An interview with Dilman Dila

dilman-portrait
Dilman Dila

This interview first appeared in Vector 289.

When and why did you begin writing speculative fiction and where did you get your inspirations?

I’m not sure when exactly I started writing speculative fiction. I think I’ve always loved the genre. When I was about twelve, I thought about writing a story with a character inspired by ninjas. At that time, a certain type of shoe had become popular in my small town, Tororo. They called it North Star (I think), and it was fashioned like a boot made of cloth. It was a cheap shoe, maybe a pirated brand, but seeing something that looked like a ninja costume made me think about a ninja in the town. I did not get down to writing it. I only played with the idea, but every time I walked in the streets I saw my ninja running on the rusty iron-sheet roofs.

I wrote my first speculative story in my early twenties. At that time, speculative fiction from African writers was frowned upon. Writers like Amos Tutuola did not get as much attention as Chinua Achebe because the latter wrote ‘realistic’ stories, often those that could be taken as a social or political commentary. It became expected of African writer to tell stories that were anthropological in nature. Even today, some blurbs do not say what the story is, but rather tell how a book talks about this African city or that African culture or the other African country. Though the first stories I published were ‘realistic’, the pull to the fantastic was very strong, and elements of it kept slipping in. Like A Killing in the Sun, which I wrote sometime in 2001 or 2002. I wanted it to be a mundane story about uncontrollable soldiers, something that had scourged the country for decades, but it turned out to be a ghost story. Finding a home for these stories was very difficult, and it left me frustrated and hopeless.

Then I discovered the internet and its plethora of ezines willing to publish spec-fic, and that’s when I ditched everything my education had taught me about what it means to be an African writer.

I can’t say why I write speculative fiction. Maybe because I have an ‘overactive imagination.’ My brain is always cooking up fantastical things and creating magical backstories to every mundane thing I see. I love to daydream. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. Today, I love to spend hours in my bed, doing nothing, just staring at the ceiling and dreaming up fantastical worlds. When I was a little boy, I did not have this luxury. People would see me sitting idle somewhere and they would chase me to go and find other children to play with. Being a recluse was frowned upon, staying alone for long hours was frowned upon. Yet I loved to do it, to wander away to magical lands, and so I would look for any place that gave me absolute privacy to daydream. The bathroom was one such place, the only one I remember spending a lot of time in. It was a room at the back of the courtyard, and we shared it with four other families. Sometimes there was a long queue to use it. I avoided bathing in the evenings, when the queue would be long, and preferred afternoons. Whenever anyone saw me go into the bathroom, they would say, “Let me bathe first. If you go in, you won’t come out.” It was not a nice place. It had a broken water heater, and the window shutters were wooden, and the taps were not working, and the floor was a little bit slimy with dirt, but I loved it for the privacy it gave me to daydream, and I think allowing my brain to wander away in that bathroom was training ground for me to write speculative fiction.

Why do you think speculative fictions from Africa and the African diaspora have become more popular in recent times?

There’s been a push for diversity in fiction and in films. We all know the majority of readers are people of color, yet the majority of speculative fiction works are by white people, and so people wanted to see themselves in these artworks.

But I think many Africans are simply finding the stories they love to read in written form, and stories that are about them. Most people still enjoy oral stories, and these are often fantastical in nature. Not in the classic way of sitting around the fire and telling folk tales, but some of these stories end up in newspapers, with headlines like ‘Witchdoctor sues Parliament Speaker for failure to pay him.’ (This is a recent case, of a traditional healer who claimed the speaker of the Ugandan parliament owed her success to him, and she did not pay him for the charms he gave her to succeed). I think people on the continent are beginning to appreciate reading these kinds of things in good fiction, not just in hearsays.

You are both a writer and filmmaker — how do these creative processes feed into each other?

I am more than just a writer and filmmaker. With an overactive imagination, there’s always a story lurking in my subconscious, and if I stick to one media I wouldn’t cope. I’ve written radio plays, stage plays, poetry, and recently I went into digital arts and fell in love with it at once. I love telling stories and it does not make sense to stick to one format. Whether it’s a book, or a poem, or digital art, the uniting factor is story, and I believe I’m a storyteller.

From the idea stage, I know whether a story will be prose, or film, or radio play. Only recently have I started to think of multi-platform stories, like the one in AfroSF v3, “Safari Nyota,” which I want to be prose, a web series, a video game, and a graphic novel, each platform with a slightly different storyline.

I started as a writer, and it taught me a lot about developing characters, for with prose, you have a lot of freedom to give the reader a character’s backstory. Writing radio plays and stage plays helped me master dialog. When I went into film, I learned a lot about plotting, since films are time-bound. This kind of made my prose writing sparser than it used to be, and led me to develop a visual style. As I go more into digital arts, I’m beginning to pay a lot of attention to details. There are things I used to ignore in my writing, especially when describing characters, but now, when making a piece of digital art, I have to think about the minute details, and I find myself thinking about this when writing, and I believe it will help me grow.

Can you tell us more about your film Her Broken Shadow — what themes or messages were you most keen to convey?

Her Broken Shadow was a very personal project. Anyone who has gone through a breakup in their thirties will, for a moment, worry about growing old alone. There are a lot of lonely people out there, and social media and urbanization make loneliness an epidemic. I read a story about a socialite in the UK, who died and no one noticed until three years later, when someone found her in a living room. That was the immediate spark of this film.

As a full time writer, being alone is part of the job, yet society does not expect us to be alone. It wants us to socialize, to get married, to have children, to have friends, but writing is about sitting alone for hours. It’s the ultimate symbol of loneliness, and that is why I made the main character a writer. I did borrow a lot from my own life, as I’ve had a lot of philosophical questions. The ancient puzzle: are we just characters in a story? A disability made my childhood a nightmare. I used to ask myself, “Why me?” Anyone going through tough times will ask that question. As a Christian child, I believed God planned the world, along with my life, and that made me really angry with him. One reason I stopped being a Christian. If this God is really full of love, why does he pick some people to suffer while he blesses others with happiness? That question still bugs me, and in Her Broken Shadow, I was trying to get rid of it.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a short film, Akoota, themed around gene-drive technology and indigenous knowledge. I have mixed feelings towards gene-drives. While it could advance the quality of human life, and wipe out sickness, it can be weaponised, and it raises a lot of questions, like eugenics in a racially divided world, corporate ownership of biological organisms in a system that values monetary profit over humanity and life; it makes me wonder how poor and vulnerable communities will survive in a world where every crop they plant, or every insect that flies around their faces, is owned and controlled by someone else. These worries feed into Akoota.

I’m also working on an immersive documentary story. I want to create an installation where, when someone walks into a room, they see a series of images on the wall, maybe photographs, maybe digital images, but most likely alternate reality images, and each, through an app, triggers off a video, or a text, or an audio. At the end of the day, all these images will tell a non-linear story about something. Currently, it’s maternal health in Uganda, and I’ve made six images, but the idea is still very much in development and I’m still exploring the technologies that I can use to create it.

Does language play an important role in your work?

Yes. In most of the stories I write, the characters are not talking in English. However, I can only write fluently in English, because of the education system, and sometimes it is very difficult to convey exactly what the character is saying. For example, in many Ugandan languages, the greeting is something like “well done,” which could mean, “thanks for doing a good job,” or “you’ve worked hard.” When I put it in English, it feels like Person A is thanking Person B for work that Person B did for Person A, yet Person A is simply thanking Person B for work that Person B did for themself. In English, saying a character said “hello” does not convey the true meaning of the greeting.

With film, I previously used English because it is the national language in Uganda, and there is no unifying local language, as there is Kiswahili in Kenya or Tanzania. To make a film in a local language, I have to cast actors based on what they speak, rather than how they perform. But then, having actors speak English has a lot of disadvantages because some actors are not as comfortable with the language as they are with their mother tongues, and so this noticeably affects their performance.

With the recent short film, Akoota, I used Acholi. I had to go out of Kampala city to find actors. In Kampala, it is difficult to find two actors who speak the same local language fluently. In Gulu, I did not have to worry about this, for most actors would speak Acholi. I was rewarded immensely. I think they gave me good performances, though they were inexperienced, because they were using their language.

There however was a push against using Acholi. The lead actress, on reading the script, told me, ‘This story is too good for Acholi.’ It is a science fiction set in the future, and she could not imagine it happening, mostly because of how she has been conditioned to think about herself, and her language.

Akoota_IMG_7856

Your fictions merge narratives from local sources with those technologies that arrive from the West, often exploring the conflict. Do you think that fiction can play a role in reconciling various types of knowledge? Or is the opposite more important to you — bringing into sharp focus the risks of importing science and technology into Africa?

The former is what I go for. Fiction can play a great role in advancing different types of knowledge, in making people aware that science and technology does not all come from one part of the world. Because of colonialism, Africa as a whole suffers from a serious lack of confidence, and this contributes to poverty and dependence. Africans look at their own sciences and think of it as primitive, and backward, and evil. No country can ‘develop’ if they do not see science and technology in their own past.

Championing various types of knowledge does not mean turning your back to science and technology, rather, it is about finding similarities in all knowledge systems. Say mathematics, we all think it comes from Middle East/Europe, and yet many knowledge systems in Africa have highly advanced mathematical principles and theories.

What I see as a risk is the continued importation of science and technology without regard of local knowledge systems. For example, gene-drive technology is being championed as the best option to eradicate malaria, by rewriting the gene of the anopheles, and yet many communities have ways of controlling mosquitoes. In Karamoja, they use a plant called lothiru to keep a house free of mosquitoes all night. If the governments was to see science in this local method, it would have promoted ways of using lothiru on a large scale, maybe to make mosquito-repellant paint, or candles, or something, but it ignores such knowledge and instead looks outside for solutions. That is the risk I see.

Your work highlights traditional African science and technology. Do you see it as a mission to remind people of the scientific African heritage and the alternative futures based on local innovations rather than imported ones?

I’m not sure it’s a mission. I just want to imagine what it would have been like had colonialism not happened. Some of the worlds I build have Europeans and Africans interacting without violence, learning from each other, respecting each other’s cultures… I’m yet to write a story based on this world, though.

I don’t think local innovations can work as islands separated from imported ones. I see a merging of the various knowledge systems, which is always how humans have learned and prospered from the beginning of time. Ron Eglash, a respected mathematician, has said that the binary code we use in digital machines today has its roots in an African divination system, and he traces this back a thousand years, how the divination system moved from West Africa to Europe and how it evolved through the ages to present day binary code. This kind of sharing stopped when colonialism and racism sprung up in Europe, and now the problem we have is that one knowledge system (European) came in and replaced another knowledge system (African), and this is something I aim at highlighting in my stories, that African peoples will only develop if they start looking within themselves for solutions to their problems, some solutions which they have had all along but ignore because they think it is backward and inferior to imported ones.

Do you think your work reflects specific aspects of a conversation about science and technology in Africa, if so which?

Yes, and mostly, it has something to do with medicine and health care. This is one aspect of science and technology in Africa that survived colonialism and still thrives today. The installation I mentioned earlier draws inspiration from a report by a colonialist doctor, Felkin, who visited parts of Uganda in the late 1800s, and witnessed traditional healers carrying out a caesarean operation. They seemed to be doing it at ease, and had done it for a while, yet their European counterparts had not yet mastered the science. However, Felkin primitivised what he saw, to fit the European view of savage Africa. I read between the lines, and I see that these traditional healers had an expert understanding of the human anatomy, that they could stitch up the mother and within two weeks she would have no signs of the operation, and I see that it must have taken them a long time to learn and master this skill. These are some of the things I try to talk about in my works.

What is it about other speculative novels and stories from Africa besides your own that you find exciting?

Mostly, I find the short stories more interesting, especially horrors. I love reading about monsters and creatures other than vampires and werewolves and dragons. Many writers are talking about the creatures from their neighborhoods and this is pleasing to read. I loved this about the anthologies, African Monsters, edited by Margret Helgadottir, and A World of Horror edited by Eric J. Guignard. I contributed to both these anthologies, but I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of creatures I encountered.

In science fiction, there is a tendency to merge spirituality and science, and this also is great because most science fiction from the West does not have magic, and yet the reality in Africa is that spirits exists besides technology. Some healers have Twitter accounts and do divination over tweets. I’ve been to a few shrines where I saw laptops and a TV beside cowrie shells and skins. I saw one healer using parts of a cellphone in her divination, along with coins, and she explained that the spirits tell her whatever she has to use. This merging blurring of lines between fantasy and science fiction gets me real excited.

Could you recommend us some reading from other authors?

I loved Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi. It was a great read, fast paced, and I think he built up his characters really well. I did not like the ending, which I thought was too sudden, maybe as he prepares for a sequel, and it felt a little bit anticlimactic, but I’m eager to read more from him.


Dilman Dila
is the author of a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, A Killing in the Sun. He has been listed in several prestigious prizes, including the Gerald Kraak Award (2016), BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition (2014), and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2013). His films include What Happened in Room 13 (2007), which has attracted over six million views on Youtube, and The Felistas Fable (2013), nominated for Best First Feature at Africa Movie Academy Awards (2014), and winner of four major awards at Uganda Film Festival (2014). His second feature film is Her Broken Shadow (2017), a sci-fi set in a futuristic Africa. More of his life and works are at dilmandila.com.

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