Afrofuturism is nothing new: practitioners date back to the late nineteenth century (W. E. B. Du Bois wrote proto-science fiction) and there was a surge among many different fields of art in the mid-twentieth century, including not just our own Samuel R. Delany but also musicians Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic. While I sometimes think of Afrofuturism as a movement directly related to science fiction literature, then, that is too narrow a conception. To be sure, any art that dares to imagine that black people exist in the future, a future they were too often left out of in the classic American Golden Age of science fiction, is unfortunately radical enough. But this movement, to the extent that it is a coherent movement (the term was coined in the 1990s, and at least one view of its history and development can be found in Ytasha L. Womack's Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture ), expands much, much farther—beyond single genres and single art forms. Coming from a culture of reviewing that is historically focused on science fiction literature, I naturally look to the practitioners familiar to science fiction readers and con-goers in the US: Delany, Octavia Butler, Stephen Barnes, and more recently N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor (among many others). These authors, amazing and award-winning all, are products of the African diaspora—descendants of families arriving in America at some point in the last four centuries (quite recently for Dr. Okorafor, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria). But the African-American perspective is hardly the only one—and thus Jalada, a "pan-African writer's collective", arrives, publishing an online anthology meant to showcase a more Africa-centric take on literature. Indeed, the magazine's second issue, published a year ago now, had the theme "Afrofuture(s)," and it displayed a diversity of voices, styles, and genres in ways one might not expect.
To go into this volume expecting traditional science fiction spruced up with African characters and African settings would be setting oneself up for disappointment. Limiting its stories to less than five thousand words each, but with no physical limit on page count or table of contents, Jalada 02 features forty entries by almost as many authors. There are three sections—Part 1, Part 2, and Bonus—with Parts 1 and 2 separated by a recording of a panel discussion between Sofia Samatar and Nnedi Okorafor, introduced and moderated by Aaron Bady. Samatar, Okorafor, and possibly the first author featured, Ivor W. Hartmann, will be familiar to many readers keeping up with speculative literature today. I was more familiar with Hartmann as an editor, as he brought us AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (2012), and a follow-up, AfroSFv2: 5 Novellas (2015). He kicks off the volume with a far-future vision, "Last Wave," also translated into Swahili by Okwiri Oduor in the Bonus section. "Last Wave" unfolds elegantly as a non-human observer sits out in space, listening for the last transmissions from Earth as humanity gives way to the Delphini. We learn about humanity's last days as Trom, the alien, listens to the broadcast—climate change, ecological devastation, and finally the Delphini threat. The last human's name is Hamadziripi, a word from Shona, a language spoken in Hartmann's native Zimbabwe. The character's ancestry is incidental compared to the story he is telling and Trom's reception of it, as is appropriate. It's a quiet tale, treating a large topic in a serious but not melodramatic way.
This very traditional science fiction opening is followed by a series of poems by Lydia Kasese, collected under the title "The Science of Nail Polish." It is interesting to see poetry interleaved with the stories throughout the collection, and the poems are all over the map: everything from pure science to pure science fiction to pure fantasy to pure feeling—and combinations of all. Kasese's vignettes are both sharp and poignant. Most of the lines of most of the poems don't jump out as science fictional. But in this context they add to an overall portrait of what makes up Afrofuturism: Africans, whether in Africa or abroad, writing in their own way about the things that matter to them in ways that cannot be contained by mainstream mimetic works of art. Poetry is particularly well suited to speak of dreams.
The third entry, "Boonoonoonoos little bit Boonoonoonoos" by Binyavanga Wainaina, doesn't have any overt speculative element in it at all. It is something of a slice-of-life boarding school story, as two girls leave their boarding school for various mundane and sexual adventures. We get their histories, and follow them from the school to Milka's home, then to the city and to a party. The story combines a historical and cultural perspective, showing how various characters are deeply influenced by their history such as the Mau Mau rebellion and subsequent oppression and various bouts of tribal warfare, with an ultimately queer-friendly perspective that may be as radical as any bit of speculation. The acceptance and showcasing of several strongly pro-gay stories is great to see, and I should note that Jalada has also committed itself publicly to gender parity.
Next up comes what may be the strongest story in the collection, "Jestocost, Djinn" by Maria A. Bukachi. This combines mid-future SF (set in 3031 and 3059) with the kind of weird aesthetic that you might find in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. The frame is that in 3031 the "Kenya Colony of New East Africa was wiped off the face of the earth . . . On February 16th, 3059, a young woman was found deep in the Kilimanjaro Mountain. She was clutching at a half-burned photograph, a lamp, a skull, and a voice-recorder." The bulk of the story consists of transcripts from the recorder. The narrator is obviously young and often frightened, not necessarily understanding what is going on around her. Her story lurches from very weird occurrences, to almost normal romance, to the politics her father is involved in. Bukachi makes the reader work to fill in the context that the narrator, being young and impulsive, fails to mention. There's a war, and there are djinn, and a lot of terrible things are obviously happening off-stage. The tension waxes and wanes in a very controlled way, with sound cues and marked silences adding expertly to the effect. In the end the speaker may be insane, or she may be the reason for the colony's disappearance. It's hard to say. According to her bio the author is twelve years old, and I couldn't find mention of any other stories of hers in other venues. If this is a debut story by a very young author, then she has the potential to be an amazing talent, and I for one will be keeping my eyes peeled for whatever she may do next. (I am also biased by the possibility that "Jestocost," the djinn of the title, may be a Cordwainer Smith shout-out.)
It isn't possible, even in a forgiving venue like Strange Horizons, to give a detailed review of each of forty stories. So I'd like to group them together to talk about the different themes and genres that Jalada 02 showcases. Some of the more traditionally science fictional stories include "eNGAGEMENT," in which a man in Nairobi and a woman in Sweden dabble in mutual exoticism, using an online media platform for their titular engagement and nuptials. "Discovering Time Travel" by Sleiman Agbonkhianmen Buhari is a nice Asimovian SF story, told mostly in dialog between a scientist and a police investigator. It has tachyon lasers! "Imaginum" by Moses Kilolo features a hidden city of artists and intellectuals that sequesters itself from broader society; then one of their teenagers escapes to the outside world. It comes to an almost surprisingly happy ending. Ytasha Womack gives us "For Digital Girls Who Drink Tonic Water at the Bar When Purple Rain Isn't Enough," set in Chicago and featuring a man chatting up the narrator with a story about his start-up company trying to upload human brains. The twist ending is fun, but this is a story that joins the club of stories that end too soon—I'd be very happy to see a longer version of this story where the premises play out more fully instead of ending with the twist.
In the issue's second part, Sheree Renée Thomas, an editor of excellent anthologies in her own right, gives us "The Dragon Can't Dance," in which a young black dancer uses telepresence to provide the dance moves for a superstar, Isis, who reads like a cross between Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe. The story shares a lot of science fictional DNA with Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," and uses the trope to look at appropriation and power. The ending is interestingly ambiguous. Another hacker story is the Bonus section's "Wound" by John Keene, where a kid playing around on his computer while ditching school seems to stumble onto something potentially transcendent. The character of Shemar and his family background are particularly well done, but the story ends without paying off the transcendent setup. "Secret Insurrection" by Stephani Maari Booker is a rare story set in space, where a family of one original woman and her two clones struggles with the decision to return to Earth, where the clones would be considered property, not people. The family dynamics are believably tragic. "Onen and his Daughter" by Dilman Dila, meanwhile, is set in a nicely sketched future, centering on the quest of an old man to reconcile with his dying daughter; he objected to her engagement to a man of a lower caste, and he went to jail for her fiancé's murder. For light relief, a purely fun story comes from Mwangi Ichung'wa: in "Party Out" a pair of trespassers on a farm call for an extraterrestrial lift.
Several further stories feature variations on the dystopian subgenre. "Oblivia" by TJ Benson and "Color me Grey" by Swabir Silayi feature traditional dystopian communities. Silayi's in particular is reminiscent of Yevgeny Zamyatin's classic We. "Glimpse" by Rebecca Onyango features a matriarchal dystopia, focusing on the disparate fates of twin siblings, a sister and brother. "Continuum" by Zak Waweru gives the perspective of a footsoldier recruited by the government to participate in brainwashing her own countrymen.
Other stories are less concerned with any particular future. Sofia Samatar's story "A Brief History of Nonduality Studies" imagines the complete history of a philosophical movement, and how it might reach forward to today to influence the relationship of two students in America. The historical section is wonderfully and believably quirky, although the story of the students turns confusingly into obsession. "Salvation Avenue" by Jude Dibia is about a gay man living with HIV in Lagos, Nigeria. It is an intensely emotional story without being melodramatic—in an Afrofuturism context perhaps the most radical suggestion here may be to state that gay and HIV-positive men have a future in Africa. "Black Woman, Everybody's Healer" by Hawa Y. Mire starts with the very mythic viewpoint of "Sorrow, Spirit, Displacement, Expectation, and Self" as embodied beings, and resolves into a very personal Muslim viewpoint—one of the rare instances of direct references to religion in the anthology. The poem "I Died With the Earth—A Similitude of the Days of the Destroyer" by Richard Oduor Oduku centers on ecological devastation. "The Veiled Secret" by Umar Abubakar Sidi, on the other hand, is a reflective and intense poem blending the loss of self-awareness that can come from sex with that which can come from writing poetry.
A number of the stories and poems here engage with the past as much as the future—not only "Boonoonoonoos," discussed above, but poems such as "Merci, Bismarck" by Babatunde Fagbayibo, a sarcastic paean to all the horrible things Bismarck did for the African continent. Another strong poem, "Elementeita and the End of Kenyan Time," by Stephen Derwent Partington, uses amazing imagery to connect the far past with the present and the future. "The Red Bucket, Tango and Nahui Xochitl" by Alexis Teyie, meanwhile, starts with a fable and continues into a memoir-tale of a woman in California, living her life and becoming a professor, finding some measure of peace with her two horses—something she notes is very much against the stereotype of an urban-raised African American woman. The author does an excellent job of laying out her roots, the story of her ancestors as she sees them. Likewise, in "Where Pumpkin Leaves Dwell," a young girl living with her grandparents while her mother goes to University has very intense nightmares that seem to connect to her village's past. One of my favorite stories is in a similar vein: in "Myasthenia Gravis: Liberations," by Awuor Onyango, legendary characters from various mythic traditions of Africa are walking around (some with their feet not touching the ground). The story engages deeply with the African diaspora, appropriating Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X back for Africa in an engaging way. Many different traditions are mixed together in the story, as in the anthology as a whole: not just myth and history but also music.
Often this level of complex play might benefit from story notes—these, in the forms of introductions or afterwords, are from this reader's perspective sorely missing from the anthology. One of the only pieces to include this contextual data is an excerpt from a longer poem series, "Afromutation" by Redscar McOdindo K'Oyuga. The excerpt focuses on the brutal colonialist past. Apparently other parts of the poem are more positively focused on the future; someday I'd like to find the whole thing and read it. Finally, the Bonus section's concluding story, "The Iguana Boy with Three Testicles" by Victor Ehikhamenor, goes back to the 1930s and follows an arrogant colonial explorer who kidnaps a supernatural young man from his village and gets his comeuppance.
All this offers, of course, the tonic of fresh perspective. One particularly interesting entry is the not-really-a-story "Rebel Music and the African Country" by Richard Ali. It has two themes: that rebel music like reggae and rap can have a real and important influence, speaking truth to power; and that it can do this even when it falls afoul of the old trope of referring to "Africa" as if it were not a continent of fifty-four separate states, summed up in the phrase "Africa is not a country." Ali rejects this criticism, saying that while it is true, there is no legitimate cause to respect the national boundaries drawn up on a table in Germany in the late nineteenth century. According to Ali, these broke the African continent into separate countries with no respect for the people who live there. In other words, it may be more respectful to Africa to treat it as a whole, as some powerful political songs he identifies as rebel music do, than to respect the artificial countries and boundaries created by colonialism. This was an interesting perspective that I had not heard before, passionately argued.
Of course no one collection, anthology, or volume can hope to encompass the breadth of what can fall under the Afrofuturism umbrella. What Jalada has done is provide another venue to make sure that voices from Africa and from the African diaspora are heard equally. As such, its Afrofuturism issue featured stories from Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, as well as from authors of African descent living in England, America, and Canada. I hope that in the future we'll see more perspectives from North Africa brought into the Afrofuturism movement as well. Jalada's online format works perfectly for presenting a large number of short stories and poems to a large audience. The inclusion of a panel/podcast opens the door for some intriguing possibilities, too, although I suspect most readers of Strange Horizons won't hear anything particularly new in Samatar and Okorafor's discussion in this issue—the World Fantasy Award Lovecraft-bust controversy comes up, but also some interesting comments on the use of the label "magical realism." This is probably the high end of what an online anthology can provide: a diverse TOC with professional writers and editors, all the more surprising because everyone involved was unpaid. One hopes that with Kickstarters and other crowdfunding mechanisms, we can see more projects of this sort that also involve compensation for the authors and editors. Paid or unpaid, we need to get these stories out into the rest of the world, to see what the future (and the past, and the present) have in store for all of us, altogether.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction book reviewer and critic. She has worked on various space programs such as the Orion capsule and the Dream Chaser space plane. She reviews for venues such as Locus magazine, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and published a book on the work of Greg Egan with University of Illinois Press in 2014. She lives with her husband and two children near Baltimore, Maryland.