The Speculative Turn in African Literature

Guest editorial by Michelle Louise Clarke that appeared in Vector 289

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“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.

Continue reading “The Speculative Turn in African Literature”

Vector 287: Some films from Cameroon and SA/Canada

By Dilman Dila

Last year, after a long wait, I got a chance to see Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Naked Reality, which he describes as an afrofuturistic/sci-fi. Shot in black and white, it is a time-travel tale in which the protagonist searches for her identity, this being allegorical for a continent’s search for its identity. Like his earlier films, including Les Saignantes (2005), it does not use visual effects or mise-en-scène to portray the future. But while strong storytelling with an offbeat style carried his previous works, Naked Reality turned out to be difficult to watch. Its website suggests it “is a new science-fiction interactive and collaborative cinema concept where we make feature films with a story as usual but take out certain aspects like sets, music, dialogues, costumes…” While there is a call for collaboration, it is not clear if it would mean re-editing this film. What made it drag was the miming, the near complete lack of sets, and the attempt to compensate using overlays, where two video clips are blended together – kind of the cinematographic equivalent of Instagram filters – creating a style more suitable to music videos. If ten years ago a lack of props or effects could be a consequence of low budget, today, more resources are available to a filmmaker, especially in a collaborative venture, and there is free software to achieve photorealistic visual effects.

One such software is Unity. In 2016, the company behind it made a short film, Adam (available on YouTube), to showcase its cinematic creation tools and to test out the graphical quality achievable. Adam is short and sweet to look at, though does not have much of a story. The main protagonist, a prisoner, wakes up in a robot’s body along with scores of others. They meet a mystical figure, who leads them away into a bleak horizon. In 2017, Unity partnered with Neill Blomkamp – the South African director well-known for District 9 – to make two sequels to Adam, where we learn of a government called The Consortium, which harvests the body parts of prisoners but, rather than kill them, puts their brains in robots, for unknown but possibly legal or even mercantile reasons. I like the series so far, and although both plot and character development are still thin, it is a visual joy.

Neill will be making more episodes of Adam alongside other short films in his own Oats Studios, which he set up to develop ideas without years of waiting for Hollywood. The first film he made was Rakka, set in a dystopian, post alien-invasion world. The obsession of seeing aliens as the evil other echoes colonialist era fears (e.g. H.G Well’s War of the Worlds) but also resonates with anti-immigration sentiments of today. Rakka features Sigourney Weaver, whose great performance failed to save the film from a clichéd plot that does not add anything new to an alien invasion narrative.

I thought other Oats Studios films would be similar, but was pleasantly surprised. Firebase starts off like an alien-contact film, and ends up something like a revenge-ghost story, with US soldiers in Vietnam encountering something called the River God. Like the other shorts from Oats Studios, Firebase could develop into a feature film, and a recent tweet from Neill suggests he is planning to crowdfund its production – this might explain its abrupt and unresolved ending.

amosZygote is the film I liked the most. Though it also seems to be the first twenty minutes of a feature, it works beautifully as a stand-alone short. It’s a sick horror, a good old-fashioned monster tale redolent of Frankenstein, and it may be difficult for some people to watch. I liked the monster very much because it reminded me of Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the awesome “flash-eyed mother,” which is a ghost made up of “millions of heads which were just like a baby’s head,” each with two hands and two eyes that shone day and night. Zygote gripped me right from the start, and the suspense did not relent. It is set in an asteroid mining operation, and the story opens with two survivors from a catastrophe that is never fully explained, though we deduce it coincided with the creation of the monster. One survivor is a slave, an orphan bought in her infancy, and the other a synthetic human, who sacrifices himself to help the orphan escape. Like most of Neil’s films, this one is very entertaining, and yet still packs in social issues, in this case genetic engineering and a critique of corporate capitalism.

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 SCIFI SET IN A FUTURISTIC AFRICA. MORE OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS ARE AT DILMANDILA.COM