When she first discovers the thing, she reacts with fright. It isn’t just its outlandish appearance but also its proximity. Why, considering all the suitable nooks and crannies, the possible hidey holes in the vicinity, has it chosen her? In truth she might not have noticed it if it wasn’t for the itch. At first, barely noticeable, more like a humming, a low-level vibration somewhere in her nether regions, then louder, more insistent.
Eventually she has no choice but to give herself over, to make her way to the bathroom, shut the door and strip down. She sits on the toilet—lid down—kicks off shoes and peels leggings, thrusts hips forward and bends head. Even from this position, bum balanced, legs akimbo, she has trouble discerning anything. It isn’t so much that the thing is well hidden, as it is that its very form resists easy definition. Much about it is familiar: its colour—pinkish, brownish—its jowls and dugs, its convex shape. All these things are easy to describe, but how they are assembled evades logic.
Her first reaction is to snap her legs shut, get dressed, and pretend she has seen nothing. She tries to calm herself. To breathe. She isn’t usually scared by strange animals or creepy-crawlies. She grew up outside the city, a semi-rural area known for its biodiversity. Her childhood was spent collecting worms and beetles, chasing after frogs and meerkats. It’s only recently that she moved to the south, a coastal metropolis. She tells herself that the thing is probably like her, some poor rural animal that has strayed from its natural environment. It is nothing to be afraid of. After all, there must be all sorts of species, and subspecies she has never encountered before. Small mammals alone come in a number of varieties. There are rodents, tree shrews, and the eulipotyphla made up of moles, hedgehogs, and solenodons; and each of those categories has its own variants and deviants, its smallest incarnation.
“Involution,” first published by Short Story Day Africa in Migrations.
When I was in South Africa, people kept telling me I should interview Stacy Hardy, who was teaching in Grahamstown at Rhodes University.
Finally I did, but two years later in 2018. By then her speculative fiction story “Involution” had been nominated for a Caine Prize. So I interviewed her in the Royal London Overseas Club. As a teacher, Stacy plainly has to talk well for a living. Words tumble out of her so quickly that sometimes she lets a sentence complete itself in your mind. Before it’s finished she’s jumped onto the next one. She pauses a lot, laughs a lot.
Stacy has been at the core of the South African avant-garde for more than a decade, working with Chimurenga and its offshoot The Chronic. Chimurenga helped kick off Africanfuturism with its 2006 special issue on graphic fiction and its 2008 double issue on black technology. (See the interview with Ntone Edjabe in this series for more background.)
We begin talking about her nominated story. She never once mentions her nomination for the Caine.
Stacy: “The story (“Involution”) forms part of a bigger body of work that I probably started working on about two or three years ago, at the time coming out of a preoccupation with asking questions around the body, and my own experiences of illness.
“Also increasingly I’ve been grappling with ideas of humanity, what it is to be human. It’s one of the big questions of our time that we’ve operated under a very Western idea of what the human is, which sees the human as something superior, something separate—the individual. Those strong philosophical Western ideas have led to a situation where the planet is decimated. And at the same time racism is built on something similar. Who is human, and who is not human. All the great horrors of our history, and as a white South African, all the horrors of my own personal history were perpetuated on those grounds.
“I was raised as a young girl in apartheid. I was very fortunate that by the time I hit adulthood it was over, so to speak. I say ‘so to speak’ because very little was transformed in the daily lives of people.
“It was a really important question for me to ask because I was brought up to think I was superior. I was human and other people didn’t have that humanity, which allowed for a system like apartheid to separate and divide people—and to murder. The decimation and the bloodshed and oppression and degrading were all a part of that.”
She swerves away from talking about her story to mention a favourite writer.
Stacy: “I was trying to think about these things philosophically, very inspired by Sylvia Wynter, a fabulous Caribbean theorist, novelist—and she also wrote plays. Certainly her fiction sits in speculative other worlds. Those kind of philosophical questions started creeping into my own work.
“Certainly the body of my work is about bodies (Smiles). In that specific story, a girl’s body is invaded by something—seemingly. And it is a something that she does not know. She does not know what it wants. It’s the alien Other in many ways. She can’t decide if it’s threatening or non-threatening, if it’s violent.
“There’s also an ambiguity around whether what she is encountering is in fact an alien or merely her own body which she is so alienated from. Which is another pertinent question—the way we’ve been taught to deal with our bodies.”
I say to Stacy that for me her story was definitely about a woman so alienated that part of her body is alien to her.
Stacy: “Absolutely. Interestingly when the story started out the thing was something quite external. And then I realized that the thing I was trying to write about was in fact a vagina. (Laughs). There was a strange experience for me. Are we the alien? Am I the alien? Are our bodies the alien?
“I’m obsessed with how strange and fantastical and wonderful our bodies are. (Gilles) Deleuze (in his book Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza) asks a wonderful question: ‘What can a body do?’ I’m struck that we only have a tiny fraction of an idea of what our physical bodies are capable of. They are this incredible technology. We spend a lot of time building other technology and we’re very bad at dealing with our own bodies.
“Very often we build technologies to the detriment of our own bodies. I’m a prime example of something that has now ... almost ... If I could get rid of my body I would. I’d very happily upload my mind into cyberspace. (Laughs) Long been a desire. I would very happily do that and just be a machine brain. That whole cyberpunk idea that was very big in the ‘90s has very much appealed to me.
“I’ve always delved into science fiction. As a young girl I grew up in Polokwane, which was Pietersburg under apartheid. And there was a public library but very little other access to books, and it was also an apartheid system. What got into the country, what was available to read growing up in a small town under apartheid, was enormously sheltered. I took to the library and spent hours trying to find things, and I found the science fiction collection. What did they have? I think the thing that hit me the most from what they had—I read all the Asimovs. And Fohl, what was his name—Pohl. Frederik Pohl.
“He’s absolutely brilliant. I’m a little girl from Polokwane; I know very little about the world; I’m very isolated under this apartheid system. I find Frederik Pohl and he blows my mind. I don’t understand the books and I’m very aware that I don’t understand the books so I spend hours trying to understand.
“Because I was very lonely as well and I felt I was the only person reading this kind of stuff, I used to leave notes in the books. ‘If you take this book out and read it, please phone me.’ (Laughs.) No one ever did.
“Then I arrived at university just at the end of apartheid. And the internet was just starting up. And I was lucky to have landed up at Rhodes University, which was one of the first hubs when it was the really early days of the internet. ARPANET it was called in those days. So we were doing very simple messaging, and my boyfriend at the time was a computer geek. He was putting together his own computers from when he was a kid. He loved that stuff so he was always in the labs and I would go out with him and hang around.
“I got quite into the utopian ideas of that early internet era. This was a possibility for another world. And that’s a theme, searching for another world. That’s how I would define African science fiction to a large extent and (that definition) possibly has chartered much of my journey in thinking about science fiction.
“Certainly with Chimurenga, it was the possibility of another world that Chimurenga offered. I found an issue of the magazine in Clarke’s bookshop in Cape Town. The first thing that struck me about it was that I couldn’t tell when it came from. It came as a kind of time travel device. It was the first issue (Music is the Weapon!), but I couldn’t tell this thing had come from the past, if it was a very old journal, or if it was brand new or it had come from the future. I was totally and utterly intrigued.
“So I set up a ruse to interview Ntone as a way I suppose to meet these cool people. I claimed to be a journalist and went to interview him. And then I said to them that their online presence was abysmal and didn’t they want to do anything about it? And I just started working with them.
“For me, what Chimurenga provided, and it was quite an urgent time in my body—I mean in my life. I was not well. I started to become unwell in my body. Cape Town. I found myself in Cape Town and I really hated Cape Town. I was incredibly unhappy and alienated. I felt like I’d come from another planet.
“I found it a hideously racist city and an untransformed city. I found people snobbish. I landed myself in a white writing community. I went out to seek the writing community and all you could find was the white writing community, which offended me.
“I used to go to these hideous f*** book launches of people, middle-class people standing around drinking wine, and I was like, ‘This is not something I want to be involved in.’ So I was a miserable, lonely, and deeply unhappy writer. I was ill. Everything was bad. (Laughs.)
Then I found Chimurenga and my first sense of it was like, ‘There are other worlds out there that they never told you about,’ which is a line from Sun Ra.
“I’m a great person for saying that Chimurenga is Ntone, and he’ll bash me over the head for saying that, and say ‘No, it’s everyone.’ I really think it’s his vision, but it’s a vision that I’m prepared to work hard for and get behind. Because I think what he’s trying is the work of speculation, is the work of trying to dream another way of being in the world that is less violent, less exclusionary, less based on oppression than our current world is.
“That is what struck me about Chimurenga. A: that it had created its own other world so that B: it gave you a world to go to. You could leave the planet of Cape Town. It all became spatially metaphoric for me because Cape Town is already a satellite floating off the continent. If you have to think about where Cape Town is, I couldn’t tell you where it is. Cape Town is certainly not in Africa.
“South Africa is an unbelievable place. If you want the science fiction nightmare, if you want the dystopian nightmare, South Africa has it all in amplitude. And the technology of apartheid was extraordinary. The architecture and the technology that was implemented and how that technology seized bodies were incredible. The power of the technology still holds the country and so many of its people.
“You have to work very hard to get outside of your comfort zone and in that way I was really blessed to land on Planet Chimurenga. I’ve said to Ntone a few times that he saved my life. I truly believe I would not be around today if I hadn’t encountered Chimurenga. I would have lost my mind; I would have died.
“The first thing I did for Chimurenga was that I wrote a piece for the journal, a piece on Julius Eastman (the American minimalist composer, operatic singer, dancer, and gay/black rights activist).”
At that point I gasp and claim that I am a huge Julius Eastman fan.
Stacy: “We were the first people to write about him. Julius Eastman’s journey is a beautiful journey because he was forgotten in America. Then the album came out (the three-disc Unjust Malaise) and it came out to small acclaim. It was hardly noticed. I read a small review. Where does obsession come from? I read the review and it would not leave my mind. I ordered the album online and I listened to it and it blew my mind.”
“So we wrote and that was in 2007. And that piece was when I started with Chimurenga. I told Ntone about the idea and he was like, ‘I want that piece.’ And then I was so impressed because he made me rewrite it eight times. He pushed me to fictionalise. I did it initially as a critical piece. I then redid it and redid it. He kept pushing me and I was going, ‘I’m a small white girl from South Africa, how can I write a black gay composer in America?’ (Laughs) Ntone just pushed, ‘Get into the music. Come back when you’re done.’ And I did. And that was the first piece I did for Chimurenga. And then I did their website.
“I never formally started at the magazine. It’s just that I started working so much that eventually you realize, ‘This is all I actually do’? It was just natural that I started working with Chimurenga.”
Stacy and I talk about double issue 12/13, the 2008 publication that was one of the launch pads for the current explosion of African speculative fiction.
Stacy: “That was the issue I worked as an editor on. Chimurenga comes into science fiction politically—which is the search for other worlds, the idea of trying to propose and dream other worlds. In a way Chimurenga is the science fiction project inherently. It’s that wonderful Sun Ra line, ‘We’ve done what was possible and that didn’t work, so it’s time to do the impossible.’ Just on that level Chimurenga operates as science fiction, always trying to do the impossible, too much with too little—and too few people. It’s always dreaming huge and Ntone dreams universes. He can’t think in planets. And that’s a gift.
“Back to the issue. The question of African science fiction started floating around. (At the time) it was done in this terrible way of ... I mean there was something of the, ‘Oh there is this genre in the West that exists for various historical reasons and has its roots in a very specific history and now we must find it in Africa. We must now come and bring it here.’ And the irony of it is that Africans have always written--as long as writing has been—have written in ways that are speculative, and dreaming in ways that are speculative.
“One could almost argue that if one looks historically or pre-colonially, the whole thinking was more speculative than the current world which is based on rationality? So it’s a continent of enormous contradictions where technology sits very comfortably alongside (pauses) the non-technological, the biological.
“Africa does not work through the dialectic. It’s a place where contradictions have always lived comfortably side by side. And continue to live comfortably, and it’s why it’s so difficult to talk about Africa and why people end up saying this stuff is complex. Because there isn’t an easy way of saying it. Because it isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be. Those irresolvable contradictions are necessary and important to the beauty of the place.
“The experience of living in Africa is already time travel. You are living in spaces where things in some moments seem to be happening thousands of years ago and in some moments seem to be happening in the future. It’s already a space in which time is not operating in this linear march.”
At this point in the interview, I show Stacy one of my photos from a friend’s farm in northwest Nigeria’s farm—oxen pulling ploughs and him in his ceremonial religious robes.
Stacy: “That is life in most of the continent, those contradictions live side-by-side very happily and comfortably. That is life. 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. I don’t think that this is how life is happening. I don’t think that that’s a reality on the ground. I think that the future is existing with the deep past and all in the same timespace. Africa is already a time travel machine. That it should have science fiction or speculative fiction is no mystery.
“It (Western science fiction) always seems to imply progress and that progress is tied to technology and a very specific idea of what technology is and how it should be used. That’s not going to offer us any kind of answer, or any kind of future. That dream is a Western dream and it’s been imposed on the continent.”
She talks about her reading of African speculative fiction.
“Tutuola—he’s fabulous. I was incredibly struck by the device of the invisible magic missive that he uses to get into the bush of ghosts (from the book My Life in the Bush of Ghosts).
“Sony (Lab'ou) Tansi is a fabulous Congolese writer. He works with satire, political satire, writing against colonialism and then the postcolonial condition. He’s often set in imagined countries. He was working in satire like so many people at the time because you would have been killed if you put it in straight. The kingdoms he invents are often full of strange technologies.
“(His novel) A Life and a Half for example has what he calls Radio Flies, that seem to me to be drones. They intercept messages and they transmit things and they kind of buzz around and observe what’s going down. My favourite of his. It was brought out recently by Indiana University Press.
“He does a lot of body spec. In one of his novels, The Shameful State (also published in translation by Indiana University Press), a dictator has a hernia and the hernia is running the country. (Laughs) The hernia just grows and grows and takes over. So he also plays a lot with the physical, the grotesque, the bodily in absolutely fabulous ways, and he is for me in terms of the Francophone writers one of the great science fiction writers from Africa. I’ve long wanted to do an essay about Tansi and his speculative nature.”
Stacy goes on to mention other writers. Ursula LeGuin, Philip K Dick, Connie Willis, and Samuel Delaney.
“Samuel Delany—it’s not just how he enters the science fiction (space), it’s how he writes bodies. I entered Delany via Hogg. Its one of Samuel Delany’s non-science fiction books, so to speak, so to speak. (Laughs) But if sex could be speculative ... What Delany did in that book, he asked the question ... the dichotomy between clean and dirty, the ultimate dichotomy that the West is built on. And he wants to attack that dichotomy and he goes in hard.
“Just stylistically, Delany’s ability to write sentences, to write details, how he writes the body in all his books, whether they’re science fiction or not ... there’s something of that ability to both create worlds but also to create physical characters, characters who have physicality ... Tansi does a similar thing. There’s an incredible viscerality to his writing. The witting is sensual; it’s disgusting, it’s erotic.”
I steer the conversation back to the double issue 12/13.
Stacy: “A lot of that issue was about trying to reframe and reposition how we understood the discussion. It was born out of like, ‘This is not a new conversation.’ Everyone was talking about science fiction because Lauren Beukes had arrived (Laughs). I love Lauren dearly, but no, sorry. It was an attempt to say no, and to do what Chimurenga does best, which is to look at the possibility of looking at other worlds, through questions around technology, time, the future. And I also wrote for that issue. It’s (the story) based on Terminator. Called ‘Terminated.’ Its real science fiction element is that it uses a scene from the movie. The children that she (the main character) watches are re-enacting the movie, but she starts to build on it and make it, her own science fiction movie. It’s my own preoccupation with technology, the body, and sexuality.”
GR: “Why a double issue?”
Stacy: “(Sighs. Thinks.) We wanted to do two things. We wanted to speak to the questions philosophically and explore those questions in a non-fictitious way. At the same time, we were looking at an enormous amount of fabulous fiction. And I suppose the decision to divide them was because that sometimes there is a wonderful pleasure in how fiction can fit together.
“So the decision was to place those fictions together and let them speak to each other and take you on a fictional journey. And we didn’t want to do the normal Chimurenga thing, which is to flow quite smoothly between fiction and nonfiction.”
I then said shamefaced that I hadn’t noticed that one was fiction and one side was not fiction.
Stacy: “Good! Then we succeeded. That’s the essential divide between the double issue, where the boundary was drawn, and part of Chimurenga’s task is shattering those boundaries. The pieces lean towards the philosophical and other pieces lean more to fiction, but both do both at the same time.”
I mention how prophetic the double issue was, with articles on Afrofuturism, and an excerpt from Nnedi Okorafor. It isn’t always speculative. Its most famous story was “Stickfighting Days” by Olufemi Terry, a mainstream story that won the 2010 Caine Prize. I was pleased to see an SF story from Pete Kalu, a key figure in Common Word in Manchester. The Manchester Review 18 that I edited, collecting historically important African spec fiction, reprinted two stories from this issue of Chimurenga: Pete Kalu’s story “Doppelgänger” and Doreen Baingana’s “Eden’s Burning.”
Stacy: “My favorite find for that issue was Jean Lamore. Now he’s a fascinating cat who you have to track down. French writer. We excerpted his novel AKA. I came across it because I hunt down strange rarities online. It’s my hobby I think. It was printed by a tiny imprint that then vanished. It’s done in English but he’s a French writer. What he does that’s so fantastic in that book is that he grabs onto all the artists on the Continent who are working with speculative fictions in their work. (In the issue, the excerpt is called ‘Cobras Coiled’.)
“(Abu B.) Mansaray, he does those fabulous machine drawings, he’s included in the issue too. In that book by Jean Lamore, he uses the visions created by the artists and they come to life in the novel and the world he’s in. Many of these things you will recognize if you know African art. Travelling back to unknown artists.
“There’s been this art-world question of how does one write a history of art book in Africa, and I’ve always wanted to say ‘Actually, Jean Lamore’s science fiction book is a history of African art.’ You can recognize them if you know your African art.
“I was recently having a conversation with Kojo Eshun who reads Mansaray’s artwork as asking the question, ‘What happens if spirits get weaponized by Western technology?’”
I mention that one of Comic Republic’s comics is exactly that idea—the USA is buying up African spirituality and turning it into weapons.
Stacy: “For me that’s an enormously exciting concept. Someone who wasn’t in the issue but you should be looking out for speaking about the French-speaking world is Werewere Liking. She is a Cameroonian, currently lives in Cote d’Ivoire, writes in French and she works in theatre as well as being a painter. Many of her operas and plays are incredibly speculative in their imaginings, dealing with a fantastical realm of future-past-present, deep-history Gods. She’s got one slim little novella called (in the English translation) It Shall Be of Jasper and Coral. In which she proposes a future race, absolutely fabulous in terms of African speculative fiction, that’s never noticed or talked about. She’s definitely someone to add to the list.”
Stacy: “As soon as the xenophobic violence broke out—w—one of the things we didn’t want to do was describe it then as the Emergency. Because the Emergency is always a myth. We apparently now have the Migrant Emergency. Which is a myth. It’s been going on for how many years now? (Laughs) And suddenly it’s an emergency and all the attention is drawn to it.
“Similarly that xenophobic violence was rooted in a huge history. It had been ongoing for an incredibly long time before it reached the crisis, which allows the media in the West to talk about it or think about it. It was urgent for us to not work from that space? So, it took a while.
“Newspapers are inherently a tool of time. The whole of Western history is built on newspaper time. You can go back to the archives and find what happened on that day because of the newspapers. It’s a tool whereby you can keep time. When you start talking about a pan-African newspaper, there’s an opportunity to intervene in that process of the newspaper being the marker of linear time, the eternal march forward. And intervene in the idea of journalism as always springing from or writing to the emergency.
“So the idea of doing the time travel (printing a newspaper in 2011 that was dated 2008) was the opportunity for us writers to place themselves back in the past, to write from that moment now. To force writers to move out of our ideas about the present-past-future. To write from the past as the present, so to speak. An enormously interesting way to change how we think about and how we write about past and present.
“To the person getting it, it is a time travel machine. It is dated in the past but out on that day, brand new but back in time. I’m a great believer in strange African technologies. This is a simple, low-tech/high-tech device that lets you time travel.”
Stacy: “I don’t consider myself by any means a speculative writer or a science fiction writer, strictly speaking. But a lot of my stuff bleeds into the space of speculation, and because I’m consuming a lot of science fiction, and I’m asking questions about the fluidity of the past and trying to break some of these boundaries, I suppose a lot of my work does lean towards writing about the alienation of bodies or about our relationship with technologies.
“I’ve got a collection that came out in 2013 called Because the Night. My more speculative stuff happened after that collection. The most recent writing is when I delved more deeply into ... I've always believed that the line between what is real and what is not real is incredibly fluid, and I‘ve always tried to write against that particular dialectic.
“The more recent writing is largely published online in American journals because I don’t really find easily a home in South Africa other than Chimurenga, which is not in South Africa anyway. It’s a satellite floating off the continent. This piece (“Involution”) that was published in Short Story Day Africa was one of the first pieces I’ve had published in South Africa in ten years. (Laughs).
“I’ve got a very speculative piece (‘A Butcher’s Fantasy’) in The New Orleans Review, the same issue as ‘The Armed Letter Writers’ by Olufunke Ogundimu (one of the other Caine Prize nominees). It’s about a person who finds that they live inside a cow. It ruminates about the questions how did they get there? Why do they live inside a cow? They have a fantasy about the Butcher who will come and save them from the cow. That I suppose is speculative. Asking the same questions about bodies, the boundaries between our bodies and other people’s bodies.
“‘The Aesthetic of Rat Bites’ was quite a science fiction piece as well, and was published in Joyland online. That looks at a future when rats have overrun everything to the point that rat bites have become so common that they are seen as fashionable. It tries to unpack what the aesthetic of these rat bites is and how they find their way into fashion and life.
“A time travel story is ‘The Sky over Luanda,’ in Drunken Boat. Time and space get fractured in that piece. It’s about my relationship with an Angolan musician called Victor Gamaret. He exists, and he spent a lot of time walking in the desert. It tracks his journey in the deserts. That starts to split timewise and space-wise. Drunken Boat is one of the oldest digital magazines, co-founded in 1999 by Ravi Shankar. (At the time of writing in 2018 the site was down.)
“The last piece published online was in The Johannesburg Review of Books. Everyone was writing dystopia. I thought I would write a utopian science fiction story as I call it. It’s set in a future where one day the white people in South Africa all wake up and realize the horror that they’ve perpetuated and continue to perpetuate, and voluntarily together all the white people in the country march into the sea.
“I write a lot. I’ve got a collection nearly ready. I just need to cut it down. I’m one of those terrible writers that hate everything I write, and the older I get, the more I hate and I keep wanting to throw everything out; but I’ve had a nice kick in my ass from here (the Caine Prize gathering) to get it together and get it out now. So a second collection is likely.”
Then, Stacy goes back to talking about her favourite writers.
“I also think that Bessie Head’s A Question of Power should be included in African science fiction. She’s a South African writer but she found more of a home in Botswana. It’s called a feminist novel but she has in it an incredibly powerful critique of Western technology. It charts a woman’s descent into madness, but in her fantasies are these women who are machine women. They are cyborgs. The fantasies—it’s blurry if this is really happening or is in her broken-down mental state—are full of beautiful descriptions of cyborgs. She has Mrs Sewing Machine who is a sex cyborg who comes to taunt her. She fucks and she fucks better than the narrator will ever be able to fuck, and there’s Miss Belly Button. You insert coins into her and she keeps dancing. It’s in terms of the cyborg sex fantasy before the sex cyborg became such a mainstream image.”
(The Bessie Head Literary Award was founded in her honour. Check out the Bessie Head home page)
I ask Stacy if there is anything she’d like to say to round off.
Stacy: “You can’t ask me to round off. I’m not a very good rounder-offer. I’m always travelling forwards and backwards too quickly. You have to give me a better provocation than that round it off.”
GR: “OK, is there something you passionately want to say?
Stacy: “That you don’t need to look for science fiction in Africa, because Africa is already a science-fiction-and-speculative place where the boundaries between future and past have evaporated and are evaporating. So ninety per cent of what has been written from that other world is other-worldly science fiction.”
I then remember that I first heard of her in connection with her teaching of creative writing and the interview explodes all over again.
Stacy: “I also have been teaching at Rhodes University. Oh! I must tell you about my teaching! I’ve got students. I’ve got a book for you that I must get to you by a young writer, Unathi Slasha. Much more into speculative ... if I had to put it more into (a category and having) this Western obsession with genre, and knowing my Western genres quite well, and knowing the American scene quite well, what the Americans are calling Bizarro? It’s the closest I can come to …(Pauses) if I look for a home, who’s doing shit like Unathi.
“It’s his first book as a young writer. He lives in Despatch, which is a harrowing township. As in despatching a parcel, just outside of Port Elizabeth. Currently still lives there, lives the township life. He is producing the most amazing ... he’s got an idea around it, trying to write where language hasn’t reached. He’s so articulate and smart. He’s a miracle. You want science fiction? Where the fuck did this kid come from, he’s read as much as I have.
"Jah Hills is the name of the hills where the novel takes place. He (Unathi) uses and subverts Nguni mythology if you want to call it that. But he spins it ... he sets it in a contemporary era in that it’s not a past that’s gone away. It’s very much part of his reality, so what he’s writing ... he’s not writing mythology. It’s a life people live in the contemporary. He just brings the wildness of that space to insane levels.
“His theory is that he’s trying to write the unknown witch world. He’s saying that there are ideas and concepts that haven’t been translated into language because they don’t translate easily, especially not English. They’re almost resistant to English. His book is an attempt to use the English language to write the unlanguaged world. The world that doesn’t get written about and can barely be spoken and is part of his life.
“And that fluidity of time where he lives in a very contemporary township where technology exists, cell phones, everything exists, but at the same time it’s a travel back into a deep past and a mythological past, those lives, those worlds. He writes that compacting into the expansions of time ... (Pauses) And he’s so articulate. He talks about the stuff so much better than I’m doing now.
“He wrote a very long beautiful essay critiquing South African writing. Thirty-page essay. No one would publish it. We had to put it up on the Black Ghost website ourselves. Everyone was like ‘Thirty pages?’ He really attacks a lot of South Africans as well. He says their writing is banal and boring and dead.
“When I was first exposed to African writing, that was my experience. It was like Chinua Achebe, the stuff you’re given (to read in African schools?) ... and I was like, ‘Errrr.’ And then I started to realize there was other stuff out there, the Sony Lab'ou Tansis, and you just have to dig below the surface.
“Reikanne Mofokeng has also done science fiction. Now his stuff is straight sci-fi sci-fi. He would be approved of by Wale (Talabi, another one of the Caine Prize nominees). He comes from a hip-hop background. He’s coming to the form from the hip-hop science fiction imagination, which is a big part of the African American science fiction imagination. He’s also a coder ... I don’t know what his official title is but he works in code and computers, so he’s proposing other worlds from a tech-based background. He’s based in Joburg. Very different to Unathi, a township boy. Reikanne’s a city boy, hip-hop community.”
The SEALS digital commons has this description of Reikanne’s creative writing thesis.
My thesis is a science fiction novella. It follows the story of an adolescent boy, Shadow, and a little girl, Makebelieve, in an ahistorical future. The world that they traverse is earth, after being nursed back to health, by technologically advanced Southern African societies. A series of inexplicable astronomical events leads to their being hunted down. Through the travels of Shadow and Makebelieve I show how the world and the societies around them operate. I am inspired by Samuel R Delaney’s Aye, Gomorrah and Derrick Bell’s The Space Traders, because of their prowess in world building and exploration of complex and innovative ideas.
It’s pretty evident that Stacy loves teaching creative writing, despite the difficulties of university life in South Africa.
Stacy: “I love it. Look, it’s a double bind. I was teaching with Lesego Rampolokeng. We’ve published him in Chimurenga. He’s an older generation, very political, very fiery kind of stuff. I was teaching with him and he was too black, so he got chucked out.
“I found Rhodes a difficult place to teach in. The name says it all. I think there is a lot of work to be done on transformation. So I found the space operating in there difficult. That being said, my students are fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.
“I truly am excited about South African literature in ways I haven’t been. I banished myself from South African literature. I stopped reading it in fact because I think most of what’s being published is so boring. There are fabulous young black writers out there. Why they are not being published in droves I don’t know. I have six books that should be published. There’s a young generation coming out. They’re taking risks, they’re taking chances, they’re experimenting. They’re brave, they’re bold, they’re reading. I’m incredibly hopeful for South Africa based on the young people. They’re fiery, they’re politicised. There is a whole generation coming.”
Stacy didn’t win the Caine Prize, but I don’t think she minded in the least.
You can buy downloadable PDFs of most Chimurenga publications including the 2008 double issue and the 2016 issue of The Chronic that won the Nommo Award for best graphic novel from the Chimurenga website.
An information box about the Francophone writers Stacy talks about and some others is included in this chapter.