This is an interview with Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, the editors of the newly-released Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora. The interview was conducted by Gautam Bhatia, via a collaborative Google Doc, August 2020.
Gautam Bhatia: Could you please tell us a little bit about the history and the ambition of this project? How and why did you conceptualise the Dominion Anthology? How were the stories and poems chosen? And where would you locate the Dominion Anthology in a literary tradition that has the likes of the AfroSF anthologies?
Oghenechovwe Ekpeki: Well, while I had always had ambitions of starting a publication to address the problems of publishing—paid publishing on the continent—it was my co-editor, Zelda Knight, who initiated this project and reached out to me to inquire if I would like to be a part of it: a request I gladly acceded to. As for the choosing, it was a demanding enough process. We put out a call for submissions, and oh boy, the flood of intensely high quality material that came in! It was an exciting but anxiety-inducing experience. I was never sure if I was making the right calls. I mean, it would probably have been impossible to make the wrong ones, with the strength of what came in from the slush. But I think, maybe, I wanted to make the “everything call.” There's a wealth of amazing work being done in the continent and diaspora, and a strong need for more publications focused exclusively on Blackness. And I think that that is where the Dominion Anthology comes in, to play a small part in that, helping put out some of that flood of important and excellent work by Black creators. It's good that you mention the AfroSF anthologies. Since its inception and through its several issues, along with other anthologies like Dark Matter by Sheree Renée Thomas, the Jalada Anthology, all these anthologies have done their bit. Dominion is following in their footsteps to provide in its own unique style the same brilliant content that's being created by Black writers round the world for a while now.
Zelda Knight: Dominion came about due to a recent tragedy in my life. On July 16, 2019, my family survived a grease fire at our home. After a near-death experience, one begins reexamining one's life. A few months later, as I was recovering, I came across The 1619 Project, directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as The Year of Return sponsored by the Ghanaian government, marking five hundred years of the transatlantic slave trade here in the United States. As a historian and Black speculative fiction publisher, I wanted to find a way to contribute to the movement. I tapped my soon-to-be co-editor Oghenechovwe, whose short story, “Ife-Iyoku,” I’d published before.
The stories and poem were accepted around the concept “What is the legacy and the future of Africa and the African Diaspora?” We wanted to create an open-ended anthology that wasn’t easily defined as horror, Afrofuturism, and any number of genres in between. It was, and still is, an ambitious goal. We hope with Volume 2 to include even more voices, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, ability statuses, and so on. And we also hope to accept more poetry, as we got a lot less poetry than short fiction; hence the lopsidedness of the ratio in Volume 1.
I think Dominion sits firmly in the tradition of Black Speculative Fiction (BSF), which the scholar M. Haynes explains nicely on his blog. The sub-genres we asked for (Rococoa, Dieselfunk, Sword and Soul, Steamfunk, etc.) reflect that mission, as well as each author and poet identifying as Black in some way. More broadly, just as the Dark Matter duet, Octavia’s Brood, the AfroSF series, the Black Speculative Art Movement (BSAM)’s manifesto and anthologies, and more have set out to do, Dominion attempts to reassert that Africans and the African Diaspora are central to humanity’s legacy and future. Likewise, by encompassing all of spec-fic, with many stories blending genres, we hope that Dominion builds upon the growing body and limits of BSF.
GB: The Dominion Anthology has a range of stories, of different kinds, and in different settings. For example, there’s one set in New Orleans, while another is set in Burkina Faso. Some people argue that the range of experiences that shape an individual’s life if they’re from a particular location is so different from the experiences of diaspora individuals that there’s very little common ground to be found. The purpose of the Dominion Anthology is clearly to push back against that argument. Could you tell us a bit more about your thinking behind that?
ZK: Just as immigrating to a new country does not remove your cultural roots, I think it would be remiss to say that the multitude of experiences of Africans living on the continent and abroad is the same as the many lived experiences of the African Diaspora defined traditionally as Black Africans sold into slavery. However, I think it’s very short-sighted to say there’s very little common ground between us or any other native-born and diasporan group. Since inception, the Pan-African project’s central claim has been that the Black experience is universal (in many respects), and therefore, we should unite under one banner for collective liberation. I, for example, will never know what it’s like to enter an arranged marriage in 1950s Nigeria, nor will I ever know what African tribes went through in “German” West Africa pre-decolonization, like two stories in the anthology detail. The same could be said in reverse. But just because we’re not of the same place, or walk the exact same walk, doesn’t mean that the same anti-Black structural forces aren’t present to some degree in cultures around the world. Reading Dominion and seeing the same story threads carry into very different locales and genres proves this point.
OE: Well, you know how they say there's no new experience under the sun? And no truly original story? This is true to an extent. Character names may change, settings, etc. But at the core of it, all human experiences are the same. Love, war, the battle for freedom, the conflict in doing good despite the cost, etc. And these experiences are even closer between people that share a common history and origin. Take slavery for example: it is no different just because it is experienced in different locations. The damage is just as debilitating for those left behind as those taken. The encompassing sense of loss, the disconnection from family, is felt by both. So I think that if we blur all the little details that distract us, and look at the core of Blackness, we will find a lot that unites us. We need to focus not on the individual flavour of the experiences on both sides, but on finding ourselves. This is what we do through these stories, sharing a piece of ourselves, our stories which are us, for the world to see, and with each other. This I believe is the true purpose of storytelling.
GB: There are a number of stories in the anthology that concern shapeshifting of some form. I recently interviewed Innocent Ilo, whose own stories frequently turn to this theme, and I found the recurrence of this idea, in more than one story, quite striking. It gives me a sense of fluidity, a resistance to categories: something that runs through many of the pieces in the anthology. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that?
ZK: To me, it highlights that Blackness is not monolithic. Being Black is a social identity for most, but it’s primarily a political position and a statement of solidarity. It’s meant to unite disparate peoples under this nebulous construct called race. How’s the saying go? All I gotta do is stay Black and die! Staying Black is the key in that sentence. We become Black by force, but Blackness is a slippery thing. Is Raoul Black in Nicole Givens Kurtz’s story, which opens the anthology? There’s signifiers within the story that say as much. But as Stuart Hall contends, race is a floating signifier. By that he means race can change depending on the time, place, and cultural context one happens to be born into. Who is human and who is not? Who is Black and who is not? What is humanity and what is Blackness? We all came from Africa, did we not? What is the “Black experience™?” I think the shapeshifting you will read in Dominion points to these open-ended questions without an answer. One has to sit with them and think on them for themselves.
OE: Fluidity as you mentioned there is a very significant word to all of this. And yes, shapeshifting is very present in African storytelling. Ilo's story as you mentioned (“Rat and Finch are Friends”); my own “The Witching Hour,” which won the Nommo award: shapeshifting is a fascinating idea for me. It allows a thing to shift its form to suit its needs, while remaining essentially the same at its center. I would like to think that this is symbolic of African storytelling. The various anthologies that came before have had different forms, or shapes, if you will. Dark Matter had essays and stories from some of the most accomplished Black writers in the diaspora. AfroSF takes a different shape and focuses on sci-fi stories across Africa and the Diaspora. The Jalada Aftofutures issue is focused on Afrofuturism, with a smattering of brilliant stories and poems, while the Dominion Anthology embraces all speculative fiction and poetry across Africa and the diaspora. In all these iterations, these bodies of work have taken different forms to fulfil one central purpose: that is giving platform and a voice to Black people and Africans the world over. The Dominion Anthology tries to do the same, to unify diverse narratives while still serving the same central purpose in the myriad tales it houses.
GB: A few of the stories in the anthology deal with colonialism, through different lenses: alt-history, fantasy, and so on. How do you view this in light of SFF’s historically uneasy relationship with colonialism, and recent instances of “writing back” (such as, say, the novels of Yoss, Mieville’s Embassytown, even the Black Panther movie)?
ZK: That’s an interesting question. Originally, this anthology was supposed to be filled with alternate histories taking historical events such as colonialism in mind. I think it’s very important to grapple with the legacy of colonialism, especially in a genre that is supposed to be forward thinking. Otherwise, you stand to replicate the same oppressive forces in far-flung futures.
OE: Like Zelda Knight said, it is very important to examine these social ills and confront them as a lot of stories in the anthology do through sci-fi, fantasy, and different lenses. It's the function of sci-fi to predict the future. And I believe not just predict, but sometimes shape, or even create it. And what kind of future can we create without a thorough examination of the past, to determine what is worthy of keeping or shelving? SFF is evolving and writers today are taking a bolder stance with their writing, reaching out to confront all these issues that the genres formerly skirted around. I believe that this is a good thing. And The Dominion Anthology does a good job of playing its part in that confrontation, something I believe to be a social responsibility.
GB: There are stories, including your own, Ekpeki, in which patriarchy (and resistance to it) plays an important role. One of the beauties of SFF, as Ursula Le Guin pointed out, is that it allows us to imagine alternatives. For SFF that is embedded in existing social relations (as some of these stories are), where do you see the balance between a plausible accounting of those social relations (which would have to reckon with the existence of patriarchy), and imagining alternatives?
OE: Ahh, the age old issue of accurate historical accounting vs. imagining new futures. A balance very much needs to be struck. You see, the past is just as important as the future. And forgetting the events of the past might mean forgetting the lessons learned, too, and we might then be doomed to repeat those same mistakes. So there is very much a need for accurate documentation, plausible accounting, as you said, of the past. In the same vein, imagining alternatives is very important. This is why I am a fan of sci-fi, in its purpose of predicting the future. Not just predicting, but creating it. Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, a very important part of this aims to imagine new futures for Black people and Africans. Many of the stories in the Dominion Anthology do address all these existing norms and relations which aren't always pretty or easy to see, from patriarchy, to racism, to certain phobias and social ills. But it does so with an eye to not just examine them for a visual spectacle, “suffering porn,” as they say, but to also push for their dismantling, after sufficiently exposing their ill effects and moving on to explore the much needed alternatives
GB: I recently read Suyi Davies’s David Mogo, Godhunter, and was struck by the very direct and immediate role played by a very diverse, very plural pantheon of gods in the story. This is also something that I came across in many of the stories in the Dominion Anthology. It reminds me of something Chinua Achebe wrote when he was talking about books like The Palm-Wine Drinkard: he referred to an expanded sense of what constitutes reality. Would you have any thoughts on that?
OE: Chinua Achebe said that fiction and storytelling give us a second handle at reality. And that is evident in the stories you mentioned, Suyi's David Mogo, Dominion, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Existing literature has given us a limited view of reality, has boxed us in, only allowing us a limited perspective in its singular narrative. But the diversity in these, and other works of fiction today, gifts and exposes the world to whole new vistas it was formerly unaware of. We start to understand that there is no one reality and see that expanded sense of reality Chinua Achebe talked about. We get to include more people's reality into the reality collective. Their gods, religions, conflicts, stories, cultures, etc. The books you mentioned, and Dominion does indeed have this as one of its goals, to bring whole new worlds, realities to the forefront of literary consumption. And I've often said that one of my dreams is to reinvent pop culture, and center Black and diverse narratives. Invictus Quarterly, the first issue of which is a companion to the Dominion Anthology, is one part of that goal. It is an illustrated magazine that features queer protagonists and people of colour in fantastical worlds and aims to be a part of this expansion.
GB: Finally: in our ongoing “100 African Writers of SFF” series with Strange Horizons, there have been repeated references by writers to the need of a systematic infrastructure that will enable a thriving SFF community, and promote SFF writing on a sustained basis, from the African continent. This infrastructure includes festivals (such as the Ake Festival), magazines (such as Omenana etc.), publishing houses, and of course, anthologies like this one. What do you see as the role of the Dominion Anthology in creating that infrastructure, and what are your hopes for the future?
ZK: My co-editor made a point many times to say Dominion helps to foster a paid space where Africans and the Diaspora can come together to create. I resisted for a long time making Dominion into a series as my publishing house already eats up a lot of my time, and I’m currently attempting to open a mobile bookstore on top of it all. But he insisted for the reasons you brought up. My hope is that others living on the continent do similar things. Maybe a Pan-African SFF comics anthology in the vein of Kugali or Roy Okupe's YouNeek Studios. And, excuse my ignorance if there already is one, but my biggest hope is that Omenana or the group behind the Ake Festival can create a dedicated SFF publishing imprint. Our diversity is our strength, but there is something to be said about having one venue open to all. Since I do not live on the continent, I couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity, but if someone reading this out there applies for the IPA Africa Publishing Innovation Fund, let me know! I would love to help in anyway I can, even if it’s just being a Kickstarter proxy.
OE: Like my co-editor said, I pushed for Dominion to be a series, an ongoing thing, instead of a standalone. Because early on, I have realized and said even in other interviews that the continent strongly needs institutions and structures in place to foster the progress of Black and African speculative fiction. Omenana is doing a lot of good in this regard. The Nommo Awards by the African Speculative Fiction Society, the Jalada Anthology, AfroSF, and the upcoming Afrinomenom are other examples. The Dominion Anthology seeks to take its place amongst all these in providing or being the vehicle of the advancement of Black and African speculative fiction. We also have other publication endeavours in the works, besides Dominion. Anthologies too, in partnership with other persons in the Black and African speculative fiction community. Meanwhile, Zelda, I did apply for it, the IPA Africa Publishing Innovation fund, since, as I have a very scintillating and groundbreaking publishing project in the works. One that attempts to re-immerse us in the grandest and oldest African storytelling traditions and revolutionise storytelling as we know it, on the continent and beyond it. So prepare, if I don't get the grant, I might have to take you up on your offer of supporting or being a Kickstarter proxy!
But hey, no spoilers. I've said too much already. I'll just say that big and good things are coming, a Black or an African rising. *smile*