There has been a lot of disagreement and even angst lately over the terms used to describe African speculative fiction.
Myself I am not entirely happy with the term Afrofuturism because so much of the work isn’t futurist.
Often African writing relates to the past, the pre-colonial past, or rather perhaps a past that never goes away, that co-exists with contemporary Africa.
In the last chapter, the author and working sangoma Unathi Magubeni said:
Our concepts of time are different. The Western model of time tends to project into the future, far into the future.
Our time, the moment you are born the deeper you go into time, you go backwards. As you get older, you don’t go forward with time, you are going backward. You become an elder of the tribe, a grandfather. You are not looking there, (gestures to one place) sharing the future, there as in forwards. You are there. (Gestures to a different there). That person passes on. We remember them by libations. ‘I am drinking this water in honour of this person.’ Or we do certain rituals in honour of this person. And they go further into the land of myths. (Laughs). Back, back, back.
It seems to be that if this is new science fiction, we are looking at time differently. You’re not going to find Africans projecting themselves forward when they write their science fiction.”
Stacy Hardy in her 2018 interview in this chapter also sees many continental cultures having a different relationship to time, and expresses discomfort with the term science fiction:
This linear march ... it’s why I get a bit of a stutter when the word science fiction is thrown out.
It seems to me to be very much based on the idea that now we must progress and that how we progress is technologically. And I just don’t believe that the continent works that way. We talk about a future as if it is something we need to march towards.
So much African speculative reaches back into tradition. In her interview, Chikodili Emelumadu talks about how disillusion with Britain when she finally came here, turned her attention back to her Igbo culture.
My dreams of England had no foundation and basis—I couldn't reconcile them with what I was seeing. Since I couldn't be English in that way, I had to dig around in my own psyche. I started looking back at history, my own history. Both of my grandmothers were alive and taking steps towards them made me aware how much I was like a little grain of sand in the hourglass of time. I'd taken my grandparents, language, culture all for granted. I had to figure out what I wanted to be in myself."
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?”
Much of Dilman Dila’s interview talks about Ugandan folk tales and history.
I want to bring mythologies that I heard as a child, and things that have been happening in our communities into the mainstream.
Wole Talabi curates a database of published speculative fiction by Africans on the ASFS website. For 2017 roughly 100 works by Africans are listed—and only about a third of them are described as science fiction. The rest are other kinds of tales, many of them drawing on or relating to traditional beliefs.
Wole Talabi is definitely is a science fiction writer. His Nommo-award nominated, Caine-Reader-Award winning short story ‘The Regression Equation’ is about testing AI in the future. The next chapter in this series will publish an interview with him. I express the view that not much science fiction is being written in African. Wole says:
I agree. But you can’t tell people what to write. I do personally wish there was more genuine speculation about the future, constructing a new one. Yeah sure you can write about Mami Wata and the Ogb Anti. And you can construct interesting stories. But what comes after?
Nnedi Okorafor is another futurist. Who Fears Death and the Binti series of novellas are set in futures pungently flavoured with African cultures.
In an important post Nnedi Okorafor asked that from now on she be referred to as an ‘africanfuturist’. She also said she didn’t want to explain why she makes the request ... people should just respect it.
All I can respectfully say is that I think I understand why the distinction is important to her.
The term Afrofuturism was coined by Marc Derry in "Black to the Future," an interview with Samuel Delany, musician Greg Tate, and cultural critic Tricia Rose, that appeared appearing in Dery’s collection of essays Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (1994).
At its inception, the term Afrofuturism was by definition about the diaspora experience. This perception of the term continues.
Mazi Nwonwu, the co-founder of Omenana in a thread on the African Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Group page on Facebook wrote:
My take is that Afrofuturism is an American movement that ties into the American experience and reality.
I don't think there is any political or cultural force behind us writing sci-fi in Africa. We write.
In his interview, Ntone Edjabe said:
... At that moment, Kojo Laing, the Ghanaian author, published Major Gentil and the Achimoto Wars. This is 1991-1992, the same year that there’s that famous interview where the term Afrofuturism appears in print.
... All of this talks of SF as from the diaspora, the poetics of schizophrenia, all these alienated bodies ... which is fine, but how the fuck is it that they miss Kojo Laing? I mean you don’t get more SF than that shit.
In The Johannesburg Review of Books, Mohale Moshigo on the publication of her new volume of short stories, wrote a piece ‘Afrofuturism is not for Africans Living in Africa’.
I believe Africans, living in Africa, need something entirely different from Afrofuturism. I’m not going to coin a phrase but please feel free to do so. Our needs, when it comes to imagining futures, or even reimagining a fantasy present, are different from elsewhere on the globe; we actually live on this continent, as opposed to using it as a costume or a stage to play out our ideas. We need a project that predicts (it is fiction after all) Africa’s future ‘postcolonialism’; this will be divergent for each country on the continent because colonialism (and apartheid) affected us in unique (but sometimes similar) ways. In South Africa, for instance, there needs to exist a place in our imaginations that is the opposite of our present reality where a small minority owns most of the land and lives better lives than the rest.
And she doesn’t want to ‘parrot’ Afrofuturism:
Afrofuturism is an escape for those who find themselves in the minority and divorced or violently removed from their African roots, so they imagine a ‘black future’ where they aren’t a minority and are able to marry their culture with technology. That is a very important story and it means a lot to many people. There are so many wonderful writers from the diaspora dealing with those feelings or complexities that it would be insincere of me to parrot what they are doing.
She may not want to come up with a label but ends by saying ‘Let us be fantastical,” which she footnotes:
* fantastical (adj.): conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque.
The term Afrofuturism has already been expanded to include Africans in Africa.
Reynaldo Anderson edited with Charles Jones a volume of essays, Afrofuturism 2.0, published in 2016. In his introduction, he proposed a different concept: Astro-Blackness:
Astro-Blackness is an Afrofuturistic concept in which a person's black state of consciousness, released from the confining and crippling slave or colonial mentality, becomes aware of the multitude and varied possibilities and probabilities within the universe. (Rollins, 2015, 1)
More precisely Astro-Blackness represents the emergence of a black identity framework within emerging global technocultural assemblages, migration, human reproduction, algorithms, digital networks software platforms, bio-technical augmentation and are constitutive of racialized identities that are increasingly materialized vis-à-vis contemporary technological advances or "technogenesis, the idea that humans and technics have co-evolved together" (Hayes, 2012).
The internet has made blackness a worldwide identity—one that most certainly includes Africa and Africans. Afrofuturism 2.0 sees the diaspora as being one arm of Pan-Africanism.
Reynaldo Anderson also co-founded with John Jennings the Black Speculative Arts Movement and is currently heading a series of seminars in Africa using the term Afrofuturism 3.0. Watch this space. Here is his interview with Design Indaba.
Yann-Cedric Agbodan-Aolio is the francophone author of four published science fiction novels. For him, “Afrofuturism is not a subgenre of science fiction but an artistic current that covers all genres of the imaginary.”
For him there are more than one afrofuturisms. In a text that grew out of a talk he gave recently at Eurocon in Amiens in 2018 and republished on the ASFS website, he describes Afrofuturism as:
A more or less profound reflection on the problems encountered by African populations and Afrodescendants in the course of history, in society (colonialism, slavery, apartheid, corruption, poverty, Mass migration, Children soldiers, access to drinking water...)
A share of feminism by the exultation of women and its place in society
A exultation of the past of Africa of the Great empires and kingdoms and thus a more or less faithful transposition of the ancient feudal structures.
The richness of spiritualties and myths
A certain positivism that pushes forward civilization.
Some people find attempts at re-labelling irrelevant. Nikhil Singh, author of Taty Went West in a recent post on the African SFF Reading Group on Facebook:
Afrofuturism has a nice roll to it. africanfuturism just sounds like another silly academic wankoff ... then breaks the catchiness irreparably.
I think this whole conversation is absurd. Terminology is handy for filing systems, but attempting to order creative output, past, present and future, according to Terminology smacks of content control. Afrofuturism is a loose and accepted term, and like it or not, words survive according to their inherent charm. These sorts of academic attempts to restrict output according to acceptable protocols need to be opposed.
Terminology matters to me. If you define a term as being about one set of people, it may by that definition exclude others.
Marketing terms matter. They set expectations.
Set the wrong expectation and you can ruin the work—for the reader, yes, but also for the author. This is an quote from a review of one of my books: It looks like it is going to be a slice of hard Science Fiction, but it soon becomes obvious that it is more a melodrama set around the petty politics of a remote village in a far flung country. This was not what I signed up for.
To write with impact, authors need a sense of what readers will make of their work – how they read, what many of them will enjoy, what their expectations are. You can’t please everybody. But it helps if your book does what it says on the label.
So some writers feel they have to own the label, and if they can’t, the label has to change.
Lest the label owns them.