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.

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