Never let a good controversy go to waste. Because … why would you? It’s too tempting, but also, where there is controversy, there often is a deeper debate about truth. The question becomes: whose truth? And which truth matters most?
A few months ago the French literary festival Les Imaginales, by way of Mnémos Editions, published an anthology—Afrofuturisme(s): Le futur change de visage. The future has a new face. The object was to highlight an often ignored niche in French or francophone speculative fiction: Black African and Afro-descendant voices.
A commendable idea, so why the fuss? Well, out of twenty authors, eight were white. This raised the question: should white authors write Afrofuturism? Or Black characters? Should white authors be even given a voice in those spaces?
The smashing success of Senegalese Goncourt winner Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, and other recent successes such as Congolese author Alain Mabanckou, speak to possible changes in French literary spaces; but as the latest changes to Les Imaginales demonstrate, with the replacement of Stéphanie Nicot (hitherto Artistic Director), French speculative spaces are subject to the same conservative trends affecting French politics, with a measurable turn in favor of far-right identity politics.
Several Black African and Afro-descendant authors and “influencers” (not using the word pejoratively, but rather because I’m not sure what qualifies as such) have expressed their opinions online, with a couple translated anonymously below:
All I have to say about les Imaginale’s Afrofuturism(e) anthology is that I won’t read what white authors have to say on the matter […] Afrofuturism is by Black people, about Black people, for Black people, not by white people, about Black people, for white people.
At a 2019 conference I asked the question: Can white authors write Afrofuturism? In essence the answer is still no. But I’ll go a little further today […] Yes, they can, hoping they will do it seriously and respectfully, and that they just call it science fiction [not Afrofuturism].
If you ask me: I think anybody can write whatever the hell they want, as long as they’re ready to reckon with the consequences. I am more concerned about the appropriation of Black voices, history, culture, and aesthetics in a publishing industry dominated by better known, more immediately bankable, white voices. But this is not about me.
I have not read Afrofuturisme yet. I hope to read it blind (insofar as such things are possible), and try to judge the works on their anonymous worth; so, this is not a review of the anthology. Nor is this a larger discussion about francophone Afro speculative fiction, the historicity thereof, and its contemporary expression. There are much better people than me to do it. It’s a bit embarrassing as francophone editor for Omenana Magazine I realize, but there you have it.
Rather I wanted to ask francophone African speculative authors how they feel, how non-Black francophone African authors relate to the controversy, but also how they position themselves either as Afrofuturists or Africanfuturists, or as neither.
There is no science to this, and absolutely no fiction, just the honest answers from authors on how they perceive their identity, the value and intent of their work, and the apparently never-ending story of identification in literary spaces.
Moustapha Mbacke Diop
Moustapha is a twenty-four-year-old resident of Dakar, Senegal, in the sixth year of his medical studies. An author of speculative fiction (his work appeared in Mythaxis, Omenana, and in the Africa Risen anthology that was released this November) who writes in both French and English, he leans more towards fantasy and horror rather than science fiction. His stories are dark, lyrical, and disturbing, with characters exploring their identities, fears, and part to play in the world, much like the author himself, though some of them “just want to cut heads off.”
“Africa is the influence for my work,” he says, “I was born and raised in the narration of tales and legends following the adventures of mythical characters like Lëkk the hare and Bukki the hyena.”
As he grew older he encountered different cultures and storytelling traditions, but his intention, now manifest, was always to go back to his roots and voice African myths which weren’t present enough in mainstream fiction; a trend he is happy to see evolving.
As for the anthology:
My opinion might sound radical, but I don’t think it’s acceptable, especially by white people, if I may use that term. As Black people, our stories, no matter how cheerful, are more than just entertainment. Our words are means of exploring our own identity, our concerns in a world where, even being on the African continent, we continue to suffer the pangs of colonization. Our “storytelling” has always been about reconquering our own voice, a eulogy to our Black culture, as evidenced by the existence of griots. Whether filled with joy and adventure or darkness and pain, it arises from the depths of our soul. It’s one of the only things we desperately manage to cling to, after all the West has taken from us. For years the West has rewritten our history, their voice has replaced ours and appropriated it. These practices should no longer continue. We are capable of being the spokespersons of our own culture and of our futures—we always have been.
He prefers Africanfuturism over Afrofuturism, although he doesn’t write science fiction per se.
My preference leans towards Africanfuturism as defined by Nnedi Okorafor. I appreciate this interconnection between our future and our imagination as Africans, especially with the important place that the Ancestor and spirituality occupy. Like her, I don't see these stories as “old wives’ tales.” As a Muslim, Senegalese and Wolof, they are an integral part of my life. I conceive of past, present, and future as being the same entity from different angles, much like the Moirai of Greek mythology.
Moustapha is currently working on a novel (looks like everybody is these days, maybe I should get to work too), which he thinks is best described by Okorafor’s Africanjujuism. I don’t know how advanced he is with his work, but be sure to keep an eye on him.
Dounia is French-Moroccan, born in Casablanca. Her father is a Moroccan Arab, while her mother is of mixed French and Berber heritage. She now lives in France. She is a librarian and a teacher by day, and an author by night. She has written novels, short stories, and runs a show on YouTube called Dounia Recoit, promoting the voices of francophone (African or otherwise) speculative authors.
Dounia writes two kinds of speculative fiction: what she describes as magical realism (but could just as easily be called historical fantasy, as her stories are rooted in pre-colonial Moroccan history with supernatural elements), and a little science fiction, drawn to space exploration with a less “Western-centered vision, if I may.”
Dounia maintains a strong connection to her country of origin as whatever she writes, be it realism or fiction, happens there. She considers herself an African with all the complexities brought about by colonization.
Historically, we North Africans have always been separated from the rest of the continent, by concepts of white Africa and Black Africa, all the while without giving us the privileges of “whites!” I discovered so-called Black Africa through trips to the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. As a young Moroccan, I discovered with great astonishment and then admiration the peaceful relationship with the naked body in cultures still steeped in tradition, and a sense of hospitality that would make a North African, whose national sport is hospitality, absolutely livid. Not to mention nature and its greenery. I have a real affection for this region from the Pillars of Hercules to the Gulf of Guinea.
Dounia describes herself as trying to write good stories with a deeper meaning, rooted in social justice, women’s rights, colonial history, the guilt that most migrants feel at those they’ve left behind, and the influence of djinn and the unseen. She wishes to write more science fiction, especially since most SF, especially “hard SF” reads like the story of Western civilization. “I want to write about us,” she says. “Good SF authors have proven that it’s from the human fabric that we weave amazing tales, not from imaging the future of technology.”
As for the anthology:
I haven’t read it yet. At a glance it seems that it is oriented towards the French-Caribbean, for the really “Afrofuturist” part. For the rest of the writers it seems to be rather an evocation of Africa according to their own sensibilities. Let’s say that if the subject is Afrofuturism, we are not in the subject of Africa as a discovery of African authors. For me everyone has the right to write about everything, provided they are honest with the culture they are dealing with. But everyone must be visible, and the talents of Africans should have the chance to be read too. For instance, I am immersed in the Maghrebian imaginary and I know that I have a chance equal to zero at the moment of having a fantasy novel published in France by a profitable publisher. When I see Western authors dealing with my culture without really feeling it, without taking it out of its orientalist junk exoticism, well, I admit that it makes me angry. Not because these writers tell stories of jinn, with which they do not have a shared reality, but because I, a native of this culture, cannot speak alongside them with complete equality.
She prefers Africanfuturism over Afrofuturism because she doesn’t share a connection with the African-American world.
I find the term Africanfuturism very interesting. Seeing them side by side, yes, Africanfuturism is the better term because it is about the real Africa and not about a concept that helped America’s former slaves regain their identity and dignity. The African novelists that I was able to discover have their own writing, and varied styles that draw on their current society and not on a reinvented past. What surprises and disappoints me is that for [Nnedi Okorafor], Africa seems to come down to people of “Black” culture. Cultures have no colors. There are Black Moroccans who have nothing in common with a Christian Ivorian, for example. This amounts to denying that other Africans exist and are African. That Black cultures have irrigated all of North Africa for millennia, and not only through slavery, and that they continue to do so. In my mind Africanfuturism encompasses Africa as associations of cultures, policies, and imaginations rich enough to overflow from the West African cradle and encompass all authors including diasporas. So yes, I feel like I belong to the Africanfuturist identity which I think will develop further over time and literary creation.
For more on Dounia and her work, you might want to check out the indie festival Nice Fictions which she co-organizes every year.
Mariam is a college student, studying spatial planning, and hailing from Strasburg in eastern France, where she was born and raised by parents originally from Mali. She is a proud, veiled, and practicing Muslim. Her first story was published a few months ago in Omenana Magazine, and she is currently working on her first novel.
A fan of history, her Malian origins influence her writing immensely, explaining her penchant for alternate history with a tinge of the fantastic. Her work looks into African problems and how they still plague us today through the lens of the past: colorism (favoritism for light skin over dark), women’s rights, the oppressive and lingering caste system, and slavery in our cultures.
I love to understand where my ancestors came from and what my ancestors did to understand who I am. Because Africans are not homogeneous. I do not necessarily find myself in the culture of other peoples of Africa. As a writer, I have this need to show and prove truths, to expose facts without indoctrinating minds, as Edmond Rostand would say. The tales I am currently working on take place during colonial and pre-colonial times. In these two interlinked eras, I do not hesitate to criticize the negative sides of the different societies while valuing the positive. Writing is an outlet for me. I would say that I need to indulge myself on the subjects discussed and to criticize.
As for the anthology:
The controversy is completely legitimate. Afrofuturism concerns all Black and mixed race people. I do not understand the logic of taking authors who do not correspond to the archetypes of the characters, and especially who do not know the diversity of cultures present in Africa. Wakanda does not exist, it is good to remember that. As a Malian, it would be very difficult for me to write, for example, about a South African character. I do not have the knowledge and the cultural background to express myself and write about the peoples of that country. So for people with a purely French cultural and generational background, it’s far too tricky.
Mariam too prefers Africanfuturism over Afrofuturism to describe her work and herself as an author:
The more time goes by, the more I realize that the Afrofuturist movement represents African-Americans. These are their spaces that were created for specific reasons, taking into account their historical and political context (it is moreover why I find the ADOS movement very interesting). I find that Africans tend to appropriate the struggle and achievements that were carried out by African-Americans while rejecting their own historical realities, as Black people with no close descendants having been deported. Nnedi Okorafor’s approach attracts me more, I feel closer to this universe, designed as the name suggests: for Africans. I can’t wait to see where this will take us.
For more from Mariam, follow her on Twitter, and keep your eye open for an upcoming interview by Dounia Charaf.
Rachid describes himself as sur-Saharan as opposed to sub-Saharan. He was born in Algeria in 1974 in a Berber family, five years after the Algiers Pan-African festival. He moved to France in 1980. He quickly became a little boy like all the others in the multi-ethnic environs of Seine-St-Denis, though he couldn’t understand his classmate’s obsession with the Return of the Jeudi (jeudi is Thursday in French). He spent every summer in Algeria while growing up. He received his French ID card in 1997, and is currently a film, TV, documentary, and pop culture columnist for a few French newspapers.
He writes “science fiction most of the time. It allows one to encapsulate all the other genres, including the so-called ’noble’ ones such as drama and tragedy and for thought experiments.” A classicist, Rachid finds inspiration in reading scientific reviews and videos by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Bill Nye, and Carl Sagan, and reading Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin and others.
“I am a late bloomer,” he says. “I published my first short story in 2018, in ’the autumn of my life,’ as Serge Gainsbourg sang.”
Africa often plays a part in his writing, without him being aware of it.
It plays out in the names of my protagonists. For example, I started a crime story, I called it “Algorithms.” It’s a word of Arabic origin. For this project I created the character of a young Black journalist: his name is Léopold and he is from Congo. He has the same relationship to identity and racism as me, so few references to Congolese culture. The hero appears Black in the gaze of others. It is said today that he is “racialized.” Otherwise, I am writing a short film, whose action takes place in Algeria. But most of the time, I don’t physically describe my characters. The heroes then have the color that the reader imagines. There is a taboo among writers on the arduousness of work. I don’t have a fixed desk, nor a desk lamp, nor a chamomile teapot when I write. And I don’t write for pleasure: the pleasure is to hold the finished and printed work in hand. But before I get there I have a mountain to climb. I don’t try to convince anyone with my writing. I do not stage ideas, but emotions. When I identify the emotion that triggers the desire to write, I still have to discover how the characters and the story will generate this emotion.
As for the anthology:
I am not aware of this controversy. I weigh the other part of your question well. You are no doubt talking about cultural appropriation and/or the presence of white authors in an upcoming collection on Afrofuturism. Do we have to have a specific “background” to develop characters? I asked Norman Spinrad the same question: how did an American, octogenarian, not fluent in French, isolated in a beautiful district of Paris, manage to build young and realistic characters for his novel, Oussama? The answer is simple: he did his research. The same goes for the anthology. If the text is bad, because it’s poorly documented, it is not published. And the fact of being an African writer should not make us forget the need for quality and realism in writing. I think we have to agree on quotas, but quotas for white people. It would be absurd to publish an Afrofuturist anthology written mostly by non-Africans. And these Afrofuturist authors, what are their texts about? Are we still Afrofuturist if we don’t talk about Africa? I pity the person in charge of coordinating this project!
Unlike the previous authors, Rachid prefers the term Afrofuturism over Africanfuturism.
The first time I came across the term, in 2010, I liked its musicality. It was the day of the release of Janelle Monàe’s ArchAndroid album. For me, Afrofuturism is about projecting the African continent into its future, essentially. And Marvel Studios has done well to make Wakanda, an African nation so advanced that it prefers to live hidden from the rest of the world, believable. If you accept me, a Franco-Algerian author, and sur-Saharan, then I want to be part of your story. I prefer the term “Afrofuturism.” By creating too many distinctions one loses the essence of an idea. Moreover, according to most paleoanthropologists, humanity appeared 200,000 years ago on the African continent, then dispersed to the rest of the world (the so-called “out of Africa” hypothesis). So we all live in an Afrofuturistic reality.
Rachid’s work was long-listed for the French speculative Rosny Aîné award this year, for his Omenana-published story, which goes to show that there is growing room for the African speculative.
And there you have it! The uncut raw, if you will. Stay tuned for more controversy from yours truly.