The Speculative Turn in African Literature

By Michelle Louise Clark

The following academic essay by Michelle Louise Clark is the guest editorial to Vector 289, a special themed issue on African and Afrodiasporic SF. SF from Africa faces contradictory challenges. It must fight on the one hand to be read as SF — and not just something SF-adjacent — to be given full use of the genre’s rich megatext of tropes and conventions. On the other hand, it must fight to be permitted to transform the traditional conventions of the genre, to make SF do new and different things. It must also often contest with the preconceived and reductive notions of Africa nurtured within the Western imagination. This editorial offers a broad and necessarily overview of African and Afrodiasporic SF, emphasising speculative Anglophone texts from sub-Saharan Africa. 


“Over the last two decades, Achimota City’s fast new geography had devoured Accra almost completely while at the same time most of the rest of the country had inexplicably vanished, land and all. Thus, by the year 2020 Achimota was a truncated city bursting to survive and to find the rest of its country soon. The three elders of government, each with a beard the shape of X, Y or Z, had shepherded the city over this deep crisis, directing history as if it were mad traffic. They had rules which helped to form the new ways that the century demanded. Fruit was law: every street had to have dwarf banana trees in belts and lines, buckled with close groups of any other fruit trees, so many guavas and oranges. There was fruit in the toilets, fruit in the halls, and fruit in the aeroplanes, so that you could eat the city.”

Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992), p.3.

Realism and Resistance

golden cockroach, a Grandmother Bomb, elders with beards shaped like letters of the alphabet, and a carrot millionaire are just a few of the eccentric characters which fill the pages of Kojo Laing’s surreal classic of African SF, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992). Laing’s novel is set in the distant future of 2020, at a time when the Ghanaian city of Achimota is locked in the Second War of Existence, battling Europe and South Africa, which have become a cyberworld where physical existence is deemed unnecessary. These virtual superpowers have decided that the ‘Third World’ is no longer relevant to their modernity, having been used as a toxic dumping ground, a place for germ warfare and genetic engineering and nuclear experiments. The city Achimota fights to recover the rest of its disappearing country, and to exist independently of Europe’s rhetoric and portrayal of it as primitive, reasserting its own worth and agency in the face of neocolonial domination.

The book has been praised as vivid and imaginative, but also characterised as unusual, complicated, and unclassifiable (Ryman, 2017; Klein, 2007; Ngaboh-Smart, 1997; Wright, 1996). T.R. Klein (2007) describes Laing’s work concisely: “Once the initially introduced ‘innocent’ reader decides against prematurely tossing away Laing’s difficult books and is willing to accept an encounter with cartoon-like images, allegories, and projections rather than full-fledged, realistic characters, s/he will be rewarded with the experience of a unique conjunction between technological and aesthetic modernity in African literature” (55).

It’s unfortunate that Laing’s work has so often been overlooked and underappreciated, as it has plenty to contribute to debates surrounding genre and ‘authenticity’ within African literature. He at once defies generic pigeonholing and challenges established norms of the Anglo-African literary canon. His unique prose “confidently defies simple reduction to a single larger theory, agenda or narrative” (Klein, 2007: 38), with its usage of words and phrases from across languages including English, Ga, Haussa, and Italian. He also addresses issues of science and technology before many Ghanaian authors had even begun to move away from nationalist rhetoric of post-independence Ghana (Klein, 2007).

In terms of genre, Laing’s work has been variously described as postmodern, utopian, or magical realism. Ngaboh-Smart (1997) identifies Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars as using “conventional science fictional motifs” to explore the effects of science and technology on humanity, and mentions the inclusion of “galactic travels” and “adventure.” This hesitancy and ambiguity is not uncommon in discussions of speculative fictions from Africa. Mark Bould (2015) suggests that one can come across science fiction from Africa mentioned by critical journals that refuse to use the term, or “would at least prefer not to, deploying instead a de-science-fictionalized discourse of utopia and dystopia, and labelling anything irreal as some kind of postcolonial magic realism or avant-gardist experimentalism”(13).

So SF from Africa faces contradictory challenges. It must fight on the one hand to be read as SF — and not just something SF-adjacent — to be given full use of the genre’s rich megatext of tropes and conventions. On the other hand, it must fight to be permitted to transform the traditional conventions of the genre, to make SF do new and different things. It must also often contest with the preconceived and reductive notions of Africa nurtured within the Western imagination. Jennifer Wenzel (2006) explains that Western readers who encounter ‘strange’ literatures from elsewhere often impose a binary between ”the West and the rest,” and between “a singular European modernity and multifarious worldviews, variously described as pre-modern, prescientific, pre-enlightenment, non-Western, traditional, or indigenous” (456). New readings of classic works such as Laing’s, alongside emerging work from Africa, are paving the way to a more nuanced map of Africa’s diverse speculative literature. This issue of Vector explores varying definitions, and showcases just a few examples from Africa and its diaspora across various mediums: from Nick Wood’s exploration of the South Africa’s comics scene and Joan Grandjean’s research into the Arab-futurist art of Mounir Ayache, to Jonathan Hay’s study of Afrofuturism in hip hop and its political aesthetics built on science fiction tropes of aliens and spaceships. Like artists everywhere, creators of African SF aren’t simply imagining worlds to escape to, but also exploring contemporary and historical reality through the lens of fiction. Gemma Field’s ecocritical reading of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon acknowledges the slow violence of the oil industry in Nigeria. Masimba Musodza’s article opens up important questions about genre, language, and elitism within the African SF genre, through his experiences in writing and publishing his works in ChiShona. Definitions of Africanfuturisms and Afrofuturisms collide and converse in articles from Kate Harlin and Päivi Väätänen. Interviews with award-winning authors Dilman Dila and Wole Talabi give insights into the current movements within African SF directly from the creators’ perspectives.

Defining African Science Fiction

The definition of genres within African literatures which have irrealist, speculative or science fiction modes is a hotly debated issue. Texts are often labelled as ‘unclassifiable’ or ambiguous in genre. Uncritically reading such literature through the lens of wholly Western genre definitions risks ‘colonial appropriation’ (Bould, 2014a; Eshun, 2016; Ryman, 2017). There is a risk of flattening diversity, and creating a ‘monolithic image’ of African literature (Bould, 2015). What this issue aims to do is celebrate difference, not only the differences in how we define terms such as ‘Afrofuturism’ or ‘African SF,’ but also in the variety of styles, forms, and genres that such terms can cover. For my part, I would like to invoke the critic Mark Bould in my approach to definitions: I’m not going to attempt to “nail down a rigid schema,” but to “keep matters fluid, relationships open, and potentials in play, and to recognize the specific conjunctural value of [African SF] as a temporary, flexible, non-monolithic, and, above all, strategic identity” (Bould 2015: 11). In other words, I’m not interested in creating a pigeonhole called ‘African SF’ and deciding once and for all what belongs in there. Nor am I interested in giving a definitive or representative account of something as vast and diverse as African SF. Rather, the strategic identity I’m imagining here is a diverse and inclusive version of African SF, one whose borders are porous and provisional, and one that is bound to morph and mutate in the future.

African SF can be found across Afrophone languages (see work by Alena Rettová), but Anglophone and Francophone literatures still dominate both critical discourse and publishing markets. This is partly because English and French are the lingua francas across regions, but it’s mainly down to publishing houses and platforms only interested in works in European languages, making it hard for African authors to get themselves published, and even harder for them to break through to world markets, unless they write in these languages. One big exception to this rule is the renowned Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose realist and irrealist work alike is published in Gikuyu and then translated to other languages. We can hope that as African SF in English and French gain more attention, Afrophone texts will also become more visible.

This issue of Vector pays particular attention to African literatures in terms of the relationship between genre, technology, and science. This could easily encompass such works that could also be defined as horror, alternative history, fantasy, magical realism, Afrofuturist or Africanfuturist. Their ‘science fiction’ elements could explore imaginative, uncanny, and futuristic technologies, or break down binaries of tradition and modernity, magic and science.

This issue discusses works by African authors while recognising that the category of ‘African author’ can also be problematic. In this context I would like to refer to the African Speculative Fiction Society’s (2016) definition, where the term African includes:

  • citizens of African countries,
  • people born on the continent and raised there for substantial periods of time,
  • citizens or people born on the continent who live abroad,
  • people who have at least one African parent,
  • Africans without papers, and
  • some migrants to African countries.

In fact, we can be even more inclusive than this. Helon Habila, in his keynote speech at the African Literatures Association conference in May 2018, stated that African literatures should be defined as we would imagine a tree. Its roots remain in the continent, but its branches also stretch elsewhere. This approach then also includes works from the broader African diaspora: not only authors who have been born in Africa and now live abroad, but also those who were born elsewhere but have African heritage. For example, Mounir Ayache’s father left Morocco for France as a student — Ayache has roots in North Africa but also in France and in a culture that defies national or geographical boundaries. Considering Ayache as an African artist captures only a transect of a complex identity, yet it offers insight into a larger cultural phenomenon called Arab-futurism, which is itself transcontinental, encompassing both North Africa and the Middle East.

Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism

Moving from transcontinental to specifically transatlantic, let’s say a word or two about Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is an aesthetic exploring the intersections of African-diasporic cultures with science, technology, and speculative fiction. Although the term Afrofuturism was coined by Mark Dery in his essay ‘Black to the Future,’ (1994). Afrofuturism itself began earlier, particularly in avant-garde African American culture from the 1950s onwards. Works such as Sun Ra’s albums Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra Visits Planet Earth, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, and Space is the Place, and his film Space is the Place, used SF imagery and concepts to explore the alienation of the Black subject, and to satirise the systemic racism of US society (and Earth society). Sun Ra’s use of alterity and mythmaking is exemplified in much of his work, but none more than his film Space is the Place, where he asks, “It’s after the end of the world! Don’t you know that yet?” — such deliberate estrangements from history, together with Sun Ra’s claim to have come from Saturn (bringing the futuristic technology of his music), are part of a project to reclaim the future for Black people. If we specifically contextualise Afrofuturism as materialising at a time when the Jim Crow laws and their legacy were shaping the lived realities of African Americans, and when the civil rights movement had been dealt a massive blow by the assassination of Martin Luther King, then Afrofuturism could be seen as a reaction to the destruction of a future that harboured hope (Reed, 2014). As the information age dawned, and white American men took it upon themselves to walk on the Moon on behalf of all humanity, narratives of technological and economic progress were spreading which all too often excluded African Americans. As well as musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic — who influenced later generations of Afrofuturist musicians such as Erykah Badu, Kool Keith, Missy Elliott, and Janelle Monáe — the literary giants Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delaney are important influences on Afrofuturism, although their status as Afrofuturist writers is a topic of debate. The forthcoming TV adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu (Rafiki, Pumzi) is likely to anchor Octavia Butler in an expanding Afrofuturist universe.

The release of the Black Panther (2018) film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen a rise in the use of the term within popular culture. However Professor John Jennings (who was part of a vanguard of cultural scholars studying Afrofuturism over a decade before Black Panther) cautions against capturing all Black speculative culture under the umbrella of Afrofuturism. In particular, he prefers the term ‘Ethno-gothic’ be applied to horror, supernatural, and gothic works which portray issues around racialised trauma and injustices. This genre builds upon the idea that ‘Black experience’ is haunted by historical violences, and includes modern films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), but stretches as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s, insofar as these movements had to create alternative spaces in which to exist and resist. Jenning compares for example the thriving Black business district of Greenwood in Tulsa during the early 20th Century to fictional Wakanda (Film Sense, 2019). Besides Afrofuturism and Ethno-gothic, relevant labels include African Futurism or Africanfuturism, Black Speculative Arts Movement, Black Quantum Futurism, Afrofuturismo, Afrofuturista, Astro-Blackness, and Afro-Surrealism. Although these terms have nuanced agendas, they overlap in using the speculative to challenge contentious issues around Black futurity.

More recent discourse around Afrofuturism has also asked how the experiences of Afrofuturism in the Americas can be compared to comparable aesthetics from the African continent. While some are happy to use Afrofuturism as an umbrella term, others like Nnedi Okorafor are careful to distinguish their writing from Afrofuturism. Nnedi Okorafor has been classed as both an African writer and as an African American author. Born in the USA to Nigerian parents, and having spent much of her childhood on both sides of the Atlantic, Okorafor defines her “flavor of sci-fi” as “evenly Naijamerican” (Okorafor, 2015a). Although she will put up with Afrofuturism as a label for her works, she regards it as overly rooted African American tradition, and prefers the term ‘Africanfuturism.’.

Cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun (2003; 2016) argues that there are many literatures from the African continent which should be redefined as relating to the Afrofuturist agenda, creating a dialogue between African-American texts and literatures from the continent. He contends that Afrofuturism has always been present in African literatures, but has gone unnoticed in favour of attributing texts to the magical realist tradition. A similar point might be made about African SF, which is often framed as new and emerging, or as originating in the African reinterpretation of Western literary traditions. However “tropes of extraterrestrial life, cosmology, and space travel” have long been present in many strains of African storytelling (Omelsky, 2013), pre-dating the work of Europeans such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells. Furthermore, African SF “may be a window into an emerging African literary genre, but more importantly, it forces us to reimagine what we know and may not know about the histories, futures, and cultures of the continent” (Omelsky, 2013).

Realism and Resistance: Speculative Fiction

In The Rise of the African Novel (2018), Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ (novelist, poet, activist, a professor at Cornell, and a son of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o) traces what he calls a ‘narrowing’ of African literature in terms of aesthetics, identities, and languages back to the influence of the Makerere generation of writers, where works of authors such as Chinua Achebe have been privileged and held up as definitive exemplars of the African literary tradition. This is namely then Anglophone novels of a realist nature. Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ challenges this image of African literature, attending especially to language, but also to the aesthetic tradition of realism within the African novel, where a ‘singular’ African identity is created. Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ is not the only writer to have been vocal about this concern. The Caine Prize has been widely criticized for giving prizes to only one type of author and aesthetic, often cited as ‘poverty porn.’ Even writers who themselves have won the prize, such as Binyavanga Wainaina, have offered criticism. Wainaina, was one of the greatest contemporary writers and activists, and his affinity to science fiction is clearly recognised in the recent obituary in Strange Horizons by Geoff Ryman (2019). In the satirical essay, published by Granta, ‘How to Write About Africa’ (2006) that went viral, Wainaina writes:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also warns of ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ in her 2009 TED talk, where she examines the problematic nature of a single narrative, especially of the Conradian kind, where Africa is seen as ‘primitive’ and in a purely pessimistic light.

The Rise of the African Novel coincides, however, with a boom in speculative works from Africa and the African diaspora, making Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s fear of a single aesthetic seem, if not obsolete, then at least a bit overstated. These writers still have high hurdles to overcome, as publishing platforms and literary infrastructure are limited. Africa is a continent of at least 55 countries and 1.2 billion people — compare Europe’s 44 countries and population of 740 million — but even its largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, have nothing like the financial resources of the UK, and this is reflected in the relative disparity in the number of literary publications, funding for cultural institutions, MFA programs and writers’ residencies, literary events, grants, schemes, and all the other kinds of support that make literary careers just about possible.

Further, literary awards had seldom been given to authors of speculative works. In 2018 the winner of the Caine Prize was ‘Fanta Blackcurrent,’ a short story by Kenyan author Makena Onjerika, about a street child of Nairobi. Nigerian writer Wole Talabi — interviewed in this issue — was also on the Caine shortlist, and won the inaugural ROSL Readers’ Award for his metafictional piece ‘Wednesday’s Child.’ This new partnership with the Caine Prize is chosen by a wider audience, and it is perhaps telling in that there is an appetite for and appreciation of works of a surreal or irrealist nature. The most recent, 2019, Caine Prize went to Lesley Nneka Arimah’s sf short story ‘Skinned’,  but previously the only outright speculative work to win the Caine Prize has been Henrietta Rose Innes’ science fiction short story ‘Poison’ in 2008, although speculative stories from Lesley Arimah, Addul Adan, Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, and Chikodili Emelumadu, and others have been shortlisted. Partly to address this issue, in 2016 African writers formed the African Speculative Fiction Society (ASFS), and in 2017 ASFS launched its own annual Nommo Awards in four categories: novel, novella, short story and comic or graphic novel. Lesley Arimah’s story ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ that was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2017 went on to win the Nommo prize in the same year.

The lack of platforms for speculative fiction is slowly changing too, especially with the launch of online venues such as Chimurenga (launched 2002), The Kalahari Review (launched 2012), Omenana (launched 2014), and Jalada (launched in 2014, with a special on Afrofuture(s) in 2015). In 2017, The Manchester Review published twenty-one stories by African speculative writers in their 18th Issue entitled 21 Today: The Rise of African Speculative Fiction. In the same year weekly speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons also launched Geoff Ryman’s (2017a) series 100 African Writers of SFF, which explores “the recent explosion of speculative fiction across the African continent,” and includes interviews from authors across Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria so far.

A number of short story collections have also emerged in print, including Ivor W. Hartmann’s three edited volumes of Afro SF (2012, 2015, & 2018). Lagos 2060 (2013) edited by Ayodele Arigbabu imagines Lagos a century after the country’s independence. 2015 gave us African Monsters (ed. Margret Helgadottir and Jo Thomas), Imagine Africa 500 (ed. Billy Kahora), and Terra Incognita (ed. Nerine Dorman). In the UK, a number of smaller, alternative publishing houses have published works by African speculative authors. For example, Jacaranda Books has published works by Nikhil Singh and Irenosen Okojie, whilst Rosarium published Tade Thomspon’s debut novel Making Wolf (2015). Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy, set in Nigeria, the first installment of which was published by indie press Apex, has now been picked up by Orbit. Thompson’s work has received much acclaim: winning the Nommo awards in 2017 and 2018, he was also nominated for the Kitschie Award for Best Novel of 2018, was a John W. Campbell Award finalist in 2017, and a BSFA finalist this year. In July, Rosewater won The Arthur C. Clarke Award (2019). Although many authors are still struggling to get to the print market, you can now find a wealth of works in almost every book store in London by authors including Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, and Henrietta Rose Innes, to name but a few.

Within the festival circuit there is a presence of African speculative fiction if you know where to look, although realist texts still dominate. The 2018 Nigerian Aké festival had an emphasis on speculative fiction, once again showing its rising popularity on the literary scene, with its theme ‘Fantastical Futures.’ It must also be considered that, with the release of Marvel’s critically acclaimed and commercially triumphant Black Panther (2018), the rise of mainstream interest in Afrofuturism will also account for generating renewed interest in the field of speculative works by African creatives as well as by African-American and wider diasporas. Nnedi Okorafor has become world-renowned for her fiction, and writing of the Black Panther comics, having taken over from Ta-Nehisi Coates. With George R.R. Martin producing a HBO TV series of her award winning Who Fears Death (2010), African SF will have a share of the limelight for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, although African SF is still somewhat at the margins of literary circles, it is becoming ever more visible, going from strength to strength.

Although African SF is now on the rise, and has been for the last twenty years at least (Bould, 2014), it can be argued that there have always been science-fictional, speculative, and irrealist elements present in African literatures. Veit-Wild (2005) writes that in particular since the 1980s, “Writers started to search for new modes of expressing the grotesque irrationality of power, developing narrative perspectives and devices that include elements of the surreal” (228). However, it must also be noted that the work of Amos Tutuola, dating back to the 1950s, is one of the first Anglophone authors to ‘rupture’ traditional aesthetics. Although often described as leaning heavily on orature and tradition, his television-handed ghosts, palm wine, monsters, spirits, airplanes, photography, and modern ghost cities of afterlife bring West Africa into conversation with colonial modernity, commodities and experiences of world systems (Omelsky, 2018). Tutuola’s and Ben Okri’s works are lauded as “petro-magical fictions” which trace world ecologies of oil, technology, violence and environmental degradation (Wenzel, 2014). Kojo Laing defies traditional genre categorizations, with works such as Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars (1992) and Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters (2012) exploring neocolonial themes as wide as space travel and cyber warfare.

We must also mention here J.M. Coetzee and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Both have been celebrated as authors of highbrow literary fiction, and both have moved away from traditional realism, disillusioned with its ability to comment on the structures of power present in their respective societies. Although they have different stylistic approaches, they are brought together by their commentary on ‘traditional’ realism of the novel. Each critiques realism from a differing standpoint, but both contribute to discussions on postcolonialism in their use of subversive elements of irrealism, breaking away from traditional realist conventions of the novel.

Shaw (1999: 49) defines realism as seeking “to create an imagined world that functions using the same referential materials and acting according to the same laws as our own.” However, some critical accounts of realism point out that the world it imagines is not some kind of perfect, objective reflection of the world we live in. Rather, it is a specific, self-reinforcing literary tradition, filled with its own quirks and curiosities, which we grow accustomed to and may accept as ‘natural.’ Realism’s philosophical basis is the “Cartesian tradition of basing epistemological speculation on the fiction of the single isolated observer” (Watt, 1957: 88). In other words, realism has difficulty convincingly representing the fact that we all live in slightly different realities, and that when these contradictory realities encounter and transform each other, we experience something that can perhaps only be really understood as magic. Indeed, Watt (1957) traces the rise of the realism in the novel as parallel to modern, secular, materialist understanding of reality. Both Coetzee and Ngũgĩ call for a shift in how writers (and readers) address realism, especially pertaining to its assumed universalisms.

The socialist and critical realism of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s earlier works — Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1976) and Devil on the Cross (1982) is concerned with the social and political realities of the postcolonial nation. It is Matigari (1989) which marks the author’s ‘exhaustion’ of realism (Gikandi, 2000) and his change in conceptualization of literature and reality (Chakraborty, 2012). Perhaps Ngũgĩ in his move away from traditional realism is offering a solution to the assumed universalities of the mode — attempts to impose a single, definitive point of view on the nature of reality. Moreover, the speculative and fantastical natures of both Matigari (1989) and Wizard of the Crow (2006) allow for a move beyond the fatalism and hopelessness that Ngũgĩ’s previous nationalist literatures struggled to escape from. Like writers such as Tutuola and Okri, Ngũgĩ is a “folkloriser of the modern experience” (Gikandi 2008: 162), but also could be seen as a commentary on how to form new and better realities for the nation, making a strong case for reading their work through the critical discourse of science fiction.

The work of the South African author J.M. Coetzee has been categorized as a type of ‘late modernism’ or postmodernism “which extends and revitalizes modernist practices” (Attridge, 2004:6). Attridge (2004) further contends that Coetzee “develops a mode of writing that allows the attentive reader to live through the pressures and possibilities, and also the limits, of political engagement” (6).

Coetzee’s deployment of non-realist devices and metafictional elements undermines the realist trend of literature in the Apartheid era. The expectation, when Coetzee began to write in the Seventies, was for literature that directly commented on the political landscape of Apartheid South Africa. The value of literature was often judged by its direct engagement with the struggle for change in the country. Anything that was outside this canon, as Coetzee’s writing was, was regarded with suspicion (Attridge, 2004). Attridge explains, “One consistent aspect of Coetzee’s technique as a novelist is to deny the reader any ethical guidance from an authoritative voice or valorizing metalanguage” (7). This generated a split critical reception of Coetzee’s work: for example Dusklands (1974) was on one hand heralded as innovative for its demonstration of the inherent violence of colonist and imperialist systems of the Western World; on the other hand, “Coetzee is condemned for failing to offer a more direct rejection of the colonial violence he represents” (Head, 1997: 29).

Coetzee’s own response to this is evident in his critical and theoretical work. In his essay ‘The Novel Today,’ he writes:

I reiterate […] that history is not reality; that history is a kind of discourse; that a novel is a kind of discourse too, but a different kind of discourse; that, inevitably in our culture, history will, with varying degrees of forcefulness, try to claim primacy, claim to be a master-form of discourse […] The categories of history are not privileged, just as the categories of moral discourse are not privileged. They do not reside in reality: they are a certain construction put upon reality.

(1988: 4).

Coetzee understood realism to be a discourse of power, as it lulls its readers into the sense that it is the true construction of reality, uncritical of how it hides a reality indoctrinated with certain ideological tendencies. He argues that South African writing has been “‘colonized’ by the discourse of history,” which presents itself as a reality (1988). This is echoed in Albie Sachs’s (1990) work, who argues that South African writers had “been trapped in the multiple ghettoes of the apartheid imagination” (19). Coetzee’s work dispels realism as illusion, and treats the novel as a tool for “demythologising history” (Coetzee, 1988). His experimental and anti-historical approach (not a-historical) exposes history as an “ideologically inflected discourse” (Poyner, 2009: 8). Coetzee’s works should then be approached as resistance to types of “truths” or “official discourses of information” (Poyner, 2009; Cornwell, 2011; Lopéz, 2011) perpetuated by the oppressions of state and capitalism. “Coetzee’s metafictions follow from the insight that a postcolonial novel aiming to make a point about the cultural arrogance of the coloniser cannot use realism as the vehicle for its critique without being undermined by its failure to challenge the conventions of the tradition it wishes to call into question” (Lowry, 1999).

By rejecting master narratives, Coetzee’s novels are not at necessarily at odds with South Africa’s realist literary production in its critical narration of Apartheid regimes and colonial violence, but it must be understood his aesthetics lays bare the mediations between truth, reality, history, and literature, all of which are highly politicized (Poyner 2009; Zimbler 2014). Indeed, his prose style is often accused of being “lean, taut, spare, stark and austere” (Zimbler, 2018: 42), but Zimbler (2014) also argues that this technique of brutalism reflects a brutal reality, which Coetzee is aware of as “a violence conceived not simply in terms of individual acts of aggression, but as the basic structure of relations in certain societies and at certain times” (55).

Ngũgĩ and Coetzee have challenged the aesthetic legacy of the Makerere era. The aim here was not to compare or contrast the aesthetics of the writers, but to briefly sketch how they have influenced and created a critical awareness of African realism as a literary tradition. Raymond Williams (2001) calls for a new realism, in the wake of the “insatiable, restless movement of capitalism” (Eldridge & Eldridge, 1994). However, it can be argued that speculative fiction has been addressing uneven structures of power in its approach all along. Whilst Williams (2001) argues “old static realism is merely hardened convention” (590), speculative fiction has already answered his call for “imagined communities” that demonstrate that the reality of the world encompasses “common efforts” and “non local connections” (Eldridge & Eldridge, 1994).

Perhaps as a side-effect of our more networked age, the lines between fact and fiction are more blurred than ever. The Post-Truth era appears to be upon us. Post-Truth is not just the opposite of Truth, or the communication of falsehoods, but also manifests in “silence” (Keane, 2018). Post-Truth politics seeks to hide through distractions, in the ‘bluff and bluster’ of breaking news, fake news, disposable talking points, and alternative facts, the growing inequalities, inconsistencies and instability in our societies. “The communicative performances of the post-truth champions are thus the marginalia of silence: mere foam and waves on its deep waters” (Keane, 2018). One definition of Post-Truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). As Keane (2017) contends, “Truth is persuasion.” In other words, by appealing to public, opinion becomes the Truth. Like Ngũgĩ’s Matigari, we could declare, “The world is turned upside down, but it must be set right again. For I have seen that in our land today lies are decreed to be the truth, and the truth decreed to be a lie” (1989: 137).

In late capitalist modernity, there is the threat that current realities will be obscured and invisible. Literature offers a way of understanding and mapping these realities and “replacing the versions of realism ‘controlled by the bosses’” (Deckard, 2014: 4). Arundhati Roy writes that, “Globalization is like a light which shines brighter and brighter on a few people and the rest are in darkness” (Bunting, 2001). African literature has a long history of resistance and mapping exploitations (Iheka, 2018) and speculative fictions in particular have “the potential to reveal the objects of erasure and contradict the discourses which obfuscate the historical conditions and victims of capitalism” (Deckard, 2014: 4). Wilson (2018) argues that storytelling has a particular role to play in the Post-Truth era, in being able to reveal and navigate multiple ways of thinking and knowing the world. He contends (2018: 21), “Bringing together different epistemologies will lead us towards more nuanced and intelligent policy making.” Further, fiction can help make sense of our messy, uncertain world, helping to make unheard voices heard (Wilson, 2018).

It’s not just about authors, of course. Critics, and discerning readers of all kinds, are important too. Tanzanian writer Euphrase Kezilahabi (1985, cited in Lanfanchi, 2012) has some interesting insights to offer in terms of the role of literary criticism. Kezilahabi understands African literature as a site of encounter between African tradition and the West, where the critic must be ‘bi-focal’ in understanding this encounter without resorting to the rigid binaries so often present in interpretations of texts (Lanfranchi, 2012). Yu Burnett (2015) further suggests that irrealist texts can offer a “speculative postcolonialism” which enables us to think our way out of these “hegemonic, neocolonial dead ends” (138). There is a need to rethink modes of resistance in the postcolonial existence, in all of its complexities. He argues that speculative fiction is “in its unfettering from the limits of realistic representationalism… uniquely well-suited for grappling with current neocolonial reality, where simplistic binaries of colonizer vs. colonized are no longer adequate” (136).

It could be argued that one good thing has come from the Post-Truth era. There has been an epistemological shift, so that the notion of a single, objective reality is much less credible. Instead we can understand the plural nature of Truth. Of course, this plurality can take different forms, some of which empower the marginalised, while others simply lead to further marginalisation. Truth should be interpreted as ‘protecting multiple truths’ (Keane, 2017). Although it is hard to navigate and bring voice to these alternative realities, I believe that one way to do this is through African SF: fiction which so often resists the silencing of peripheries, seeks to create new centres, and looks toward a future where the old binary of centre and periphery can be disrupted forever. It is time then, to embrace this speculative turn in African literature, as part of an aesthetics that could have a much wider reach than the words on a page. How can these fictions interact with the world and what can we learn from them? The articles included in this special issue of Vector embrace the weird and wonderful elements of African SF, and offer us genre-bending insights into alternative and exciting ways of writing the world, as well as relationships with technology and science.


African Speculative Fiction Society (2016) ‘Who Is African’ Available at: [Accessed 21.2.17].

Attridge. D. (2004) J. M. Coetzee & the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bould, M. (2014) ‘African Sf: Introduction’ Paradoxa 25 7-15.

Bould, M. (2014a) ‘From Anti-Colonial Struggle To Neoliberal Immiseration: Mohammed Dib’s Who Remembers The Sea, Sony Labou Tansi’s Life And A Half And Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia’ Paradoxa 25.

Bould, M. (2015) ‘African Science Fiction 101’ SFRA Review 311 11–18.

Bunting, Madeleine (2001). “Dambuster,” Interview with Arundhati Roy, The Guardian Books 28/7/2001 Available at:

Chakraborty, A. (2012) ‘Modes of Resistance in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow’ Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 4(2) 180-188.

Coetzee, J.M (1988) ‘The Novel Today’ Upstream 6(1) 2-5.

Cornwell, G. (2011) ‘J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, and the Inevitability of “Realism”’ Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52 (3) 348-361.

Deckard, S. (2014) Mapping the World-Ecology: Conjectures on World-Ecological Literature. [online] Available at:

Dery, M. (1994) Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture Durham: Duke University Press.

Eldridge, E. & Eldridge, J. (1994) Raymond Williams: Making Connections London: Routledge.

Eshun, K. (2003) ‘Further Considerations of Afrofuturism’ CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (2) 287–302.

Eshun, K. (2016) Continental Afrofutures Lecture One: Laingian Science Fiction [Online Lecture] London: The Showroom. Available at: [Accessed 2.3.17].

Film Sense (2019). Afro-futurism & Ethno-Gothic. [podcast] Film Sense. Available at: [Accessed 12 May 2019].

Gikandi, S. (2000) Ngugi wa Thiongo Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gikandi, S. (2008) ‘The Postcolonial Wizard’ Transition (98), 156-169.

Habila, H. (2018) ‘The Future of African Literature’ Paper present at African Literature Association Annual Conference, Marriott Wardman Park, Washington D.C 24/5/18.

Head, D. (1997) J. M. Coetzee Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Iheka, C. (2018) Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keane, J. (2017). For and Against Truth. In: Festival of Democracy. [online] Sydney: Sydney Democracy Network. Available at: [Accessed 3 Jul. 2018].

Keane, J. (2018). Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth. [online] The Conversation. Available at: [Accessed 26 Jun. 2018].

Klein, T.R. (2007) ‘Kojo Laing and the Cultural Specifics of an African Modernity’ Matatu 35 (1) 37-57.

Laing, K. (1992) Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars London: Heinemann.

Lanfranchi, B. (2012) ‘Daring to be Destructive Euphrase Kezilahabi’s Onto-Criticism’ Swahili Forum 19 72-87.

López, M.J. (2011) Acts of Visitation: The Narrative of J.M. Coetzee New York: Rodolphi.

Lowry, E. (1999) ‘Like a Dog. Review of Disgrace by Coetzee, J. M. and The Lives of Animals by Coetzee, J. M’ London Review of Books 21 (20) 12-14.

Ngaboh–Smart, F. (1997-8) ‘Science and the Re-Presentation of African Identity in Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars’ Connotations 7(1)58–79.

Ngugi, M.W. (2018) The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership. University of Michigan Press.

Okorafor, N. (2015a) ‘Insight into the Lagoon’ Nnedi Wahala Zone Blog Available at:

Omelsky, M (2013) ‘African Science Fiction Makes a Comeback: A Review of AfroSF’ Brittle Paper Available at: [Accessed 15.4.17].

Omelsky, M. (2014) ‘”After the End Times”: Postcrisis African Science Fiction’ The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry (1) 33-49.

Omelsky, M. (2018) ‘The Creaturely Modernism of Amos Tutuola’ Cultural Critique (99) 66-96.

Oxford Dictionaries (2016), Definition of “Post-truth” in English [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jul. 2018].

Poyner, J. (2009) J.M. Coetzee and the Paradox of Postcolonial Authorship Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Reed, A. (2014) African Space Programs: Spaces and Times of the Black Fantastic Souls 16 (3-4) 351-371.

Ryman, G.C. (2017) ‘21 Today: The Rise of Speculative Fiction, year by year’ The Manchester Review Available at: [Accessed 9.11.17].

Ryman, G.C. (2017a) ‘100 African Writers of African SFF’ Strange Horizons Available at: [Accessed 9.11.17].

Ryman, G.C. (2019) ‘One Day This Man Will Get His Just Reward: An Obituary For Binyavanga Wainaina’ Strange Horizons Available at: [Accessed 11.6.19].

Sachs, A. (1990) ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’ In: de Kok, I. & Press, K. Spring is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom Cape Town: Buchu Books.

Shaw, H. E. (1999) Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot London: Cornell University Press.

TEDGlobal (2009) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story Available at: [Accessed 8 Aug. 2016].

Veit-Wild, F. (2005) ‘The Grotesque Body of the Postcolony: Sony Labou Tansi and Dambudzo Marechera Revue de littérature compare 314 (2) 227-239.

Wa Thiong’o, N. (1989) Matigari London, UK: Heinemann.

Wainaina, B. (2006). ‘How to Write About Africa’ Granta, [online] (92). Available at: [Accessed 29/1/2017].

Watt, I. (1957) The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding London: The Hogarth Press.

Wenzel, J. (2006) ‘Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature’ Postcolonial Studies 9(4) 449-464.

Wenzel, J. (2014) ‘Petro-Magic-Realism Revisited: Un-imagining and Re-imagining the Niger Delta’ In: Barrett, R. & Worden, D. Oil Culture Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Williams, R. (2001) The Long Revolution Second Edition. Hertfordshire, UK: Broadview Press.

Wilson, M. (2018) ‘Some thoughts on storytelling, science and dealing with a post-truth world’ Storytelling, Self, Society 12 (2).

Wright, D. (1996) ‘Culture Wars in Cyberspace: A Note on Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars’ International Fiction Review 23 (1 and 2).

Yu Burnett, J. (2015) ‘The Great Change and the Great Book: Nnedi Okorafor’s Postcolonial, Post-Apocalyptic Africa and the Promise of Black Speculative Fiction’ Research in African Literatures 46 (4) 133-150.

Zimbler, J. (2014) J.M Coetzee and the Politics of Style Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michelle Louise Clarke
is a PhD student at SOAS, London. Her research interests centre around Ecocriticism, African Philosophy, and Environmental Ethics. Her work engages with ecocritical discourse within African Speculative Fictions. She is particularly interested in how science fiction, speculative genres and imaginative scenarios can be used to produce very real outcomes for policy implementation and sustainable futures. Her thesis explores how colonial imaginings of wilderness, oceanic and Outer Space frontiers are deconstructed and reimagined within African Literatures. Her editorial is based upon her research in Speculative Anglophone texts from sub-Saharan Africa.

2 thoughts on “The Speculative Turn in African Literature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s