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Ntone Edjabe

Ntone (pronounced Entone-Ay) Edjabe works from the Pan African Market, an extraordinary building on Long Street, full of stalls, hair salons, and tailoring shops, as well as the Chimurenga/The Chronic/Pan African Space Station offices. It’s stuffed full of curios, wooden spoons, old magazine covers, and a life-size image of Prince. Someone had told me that Ntone owns the Market—but I got that wrong.

The Chimurenga offices are painted yellow and green, all bright colours with large framed covers or quotes from both Chimurenga and The Chronic. The company’s books and chapbooks are for sale. Chimurenga is a magazine that looks a bit like Granta; The Chronic looks like a newspaper.

I am a confused researcher. How do they all fit together?

"They don’t. We kind of push them together. Chimurenga begins as a literary journal in 2002 but he has music and criticism…."

That "he," meaning the journal, is one of the few indications that Ntone is an expat—it’s a leftover from French. He grew up in Cameroon, studied at the University of Yaounde (Law), and at the University of Lagos (Philosophy). He wants me to understand that he didn’t complete any of those degrees—but he talks like a philosopher. At times I find his torrent of ideas hard to follow and note down.

"Chimurenga manifests itself in so many different ways from the very first edition, which is called Music Is a Weapon. At the time it’s not even an edition, it’s a collection of writing. Imaginative, critical writing about the connection between music and politics. It’s called Chimurenga, this collection, because the word translates as ‘liberation struggle’ in Shona, and is also the name of a popular music in Zimbabwe. The first edition is actually a collection of mainly creative non-fiction and some artwork. The success of Chimurenga—and by success, I mean I printed 1,500 copies and sold every one of them, so success is really just friends saying ‘Oh! When is the next one coming up?’

"There was no next one planned at all. But people don’t ask for your permission: they just see something they like, and they want to be part of it. People started sending me stories. They saw it as a periodical of sorts. I was working as a journalist, and I was thinking that there’s so much shit on people’s hard drives that couldn’t be printed anywhere else. So why not?"

In 2007, Chimurenga 9, Conversations in Luanda, was entirely devoted to graphic fiction – comics. Most of them are satirical or surrealistic rather than SFF. The issue contained an early piece by Nikhil Singh, author of Taty Went West, which shows a preaching robot in the future, and the symbolic shooting of stray dog. "Small Hands," the last story, is beautifully illustrated by Danijel Žeželj, and is about Thelonious Monk and a blind basketball player.

Chimurenga 12 and 13 (jointly bound) are landmarks in the development of African SFF.  The issues were published in 2008, before there was much African SFF to write about. Addressing the absence of African authors in the Euro-American and Caribbean-centred Afrofuturist canon, it contains artefacts like John Akomfrah’s script summary for his 1996 movie The Last Angel of History, and part of the script for Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes. The influential article on Dub music, Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber, was republished separately as a chapbook.

The publication is not quite a science fiction issue, and not quite an Afrofuturism issue. Its most famous story isn’t a science fiction story at all: "Stick Fighting Days" by Olufemi Terry, which won the Caine Prize that year. An early piece by Teju Cole is a mainstream story about friendship among migrants. In all, the double issue contains about thirty stories, essays, art pieces, and poems. Experimental layout is a feature, so it’s sometimes hard to tell when the stories stop and start. I was reminded of the more literary/experimental issues of New Worlds.

 Stories that are SFF-related include the startling tradition-based story, "Eden Burning," by Doreen Baigaina, and a short excerpt from The Shadow Speaker credited to one Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. There’s a short but effective speculative story by Peter Kalu, the organizer of Common Word in Manchester, UK. "The Test" is an SF short by Joao Barreiros, the author of Terranium, a great SF novel from Portugal. There’s also a reprint of "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," by J G Ballard. The joint issue makes plain the huge debt African SFF owes to the formulation of Afrofuturism as a theory, and to people like Akomfrah and Kodwo Eshun, who were based in London in the 1990s.

Ntone: "The issue responds to the history of black science-fiction in the diaspora, which becomes canonised in the 1990s as Afrofuturism—which itself, initially, is a response to the absence of black people in white imaginations of the future—like a future-tense version of negriture. And therein lies its limit.

"I think that the intervention of Afrofuturism was to move beyond literature into film, music, and so forth. But it was focussed on the diaspora. At that moment, Kojo Laing, the Ghanaian author, published Major Gentil and the Achimoto Wars. This is 1991-1992, the same year that there’s that famous interview where the term Afrofuturism appears in print (Mark Dery’s "Black to the Future," an interview with Samuel Delany, musician Greg Tate, and cultural critic Tricia Rose, appearing in Dery’s collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture).

"That same year, the BBC produces a documentary on black science fiction. It’s got people like Octavia Butler, Nichelle Nichols, a bit of Funkadelic, George Clinton. It’s around the same time the Black Audio Film Collective in London produces their film (The Last Angel of History).

"All of this talks of SF as from the diaspora, the poetics of schizophrenia, all these alienated bodies ... which is fine, but how the fuck is it that they miss Kojo Laing? I mean you don’t get more SF than that shit. Where Kojo Laing’s work is mentioned, all the critical work on it has been in relation to the literary buzz about African magic realism dah dah dah … which is connected to Ben Okri winning the Booker Prize the year before, as Kodwo Eshun pointed out."

He stops. I think he means that work from Africa was being ignored. I remind him of Brenda Cooper’s book Magic Realism in West African Fiction, which certainly looked at Kojo Laing, Okri, and the even more neglected Syl Chenye-Coker (whom Cooper rates even higher that the other two pioneers).

Ntone goes on to praise the Afrofuturists: "If there was no Tricia Rose or Sun Ra or Marechera, there’s probably no Chimurenga as we know it. Glendora Review, the Lagos Afrofuturist journal of the '90s, is as much part of our foundation as the South African Staffrider, or the French Peuples Noirs Peuples Africains.

"What I’d like to do is move beyond a here and a there and work from a place where Fela Kuti is not the African/Nigerian version of George Clinton, or vice versa. They are only contemporaries and part of the same movement."

I ask him about the beginnings of Chimurenga, and Binyavanga Wainaina’s name comes up. Binyavanga Wainaina seems to have a role everywhere in African writing over the last fifteen years. Before founding the Kwani Trust in 2003 with the money from his Caine Prize, Binyavanga published in Chimurenga in 2002. It turns out that Ntone is friends with him—they both used to work in this very building.

 Ntone: "So Binyavanga sends me this story called 'Re-Discovering Home.' He had just gone back to Kenya, but we lived and worked together. He ran the café on the first floor. So he goes back to Nairobi and writes this piece about homecoming. That gives me the feeling OK, we can do a second collection built around his piece. We call it Chimurenga Volume Two. Up to that point, I am not thinking of it as a periodical.

"So it’s still 2002, a few months after the first volume. We’d get up to Volume Six and say OK, get the fuck out of here, we are running a magazine. So let’s just organize ourselves a little bit. ‘We’ are the first contributors and editors and designers."

Key figures included Dominique Malaquais, Rustum Kozain, Gael Reagon, Sandile Dikeni, Andrea Meeson, Rucera Seethal, Lesego Rampolokeng, Sean Jacobs, Desiree Lewis, and many more, including of course Ntone:

"We still carried this very organic kind of thematic focus. For the first ten years, it was a regularly appearing anthology that felt like a book around a subject. Once you did one issue, you wrap it up and start again with a new set of people and a new set of meetings.

"The Chronic is an attempt to disrupt this approach to cultural production with something ongoing, quotidian, something that recognises that production of art or literature should not necessarily be organized like a festival or depend on some kind of grant. It should be part of the life."

The Chronic newspaper first appeared in 2011. It was not ABOUT science fiction—it was like a prop from a science fiction story, a story of time travel.

Ntone: "The Chronic started out as an edition of Chimurenga that took the form of a time-travel newspaper. It was published in 2011, but dated 2008. We wanted to re-live a particular period of 2008 that I felt, perhaps, passed us by. So it was literally a time travel machine to re-enter that period. Because in 2008 there was a period of about two weeks when we had very violent, murderous xenophobic attacks. Over a hundred people died, thousands were displaced. It was a major political and social crisis but also one of identity, a fundamental challenge to South Africa’s own sense as an exceptional African country.

"Anti-African xenophobia has been a consistent post-independence syndrome across the continent since the 1960s. It’s been running at a lower intensity in this country since the early '90s. And when it finally blows up in 2008, the rhetoric of the Struggle, and of the Rainbow Nation, the exceptional trajectory, all of that is blown out of the water.

"Going back to 2008 via The Chronic was a way to document the language that such a crisis would produce, or maybe an opportunity to invent this language. Something that might sidestep the ongoing nation-building constructs, and propose a new way of being African in the world. I believe the newspaper can do this, but it has to exit the prison of fact and documented proof. To write 2008 from the perspective of 2011 was also to write inside the space between fact and fiction. We wanted to use fictional tools, including memory, to engage more seriously with our present and our future."

I ask if the #FeesMustFall movement was another similar, frame-changing moment that needs new language?

"I do know that the student movement has a very articulate BODY language, whether or not their words convey their aspirations as precisely. So we need to analyse all acts, not only the words they speak or write. We have to pay attention to the way people RE-occupy space, to say no … Because I think one of the things they are rejecting are the words currently at our disposal to make sense of our present and imagine new futures. Because I think the language, all this apparatus of explication, always comes after. It’s always kind of behind—it is this jetlag between our reality and how we write it that we wanted to explore in The Chronic. What these students are saying, they are saying it in the clearest way in the way they resisting."

I suggest to him that "it sounds like last time you feel you weren’t here, this time you feel you are here."

Ntone: "I feel that, yes. I grew up in Douala (Cameroon), but I was as much in Paris as I was in Douala. Aware of all the trends there, and then when I get to Paris for the first time I meet people who never left Douala. They are in the middle of Chateau Rouge in Paris, but they never left Cameroon. They live in their own realised version of Douala and they might be a lot more Cameroonian than I will ever be. On the other hand, much of what is known as Cameroonian literature is produced from Paris. So the way that Cameroonian ideas exist in writing at all, is based mainly on these utopias.

"This is sort of what we wanted to track with our issue on African science fiction, of 2008. For many reasons, diasporic Afrofuturism relies too much on an idealised version of an African past, and we couldn’t find ourselves fully in that body of work.

"For a chunk of time, let’s say from the structural adjustments in the late 1970s to the mid-nineties, there is a period where it seems everything is crumbling—the nation state is crumbling, the currency is crumbling, all forms of postcolonial certainty are disappearing. Across the continent people have to figure out new ways to project, develop new strategies to survive. I think this body of knowledge has an aesthetic. It is what I call African science fiction.

"It is not genre literature. Rather, it is writing that emerges from the most basic requirement of daily life here: to be able to think and deal with uncertainty. And of course this writing has consolidated and spread globally via music, images and other forms in the post-apartheid, Internet era."

As an example of this regime of uncertainty, Ntone tells the story of a CEO in a Cameroon utility, who lost his job when the minister decided to give a contract to a French company. Not only is the big man fired, but as he is caught clearing out his desk, he’s charged with theft, sentenced, and in jail within a week.

"Things can move at supersonic speed. But there are also what I’d call constants, right? For example, every thing is plural. People have many gods, many lives, etc. Every thing is fluid. This thing can also be something else. It is not only metamorphosing between the two, it is both at once." If I get that right, Ntone is talking about the ability to hold together in your mind both science and spiritual power; both Christianity or Islam and your local gods.

"For me the interesting thing, how does one do this for fiction? Really how does one think this through storytelling? My own writing has come mainly through journalism and the requirement to produce knowledge in a particular way, to establish facts. But when you are writing in a system where rumour has more power, more relevance, perhaps even more truth than any documented fact, what kind of journalism do you produce? All these things that appear contradictory guide how we work."

I think Ntone is saying that we don’t need to characterise African science fiction at all—but then he turns it around on the West:

"The fear of reading and writing from that place is that you are going make Africa even more of an Other. Hasn’t it been made Other enough, etc? But as my friend Dumisani Phakathi asks: ‘if I am the other, who are you?’ A lot of the world is becoming African. I’m seeing Trump who can stand on a platform and say whatever the fuck he wants and the question of fact has absolutely no relevance. Do you believe me or not, muthafucker? It has nothing to do with fact. It has to do with: does he sound like you? Does he speak for you?

"I’m not sure why I came to South Africa. That’s a whole other story, Geoff.   I came from the French-speaking part of Cameroon and I studied in French until I went to Nigeria for four years in Lagos. Went back to Cameroon, some Kinshasa, then I came here in 1993. So I was here for this incredible change from apartheid. It might be true that I came here to see and be part of the change. In some ways, I’m still waiting for it."

You can visit the Chimurenga website where electronic versions of the journal and of The Chronic are available.

 

About Kojo Laing

This Ghanaian author is a major figure in Africa’s literature of the fantastic, as important in some ways as Amos Tutuola, though more recent.

His first novel, Search Sweet Country, was published in 1986 and won Ghana’s National Novel Prize. Binyavanga Wainaina described it as "The finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent." It looks back at the city of Accra in the 1970s and has been compared to the work of Charles Dickens. (For an African reviewer’s perspective on the novel, read this article in The Slate.)

Woman of the Aeroplanes (1988) is a phantasmagorical, jam-packed story of two towns, one in Ghana (though invisible) and another in Scotland. The novel perhaps reflects Laing’s own experiences in primary and secondary school in Dunbartonshire, and his studies at Glasgow University. It was reviewed in 1990  both in Kirkus Reviews and in the LA Times.

The novel Ntone Edjabe defends, Major Gentl and Achimota Wars (1992), won a Valco Award in 1993. It’s set in 2020 and is described as ecological sci-fi. Click here to go to a page on the Chimurenga website that links to an audio discussion on the Showroom website: a talk by Kodwo Eshun on the importance of the book for Afrofuturism and on Continental African SFF as a whole.  The same page features a wonderful illustration from an adaptation of the novel by Nikhil Singh in The Chronic’s graphic novel issue.

Born in 1947, Kojo now lives in Accra and is still writing. His most recent novel, Big Bishop Roko and the Altar Gangsters, was published by Woeli Publishing Services in 2006.

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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