[This interview was conducted over a collaborative Google Doc, in the month of May, 2020.]
Gautam Bhatia: During the 2019 Worldcon, the concept of “passport privilege” manifested itself in a very specific way. As Suyi Davies tweeted, the Irish Embassy in Nigeria did not respond to visa applications in time, and effectively ensured that there would be no Nigerian presence at the con. We should be very clear, at the outset, that this is racism at work: an Irish person applying for a Nigerian visa would not, in all likelihood, have faced such issues. Could you tell us what—exactly—happened, and what your experience was?
Rafeeat Aliyu: Every Nigerian is familiar with the anxiety that comes with applying for visas, especially to Europe. Some disclaimers: I travel often and have been travelling since I was in my early teens. I’ve also lived in the UK and in France. The assumption here is that frequent travel ensures you easily get a visa because it’s “proof” that you’ll always return to Nigeria.
Last year was doubly stressful because I had to renew my passport before I could apply for the Irish visa. My passport was set to expire September 2019 and you need a three-month validity period after your travel date before applying for a visa. So I started the process of renewing my passport in April but it took much longer than it should have. That’s a story for another day, let’s just say that I encountered the worst of the Nigerian civil service and only received a new passport in mid-June! I applied for the Irish visa within a week of receiving my new passport.
The process of applying for a visa for most countries here goes like this: you first fill out an application online, usually on the foreign country’s portal. Then you gather documents like bank account statements for the past three (or six) months, a flight and hotel booking, letters from your employer, and any other required documents. All documents must be original, and we have to submit photocopies too. We typically submit through a third party that handles visa applications for multiple countries; this is also where payment is made.
I remember seeing long queues for visa applications to other countries like Ukraine and Malaysia at the visa submission centre. I was relieved that for Ireland, it was just me and a family of three waiting to apply. It took about half a day. About a week after I submitted my application, I still had not received a confirmation that it had reached the embassy. Typically with other visas I’ve applied for, I’ve received emails letting me know when the visa left the submission centre, when the embassy received it ... basically updates on the visa process. The Irish embassy in Abuja was silent: I didn’t receive any replies to emails sent and the number on their website wasn’t working. I noticed that they didn’t interact on Twitter so I went to the embassy to inquire.
Visiting embassies here can be a frustrating and humiliating process. The guards at the gate act like you’re there to steal something and it’s hard to get them to connect you with someone who actually works in the visa office and can answer your questions. The guards at the Irish embassy were unhelpful, I was told to call or send an email, but I’d done that already with no results. I had to leave eventually and just kept trying to call the Irish embassy at the numbers I was shown. They never went through except once, when the oddest thing happened. When I finally got through to the embassy, I listened to the automated message, pressing numbers when prompted, and slowly I realised that I was in loop. I thought I was finally connected to the visa office but the automated message was telling me to call the exact same number I was calling. It was so weird.
A second visit to the embassy was even more frustrating. I sat on the bench in the outdoor waiting area as people, I’m assuming those with Irish nationalities, entered the embassy but no one would attend to me. I still didn’t know if my visa was being processed or when I could realistically expect to receive a visa. I tapped into my networks and started asking around for anyone who worked at the Irish embassy. I was finally connected to someone who worked there, although they didn’t work in the visa section; this person was able to confirm that my application was received. They explained that the visa office had a backlog of applications.
As August drew closer, I found myself wishing I hadn’t committed to attending Worldcon. I shared my worries with Suyi about my attendance on 29 July, and by 9 August, I told him that after weeks my application was "pending" and that a decision would not be made by the time Worldcon was due to start. All in all, I paid around N60,000 (about $160) for a visa that costs €60 according to its website. Part of that fee included a charge that went to the third-party visa centre, a service charge, and payment for a UPS delivery that didn’t matter because I had to go to the embassy to pick up my passport and documents myself.
GB: As an Indian who has gone through multiple rounds of student visa applications over the years, a lot of this sounds painfully familiar—down to the waiting outside the embassy, in hot sun. And, as you said, we are actually the privileged ones!
I want to take a step back and link some of this with the broader issue of inequality in SF. Let’s start with the location of cons. In its entire history—and I checked this up—Worldcon has never been held in an African or Latin American country, and the only Asian country to make the cut has been Japan (Yokohama). Worldcon has circled between the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, with the occasional bone thrown to Western Europe (The Hague, Helsinki, etc.) Isn’t there something wrong with the fact that even the notoriously corrupt FIFA is more geographically representative with football World Cups than Worldcon?
RA: I didn’t fully realise that Worldcon has never taken place in any African country until Suyi’s tweet garnered attention and conversation. I’ve thought about why, maybe it’s because fans from this part of the world aren’t active enough. Or maybe there’s not enough diversity in the spaces to petition. I still don’t know enough about the inner mechanics of how cons are run or funded. I still wonder why there’s never been a Worldcon in Abuja, Nairobi, Dakar, or Windhoek.
GB: Visa application processes in countries such as the USA, the UK, etc. are notoriously racist. The USA now has direct travel bans on people from certain nationalities. Do you think there is a moral obligation on con organisers to take this into account—the relative ease with which, for example, an American can get a Nigerian visa, as opposed to the other way round?
RA: Yes. Consider the expense for example. I shared how much I had to pay for my visa application above; we often have to pay and do way more to get to these events. Con organisers need to take into account that the “world” also includes people whose movements are restricted due to their nationalities. There’s so much opportunity for growth and interaction with new audiences that has not been tapped into. Last year, I sent an email to the Worldcon team letting them know about the visa challenges and unfortunately did not get a response. I understand that the team may have been swamped with organising and likely unaware of just how much of a hassle it is to apply for a visa to an European country as someone from Nigeria. I’ve been told that it’s notoriously difficult to get a Nigerian visa, something I’ve heard is in response to the experiences Nigerians face with other countries.
I think con organisers can attempt to put together a sort of ready pack for international attendees. Most embassies ask for things like a formal letter of invitation, contact details of inviting parties, a schedule or some kind of list of planned activities. I imagine this as a file on Google Docs that can be shared with international attendants.
GB: What would you say to the counter-argument that the reason why cons are held in white-majority countries is because the market and audience for English-language SF is predominantly in those countries? (Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Writers of SFF series, for example, has shown us how patently untrue that assumption is.)
RA: I don’t agree that the market and audience for English-language SF is in “white majority” countries. I consumed that SF as a child growing up in Nigeria and to date, most of the people I discuss SF with are other Africans. Geoff’s series clearly shows that there’s a market here; people are consuming SF as well as creating it. I think anyone who argues that there’s no market outside Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or the US is wilfully ignoring the rest of the world. There are a number of Cons that take place across the African continent, often put together by fans who love genre and want to showcase their works as well as celebrate with other fans. See here for a list of just the comic-centred cons.
It seems to me that it’s not just about the market and audience but also who the spotlight is kept on, who we give priority to. Part of me wonders if the audience that has been prioritised never wanted to come to an African country. I imagine cons as not just a gathering of SF fans but also an opportunity to visit a new country. If in its long history, no one has thought of coming to any African destination, that’s telling.
GB: All this is absolutely true, of course. From Geoff's 100 African Writers series, I learnt about the existence of the Omenana magazine, the Ake Festival, the AfroSF series, and so much more. It's very clear that both the cultural and the infrastructural resources are present—at this point, it's simply a question of will. Do you think a shift in con location may help in altering the publishing skew towards more egalitarian directions? Non-US and non-Europe SF writers have repeatedly pointed out how they are required by publishing houses to mould their writing to suit this audience. Would the goal of “decentering” SF also involve territorial decentering?
RA: This is a good question and it’s a possibility I hadn’t considered. But thinking about it now, con locations not only inform the people that can attend but they also generate interest. While I’m not convinced that shifting con locations will suddenly make publishing houses more aware of the different forms of storytelling (this can only really be achieved by them hiring people from diverse backgrounds), I do agree that decentering SF in the real world will have some sort of impact on diversifying the publishing industry.
GB: And I guess if the organising committees of cons were more diverse, that may help too! Finally, is there anything else you would say to future con organisers—specifically—so that experiences like the ones you had do not repeat themselves?
RA: Please make that ready pack for international attendees I suggested above a reality! Also to strategise on ways to be more inclusive, maybe let us know how to bring Worldcon to other parts of the world.