Speculative fiction, like Janus—the Roman god with two faces, standing at gates and doorways, presiding over beginnings and endings—is uniquely situated to both interrogate our past (historical events, folkloric traditions, and the myths that continue to shape society), as well as peer into our future, particularly the dystopian, capitalist, neocolonial and technology-driven reality we are heading towards. The thirty-two stories collected in Africa Risen—featuring both diasporic and continental voices—deftly straddle these concerns. The anthology explores the sheer variety and vivacity of African cultures, raises questions about what constitutes “Blackness” as a distinct political identity and social experience, and offers snapshots that are deeply reflective of our turbulent times. While the array of themes presented here is impressive, it does come at the cost of storytelling quality—some of the tales are not as well developed as the others. Nevertheless, they are important in either starting or adding to contemporary conversations on African speculative fiction and the wider political debates that affect all marginalized communities.
The opening cli-fi tale “The Blue House” by Dilman Dila is a perfect example of this agenda. Delicate, devastating, and faintly laced with horror, it sets the tone for the rest of this collection. It narrates the story of Cana-B70, an android who, upon seeing an image of a blue house in the middle of nowhere, goes against her programming and slowly begins to remember her former human life, in the form of thoughts, dreams, feelings, and finally memories. It also subtly comments on the nature of trauma—for this lone droid, reliving a triggering flashback can bring forth vital knowledge and wisdom at the cost of self-destruction. Yet, choosing the safer option of oblivion risks repeating the mistakes of the past. In fact, this act of personal reminiscing takes on communal value when we realize that the story is set in the future, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where some humans opted to become androids in a bid for survival. The key to the droid’s earlier life as a little girl also unlocks the terrifying truth of the tragedy that befell civilization.
Perhaps, then, the past will always find a way to haunt us, and the very survival of certain folklores, histories, and cultures, against all odds, is in itself a quiet act of subversion, as this line from the story so poignantly highlights:
A memory purge had cleaned her system of the dead program, and yet, here it was, sending her data like a ghost whispering to a child. (pg. 6)
These futuristic themes are continued, albeit a bit more optimistically, in the following stories: “IRL” by Steven Barnes, “A Dream of Electric Mothers” by Wole Talabi, “Hanfo Driver” by Ada Nnadi, and “Biscuit and Milk” by Dare Segun Falowo. In Barnes’s ingenious and ultimately heartwarming tale, the narrator Shango/Garett clearly prefers his VR life to the real world in which his mother is dead and his father estranged. But the online and offline spaces are far from separate—the granting or withholding of justice for those convicted of a crime is often decided by votes from the players—and, when Shango’s father is framed for a crime he did not commit, the boy must rely on his cunning and quick-thinking, as well as collaborate with his virtual allies, to save his only remaining family. Since in VR spaces identities can be reinvented on one’s own terms, the story also hints at how online communities, despite being fraught with hackers and blackmailers, often functions as an alternative to hierarchal social systems.
Meanwhile, in Wole Talabi’s story, ancestral wisdom is reimagined as an artificial intelligence (a “digital supercitizen”) whom political leaders can call upon for guidance, especially if war is on the horizon. Like the protagonist of “The Blue House,” this story’s Iya Ajimobi, a Minister of Defense, is also searching for a familial connect and an answer to a pressing political issue, but in this narrative’s charming resolution it is the individual’s intuition and self-awareness that is ultimately prioritized. Nnadi’s “Hanfo Driver” deals with the predicament of the driver of a dysfunctional hovercraft-esque minibus—the brainchild of his well-intentioned patron with terrible business ideas—and is the only story to have a thoroughly humorous and wholesome edge to it. Finally, Falowo’s tale, which concludes this collection, is told in the form of numbered paragraphs, prosaically unfolding a saga set aboard a sentient spaceship.
Many of this collection’s futures, then, offer a glimmer of hope despite the bleakness. “Mami Wataworks” by Russell Nichols, for example, envisions a world in which stealing water is a crime as bad as being accused of witchcraft. The story centers on a mother-daughter relationship. Amaya, the daughter, appears to have solved the water crisis with the help of a device even as her religious-minded neighbors appear to be hostile or ambivalent towards the “invention.” While at first their reactions to the new-fangled technology might seem strange, their suspicion makes sense when one ponders over the fact that technology often turns individuals into mindless consumers—people become products. This suggests that science and technology might perhaps solve environmental threats, but only in the absence of selfish, profit-driven enterprises. Another story, “Cloud Mine” by Timi Odueso—wherein a “rainmaker” is brutally tortured and exploited for her ability—can be read as a companion piece to Nichols’s that touches upon how desperation and resource scarcity often push the bounds of human cruelty.
Of course, most anthologies tend to be rather patchy—after all, a short story, no matter how well-written it is, may or may not appeal to a reader’s tastes—but “The Soul Would Have No Rainbow” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces in this anthology. The story references the Zimbabwe War of Liberation as well as the legend of Gogo Magera, a shape-shifting praying mantis. Its main character, Langa, has returned to the homeland for the funeral of her beloved grandmother and discovers her ancient cookbook, filled with recipes, memories, and family secrets. She learns of her grandmother’s brave role in her country’s freedom struggle—a revelation that is both cathartic and magical, and is also a nod to those stories of women that are largely erased from historical narratives. Yet they are recorded in other artefacts, such as cookbooks, anecdotes, superstitions, and folklore passed down the generations.
Other tales in this collection, then, similarly probe not the future but Africa’s gloriously diverse myths, legends, and folktales. These may be unfamiliar to readers who do not belong to their particular cultures, but each story makes them accessible, enjoyable, and enriching. Aline-Mwezi Niyonsenga’s “Housewarming for a Lion Goddess” also gorgeously blends culinary recipes into a rich batter of storytelling, in which the past interweaves with the present in the tale of Nyarirezi, the titular lion goddess. The story skillfully excavates (without entirely resolving) the guilt, fear, and anxiety that comes from choosing oneself over protecting others, especially after escaping certain patriarchal boundaries and rebuilding a new life on one’s own terms.
Several other stories are likewise enmeshed in folkloric traditions. Jinns and crafty sorceresses make an appearance in Mirette Bahgat’s “The Devil Is Us,” while “Liquid Twilight” by Ytasha Womack and “When the Mami Wata Met a Demon” by Moustapha Mbacké Diop—both of which are set by the sea—dive deep into familial bonds. So, too, does the more menacing (and more land-confined) “The Carving of War” by Somto Ihezue Onyedikachi. But the most memorable among this subset of the collection is “The Deification of Igodo” by Joshua Uchenna Omenga, a cautionary folktale that engages with the consequences of greed and ambition beyond measure. Despite rising to the stature of a legendary king, Igodo still aspires to godliness, with disastrous results. The narrator even remarks at one point:
And least of all, none had heard of a man who had declared himself a god. It was the people who created their gods and destroyed their gods when they deemed fit. But how could it be with this self-created god? (pg. 49)
The collection’s borrowings are not only folkloric. In fact, the majority of the tales here borrow certain elements from horror to make their point, or are deliberately written in the vein of horror stories. “Peeling Time (Deluxe Edition)” by Tlotlo Tsamaase is a particularly messed-up story, relishing its explicit body horror; “A Girl Crawls in a Dark Corner” by Alexis Brooks de Vita is equally disturbing, delving into slavery, trafficking, and female genital mutilation; and “A Soul of Small Places” by Mame Bougouma Diene and Woppa Diallo is set in a patriarchal world where women are forced to marry their rapists. The latter is a heartbreaking story about survival and monstrosity—and about how sometimes, despite all the sacrifices, we cannot save the people we love. These tales are peculiarly relevant in understanding how patriarchy (and by extension, kyriarchy) manifests differently in diverse areas of the globe, and requires feminist activism that can strategically respond to those concerns. This theme is also picked up by Chinelo Onwualu’s “The Taloned Beast” which utilizes the familiar trope of “An Abusive Uncle” to go into detail about physical violence and domestic abuse. In the side-character of Naomi, the author especially sheds light on why so many survivors of domestic violence are often reluctant to escape their abusive situations, even when help and rehabilitation resources are seemingly available.
In “The Sugar Mill” by Tobias S. Buckell, a protagonist who passes for “white” (on account of his lighter skin) tries to sell an old sugar mill to a white couple who have grand plans of turning the space into an upbeat yoga studio. Converting a piece of land that was molded by slavery and/or indentured labor into luxurious vacation homes for wealthy white folks is a problematic phenomenon that has been going on for quite some time, but our protagonist is homeless and selling the sugar mill could bring him the money to create a better life elsewhere. Nevertheless, a chorus of (literally) disembodied voices (ghosts of the people who perished while working in the plantations) urge him otherwise. Ultimately, he makes the difficult choice and honors his ancestors. He tells the white couple:
Your living room on those plans, it would be right over where the gears ripped limb from body. Your carpet will be tossed over the bloody floor. If you have dinner there, it would be like having tea in an abattoir … You’re building a house in a graveyard, and you’re asking me if people will be upset. The question isn’t will people be upset, the question is, why would you do this? (pg. 260)
As manifestations of the past, ghosts play a crucial role in cross-examining and revising history. Their presence also emphasizes that the natives’ resistance to colonization and Christianity continues well into the afterlife. This conceit is brilliantly explored in “Rear Mirror” by Nuzo Onoh, wherein the corpse of a woman being taken for a Christian cremation ceremony refuses to cooperate until she is finally buried as per her preferred indigenous rites.
Tananarive Due’s “Ghost Ship,” on the other hand, isn’t a ghost story per se; it takes place in a world where segregation is rife, and Florida, the main character, is tasked with smuggling a pet to a client in America—a country she has never visited, but where she plans to start a new life. Yet, as Murphy’s Law dictates, this smuggling operation goes awry; the creature escapes, infects and kills all the other passengers, leaving the ship to haunt the sea, never quite reaching land—and bestowing upon Florida a strange sense of freedom.
The more ineffable paranormal does, however, recur: the shape-shifting water spirit Mama Wata makes another appearance in “Simbi” by Sandra Jackson-Opuku, remaining by the side of a boy sold into slavery; and “Exiles of Witchery” by Ivana Akotowaa Ofori features characters who are alienated and ostracized on account of their paranormal abilities. “A Knight in Tunisia” by Alex Jennings also follows the exploits of a “Paranorman,” who is suffering from severe PTSD, but Ofori’s strives to be a lovely, cheerful story, packed with action, adventure, and found family dynamics. In many ways, it feels like an episode of Doctor Who (the TARDIS is directly referenced in the text!).
It’s not the collection’s only kooky adventure. Frank Zeph’s “Door Crashers” is similarly offbeat, about personnel who are sent on missions to hack alternate realties, while “Once Upon a Time in 1967” by Oyedotun Damilola Muees, “The Papermakers” by Akua Lezli Hope, and “Star Watchers” by Danian Darrell Jerry all evoke a quaint fairytale charm to varying degrees. But seriousness remains the volume’s primary tone: both “March Magic” by W. C. Dunlap and “Air to Shape Lungs” by Shingai Njeri Kagunda are enchanting in their own ways, for example, bristling with poetic prose but each carrying weighty messages. Much of the latter story, for instance, takes place in an autocratic school environment where the migrant creatures who are educated there (they could be nomads or refugees searching for a land to call home) quickly learn that asking certain questions is illegal—and that those who persist in doing so inexplicably “disappear.” This, of course, is eerily relevant since fascist governments are on the rise in various parts of the world—and is a plaintive meditation on freedom and flying.
Finally, in “Ruler of the Rear Guard” by Maurice Broaddus, questions are asked about how definitions of Blackness differ between diasporans and those based in the homeland. The following conversation highlights the pressure to constantly prove and perform one’s “authenticity” and the curious case of hyphenated identities:
“…I’m a black woman on sabbatical.”
“There are no black people here.” His lips peeled back to reveal rows of bleached white teeth, an affectation of his wealth. “We know who we are. Igbo. Akan. Ewe. And so on.”
“If I’m not black, what am I?” She bristled. Too often she ran into those who questioned her blackness, her commitment to The Cause, because she didn’t talk, act, or dress the way others defined blackness.
“You have had a lifetime being taught the illogic of race. You may spend a lifetime unlearning it. There was no such thing as Africa until Europeans showed up, either. Just imperial powers using the cover of wars for their land grabs, assuming control of Alkebulan history.”
“Yes.” Sylvonne stopped him before he asked. She was equally used to these kind of insulting “black quizzes” to prove she was authentic. “What we named our continent. ‘The Mother of Mankind.’” (pg. 260)
Throughout this review, I have attempted (albeit poorly) to sort these thirty-two stories into certain groups to make discussion easier, and also to highlight the broader, thematic concerns of this anthology. But Africa Risen has to grapple both with the blood-splattered legacy of slavery and colonialism (and consequently many of these stories are rather dark and can get quite grisly; some would have greatly benefited from some content warnings) and with questions of community and cultural identity, as we move towards an increasingly uncertain future beset by socioeconomic inequalities and environmental collapse. The collection refuses the homogeneity and the neat categorizations of a post-globalized world to rejoice in heterogeneity and ambivalence.
Mainstream western speculative fiction is largely indebted to white, masculine figures like J. R. R. Tolkien or Philip K. Dick; the genre’s short fiction in particular remains for the most part a heavily North American-dominated market. Nevertheless, speculative fiction from historically marginalized cultures, despite being influenced by western genres, need not owe a debt to them, nor necessarily strive for western validation. In almost every culture, speculative fiction draws upon local folklore and other magic-based storytelling traditions, and Africa Risen—with its plethora of fabulist tales—does a fairly decent job of reconciling contemporary genre fiction with that aspect of our pasts.
Moreover, and as I mentioned earlier, anthologies, in my reading experience, can be patchy. Africa Risen is no exception. Several stories could have benefited from additional editing—some are weighed down by dense worldbuilding which perhaps could have been better reserved for related novels, others suffer from poor pacing or technical weaknesses in the prose. Of course, even the less successful stories here still deal with grand ideas and retain a few engaging sections, and every reader brings their personal preferences and biases to the table. Thus, the book is enjoyable and thoughtful—but only in parts and not as a whole. Still, Africa Risen offers a cursory introduction to the sheer diversity of voices in African speculative fiction which are operating today—voices that may get missed or overlooked in contemporary discussions, since white patronage is, more often than not, very exclusionary and limited to specific individuals. This anthology introduces readers to legends and folktales from cultures they have not previously encountered, as well as to authors they may not have otherwise discovered on their own. It should be noted that African literature is an extremely wide field, and there are plenty of speculative writers not included here—such as Odafe Otagun, Shadreck Chikoti, Akwaeke Emezi, Tade Thompson, and many, many more—all doing interesting and incredible things with the genre. Still, Africa Risen offers an eclectic sampler, and interested readers can later go online to hunt down more stories by writers whose tales appealed to them; in my own subjective list, I found the works of Tobi Ogundiran, Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, Dilman Dila, Nuzo Onoh, Steven Barnes, Joshua Uchenna Omenga, and Wole Talabi to be the most enthralling.
So, to conclude, I leave you with a short, cheery note about my favorite story in this anthology—“The Lady of the Yellow-Painted Library” by Tobi Ogundiran. In this darkly comic and unexpectedly horrific tale, Mr. Wande Badmus, a salesman, fails to return a copy of Things Fall Apart (you know, the One African Novel that probably everyone has heard about) and is consequently pursued by a librarian. He offers to pay a fine but the librarian is quite adamant that the book be returned—and Badmus’s life turns absolutely hellish when he is unable to do that. It is an utterly delightful and delicious blend of the mundane and the macabre. The writer takes an experience that is perhaps universally familiar to all bibliophiles—not returning a library book on time and planning to get away with it—and turns it into a tale about the importance of keeping promises and repaying debts. From divine vengeance to karmic justice, there are a lot of heavy metaphors that can be read into this; yet, on a simpler and more emotional level, this story is an apt illustration not just of the power of art to transcend borders, but evidence that, sometimes, the speculative genre is also allowed to have its share of fun under the sun.