For many years, perhaps for his whole life, Kamoto had not thought of going outside his house. The outside world offered him nothing that could not find within the confines of his own home. He always had enough air to breathe and food to eat; and if he fancied connecting with distant places he was happy to do so through the convenience of the Telecommunications Curtain—the TC—in his living room.
On rare occasions he had a chance to peek through the front door. This happened most often when the Room Service girls showed up to deliver things like food, groceries, clothes or when they came to clean the house and the appliances. Since it was he who had to open the front door in order for the workers to come in, on more than one such occasion he caught himself peering through the door. It was not as though he was not allowed to go or look outside; he just didn’t think there was anything there to warrant the bother of leaving or looking. The people of the kingdom had freedom to do what they wanted, but neither the need for exploration nor the thought of exploration had ever crossed Kamoto’s mind.
Recently, however, Kamato had got into the habit of going outside at dusk to watch the sun go down. Even though he could watch this natural phenomenon on the screen of his living room TC, it did not take him long to conclude that it was in many ways different from the real thing. The actual sunset appeared to him to be much bigger, much brighter, much more varied in its display of colours. Untamed.
Today, as had become customary for him, he went out to watch the sunset but for the first time he found himself carrying a chair outside to sit on while he watched the sun slowly approach the horizon in the mountains beyond. Sometimes it seemed as though the sun were heading for the yawning mouth of a cave which dominated the face of the largest mountain. The range of mountains in the distance had the effect of creating what seemed like a boundary to all that existed almost as if this was the edge of the world. But he knew that the world was bigger than his eyes could witness….
He sat there with his legs stretched out in front of him, occasionally lifting them up and suspending them in the air for a while before bringing them down again. A flock of birds, crows, flew across the sky above him, noisy as they went on their way towards the setting sun.
—Azotus, the Kingdom by Shadreck Chikoti
Shadreck Chikoti makes a good living but I’m not sure how.
He runs a publishing company in the world’s third poorest country. He also promotes concerts by big names from Nigeria, translates, farms and has other businesses. His publishing company, Pan African Publishers, was founded to give African writers somewhere else to publish.
Shadreck: “The main, big, Western publishers who have really helped promote African literature—we’re talking the African Writer’s Series where Achebe was published in the ‘50s, Heinemann or Longman—they had what they thought of as authentically African literature.
“Later the Caine Prize, in its first five or six years, had some kind of narrative of what was authentically African. So authors wrote stories that would fit in. ‘Maybe I am going to win, so I’m going to write about child trafficking.’ Writers in Africa have written not what they wanted to write but what they thought would get published or get a literary prize.
“Publishers in Malawi concentrate on textbooks because it’s a ready market. Newspapers publish fiction but only give 1500 words with poor editing and that’s a bit discouraging. So, right now the encouragement is let’s publish online, maybe publish ourselves for no money. Let’s look for international markets.
“Pan African Publishers was born to give African writers the liberty to publish whatever they wanted in theme, genre and topic. The idea is to publish Africans in Africa and the diaspora and also be at ease with the approach and experimentation.
“Since 2009, we have published school textbooks, books on politics, literature, Imagine Africa 500 and there’s a novel, Yes We Must by Adams Banda, a story that looks at the effects of Malawian politics on the life of an ordinary citizen.”
Imagine Africa 500 is an anthology of stories set 500 years in Africa’s future. It combined a workshop, a mentoring scheme and final editing by Billy Kahora, the chief editor at Kwani Trust.
Shadreck: “The idea comes from how as a writer myself, I have been grappling with the issue of the future. Especially looking at Africa. It’s something that has bothered me for years. There is so much happening in Africa, in Malawi in particular, that prevents policymakers, politicians, and religious people from looking at the future because they are dealing with current issues—HIV/AIDS, wars, poverty, no electricity in the cities.
“As writers, it’s not really our responsibility but we envision, create, and so we can think about the future. There’s a quote that I put in the book from Abraham Lincoln that says ‘If you want the future then create it yourself.’”
Shadreck is the driving force behind the anthology. The idea, the workshop format, and the mentors were all his idea. With Billy Kahora, he pulled together an anthology which included, alongside five of the Malawian writers, some of Africa’s biggest names in SFF—Dilman Dila, Chinelo Onwualu, Wole Talabi as well as new names such as Hannah Onoguwe from Nigeria, and from Uganda, Frances Mwonge and Ray Musinguzi.
“We also put up a call for submissions from across Africa and we had about 80 stories and that’s where the selection part came in, and we were honored that people like Dilman Dila submitted. I had to persuade him.”
To help Malawian writers, there was a workshop with ten writers chosen from 54 applications. The workshop centered on worldbuilding in SFF and the writers were asked to image what Africa would be like in 500 years’ time. Jackee Batanda, Beatrice Lamwaka and Trine Andersen, from Denmark, then acted as mentors. A Kenyan, Masa Mosa, did the book design.
All this editorial input means that Imagine Africa 500 is one of the most polished of the many collections of African SFF. Several of the stories, like those by Malawian Tuntufye Simwimba or by Ugandan Frances Muwonge are quite literary—their impact turns on their meaning of the story for the individual characters. Muthi Nhlema’s opener is from a point of view so alien that it at first takes sorting out, and Tiseke Chilima’s closing story at least in its first few passages gives a blast of wonder from a future different from our own. Stephen Embleton’s penultimate story is a moving look at how Africans in the future will mourn their dead.
Shadreck: “So, yeah, I’m very proud of the result, very proud of what we achieved with the book. I think it looks beautiful. I like sometimes just to hold it.”
Shadreck tirelessly helps other writers.
“I run a club, a space called the Story Club. The Club is a gathering of artists, of people that are enthusiastic about art. It’s a space where we gather to critique and celebrate, not just literature but art. It’s a space where we gather to share info about happenings. It’s run since 2013 until now. We have featured different art forms. We have featured movie producers, writers, poets, musicians, drama, paintings and it is the only club in Malawi so far that has invited international artists to interact with the locals. We have invited Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwean author of the feminist classic Nervous Conditions, first published in 1989, when she was 25 years old). We also had one of Africa’s biggest writers, Shafinaaz Hassim, she is amongst the Africa 39 (The anthology Africa 39, featuring work by the best African writers under 40).
“The session we had with Tsitsi involved her doing a reading and getting interviewed afterwards. It was a panel discussion about her work and then questions from the audience. On the same day we had a lecturer from Miami University who gave a talk about her non-fiction book and we also had a movie premiere (‘Going South’ by Elson Kambalu, a Malawian). We also had an art exhibition.
“I was also the Vice President of the Malawi Writers Union, mostly in an administrative role. The MAWU is also into publishing and we have activities in schools where they have clubs that are encouraging their students to read and to write. I couldn’t continue in that role because I had to focus on building the Story Club. We are also looking at building a residency for writers.”
I ask him about his other work as a writer.
Shadreck: “My first work was published in 1991, but it was just in a magazine. But the work that launched me in Malawi came out in 1998 and was a book for children. It was a fantasy story happening in a village about an orphan child who was being bewitched by his uncle. I wrote a series of storybooks in my own language, Chichewa.
“In 1999, I wrote another one modernizing folklore, about a shapeshifter who can become a hippo. I wrote another fantasy story which was published in 2003, about how the Earth came about. The world is inhabited by Njetusas, demon-like creatures who become evil through mistreating people. It talks about the human element of relationships, which is something that is very central to Malawian life. Also published at the National Library.
“A recent one I also published is a science fiction piece for children and it’s about aliens that come to destroy Malawi because of pollution. The word for alien in Chichewa is ‘strange human being’. So it’s harder to think of aliens as anything other than a kind of human being. A little girl who intervenes to talk with the aliens and the President to stop the invasion.”
His English language story “The Baobab Tree” was published in the Malawi Writers’ Union Collection The Bachelor of Chikanda: And Other Stories (2009). In 2010 he was invited to the Caine Prize Workshop held in Cameroon that year and the result was “Child of a Hyena,” published in the Caine Prize 2011 anthology, To See the Mountain and Other Stories.
However, Shadreck is best known for his novel Azotus, the Kingdom, a low-key SF story, written in a precise style that reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro. From being the author of a few children’s books in Chichewa and a Caine anthology story, Shadreck become one of the Africa 39.
Azotus starts out like it will be a utopia—an orderly, clean, prosperous Africa. Perhaps too orderly and a bit dull. As the novel progresses, small clues begin to make it plain that this is one of the worst imaginable futures for Africa, a future that is many Africans’ worst nightmare.—I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers. To understand what has actually befallen the Kingdom, you have to pay attention to very small clues.
The feeling of everyday life in oppressive times builds until the story becomes just at the end a little bit more like a scenario for an action movie. This ending left me a bit disappointed, but I I might be alone there.
For me, what makes Azotus unique is its voice, individual and beautifully maintained. Shadreck’s roots in Chichewa played a key part in the nearly seven-year process of writing and re-writing.
Shadreck: “My prose is the product of a lot of hard work. I go through a tedious process when it comes to language. When I’m doing my first draft, it is bilingual. There are places where I wrote in English and there were sections where I wrote in Chichewa. For me it’s about the thinking process—you want your thoughts to be as clear as possible, and there were sections where I didn’t write Chichewa because my thoughts were clear in English.
“The second draft was some sort of translation that was about perfecting the language. Ngũgĩ writes in Gikuyu and translates the work to English but for me it’s about making sure I’m expressing myself and thinking clearly.
“I started writing Azotus in 2009 at a residency in Denmark. There wasn’t really any big moment when the idea came, I just found myself writing it. I grew up reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and one of the things that inspired Azotus was his book called Matigari. Matigari is the story of this mythic figure who has seeming powers and it was very inspiring to me, it remained with me for a long time.
“To get the prose, I did a lot of drafts and a lot of experimentation with language. There are parts that I wrote in the native language and then translated it, so that gave me the time to figure out the proper English. It also went through to a lot of people before it went to the professional editors.
“When I started writing it, we’d just come out of a dictatorship and this reflects in the backdrop of the novel. We were free but we were also doing things that were not free.
“Somebody thought that the world was not futuristic enough. The technology is too close to ours. I didn’t want to write about technology so it was little bit like Philip K. Dick, it was a just a bit of future round the edges. We had moved from the dictatorship to multi-party democracy. Azotus was born from an enlargement of that idea to encompass the whole of Africa.
“Azotus the King is not seen physically in the book but we feel his presence. He’s not seen because really he’s the system. It’s the same idea as God. We have never seen God but most people believe that he exists and they do things because of his presence. They feel his presence in their lives and that can be a form of control, it’s a whole idea of a system and having a figure to represent the system. You also see how the system is bringing uniformity as a form of control, the houses are the same. The people speak the same. It’s deliberate. This machinization of people. They are not humans in a sense, they are being made into machines so to speak. Kamuzu Banda [the Malawian dictator from 1961 to 1994] was the President who was like ‘I met you naked and clothed you’. He was perceived as a demi-god, he was the man that would not make any mistakes. Azotus mirrors that.”
An enriching element in the story is that the hero has recurring dreams, many of which involve a charismatic man. Later, Kamoto finds a picture of the man in a forbidden library book. His name is Madiba—one of the titles the South African people gave to Nelson Mandela. These truth-telling dreams introduce an element of traditional belief into what might otherwise be hyper-realistic SFF.
How has Kamoto, kept ignorant of African history, been able to dream so meaningfully of Mandela?
“He sees Madiba in his dream but doesn’t know who he is. He represents his conscience. So when he sees an image of him afterwards, he realizes who he has been dreaming about. So this is just to say that there are things hidden in our subconscious.
“Dreams are highly regarded in our society. In every African country dreams have meaning and we give a lot of attention to dreams, so if your child wakes up some morning and says I dreamed you were crossing a river, Dad, you gotta be worried. A symbol of death, you’re crossing to a different atmosphere, side of life. You also see that in Azotus, there’s the inclusion of a river which is very deliberate, crossing over to a different life.”
His new SF story, “Sahara,” overlaps with Azotus. Its hero, for example, is also called Kamoto and a recurring dream is again a key element. It was published in Autumn 2016 in All the Good Things around Us: An Anthology of African Short Stories, edited by Ivor Agyeman-Duah. As with Africa 39, Shadreck had been included alongside distinguished writers such as Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie.
“Sahara” is dreaming-spires, air-car science fiction, in which a Malawian city becomes a metaphor for science fiction itself:
From afar the city of Blantyre looks like many pencils of different sizes protruding from the ground with mushroom shaped objects interspaced in the air between them. The words on the entrance arch, the one you find soon after crossing the seven kilometres of the artificial lake that surrounds the city read WELCOME TO BLANTYRE A CITY BUILT ON IDEAS. And the ideas are the many gravity domes that shield the light from the sun all the time. The ideas are the fact that you can’t drive your car on the ground streets as they get crammed all the time, forcing people to pay a lot of money to the government so they can fly their Gravity Mobiles, the ideas are that Blantyre is a city feeding on electricity and solar power.
from “Sahara,” in All the Good Things Around Us
Shadreck: “It’s a standalone story that borrows elements from the novel. It talks of a physical disease, not AIDS but rather like it. There is a solution but the government does not want people to know because they are profiting from the suffering of the people, which is something that happens.
“I look at myself more as a writer than as someone who produces a particular genre, though I lean more towards fantasy; but you want your stories to portray you, you want to engage your readers in discovering things in your story. You want your readers to participate and to discover things as they read.”
Like some of the other SFF writers I’ve spoken with, Shadreck does not feel all that far removed from traditional life. The experience of change drives an interest in both past and future.
Shadreck: “If you go to most African cities, you see how you have skyscrapers and shopping malls within two or three kilometers of shabby villages/ghettoes/shantytowns. So if you drive eastwards about 5km you’ll find actual villages with grass roofs, goats, chickens and I’m sure there are places where you’ll find similar locations.
“I’ve grown up in different parts of Malawi but mostly in Lilongwe. Lilongwe’s huge. I have lived in rural areas and in the city. When we were in the rural areas growing up, I’d do things like go hunting for mice, digging. And we boiled them and cut them and ate them with nsima, a cornflour porridge. We went hunting for mice and birds and we built cars with clay and wires. We played football and the ball was made of plastic papers that we put together. We made our own toys and entertainment and that helps with creativity.
“The city had around 200-300,000 people when I was young. Now it has over a million people. You can walk around and ask yourself where the city is because it has diffused all around. I can’t find the city of my youth, and it is totally different from what it was then. Huge changes like that mean you have to think about the future.”
Azotus, the Kingdom is available only in print. The anthology Imagine Africa 500 is available on Kindle, though Amazon credits it in error to Muthi Nhlema and Dilman Dila. All the Good Things Around Us, edited by Ivor Agyeman-Duah, though published in the UK, is more difficult to get hold of even in the UK, though it was readily available in South African bookstore chains.
This interview took place in October 2016; afterwards, Shadreck’s novel Azotus, the Kingdom was shortlisted for the Nommo Awards for speculative fiction by Africans, and the Ilube Award for best novel.