Silence. She hobbles to the draperies. Her Nyalaa apartment overlooks the Northern Flypass. Her face tightens. She turns and looks at me. “Duncan, what have you done?”
She sighs, walks over and unties me. I follow her to the window; down between the tenement blocks, bright lights weave across the glass and brick apartments, police cruisers levitate over the windows and red beams scan every inch through the thick walls. Circling in the air are winged drones securing the perimeter. Droyds storm into buildings with the centrifugal urgency of whirlwinds. In the rustic playground, shouldered by four tenement blocks a row of men—undesirables, I suspect—are lined, teeth to the tarmac, with their arms cuffed behind their backs. A photon-grenade goes off in one of the lower floors, bickering women and screaming children with covered eyes shuffle shuffle with clumsy, heavy missteps into the quadrangle. In their arms they clutch green transit papers. A woman scampers into a dark alleyway between blocks A and D; a drone swoops down and ejects a bolas that slips her ankles and trips her. A moment later a Droyd drags her by her feet to join the men.
From “Transit,” in Imagine Africa 500.
Derek Lubangakene made the cut for the anthology Imagine Africa 500. “Transit” is about a dying future of impotent males and the one child who can get an erection. The far future setting is vividly described; the hero’s mother is a kick-ass villain; things get tense in an action-movie way, and the ending is a neat bit of cliffhanging ambiguity. But feminist it is not.
Derek: “The story was a compressed version of a novel I wanted to write a long time ago but didn’t know how to write it. In the novel I imagined a world where an evil feminist makes some kind of serum that makes every man impotent, but some of them survive.
“The young kid is supposed to be the cure. He has like the first erection in forever. The main character is supposed to take the child to the lab that is trying to create a cure. The kid is supposed to be their hope for it, but the kid is actually bait by the Hegemony.”
The Hegemony are the feminists who have taken over the entire African block. The main character is a rebel; his mother is a leading figure in the government. The Hegemony are using the child to draw out the rebels. I ask Derek—“why evil feminists?”
Derek: “I don’t know; I think when I came up with the idea for the novel that I was not really in touch with what feminism was. I didn’t understand feminism. So I wanted to write a goof about it. It was supposed to be a goof, you know, but the story was supposed to have a redemptive angle in the end. I wanted to write about all the clichés that typical macho men have about feminism but in the end redeem it.”
I trot out my standard line. “You can’t critique stereotypes by showing them, you will only reinforce them” and then ask if he has renounced the evil feminists now.
Derek: “I do. I do. I do redeem them, actually.”
GR: “How do you redeem them?”
Derek: ”That’s what I was going to write in the novel. I didn’t actually get to that. But I actually thought about redeeming them.“
GR: “Do they settle down and be nice little housewives and raise children? Do that and feminists would...”
Derek: “...go berserk.”
GR: “They would critique you.”
We get distracted by a lot of talk about politics and Brexit, and go back to how he got involved with Africa 500. Did he go to the Africa 500 workshops in Malawi?
Derek: “No, no, no. I didn’t go to the workshop. Actually I met Shadreck (Chikoti, publisher of the anthology) when he was here.
“I’m in the same writing group as Dilman (Dila). We usually meet once a month. So Dilman had seen a lot of my fantasy and science fiction stories...so Dilman knew Shadreck and Dilman made the connect. He said, ‘Shadreck, you should talk to this guy as well.’
“We don’t have a name for our group, but we call ourselves Write Club like Fight Club. What happens is that two or three members submit a story but it’s not specifically tied to science or fantasy. Most are mainstream writers. There’s Dilman, and John Quinn who’s not actually around right now. He’s from Scotland but he lives here now.
“Also Beatrice Lamwaka and Sophie Alal. She lives in Kampala but she’s doing an MFA in the UK at Essex University. She writes mainly mainstream, but sometimes she dabbles in SFF. Others in the group are Glaydah Namukasa, Barbara Oketta, and Tim Agaba Baroraho.”
“Most of my stories are fantasy. I’ve submitted to a lot of anthologies actually, but didn’t make the cut. Also to Asimov’s. No feedback, just ‘This wasn’t right for us.’
“I do dabble in a bit of mainstream stories but that depends on the story, how it feels to me. Most stories, I start them not knowing how they will end or what genre they are going to be. But most will be fantasy based or have aspects of fantasy to them, yeah. The stories that I’ve written that are mainstream, it’s very rare that I even try to get them published? I identify so much with fantasy and I’m not ashamed of it. Almost all the writers I read and look up to are fantasy.
“I can start from comic books. Anything by Alan Moore, anything Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, or Warren Ellis. It’s very rare to get comic books here. I get them from friends mostly. And there are sites that let you read just a few pages for free. My friends get e-books and then they loan them to me.”
Of all the African writers I’ve met, Derek is one of the most plugged into the great SFF tradition.
“I like David Mitchell. I love The Bone Clocks. Obviously the Game of Thrones books. Margaret Atwood. Look at the MaddAdam trilogy, that’s pretty much SFF or fantasy at least, like Oryx and Crake. David Eddings as well and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.
“When a kid I read mostly spy novels. John Le Carre—I read a lot of John Le Carré. And Frank Yerby. When I was eight, I think I was reading Tintin. I grew up around a lot of books. My elder brothers had them. The earliest SF novel I read was Dune? That’s the earliest I can remember vividly.
“With friends I swap books a lot. Usually I buy my books at the beginning of the month. That’s when I notice most of the bookshops around here get new stock. Along the way I do the sellers on the road. If I see a book I like I usually tell the seller, can I go to where you keep your other books, their stock and I see your stock. From that stock of maybe one hundred books I get three or four I like.”
The food comes, we eat, and I ask him about his life.
Derek: “My hometown is in the north. It’s a district called Agago. (He types the name for me). My mother tongue is Acholi. It’s actually quite a big language. It’s maybe a third of the country. It’s a Nilotic language, and it’s broken up into a lot of smaller groups in the north.
“I was born here in Kampala. I go back every once in a while but my grandparents are not alive any more, but they were when I was a kid. The changes since then are in chores, mainly. How accessible it is to get water in a village where you can go to a well, not trek a couple of kilometres to the water source? Maybe that only.
“I do remember the bonfires a lot. A lot of folklore was told by the bonfire. That’s what made the bonfire so interesting. Every evening the kids would gather round and the elders, the adults come around and tell you stories, like anecdotes. When you are a kid you’re not allowed to tell a story, it’s more a show for the adults. You can only recite to the younger kids, but not at the bonfire.
“In my home city we do speak Acholi only—we keep it pure like that. But in schools it’s English. I was born in Kampala, so I grew up around English, so going to school wasn’t much of a transition. The transition was every time when I went back to the village, I had to switch to Acholi. I speak Acholi, I speak English and I speak Luganda because I’ve grown up here in the central region where Luganda is primarily spoken.
“A lot was compartmentalised. I would speak Acholi at home, speak English at school, and Luganda was for when you’re in the playground or going to the market.
“My dad worked in the Ministry of Information. He was a commissioner there but he retired and now he lectures at Gulu University in the North.
“His job was a lot of writing. That’s why we had a lot of books in the house. Books were passed down. So like my elder brothers would get first rights on any book, and then pass it on. I did get a book from my dad once but it was in French. He’d studied in France and he could speak French. I remember on weekends, we had to watch French movies cause the National Broadcaster (UBC) would always show French movies on weekends. I never got into that.”
I ask Derek what else he has published.
Derek: “Most of the stuff I’ve had published is poetry in a magazine called The Missing Slate or Prairie Schooner, or The Kalahari Review, but I don’t write poetry any more.”
Derek’s “Liar Liar” was published in Dilman Dila’s Lawino magazine, which until recently was available online. It was a deeply felt mainstream story about destructive lies among students at Makerere University. It could have come across as teen angst. Instead it’s increasingly tense, as the social exclusion of the heroine increases.
Derek: “I attempted to write a novel when I was seventeen, that was the first time I ever wrote something long. That’s when I decided, this is what I want to do. It’s been twelve years now. It takes a long while. Thinking about my novel, it was pure garbage. Just terrible. But at seventeen what can you write?
“Prose style takes a while to get. It’s a lot of trying this, trying that. I can remember reading Stephen King and wanting to write long and winding stories like him, then I discovered Peter Straub, and I tried to write like him as well. Then came Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance and Kafka on the Shore.
“The novel I’m writing now, it is pretty much high fantasy. I’m trying to write Lord of the Rings but set here. A lot of that is doing research on what existed two hundred years ago.
“Some of that was not documented, so I’m making up a lot of stuff, though continuously checking myself that it is plausible to what was happening then. It’s not solely tied to the myths of Nilotic culture. I’m drawing on myths from all over Africa, some East African, West African, or South African pantheon mythologies.
“I like how liberal science fiction is. By liberal I mean there are no rules. With mainstream at some point you have to be factual, you have to stay true to facts.
“I want to write the most implausible thing and make it plausible. That’s the most important thing for me when I write—anything is possible! I don’t want to start a story and then be like ‘But that couldn’t have happened in 1950s Kampala or wherever.’ If you are writing science fiction, in an alternative universe anything could happen. I like the freedom.
“I think the craziest thing I ever did is stop going to uni for a while to work on a novel. It just wouldn’t let me be. The idea ruled my life and I didn’t think I could write the novel while working at the same time. I didn’t drop out, though two years later I spent roughly nine months when I was between jobs to finally complete the novel—and a couple of screenplays.”
At this point the restaurant starts to spray everyone on the balcony with water from the sprinklers, I think to cool us down. That seems a rather distinctively Kampala thing to happen, so I ask him what, if anything, is distinctive about African SFF.
Derek: “The way I see it—let me say it like this: I don’t know if there are other places where stories could be censored if they are written in a very mainstream way. If say, you write a political story, it would be very easy for people to make a connection between the dictator in your story with a dictator in your country. But if you write if from a science fiction point of view, the connection is not very apparent.”
GR: “Is that distinctively African?”
Derek: “Distinctively African is that we are retelling the stories we were told. That’s number one. The myths we were told as kids. You can’t write in a mainstream way, but those myths are being lost if we don’t write about them. First and foremost, it might be science fiction, but what you are writing is African folklore at least to a degree, something you are told round a bonfire, or by your parents or someone talking about village life.
“It’s like a repository, to keep it. Our cultures are being destroyed. How do you get that back if you don’t write about it?”
Since this interview, Derek has had a busy year. He messaged me with this update:
“Well, I got a story published on River River Literary Journal. It's not SF.
“I was also long listed for the Writivism Short Story Prize. (Writivism is based around a Uganda-based literary festival. The 2017 longlist included other writers associated with SFF: Rafeeat Aliyu, Suyi Davies Okongbowa, and Andrew C. Dakalira.)
“I finished the rewrite for The Descending. It's way too long though. So I'm letting it stew for now.
“Currently working on another project. A speculative young adult novel set in the future. Hope to be done with that before year's end.”