The monorail snaked upriver through the thick teak forest canopy and occasionally out into the daylight. The bursts of sunlight grew more frequent, but less harsh as the day faded into the west. Rather than an end to the day, the night was about to bring Paula to the beginning of the real journey.
For the first time since leaving the plane at Muanda Airport, now 130 kilometres behind her, she was able to take in the view of the vast body of water stretching out 50 metres below. It always took a moment to realise she was not looking at a lake or a separation of continents, but rather the second largest river in the world. The light warmed her face. She closed her eyes and imagined the Congo River seen from high above: the satellite images of a continent in the Earth’s shadow, a vein of silver beginning at one end and flowing into a crescent moon, nearly slicing it in half. Emerging from a once dark continent, it was not sunlight or moonlight that was visible along those waters. It was the mass of energy generated by the metric tons of water pulsating through that vein, that African heart, lighting and nurturing the towns and cities along its banks, creating the Land of Light.
“The Land of Light” from Imagine Africa 500
Stephen Embleton’s ‘Land of Light’ is the penultimate story in Imagine Africa 500, the anthology published by Shadreck Chikoti and edited by Billy Kahora. It’s personal, humanist SF. On a supertrain crossing the Congo River, a daughter appears to be having a conversation with her father. It’s moving, credible, and beautifully written, and I chose it to be reprinted in The Manchester Review special issue 18, one of twenty-one stories selected to represent the history of African SFF. So you can take it as read, I thought the story was very good. Stephen’s graphic and web skills have also been invaluable in running the ASFS website.
The interview, however, turned out to be as much about South Africa’s history and the history of the internet as it was about African speculative fiction or Stephen’s work.
Stephen was twenty years old when apartheid ended in 1994.
“I studied graphic design from 1992 to 1995. I was starting my student career just as apartheid was ending. I was twenty so my first voting was in the 1994 elections. It was an absolute eye-opener. I voted for the Democratic Party nationally (read about the DP on the SA history website) and for the Inkatha Freedom Party locally. Definitely a good time to be a twenty-year-old.”
GR: “Nick Wood talks about how he was made to do commando training in school. The teachers blacked up and the students practiced shooting them. Did you have to do that?”
Stephen: “No. We had Cadets. That was about the worst of it. That was regimental marching on rugby fields. There was no boot camp.
“My brother Michael was a year ahead of me. He applied for graphic design but didn’t get in. That was in ’91 and ’92. He then had to serve, so it was in either the army or the police force, and he chose the police force. Which was two years instead of one year, but the pay was better.
GR: “What does your brother say about being a policeman?”
Stephen: “Best thing in the world. He has all these horror stories. I’ve got my brother and two stepbrothers. Mike was in the Brixton Flying Squad, which is in Joburg, which was one of the most notorious police units. Flying Squad are the first on the scene for most things.
“So Mike was in the thick of the riots going into the townships. He tells stories of going into the hostels, you know, going into all the rooms, and the horrific living conditions in those crammed spaces. It was interesting getting that kind of view while everything was unfolding.
“My stepbrother Marc also went into the police. He then got into the child protection unit. He’s still involved in child protection but private. I think to a certain extent they both enjoyed the experiences but said it was quite horrific … but they were both involved for good or bad.
“Mike left the police force in 2003 or 2002. He never wanted to be a desk jockey. He wanted to be in the thick of it and he needed to get more money, so he ended up trading downtown Joburg for Baghdad. (Shakes head, chuckles.) You know, you joke about the two extremes but for him they were both the same. How the fuck do you … I mean, I don’t understand how you cope with it.
"His wife is a trauma nurse now in the private sector, she travels all over the place picking up patients for hospitals. I mean, with that extreme lifestyle, you see the worst of the worst. So I’m glad I went the route I did.
"When I came out (of college), the draft had ended, so there was no obligation to go fighting. I think fucking right. I can’t think of anything worse than doing something that you don’t believe in."
GR: “So how does a graphic designer end up being a writer?”
Stephen: “I never had any interest in writing because I thought that drawing pictures was easier than finding the words to describe things. I would say my first taste of creative writing was in Standard 6 or 7 in high school. I read Cannery Row, John Steinbeck. I wasn’t a big reader. Again, comic books were my life, and cartoons and TV, to such an extent that the family would ask me what was on TV in three days‘ time and I could rattle that off quite happily.
“When I read Cannery Row, I was blown away with his descriptions, painting a picture with words. So literally the next creative writing essay, I incorporated it in what I wrote, down to the dust blowing on the pavement. I thoroughly enjoyed that and got probably my highest mark for an essay ever.
“Movies were a big thing for me. Tarantino is a good example. With dialogue I can spend all day having a conversation with two people on a page. I have these conversations in my head. I always have a dialogue in my head arguing a point of view whether it’s factual or fiction. To write them is quite interesting.
“It was about 2000. I had an idea for a novella. I thought, OK, I would like to write a book. It’s not about publishing it or sharing it with anybody. I’ve got this idea in my head, I need to flesh it out and see where it goes. I’m quite happy for it not to see the light of day.
“I never felt like I needed to go outside of Durban to find fame and fortune. A lot of the guys I studied with all went to Joburg, Cape Town, or even overseas, especially at that time, ’94, ’95 … I firmly believe you can make a success of yourself wherever you are …”
Stephen: “We only started learning things on the Mac in 1993 or 1994 (second year university). Pulling my hair out working on a digital device as opposed to working with charcoal or airbrush.”
Stephen started work in one of the biggest advertising agencies in Durban, and was regularly promoted by them. He mostly worked with print media, but then got into digital design in ’96.
“They approached me as their (web) designer. The other designers weren’t even interested. (I thought) ‘What the fuck do I want to be doing digital stuff for?’ Then ‘The worst that could happen is that I learn something.’ I remember going into the Mission Impossible website and going, ‘Whoa, this is pretty cool.’“
At first, as in the UK, South African web design tried to replicate print media—paper textures onscreen. Stephen’s first web site, for his company Armadillo, won a South African award, the Loerie.
Stephen: “… I was adamant that I wanted this screen to look like something that I was used to, that I was used to touching in the real world. That site particularly had a paper background, and it was in the days when your had your menu down the side, very much in the print old school. The Armadillo logo was an old copperplate illustration from the 1800s.
“The engineers encouraged us to experiment. They helped me set up my own personal website to experiment on, and I started to learn HTML kicking and screaming. It was an opportunity for the lead engineer to experiment with new technology on the back end of it.”
We talk a bit about how clients in those days kept making the same mistakes, like wanting their CEO’s photo on the home pages. In those days, people just plugged directly into the telephone lines. Speeds were slow—and most people didn’t even have that.
Stephen: “Most people weren’t connected. At home, they didn’t know what I was talking about with email, and what I’m actually doing.
“The first time I saw a web page? I can tell you the one it was. It was for Anansi, a South African version of Google. They had a very basic spider logo and a big yellow banner across the top. I look at the style of websites now. We had engineers on our back trying to get things under 30K. Netscape (one of the first successful browsers) was at its pinnacle and they had released their book, and that was how we wanted to live; we “wanted to sleep under our desks and have an IV drip of caffeine. That was our attitude.
“I would vomit all my rantings on my personal website. That eventually won a personal website award in ’97 in the philosophy category (chuckles).”
We talk a bit about videotext, a failed platform that came before the internet.
Stephen: “When people told me about the internet, that is what I thought the internet looked like. I was born the year TV was introduced. TV was introduced to South Africa for the first time in 1974. It was very controlled.”
Stephen also won the One Club award, an international advertising award based in New York, for the Durban History Museum website.
Stephen: “It was called Time Traveller. Instead of a run-of-the-mill brochure, they did it as if reading newspapers from that time talking about Durban’s history. I took those designs and re-interpreted them for the web creating a kind of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells look, with time-travel buttons and cogs.
“One thing that the internet did for me at the time, especially coming out of apartheid as an ’80s child and closed off from pop culture around the world, was that it opened up the world. The sanctions were lifted; I was getting into the online world, and having an absolute ball finding things.
“The biggest thing for me was being able to find Mad magazine on the internet. I didn’t know anybody who liked Mad magazine. Mad was printed here in South Africa, a local publication that I subscribed to and that arrived in the post every month. It would have been different if I had a group of people I could share Mad with. But to see it on the web in its raw form, it was a little bit more alive, with the artists and William Gaines on the other end of that line.
“(In 1989) the superhero edition of Mad came out and it featured P. W. Botha (shows photo on his phone and points to an image) in the middle there as 19th Century Man. I thought, ‘Great! Our prime minister is being featured in Mad magazine, that’s fantastic.’ Then you read the copy. (Young Stephen said) ‘He doesn’t have slaves. There are no slaves around here.’
“I wasn’t aware of apartheid. I knew about sanctions, that the rest of the world didn’t like us ‘for whatever reason.’
“Again that was at the height of sanctions. Even TV was censored. We did not have a lot of connection with the outside world, especially politically. Now as a twelve-year-old going into my teens, I’m reading about world politics in this cartoon magazine. I would say that I learnt the most about the world from Mad magazine right into my twenties.
“Two things that came out pretty much the same time were that edition of Mad and Lethal Weapon 2. There were these Afrikaans people talking and they were playing the bad guys. ‘Why the fuck are these guys the bad guys?’ And they were saying the K word, which I didn’t like, and they were saying it derogatorily to the black American characters. Usually it’s the Germans who are the bad guys. So when Danny Glover’s in the South African embassy saying ‘Free South Africa’ (Child Stephen thinks) ‘Why do you need to free South Africa? What’s wrong with South Africa?’ That’s when one of the first little light bulbs went off.
“I’m not a big reader. In high school a friend convinced me to read The Sword of Shannara. So I got into fantasy. I watched a lot of movies and saw The Shining and then I saw 2001 and read the book. One of the engineers I knew became a friend and he knew what I was willing to read, my sense of humour, that kind of thing.
“One of the things weirdly enough that I found daunting about science fiction vs. fantasy: fantasy I could relate to. You know, castles and wizards and mythology. Whereas I couldn’t wrap my head around pure space-opera science fiction where they’re talking about all these gadgets. I said to him (the friend), ‘They’re talking about all these phasers and plasma and engines that go at warp speed and I don’t know what they look like. Where is the dictionary that tells me what these look like?’
“He said, ‘What it looks like is not relevant. You can make it up.’ As soon he said that, he said, ‘Now you need to read some science fiction, not watch it.’
“So the friend gave me an Iain M. Banks collection of short stories ’cause he knew I was just dipping a toe. One story was so simple, just dialogue between an AI space suit and a man it’s trying to keep alive. It blew my mind that you can have short stories that are compelling. (The short story is ‘Descendant.’)
“So he then gave me The Use of Weapons. That absolutely blew my mind. The main reveal of the story happens chronologically halfway through. The editor switched it around and alternated chronology so the twist came right at the end.
“So you’re reading chapter one then you’re reading chapter thirty-eight. Iain Banks credited the editor—it was either the editor or the agent Mic Cheetham. For me that was like reading a Tarantino movie. I did not know that you were allowed to do that with a book, that you could structure a story creatively.”
In 2000, he had an idea for a novella and started writing. He dabbled in graphic novels. Then in 2006 he started writing a full-length SF novel on weekends. It was called Soul Searching.
Stephen: “The concept was everything and I wanted to finish it whether it was published or not, and I finished in 2011. That was when I realized that this is something I enjoyed doing: the art of sitting down in front of a computer and writing words was absolutely rewarding—doing research, developing a scene, thinking about where the story is going to, revisiting what you’ve written.
“I had no illusions about being a writer because I’m graphic. I hadn’t studied English literature; I hadn’t studied writing. The closest I came to writing was being around copywriters and that profession. So I started doing research on the publishing industry. I can tell you one of the worst things I read said that if you’re not in Western countries, you know, New York or UK, then you must craft your story around those audiences. This was on various blogs, South African blogs. I wouldn’t say they were the big writers but the people who write things like Ten Tips for Writers.
“I wanted to base Soul Searching in Durban. It was written in my language. A person in the UK can understand my language despite the slight colloquial touches.”
Soul Searching so far has not been published. From 2011 to 2013 there were many time-consuming near misses—from Penguin South Africa, then Random House. Each time the publishers liked the novel, asked for more, then sat on it sometimes for years.
Stephen: “Penguin came back to me in 2011. They were positive though they turned me down. Their excuse was there’s a small audience in South Africa for science fiction. For them, they had just published Deadlands by that mother-and-daughter team Lily … (Herne, actually Sarah Lotz and her mother Savannah working as a team). In 2011 they had also published a vampire novel. ‘We’re not taking any more science fiction and fantasy, so good luck.’”
Another company took years.
“These publishing people really take a long time. I’m in advertising. It takes a year to make a film. This is fucking ridiculous. The first editor had left; my emails had gone down a hole. They said they would get a reader’s report. So I thought, ‘OK, that will be great.’ Six pages of reader’s report came back, 95 percent of it glowing, then little tweaks—characters, concept, dialogue, all positive. They told me to tone down the swearing. (Chuckles). And a month later they came back again with … ‘small SF market.’ Whatever. It was exhausting, from 2011 to 2013, just a huge hole in my life.
"In 2017 I thought I'd at least managed to sell it to a small US publisher—until I started really looking closely at the terms in the contract, which were like 'We want a percentage of any sale anywhere, even when it's not our edition.’ So I said no.
“During that time I thought I needed to do something else that kept me going. I started a blog that was a science fiction story, The Journal of a DNA Pirate. I would write something every day, even just a sentence. Best format will be a journal, each day is going to be creative. So I go in there, write something. Next day go in, where did I leave off?
“There was a call from Fox & Raven publishing for up to eight thousand words. I looked at the blog and decided to submit it as is. A month or two later, they said I was in the short list. That was going to be the first thing of mine to be published. They closed their doors six months later.”
Not long after, Stephen saw the call for Imagine Africa 500, organized by Shadreck Chikoti either on Goodreads or the Short Story Day Africa groups.
Stephen: “The topic, what will Africa be like in five hundred years, was something that I felt inspired by. I’m pretty positive about Africa as a continent. I wanted to write something that encapsulates that.
“I come from a very religious household. That kind of background. I’ve always been interested in the afterlife. Soul Searching is about being able to track the soul. I wanted something that could tap into Africa spiritually, something that offered some hope, that maybe touched on where we are culturally with technology. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction, although I watch Mad Max (smile in voice).”
Like many of the authors in the volume, Stephen was not able to go to the workshop in Malawi, and so missed out on the briefing and the mentorship after the workshop. Billy Kahora’s edits involved grammatical changes. Stephen was still desperate for some feedback.
“What Shadreck did for me, it was my first published piece. It gave me hope. I was about to give up on writing. I owe him a debt of gratitude. I made sure that I helped him with the Kindle edition of Imagine Africa. I put it on Amazon for him, did all the registration for him and everything.
“Muthi (Nhlema, author of the first story in the anthology, “One Wit’ this Place”) on Facebook Chat pinged me about the story. His story was one of the ones I really connected with. I said to him, ‘Your dialogue—I’ll go back to Iain Banks, he wrote a Scottish dialogue. He’d written it phonetically.’”
Muthi’s story “One Wit’ this Place” is written in a flavorful version of West African pidgin standing in for a future English. He also wrote the Nommo-nominated novella Ta O’Reva.
“Since Imagine Africa, I’ve been working on my next novel. What I’ve been stewing about, being adamant about is that we are allowed to write about South African culture; and fuck the Western reader, I am writing for an audience here.
“That’s what Shadreck has done for me. I am so grateful to him. Because until then I had a very limited understanding of speculative fiction from a South African perspective, having publishers saying it’s very limited here, we do one title a year. Then to have this Malawian publisher, this black publisher wanting to publish short African science fiction stories. That blew my mind.
“It also opened my eyes to have this loose group of people writing and reading this stuff, be it the Reader group (the African Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Group) and the Society (African Speculative Fiction Society). You’re sharing tidbits, getting people saying read this, read that.
“I am playing catch-up to all this work that is out there. And we’re not even talking long-form stuff; we're talking all the short stories that I’m trying to catch up with. That there is this burgeoning industry. People wanting to publish on whatever terms. I think it’s decolonized to the nth degree, because they are willing to do it like Omenana, and give a free PDF or get a Kindle version out or the website version. It doesn’t have to be print. You’re not going through the traditional publishing route.”
His short story “Veiled” was printed in the Ake Review and is available on his website.