Eugen Bacon contemplates Black speculative fiction, and recommends the works of Suyi Davies Okungbowa and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Decades after the ground-breaking work of speculative authors such as Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia Butler, Black speculative fiction is more visible and more thriving than ever. Through invented worlds and technologies, and incursions of the supernatural or the uncanny, more and more Black speculative fiction authors are offering stories of curiosity, diversity and hope, possibilities, probabilities, even dire warnings about our place in the universe.
There’s power in Black speculative fiction. In a continued response to global events, speculative fiction authors are increasingly curious and experimental, writing across genres in a rise of future forms and modes to tell radical tales that speak to our curiosities, to lost or forgotten cultures, to decolonising language, and to deconstructing and reconstructing self and identity.
The first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison, saw narrative as radical. She wrote revolutionary stories, including her literary horror novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (1987) — with its unsettling scrutiny at the awful legacy of slavery, and a Black woman forced to make a terrible choice — and Song of Solomon (1998), with its genre bending across literary and speculative, and themes of resilience and belief:
“What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Song of Solomon culminates with protagonist Milkman’s leap, a surrender to the air so he can ride it. And now, more than ever, people of colour are increasingly adopting Black speculative fiction — in stories of possibility — so they too can surrender to the air, and ride it.
Black speculative fiction, often featuring a Black protagonist, gives voice to the complex and varied experiences of African and Afro-descendant peoples. What Africa means above all is diversity, with its 54 countries, its many languages—including Swahili, Amharic, Yoruba, Oromo, Hausa, Igbo, Zulu, Shona, and over 2000 more—and its 1.126 billion people. And that’s just on the continent, before you factor in the diaspora, which—as in the African Speculative Fiction Society definition—refers to people whose ancestors migrated or were snatched from the African continent, and includes anyone of African descent in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, the Antarctica, Australia, Oceania and elsewhere. Black speculative fiction confronts the colonial gaze which tries to see only uniformity and sameness.
Even so, across so much of this vast diversity — these many unique languages, cultures and stories, these many complex histories and power relationships — there are also many unifying threads. Perhaps the most important of these are anti-colonial and anti-racist movements, movements such as Black Lives Matter. Movements to build better worlds draw us together in a collective endeavour of re-imagining past and present experiences, and exploring what Black futures could look like.
One reason why Ryan Coogler’s 2018 Black Panther struck such a chord was the way it evoked real colonial histories within a fantastical setting. The movie’s villain, Killmonger, was also able to speak truths about the ongoing legacy of colonialism that have seldom been heard in the context of a big Hollywood blockbuster. The Afrofuturist movie celebrated people of colour in its themes that addressed racism, feminism, inclusion and social injustice. Continuing the themes of the film, the Force awakens in Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, and his personal guard of Xhosa-speaking warrior women, in Titan’s 2021 anthology Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, edited by Jesse J Holland. Stories in the anthology host the many faces of T’Challa who personifies the regal dignity of Black people in eighteen brand-new tales of Wakanda, its people, and its legacy:
‘These are the tales of a king and his country. These are the legends whispered in the jungle, myths of the unconquered men and women and the land they love.
These are the Tales of Wakanda.’
The anthology features stories by Linda D. Addison, Maurice Broaddus, Christopher Chambers, Milton J. Davis, Tananarive Due, Nikki Giovanni, Harlan James, Danian Jerry, Kyoko M., L.L. McKinney, Temi Oh, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Glenn Parris, Alex Simmons, Sheree Renée Thomas, Cadwell Turnbull and Troy L. Wiggins. Herein, original short stories speak to longing, heritage and discovery—a reliving of Wakanda in tales that bridge Mother Africa and her diaspora.
The anthology with its brand-new tales of a kingdom, her people, and her legacy, hosts the many faces of T’Challa. It blends technology, jungle, nobility, gods and duty, heroes, antiheroes, kindred and honour to celebrate Black comic books, writers and artists in its themes of colonialism and postcolonialism. Poignant stories include ‘Heart of A Panther’ by Sheree Renée Thomas—textual beauty and sensitivity that takes us to ancient groves long after the weeping time, a rich layered tale that investigates the shrivel of sacred herbs, crucial to the Rite of the Panther, and a vital journey to Mississippi. In ‘Of Rights and Passage’ by Danian Darrell Jerry, T’Swuntu voyages to Boston to find his lost son, and finds more in a world of slaves. In Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s story, T’Challa goes undercover in Lagos, while struggling with an extraterrestrial autoimmune disease, to commune with Bàbálúayé—a foreign healing god. T’Challa has the opportunity to compare Lagos with his own Golden City:
“As often when I ride through these streets, I think of the stark difference with Birnin Zana’s Vibranium-driven transport infrastructure and wonder how it may be of use here. All this energy on display could be put to better use if everyone wasn’t so involved in a race for survival, where those who blink for too long get relegated to the background.”
In 2019 Okungbowa, whose writing on blackness across the diaspora takes all forms, released his award-winning novel David Mogo Godhunter, a story in which Lagos succumbs to ruin when the gods fall. In this riveting debut of gods bringing chaos, Okungbowa brings to the reader a new Lagos. He’s recently released his 2021 novel Son of the Storm, the first in his fantasy trilogy The Nameless Republic acquired by Orbit. In this story, a young scholar’s ambition threatens Bassa, a colony, and her leadership’s supremacy.
Okungbowa’s new novel, with its politics, superstition, magical realism, greed and revenge, brings Africa alive in culture, in place — the Savanna Belt, the Idjama desert, the Breathing Forest, Whudasha — in language — phrasings in an African dialect — in food — yams, palm wine, jackalberry, baobab porridge … It’s radical in its inversions of patriarchy and colonialism, where women hold positions of authority and Black is power.
Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm adds to the climbing wave of Black writing in all its future forms, genres and modes, writing that’s a warning and a promise, writing that’s about Black people taking ownership to reimagine their worlds. It continues the rawness and urgency in the works of writers like Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Camara Laye, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Colonialism destroys and undervalues a people’s culture — their literature, their art, their dance, their philosophy, their religion, their science and technology. It nurtures betrayal, amplifies discord. It exposes the colonial child to a world in which everything they know is now bad or inferior — Okwonkwo, our tragic hero in Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, discovered this truth in the harshest possible way.
In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes:
We spoke Gĩkũyũ in the fields. We spoke Gĩkũyũ in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fireside. It was mostly the grown-ups telling the stories but everybody was interested and involved. We children would re-tell the stories the following day to other children… And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture… one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gĩkũyũ in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment—three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks—or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY.
One of wa Thiong’o’s early defiances was to denounce his British-ruled Kenyan name James Thiong’o Ngugi. Across both his fiction, such as The River Between (1965) and Petals of Blood (1977, and his nonfiction, such as Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), wa Thiong’o asks crucial questions and contributes to the fight against colonialism, which robs the colonised of name, language, community and value.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind is a firm but earnest conversation many a once-colonised people will understand. Colonialism turns diversity into division and strife (divide and rule is a colonialist dictum), and fosters violent instability. Colonialism operates both in the external world, and in the mind, stripping away language, community and culture, where culture is food, family, clothing, housing, belief, ways of doing, ways of seeing.
Speculative fiction, as a paradigm shift, comes with power inherent in its surreal or abstract nature. This type of fiction is a safe space to explore confronting themes, to understand others’ perspectives. Imagined worlds are an escape, they put you—a mind traveller to mythical worlds—at ease. There, you can explore not just outer space, but also climate change, racism, sexuality, social injustice and much dysfunction in the world as we know it.
Speculative fiction is our response in fiction to the universe, and our place in it. We can ask fundamental philosophical questions, interrogate the past and learn from it.
We can contemplate different futures.
Eugen M. Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. Her work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Foreword Book of the Year Awards, Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Awards for Speculative Fiction by Africans. Her novella Ivory’s Story was shortlisted in the 2020 British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Awards. Upcoming: Danged Black Thing, a short story collection by Transit Lounge Publishing (2021) and Mage of Fools, an Afrofuturistic dystopian novel by Meerkat Press (2022).
- Achebe, Chinua 1958. Things Fall Apart. Heinemann. London—African Writers Series
- ASFS (African Speculative Fiction Society), viewed 2 June 2020, < http://www.africansfs.com>
- Black Lives Matter 2021, viewed 2 June 2021, <https://blacklivesmatter.com>
- Holland, Jesse J 2021. Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda. Titan Books (Marvel). London.
- Okungbowa, Suyi Davies 2019. David Mogo Godhunter. Abaddon Books. Oxford.
- Okungbowa, Suyi Davies 2021. Son of the Storm. Orbit. London.
- wa Thiong’o, N., 1965. The River Between. Heinemann. London: African Writers Series.
- wa Thiong’o, N., 1977. Petals of Blood. Heinemann. London. African Writers Series.
- wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ, 1986. Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. James Currey/Boydell & Brewer. London
- ‘Afrofuturism: A WorldCon Recap, and Some Thoughts’, British Science Fiction Association’s Vector Magazine, available at vector-bsfa.com/2020/08/04/afrofuturism-a-worldcon-recap-and-some-thoughts
- ‘Becoming Visible: The Rise of Black Speculative Fiction’, British Science Fiction Association’s Vector Magazine, available at vector-bsfa.com/2020/05/11/becoming-visible-the-rise-of-black-speculative-fiction
- ‘Black Lives Matter—The Rise of Future Forms, Genres and Modes’, Macmillan Blog, available at www.macmillanihe.com/blog/post/black-lives-matter-the-rise-of-future-forms-genres-modes
- Hadithi & the State of Black Speculative Fiction (2020), Eugen Bacon and Milton Davis by Luna Press Publishing, available at http://www.lunapresspublishing.com/product-page/hadithi-the-state-of-black-speculative-fiction
- ‘I Went Looking for AfroSF’, British Science Fiction Association’s Vector Magazine, available at vector-bsfa.com/2020/05/24/i-went-looking-for-afrosf
- ‘Inhabitation: Genni and I’, Sydney Review of Books, available at sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/eugen-bacon-inhabitation-genni-and-i