Wole Talabi: My Favorite African SFF Short Fiction of 2020

By Wole Talabi

This post first appeared here.

2020 started out dangerously for me. A volcano erupted near Manila just as I was flying into the city to transit back to Kuala Lumpur and we all watched with concern as the pilot had to dodge the dust and volcanic ash cloud to get us into the city. Exciting. Or not. We were the last flight to land before the airport was shut down for 3 days for safety so we were stuck there. It was a mess. One could say it was an omen of what was to come because what followed that in quick succession within the first few weeks of the year was political turmoil, an oil price crash, and then the pandemic and all that followed it.

What a difference a year makes.

Despite all that though, some good things did happen and I look forward to 2021 with cautious optimism that things will get better by the end of it.

Although I didn’t have any new stories published in 2020 (I was just far too busy with personal life and work and research and other things) I did sow the seeds of things that could/should pay off in the future, especially for my writing. I signed with the excellent Van Aggellen African Literary Agency and edited a book I’m quite proud of – Africanfuturism: An Anthology with the good folks at Brittlepaper and it includes stories by some excellent authors: Nnedi Okorafor, TL Huchu, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Mame Bougouma Diene, Mazi Nwonwu, and Derek Lubangakene. Its gotten (two!) great reviews from Locus and I personally think it contains some of the best African SF stories of the year. I suppose that makes me eligible for best editor (Short Form) for the Hugo awards and stuff so that’s nice. It is available for free download and you can also read the individual stories online.

Africanfuturism: An Anthology is just one of several places to find excellent African SFF in 2020. There was a lot to choose from. If you want a working list of (almost) everything that came out last year, check out THIS link. (I’d also like to encourage you to please fill this form with any works that might have been missed out, it is growing increasingly difficult to keep up with everything published – which is a good problem to have – but with constraints on my time tightening, its also a problem that’s getting worse). This gives us all plenty of material to be considered for this year’s Nommo awards. Especially in the short fiction category which I have repeated multiple times is the category I enjoy writing, reading and keeping up with most because I basically grew up on SF short fiction – Asimov’s Hugo winners collections and Dozois’s Years Best SF kept me tethered to the field even when I went through the valley of the shadow of my SF reading-death. So as it is now a tradition of sorts, I’d like to highlight the African speculative fiction short stories I read and enjoyed most from the wildly disruptive year gone by.  

[Before we begin, as always, a few notes: these are my personal favorites or those that left a lasting impression on me based on my own tastes. They are largely stories I’d personally recommend. Also, while I’ve read a lot of the African SFF short work put out this year, I’m sure I haven’t read everything. I am also really restricting myself to just 10 in this list, as difficult as that is, unlike in previous years where I would use ties to sneak more works in by pairing them with others that are thematically similar. And finally, I usually don’t include my own stories published that year for obvious bias and while Africanfuturism: An Anthology easily contains many of my favorite stories of the year, given how involved I was in shaping those stories, I have decided not to include any of them on this list. So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite African speculative fiction short stories of 2020, in no particular order.]

1. “Things Boys Do” by Pemi Aguda (Nigeria), Nightmare Magazine

I’ve read and loved Pemi’s writing for almost a decade and she’s only getting better. If you’ve never read her work before, she is consistently brilliant at crafting unsettling, weird and very Nigerian stories. I call them Nigerian Gothic. In this particular story, 3 men have new sons of their own but these births don’t bring them joy, only… wrongness. Slowly, their stories converge on each other and on an incident from the past. This is a perfectly constructed story designed by a master craftswoman. Definitely one of my favorite stories of the year, much like her previous story “Manifest“, which if you haven’t read, you really should. (I still think it was a crime that it didn’t make the 2019 Nommo Awards shortlist). Highly Recommended. 

2. “And This is How to Stay Alive” by Shingai Njeri Kagunda (Kenya), Fantasy Magazine

This story opens with a shocking suicide and then, through alternating perspectives and the plot device of a mystic potion, constructs a fascinating portrait of sibling love, grief, acceptance, and second chances. I particularly enjoyed the way this story plays with the concept of time and uses it to get at the heart of a family tragedy. Its written with consideration and compassion and is very effecting. Recommended.

3. “The Bend Of Water” by Tiah Marie Beautement (South Africa), Omenana Magazine

Set in a future where Africa was never colonized, an agent for the United African government with latent magical powers is asked to investigate border incursions that have been happening lately. She finds that the incursions are immigrants from the Americas being brought in by a woman with powers of her own, using them to transport refugees across the oceans in a sort of rocket bubble. The two women engage and in so doing, learn about and change each other fundamentally. Tiah has a gift for writing strange and believable romances and this is no exception, Its a standout story in a great issue of Omenana with many good stories that just missed this list and I highly recommend it.

4. “The ThoughtBox” by Tlotlo Tsamaase (Botswana), Clarkesworld Magazine

The story of a woman in an abusive relationship whose boyfriend brings home a device that records and displays their thoughts to one another supposedly to help them communicate better, but of course all is not as it seems. Tlotlo was very prolific in 2020 with stories that seem to share themes. Young female protagonists struggling with identity, sex, relationships and corporate careers in various nightmare scenarios. I like The River of Night, and I edited Behind Our Irises which is wonderful but not in consideration for this list, so I will happily recommend this story which I really enjoyed and which may be the best example of balancing all the recurring themes so that they converge into a truly fascinating, creepy story with a great twist at the end. Recommended.

5. “Rat and Finch Are Friends” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Nigeria), Strange Horizons

A beautiful of friendship and love about a boy who is an amusu and can transform into a finch. When he meets another amusu boy that can transform into a rat, they become friends, as the title suggests, and more. But that leads to suppression of both their abilities and their relationship from their school, community and family for different reasons, but with the same somewhat sad result. Still the story is hopeful and moving. Recommended.

6. “The Cult of Reminiscence” by Derek Lubangakene (Uganda), Jalada 09: Nostalgia

A bizarre story about a woman who died but was kept in cryo-stasis by her father and is revived later using nanotechnology to physically repair her brain and body but not the information that was contained in it – her memories. So she goes on an odyssey of sorts, to try to remember who she is, meeting a changed world, strange characters, conflicted family members, cults, and other ‘Revivers’. Its a thoughtful story with lots of consideration given to what memory is and how it is processed and viewed. An opening reminiscent of The Matrix definitely doesn’t hurt. I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.

7. “Fairy Tales for Robots” by Sofia Samatar (Somalia/USA), Made To Order: Robots and Revolution

This is a story about stories, a story about stories and robots. In it, the protagonist spends one entire night telling classic fairy tales to a robot she has made in the hopes of giving it a kind of personality and in so doing, we learn a few things about the narrator, how she sees herself compared to how the world sees her but also she realizes in each story a metaphor for aspects of robots themselves and the importance of compassion which relates back to the narrators own experience. Samatar has a great grasp of story mechanics and fairy tales and it is all on display here. The story is comprehensive and thoughtful and almost academic and very, very engaging and clever. Highly Recommended.

8. “A Love Song for Herkinal as composed by Ashkernas amid the ruins of New Haven” by Chinelo Onwualu (Nigeria), Uncanny Magazine

This story is set in a sort-of future version of our world where something unexplained has happened and Africa is the only continent left, with all the people of the diaspora magically returned. Also, magic has returned and people have powers. It follows two ex-scammer sisters who now run a hotel, the guests the magical guests they receive and their niece who is coming into her own. It is short but has wonderful worldbuilding which uses many elements of Nigerian folklore and culture in a believable yet fantastical setting which I really enjoy. The prose is authentic and crisp and the story itself is just fun to read. Recommended.

9. “Esmerelda” by Natasha Omokhodion-Banda (Zambia), Doek! 4: Worlds Beyond This One

A humorous tale about a well-to-do Zambian family that purchases a domestic robot to help the lady of the house and the various responses to it. We change points of view – from the robot itself, to the madam of the house herself, to her domestic helper Ba Mutale, constantly getting shifting information and feelings about the role of technology in their lives. Interestingly, its never told from the POV of the man of the house who makes the purchase and in the end, the upgrade that throws things into even more turmoil. In turns funny and revealing, I quite liked this story. Besides, it made me laugh. Recommended.

10. “Convergence in Chorus Architecture” by Dare Segun Falowo (Nigeria), Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora by [Zelda Knight, Marian Denise Moore, Eugen Bacon, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Dilman Dila, Rafeeat Aliyu, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Michael Boatman, Odida Nyabundi, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald]

This is a brilliantly weird novelette that merges elements of Yoruba mythology with a kind of cosmic horror sensibility to create something unique, all written in exquisite prose. It follows two children who come to strange town of exiles fleeing war, where they are struck by lightning and see visions before one of them is abducted by strange creatures in ships of bone and the other is taken on a journey by the Orisha to try to save her. That summary barely does the story justice. Strange but full of wonderful elements, its a definite standout. I don’t know if it was Dare’s intent but I interpreted the story as a nightmare-metaphor for the lived experience of the transatlantic slave trade and on that level, in my head anyway, every part of the story works spectacularly. Highly Recommended.

Copyright Wole Talabi. All rights reserved.

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