Nearly every article on African speculative fiction that I've read starts with an air of surprise and discovery—the author never knew the genre existed and is delighted by what they have found. Or, if it is written by an African writer of the genre, it has an air of justification, with the author defending their interest and asking the world to take a closer look at their work and others like it.
Frankly, I'm tired of these sorts of articles. As Mark Bould notes, Africans have been producing speculative fiction—that is, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, et al.—since the genre began and the fact that people are just discovering it is really no one's fault but their own.
It could be argued that in a world dominated by racist, sexist, heteronormative, and capitalist viewpoints, stories by queers, non-whites, and non-males will have a harder time garnering attention and celebration. It could also be argued that there has been a resurgence of African speculative fiction—perhaps starting in 2008, when the South African art journal Chimurenga published one of the first roundups of African speculative art, and accelerated when Nnedi Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award for her 2010 novel Who Fears Death—and that this is what is being lauded.
However, though it's true that there are a few more avenues of publication for African speculative fiction than before, I would argue that this is not the primary reason for the kind of attention African speculative fiction has been getting since 2010.
Genre fiction in North America—particularly science fiction and fantasy—has been undergoing an internal upheaval in the last decade or so. A social justice movement that challenges the idea that speculative fiction is or should be the exclusive enclave of white, Anglo-American males has been growing ever more vocal. Calls for diversity—in characters and writers—have pushed fans to seek their stories from a wider pool, and that has gotten them looking in "unusual" places. But like a lot of things out of Africa, just because the West wasn't aware of it, doesn't mean we weren't doing it. Their regard didn't make it spontaneously burst to life.
In his roundup of the year, writer Wole Talabi noted that 2015 was something of a landmark year for African speculative fiction. I'm inclined to agree, but only because it is the latest in a series of years in which the genre has received sustained attention from outside the continent. For me, though, 2015 was more important as a year that continued what I have come to see as certain trends in the genre.
The first is the persistent dominance of two countries in the production of African speculative fiction in English: Nigeria and South Africa. It is not surprising that these two countries have emerged at the forefront of the genre. Nigeria has one of the largest populations—and the largest GDP—on the continent, while South Africa has one of the strongest publishing infrastructures and a longer history writing the kind of speculative fiction most recognisable to Western audiences. What troubles me, however, is what this means for whose voices are getting heard.
This segues to the other major trends I've been noticing. In South Africa, due to a long history of economic and social discrimination, the voices of genre fiction are overwhelmingly white, while on the rest of the continent—Nigeria included—where issues of gender discrimination can run deep, the voices are often overwhelmingly male. Two anthologies that came out in 2015, AfroSF Vol. 2 and Terra Incognita, exemplify this trend.
Edited by author Rachel Zadok, Terra Incognita is a volume of nineteen stories published by Short Story Day Africa. However, more than sixty percent of the writers featured are white. Of the five non-white Africans featured, four are Nigerian or of Nigerian origin. Though I have not had a chance to read AfroSF v2, it did not escape my notice that all five of its authors are men. AfroSF editor Ivor Hartmann noted that his efforts to secure female contributors—he spent over a year soliciting entries for the volume—ultimately proved unsuccessful.
There are obviously a wider variety of African genre authors than either of these two publications suggest, but as in any system where certain voices seem to emerge over others, it is always useful to question why. Why is it so difficult to find and promote the voices of black South Africans, and women from countries other than Nigeria and South Africa, within the genre? Answering that question and working to overcome those obstacles will go a long way in righting an unbalanced situation before it becomes rooted as systemic inequality.
Still, 2015 was a good year for African speculative fiction. Though it has featured genre works before, Brittle Paper, a popular literary blog, formally announced its new African fantasy series, starting with Eugene Odogwu's "In the Shadow of Iyanibi." Omenana, the online speculative magazine I co-founded, worked to publish several African women writers, including Malawian Ekari Mbvundula, whose story "Montague's Last" is a searing tale about the struggle for redemption and what it costs us to undo the wrong we've done. It is reprinted in this issue of Strange Horizons. Other exciting volumes that debuted included African Monsters, edited by Margret Helgadottir and Jo Thomas (Fox Spirit Books) and Imagine Africa 500, edited by Billy Kahora and Trine Andersen (Pan African Publishers). Jungle Jim, a South African pulp fiction magazine, also produced its latest edition, and Nnedi Okorafor's SF novella Binti was published by Tor.com's new novella imprint.
We're here and we're writing—whether we gain Western attention for it or not. It has been argued that African audiences prefer non-fiction or stories set amid the gritty realism of their lives, but that is bunk. Beyond looking at who is arbitrating the tastes of the African reader (they're often located outside of the continent), this argument runs the risk of being essentializing. Africa is a massive continent and many different people are reading many different things. African speculative fiction may be packaged in ways that Western audiences may not be used to—from the ubiquitous black magic in the Hausa romances of Nigeria to the psychic detectives of Liberian crime thrillers—but there are plenty of Africans who appreciate and enjoy it. Otherwise we wouldn't be producing so much of it.