‘On Afrofuturism’ was an important topic at the virtual 2020 WorldCon in New Zealand. The conversation paid attention to the term generally applied to embrace literary works that use the frame of science fiction, fantasy or horror to re-imagine the past and present experiences of the African diaspora, and to explore what black futures could look like.
On the panel were Suyi Davis Okungbowa—a renowned Nigerian author of fantasy, science fiction and horror inspired by his West-African origins, including David Mogo, God Hunter; Brandon O’Brien—a writer, performance poet and game designer from Trinidad and Tobago, also the editor of Fiyah Magazine; Ekpeki Oghenechovwe—a Nigerian writer with honourable mention (twice) by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and an award-winning best story in the Nommo Awards for speculative fiction by Africans; myself; and skilfully moderated by Maquel A. Jacob—a multi-author and owner of MAJart Works—who propagated stimulating questions, many from the audience, across the panel.
The introduction to the session stated:
According to Yes! magazine, the concept of Afrofuturism may only go back to 1966, when the Black Panther first appeared in a Marvel comic and Lt. Uhura appeared first appeared on Star Trek. The recent MCU movie, Black Panther, shone a bright light onto this subgenre. Our panel explores its origins, what it encompasses and what works they recommend for getting more familiar worth the subgenre.
Head of Zeus is an independent publishing house, based in London. It started publishing in 2012 and won Independent Publisher of the Year in 2017.
In the essay ‘Journey to the West’ published in SFMagazine [click on the link to download the issue] Head Of Zeus publisher Nicolas Cheetham points out that Chinese genre fiction arrived on Western markets only in the last couple of years – it was not until 2015 that a Hugo award was won by a work that has been translated from the Chinese (or any other language). At the same time, he asserts that SF is the most universal of the literary genres, quoting Liu Cixin:
SF is the most global, the most universal storytelling vessel, with the capability to be understood by all cultures. SF novels are concerned with problems faced by all of humanity. Crises in SF usually threaten humanity as a whole. It is a unique and treasurable trait inherent in the genre – that the human race is perceived as a single entity, undivided.
Why then is genre fiction lagging behind literary fiction in achieving a globalised presence? In tracing the history of Weltliteratur, n+1 contends that ‘certain texts have always circulated among geographically broad but socioeconomically thin strata’. Is a taste for globalism something that is more characteristic of the literary fiction readership rather than those who read genre fiction? Although genre boundaries between literary fiction and SF have become more permeable and fuzzier than in the past, is SF fandom demographically different from the consumers of literary fiction, or at the very least, less globalised?
Nicolas Cheetham mentions several pre-conditions for Chinese SF entrance to the West: an emergence of local fandom, revival of local critical SF journals, and the establishment of a financially successful local publishing industry. All of these of course did not emerge independently from the economic growth in China, a society that in recent decades started investing heavily in science and technology research, transforming itself into a world leader in tackling global crises such as a climate change. Looking to other global regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, would the same pre-conditions apply? Namely, would the local fandom, criticism traditions and publishing houses need to reach a critical mass before we can expect to read a greater offering of African SF in the West, in translation or otherwise? Recently established organisations such as the African Speculative Fiction Society, as well as a myriad of new journals that publish African SF and criticism, such as Omenana, BrittlePaper, Chimurenga, Saraba and Jalada, augurs well for African SF. Hopefully, pioneering publishers like the Head Of Zeus will be bringing more of World SF to UK markets – Nicholas Cheetham is certainly interested in science fiction writers from various countries in Africa. Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and SA are among the most prolific in terms of SF, for more information see Geoff Ryman’s brilliant series of interviews with 100 African writers of science fiction and fantasy.
But who should define the global limits of the genre, especially when the power to impose a definition is centred in the Global North? The definition of the sf genre varies across time and cultures; various writers (e.g. Dilman Dilla, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor) report contesting the definition of SF with the Western publishing and film industry whenever spirits or other traditional beliefs are in the fabric of the narrative.
In the Head Of Zeus SFMagazine, Nicolas Cheetham raises an important question ‘What is Chinese SF?’ and shows the pitfalls of essentialising – how does a publisher balance the reader’s expectations of ‘pleasingly exotic colour’ with the needs of the writers to be free from having to ‘perform otherness’ in order to get a publishing deal in the West?
Readers in the West are limited (as far as having access to a wider range of voices) by the lack of diversity within the publishing industry, editors and critics, and creative writing programs. This problem is particularly urgent in SF, since the genre is concerned with the imaginaries of humanity’s future. Missing African writers is an especially regrettable situation since the future of humanity depends very much on what will happen on the continent which is projected to contain 40% of the global population by 2100.