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Special thanks to Fabio Fernandes, Sergio Gaut Vel Hartmann, and Daniela Huber

 

“Me considero Afrofuturista em termos de resistência.”

“I consider myself an Afrofuturist in terms of resistance.”

Lu Ain Zaila

 

A recent article by Bodhisattva Chattophadyay asked a question that has been on the lips of most of the non-Western world for years: What would a non-Anglocentric model of science fiction look like?

Chattophadyay identified two complementary postulates that frame Anglocentrism in speculative fiction:

  • Anglocentric as the canon of what is considered classic SFF is still defined by Western and Anglophone productions.
  • Anglophonic, in that non-Anglophone works only gain widespread legitimacy when translated into English, and what is often considered new and innovative only touches upon the surface of what a given author has produced, or indeed the sheer volume of work that remains untranslated.

Bodhisattva is correct: There is an evident bias that works against the non-English speaking world, particularly in the West where you find the dominant markets for speculative genres in print and film and the ether that is the internet. This is not to say that there is no interest elsewhere, but science fiction and fantasy, among the many speculative genres, still have to build their readership and publishing industry in other regions, particularly in Africa.

The ongoing discussion around Afrofuturism and what it represents to African Americans vs. what it means to Africans ties into these fundamental questions about our intellectual and creative models, and the need to move beyond an Anglocentric/Anglophonic approach to the speculative.

South African author Mohale Mashigo recently took a stand, stating that Afrofuturism is not for Africans living in Africa. While she respects Afrofuturism and its role in the African American struggle for identity and equality, as a South African she has a different struggle and reality that should not be appropriated under someone else’s canon.

Nigerian American author Nnedi Okorafor has spoken extensively on the subject, including a TED Talk, and how it pertains to her and her work. An author of clearly African speculative fiction, she also works with Marvel and wrote Shuri, a comic about the Black Panther’s genius sister. Okorafor recently coined the term Africanfuturist to define herself and her work. She has requested that we respect her choice of denomination and refrain from questioning her decision.

Nigerian-British author Tade Thompson weighed in as well, recently predicting that Afrofuturist will become an umbrella term in the future, regardless of how black authors feel about the affiliation or where they are from.

Ivorian author Yann-Cédric Agbodan-Aolio, one of the yet few Francophone African speculative authors, has a much more positive outlook about the genre and looks at how one term covers a variety of meanings and aspirations.

All these positions have their worth and contribute to the discussion. And it is an important, nigh crucial, discussion to have, as the means of literary production (if not distribution) are gaining a semblance of democracy thanks to the internet, allowing the existence of African magazines, such as Omenana from Nigeria, and the self-identification of insofar sidelined populations.

I think about Afrofuturism as an aesthetic marker. I know what Afrofuturism looks like. Star Wars has Afrofuturistic elements, and so does a Janelle Monáe video, but I do not think of it as a literary genre. In my opinion, the label affects black speculative literature in positive and negative ways. On the one hand, it contributes to isolating black authors from the larger canon of speculative fiction and relegates black speculative authors to the African American interest shelf at Barnes & Nobles, which is exactly what we need to avoid. On the other hand, Afrofuturism does play a positive role by providing that niche where black authors are easily identified and black speculative fiction studied.

In the end, I hope the term becomes obsolete and Afrofuturism is embraced as simply science fiction, albeit with its own cultural specificities rooted in the individual authors’ heritages.

Regardless of one’s opinion, this debate suffers from the same biases that Chattophadyay bemoans: Anglocentrism and Anglophonism.

The current international dialogue over Afrofuturism and who it should or shouldn’t represent involves almost exclusively the English-speaking, United States of American, black speculative-fiction community in the diaspora, and African authors on the continent, but here too championed by those who have the easiest access to and understanding of the discussion: English-speaking Africans.

There are many reasons for that, and some may be rooted in colonial legacies of publication and storytelling as well as how entrepreneurial non-Anglo markets are, or not, in making a scene available for other languages, including local languages, to weigh in effectively.

Whatever the reason, this debate excludes voices from the African diaspora in places such as Brazil, Colombia, and Haiti, to name a few, simply because they gravitate outside of the dominant English-speaking and English-reading sphere.

This column proposes to look at the Afro-Brazilian and Black Brazilian contemporary speculative literary scene and how authors position themselves or not in this discussion, both as non-Western but also non-English speaking.

Black communities in the Americas have retained strong cultural connections with Africa, transmitted through enslaved blacks and their descendants, and the marooned communities that evolved in isolation from the mainstream. The Gullah-Geechee communities of the Eastern seaboard retained much of their African culture as descendants of marooned slaves. The tradition of North American Voodoo is still alive in Louisiana; Voodoo is a defining cultural element to Haiti, as Candomble is to Brazil and Santeria is to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. All of these traditions display the ingenuity of enslaved Africans in maintaining their traditional legacy, albeit one heavily influenced by Yoruba religious tradition and West African Vodun hidden under the guise of Christianity.

How do these traditions translate in speculative works? Who are those Afro-descendent voices outside of the United States, and how do they think of themselves? What is their role in the struggle? Do they even adhere to Afrofuturism, and why?

How does this manifest in Brazil, the country with the largest black population outside of Africa? Brazil carries tremendous weight politically, economically, and culturally, and yet us Westerners know very little about its rich literary production, particularly its Afro-Brazilian and Black Brazilian speculative literary scene.

The tradition of speculative fiction in Brazil has ebbed and flowed ever since the 1800s. The 1980s and 90s and the emergence of speculative publishers in Brazil signaled a resurgence of the genre locally, which took its modern-day form in the early 2000s.

I was recommended to check out Trasgo, the leading magazine of Brazilian speculative fiction today. Trasgo is a quarterly science-fiction-and-fantasy review publishing national authors, famous or emerging, edited by Rodrigo van Kampen and managed by a small but dedicated team of four. My limited Portuguese does not allow me to appreciate the content of the magazine fully, but it is obviously a quality publication, with beautiful visual imagery and a diverse array of authors, including Fabio Fernandes and Jose Roberto Vieira—whom I will mention later—and LGBTQ authors. With eighteen issues to date, Trasgo is going strong—yet very few of its published authors are Afro-Brazilians.

Lucas Ferraz, on Trasgo’s editorial team, says the following about the Brazilian speculative scene:

 

“We have some good Afro-Brazilian authors, but some of them did not submit to Trasgo yet.

We value diversity. It’s a very important thing for us, and we feel sometimes Afro-Brazilian authors, as well as members of the LGBTQ community and even women don't feel comfortable sending stories in a genre (mostly SF, but Fantasy too) dominated by white cisgender heterosexual men. So we did some campaigns a while back to let everyone know they are welcome, that we want their stories, and we received a good response.

But we have a long way to go in Brazilian SF. I did not expect the list of Afro-Brazilian authors to end up being so short. Sometimes it can be tricky to identify Afro-Brazilian authors, as people don't always self-identify themselves racially.”

Much as in the United States, rejection from the mainstream appears to be a significant factor discouraging local black authors from submitting their stories. Lucas was kind enough to share a tentative list of Afro-Brazilian authors that you can find at the end of the article under suggested readings. The stories are in Portuguese.

The point raised by Lucas about how Brazilian authors chose to identify is a potent one. How can we speak of an Afro-Brazilian scene not knowing if that label is appropriate and how authors consider themselves?

Fabio Fernandes helped me reach out to the authors mentioned in this article. Fabio is a Brazilian author and the co-editor of We See a Different Frontier, along with Dibril Al-Ayad of The Future Fire, addressing colonialism and cultural imperialism from the viewpoint of the colonized. Sofia Samataar features in the anthology, along with Fernandes’ story “The Gambiarra Method,” about an Afro-Brazilian man working with scientists in Ghana in the 22nd century. Read his futuristic short story Mycelium at Perihelion Magazine.

Fabio Fernandes does not consider himself an Afrofuturist. Not because of any problem with the term, but because Fabio is not Black. Much to my surprise; I had simply assumed that he was. While Fernandes has African and Native Brazilian ancestry, in Brazil he is considered white, when in the United States or Europe he would be a person of color. This speaks to the confluence of race and social status in Brazil, a reality also prevailing in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean that has affected the visibility of Afro-Brazilian authors from the very beginning.

Afro-Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), colloquially known as Machado, is considered by many as one of the greatest authors that ever lived. Susan Sontag in the New Yorker called him the best author Latin America has ever produced. His novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, published in 1881, is an autobiographic chronicle of the erotic misadventures of its narrator, Brás Cubas—who happens to be dead. Only translated into English in 1997, it predates Love in Times of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (another chronicle of erotic adventures and misadventures) by more than a century and defines a tradition of Magical Realism attributed to Marquez and Borges despite having clearly earlier roots.

Early in the novel written with “the feather of a dandy dipped in the ink of melancholy,” the author offers a lingering tribute to an imagined Africa, reminiscent of the way Guinea is imagined as an African afterlife in Haitian voodoo:

“It was her imagination, like the storks that an illustrious traveler has seen flying from the Ilisso to the African tribes … this lady’s imagination also flew over the ruins of the present to the banks of a youthful Africa… Let her go, we will follow there later, we will go there when I return to my first years.”

In Brazil, textbooks and pictures of Machado attempted to portray him as white or lighter skinned than he really was. Machado did not engage much on issues of race, which might explain why white Brazilian elites were quick to promote him as opposed to more militant black authors. This persisted as recently as 2011 in a televised commercial.[1]

The pervasiveness of whitewashing directly affects how we identify Brazilian authors of color, how they identify themselves, and might explain why, beyond a limited publishing space, so little are visible in the speculative genres.

Despite this unfavorable environment, Fabio Fernandes is a champion of diversity and PoC representation in fiction. In his own words:

“I wouldn’t consider myself an Afrofuturist. You see, even though I have African and Native Brazilian blood in my veins, in Brazil I’m white. I would be a fraud for trying to pass for something I am not. However, my interests run deep in telling stories featuring both queer and African Diaspora characters. I simply can't conceive of a future populated by Caucasian cis-het people. Pretty much half the Brazilian population is black; and yet, we don't have (that we know of - this distinction is very important) many black SF writers. I look forward to see a future where black SF writers are the rule, not the exception.”

Sao Paolo-based author Fabio Kabral delves deeper into this issue and its implications.

Fabio Kabral is published by a black publishing company Malê Editora (who among non-Brazilians published Congolese author Alain Mabanckou) and released the novel O Caçador Cibernético da Rua 13 in 2017.

In O Caçador Cibernético da Rua 13 (The Cyberhunter on 13th Street) Kabral mixes elements of Futurism and Yoruba tradition. In a universe called Ketu 3, a young man, João Arolê, a cybernetic mutant, hunts evil spirits, and works to dismantle the corrupt powers that run his universe. He is a complex character, straddled with doubts about his endeavors and rising to the occasion when duty and society require his help. This book is the first in a series to be continued soon.

Kabral manages a Facebook page called Afrofuturismo and offers a vibrant and hilarious explanation about Afrofuturism in this video, and its importance in literature and to Afro-Brazilian identity. More of his reflections on the subject can be found on his blog.

Yet Kabral is not a fan of the term, focusing on producing quality work as opposed to fitting within a predetermined category. His analysis of the Brazilian black speculative fiction scene and black visibility in the arts and media in Brazil is bleak but honest:

“Black people in Brazil, although a majority of the population, are in a very sad state of alienation and barely recognize themselves as black people. We cannot organize ourselves in movements, and our militancy is still in a precarious state; there are hardly any black people on television and in the big media networks. For me, the focus is to write the next book, regardless of the label. I realize that many Afro-Brazilians have been attached to the Afrofuturist label to promote themselves, to be visible, due to the state of extreme need in which we find ourselves, but for me, my focus will always be to do the best literature work possible. Although I work with the Afrofuturist theme, through lectures and workshops, I am one who does not like the term, or do not care for it much.”

Fabio says something of extraordinary value here, how the label of Afrofuturism can be used as a tool to gain more visibility, an empowering weapon for a population that has been marginalized since colonial times.

Lu Ain Zaila, a female author of this new wave of Brazilian speculative fiction based in Rio, very much considers herself an Afrofuturist and views it as a resistance to the absence of Afro-Brazilian visibility in current literature:

“I consider myself an Afrofuturist in terms of resistance and being part of the first cycle (thinking of the Adinkrahene symbol) of black speculative fiction in Brazil. We are building something never seen, a literary bridge that connects the black legacy of Africa and Diaspora. We have black futures to build, where our presence must be naturalized. I think of the generations that will see with other eyes the naturalness of writing about blacks with powers, detectives, space operas. They will have inspiration where they recognize their history of resistance on this continent and their ancestral legacy.”

There is power in that statement, so much so that I almost hesitated to crystallize it on paper lest I dilute it, a profound sense of identity, of tradition, and of connecting spaces both literally and magically through the beauty of words.

Lu Ain, along with Fabio Kabral and Jose Roberto Vieira, is one of the few (that we know of) black authors in Brazil trying to change the deeply ingrained cultural racism that has excluded black authors from prominence. Despite having the largest black population outside of Africa, the idea of black futures is still foreign to the Brazilian mainstream.

Lu Ain manages the website Brazil2408-Sankofia where she promotes black voices in speculative genres and has self-published (thanks to crowd funding) several books, all of which are available on her website. Lu Ain is also a visual artist; her collection of Afrofuturistic imagery can be downloaded for free, in The Arts of Sankofia. Sankofa is a Twi (Ghana) word/concept meaning “go back and get it” and symbolizes returning to one’s roots and discovering one’s origins.

Her short-story collection Sankofia: breves histórias sobre afrofuturismo (Sankofia: Brief Stories of Afrofuturism) was released recently, and among them, “Ode to Laudelina” stands out, addressing issues of race, gender, and class sprinkled with societal terror and science fiction. It is an important story, as it questions the role of black women in domestic servitude as a legacy of institutional racism and slavery, which questions the very humanity of black women in Brazil.

Lu Ain hopes to push back, if not entirely break, the glass ceiling further next year, by submitting to and having a story published in Trasgo Magazine.

If you pay close attention to Kabral’s publisher, Malê Editora’s logo, you will find another reference to Sankofa as the symbol shown below of a bird with its head turned backward while its feet face forward carrying a precious egg in its mouth. This too marks Afro-Brazilian authors’ attachment to their African roots.

Malê is not an innocent term either. It refers to the Male Revolt of 1835 that led to the return of between three to eight thousand enslaved black Brazilians of Yoruba descent, known now as the Tabom people, to Ghana.

Read more of Lu Ain and Fabio Kabral’s insights on the challenges ahead of black Brazilian speculative fiction in light of the recent election of far-right Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil. Bolsonaro famously said that Afro-Brazilians were useless even for procreation and wants to ramp up police violence in the favelas.[2]

Jose Roberto Vieira has something to say about the above. Jose is an Afro-Brazilian author also known under the pseudonym Oghan N’Thanda. He manages the blog Grito Literario, a little bit of spirituality in literature, and is working on a vlog on YouTube.

His first steampunk short story “Da’ath – O Ultimo Grito da Carne” (“Da’ath – The Last Scream of the Flesh”) was published in Trasgo Magazine and is part of O Baronato de Shoah, a series published by Editora Draco, a Brazilian speculative fiction publisher.

Da'at or Daas (“Knowledge,” Hebrew: דעת) is a Hebrew word. In the branch of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah, Da'at is the location (the mystical state) where all ten sefirot in the Tree of Life are united as one. The mysticism of the Kabbalah is a recurrent theme in Jose Roberto’s stories that combine dark-skinned characters and elements of epic fantasy with steampunk’s mechanical contraptions.

O Baronato de Shoah is an impressive volume of work. Considered the first Brazilian steampunk saga, it is comprised of two novels and fifteen short stories. Part of the larger world of Nordara, English-speakers can read “Parallel Visions,” one of the short stories, which follows two Prophetesses of the Bnei Shoah, Afrika and Seax, on a quest for revenge against a mad Titan.

Jose Roberto does not consider himself an Afrofuturist, largely because his work is in the fantasy and steampunk genres rather than futurism or science fiction per se. For him as well, the obstacles faced by black Brazilian authors are not only literary but rooted in the realities of marginalization that the current Brazilian politics seek to exacerbate.

“In Brazil we don't have a huge publishing market and a lot of readers, our major problem is to write to a market that basically hates writers. For me black writers are real heroes, because they are fighting against society and racism and prejudice - it is like writing with a cop or a drug dealer knocking at your door in the morning and the government kicking you out in the afternoon. Literally. Many black writers are living in shanties, so they have to struggle to survive in a place where they just find violence.”

Oghan, Lu Ain, and Fabio Kabral, the authors listed in suggested readings, and myriad yet unmentioned, contribute in a fashion to the Teatro Experimental do Negro of the 1940s and the Movimento Negro, which started in the 1970s to challenge racial discrimination, economic marginalization, and the literary tropes and expectations of the academia[3], much like Langston Hughes’ Fire!! magazine of the Harlem Renaissance and its mission to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past[4]…and épater le bourgeois!

Fire!! has a spiritual son in African American Fiyah! magazine. The Movimento Negro has a hundred thousand speculative sons and daughters, and the movement is growing.

I can hear their drums beating over the waves. Can’t you?

While the current state of Afro-Brazilian visibility in literature, and particularly in the speculative genres, is still poor, it is growing, with a powerful awareness of self. The struggle for PoC representation is real, but it is also one that as African and diaspora authors we challenge daily through our work, small though it may be.

Every pebble contributes to the edifice. Keep building. Keep writing. Don’t worry about what they call you.

Suggested Reading:

Jim Anotsu - Trasgo #2

Marco Rigobelli - Trasgo #10:

Gabriele Diniz - Trasgo #12:

Thiago Rosa - Trasgo #14:

Alaor Rocha – Trasgo #14:

Endnotes:

[1] Franciane Conceição Silva: Insurgent Voices: A Panorama of Afro-Brazilian WritingWords Without Borders – Dec 2018 issue [return]

[2] Kiratiana Freelon: It's Complicated: Why Some Afro-Brazilians Are Willing to Vote for a Racist Presidential Candidate Who's Calling for More Police Violence - The Root [return]

[3] Franciane Conceição Silva: Insurgent Voices: A Panorama of Afro-Brazilian WritingWords Without Borders – Dec 2018 issue [return]

[4] A History Of FIRE - FIYAH Lit Mag [return]



Mame Bougouma Diene is a Franco-Senegalese American humanitarian based in Brooklyn and the US/Francophone spokesperson for the African Speculative Fiction Society. He can be read in Omenana, Brittle Paper, AfroSFv2 (Storytime), You left your Biscuit Behind (Fox Spirit), Myriad Lands (Guardbridge Books), A Wu-Tang Tribute Anthology (Clash Media Books), and in French in Galaxies Science Fiction #46 and Gaal Gui (Edilivres).
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