya is also a close one. Sexual tension makes it a bit more difficult to classify as familial, but it’s real, important, essential to the well-being of everyone involved. In Changa’s own words, “Panya belongs to no man. She is a member of my crew.”
Throughout the African diaspora, found kinships characterize our communities. Deliberately uprooted by our enslavers, isolated by them from others of linked lineage, and with the accounts of our complex genealogical connections lost and destroyed, we have come to depend on new-forged families. Families of affinity. Families of purpose, made up of committed participants like those joining Changa Diop’s safari.
LOOK FORWARD TO LOOKING BACK
As well as writing Changa’s Safari and its two sequels, Changa’s Safari Volume Two and Volume Three, Milton J. Davis edits Blackcentric speculative fiction anthologies and publishes work supportive of Afrodiasporic aesthetics—his own work and others, such as the writing of Charles Saunders. With co-conspirator Balogun Ojetade (whose Harriet Tubman fantasy epic I covered a while back), Davis advocates for the joy and originality of sword-and-soul, steamfunk, cyberfunk, rococoa, and as many names as you can come up with for genres arising at the intersection of Blackness and the imagination. Ojetade’s and Davis’s Facebook page, The State of Black Science Fiction, is a continuing revelation of our thoroughly current project: reclaiming the wide-open future, the alternative present, and the disputed glories of the past. We’d love to have you join us.
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.