Scheherazade. That little whore. But God. She was beautiful
They were so close to Saturn now they could no longer see the planet’s outline. All the images Cassini had sent back to Earth, the pictures that had made him dream since boyhood, none of them had prepared him for this, for his first sight of the ringed planet on the approach last month, or its moon Enceladus, their target, its Arabian Night craters, Scheherazade the largest, he’d stared at for hours in old National Geographics, the ones he’d kept since he was twelve. And yet now that he was looking out at it, and it was real, and yes, very beautiful, below him, Astronaut Jim Bliss felt unmoved. He felt nothing. Enceladus—its surface etched, sculpted—was beautiful ice, but it was ice. No, hold it. Of course he knew what this was really about …
Camping out in the airlock always put him in a bad mood. 10.2psi was never going to be good for the blood. Of course, there was more on his mind. And there it was, shit, the voice behind him, that he dreaded every second of every day since he joined Mission Minerva.
"Jim Bliss. I hope you aren’t still in love with me."
from "All This Was Made for Us" by Constance Myburgh, issues 16 and 17, Jungle Jim
Constance Myburgh’s biography says that she "is a horse-wrangler, amateur astronomer, first person shooter and part-time pseudonym for an anonymous South African contributor."
She is also her own publisher, Jenna Bass, who says, "Constance is a frustrated scientist and a frustrated horse-wrangler. She is all these sides of myself that haven’t worked out, which is why it doesn’t say that she is a filmmaker.
"The reason I had a pseudonym was that I work in film: writing screenplays. I hadn’t written short fiction since high school, so it was part insecurity. My first short story was contentious. I wrote it in faux-colonial style. 'A Hole in the Ground' was a colonial adventure story that was very dark. I don’t know how it would be received now."
Constance published the story in the second issue of the magazine that her alter ego Jenna started in 2011: Jungle Jim. Now in its twenty-third issue, the journal is stylishly cheap-looking, the illustrations vibrant, even harsh, in two colours, overprinted, as if you need 3D glasses to see them. The fiction is every bit as lurid –crime, horror, science fiction, tales of the supernatural, and even some wild experimentation.
Jenna: "It’s very difficult to get films made, and I wanted to keep in practice with storytelling. Writing screenplays had become fraught. I want to enjoy writing, rediscover the joy of storytelling, I want to write whatever occurs to me to write, just for enjoyment."
Constance’s story for Issue 6 was a noir detective story, "Hunter Emmanuel," featuring a hero who sets out to find out who grossly disfigured a prostitute.
Jenna: "I got very sick and delirious. I had a vision of a severed leg in a tree, and that was the start of the story. Ironically, after it was published there was a very similar case with dismembered body parts in a forest." To her surprise the story was shortlisted for the Caine Prize.
"My favourite genre is detective fiction. I loved watching cop shows when I was a child, I love noir. It’s interesting to re-envision noir for a cynical society. I’d define noir as cynicism for people who care. It’s why noir can be so devastating. Some noir fiction exists with characters who don’t care from the beginning, but I don’t like it. For the hero to be disillusioned by the end, he has to have some illusions to begin with.They find out they care, even if they think they didn’t. They have to think that there is a bad guy and he can be caught."
So how did Jungle Jim magazine come about?
"I was sharing an office with Hannes Berhnard, a designer. I was trying to get a film made. We were both struggling with our respective industries, fed up with compromise, having to do things a different way just to get our work done, fed up with people harassing us to make changes. We wanted more creative control.
"Hannes and I decided to do a magazine. We designed it around how much money we could afford to lose. It was just a couple of hundred rand a month between us. And we set ourselves to thinking about what the magazine would DO.
"You have to cut the magazine open with scissors mainly because it costs extra to have the illustrated section trimmed. But we also liked it as a published artefact. People say that print is dead, but having to cut the magazine open makes it a tactile object you have to interact with. It makes a bit like a sealed porn magazine. We really wanted to embrace the fact that it was made for so little money—also because we could make sure it didn’t cost a lot. Some people try to sell it on as an art object, but we try to sell it for 15 or 20 rand.
"I felt there was real lack in African publishing. People seemed to think African writing had to be serious, about issues, not fun to read. Writing was either heavy literature or it was not about us. Also, at the same time, we loved pulp, loved genre. Genre it seemed to me was an interesting way of attracting people who might not otherwise care about African fiction. 'You want a horror story, OK, here’s a horror story, set in Senegal.'
"So Jungle Jim would be about remembering when reading was fun, accessible, for entertainment. I thought surely, there would be other people writing genre. But I didn’t know who they were. So I had to go hunting them online, writing them emails, and asking them. There was an incredible continent of people doing genre literature.
"Genres had seen Africa as the dark continent, a scary place full of wild animals and people who shot arrows at you. So we wanted to reclaim genre. You can’t say that horror is American. Maybe you can say they’ve done a good job of selling genre, using it for marketing, and making the USA a place where you can set a horror story that everybody wants to read. What is a horror story in the African context? What is an SF story in Africa? We wanted to set up a platform for fiction which would be entertaining for anybody on a bus.
"I’m interested in all genres. Each genre has it’s own audience, which means you can use genre to reach different people. I knew that any film I made would be seen as an African film even though I’m of European descent. I would have to work extra hard to get them to watch, or just cast famous people, or use genre. Genre is a way to get your stuff looked at in a film."
The last movie Jenna worked on was Love the One You Love, a South African romantic-noir comedy, starring Chi Mhende, Andile Nebulane, Louw Venter, and Mogamat Dayaan Salie. It was released last year, did the film festivals the year before that, and now it’s on DVD.
Constance began to write science fiction not long after the first issue of Jungle Jim. Her story, "Rise of Battle Planet", is set on a world on which Earth’s nations agree to wage war on another planet rather than at home. It ends up being about how power corrupts and why revolts happen. "All This Was Made for Us," in issues 16 and 17, is set on a space station orbiting one of Saturn’s moons, where a crashed spaceship has been found – and the humanoid bodies frozen in the crash site turn out to be those of the investigating scientists. Jenna says that it’s in part about her own personal life at the time.
We talk about how SF is often a dream image of the present, for society as a whole, or sometimes of events that the writer is living through.
Jenna: "I think science fiction is reliant on interpreting the present. It’s a great vehicle for social commentary, more than fantasy—or at least high fantasy. What I call low fantasy, set more in the real world—that can be commentary as well.
"I hope Constance will write more. I’ve been neglecting short fiction because I’ve been so busy with film. I enjoy working on projects with elements of SF, but I want to avoid easy classification—I want to write a science fiction mystery-romance. But what Constance writes will only appear in Jungle Jim. She’s very loyal."
Jenna is justifiably proud of some of the stories the magazine has published. From the first issue, which contained stories by Nikhil Singh and Abdul Adan (whose later speculative story was short-listed for the 2016 Caine Prize), her choices of authors seem almost prophetic, forecasting the future of African genre. For now, it has the most distinguished publishing record of any African SFF or genre publishing venture—though Omenana magazine is gaining.
With total disregard for her feelings, I ask her to name some of the stories she would point to with pride. She tells me she will get back to me by email with a list. She does mention "The Negro Eaters", a historical horror story set during the Haitian slave revolts. "Irenosen Okojie, the author, has written some very experimental fiction, hardly genre. She’s been since published by Kwani?, and I’m proud to publish her. People were writing stories that they couldn’t publish anywhere, until we started Jungle Jim. I had stories I was writing with nowhere to publish.
"Then there was 'The Story of the Ant'–that was such a strange story. I liked 'Here be Cannibals' by Masimba Musodza. It was about avoiding a wave of conquest by creating a badass reputation, the history of Africa repeating. I love that issue—it was in the Colonialism issue.
"We’ve published some very strange stories, interpretations of genre that I’m very excited about. This it the thing: we answer to no one. I don’t have to prove a story is this genre or another.
"I do resist the notion that SF is new to Africa. It’s like saying that storytelling isn’t African. Genres become branding or advertising tools, but the continent has been producing SF as much as anyone for a very long time. There are so many overlaps in genre. 'Speculative fiction' is a useful term because it’s broad. What’s the point of debating which story a genre is in?"