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Why is science-fiction so white?

Mako Muzenda is a Zimbabwean journalist, currently studying at Rhodes University. Her areas of interest include African youth, development and culture.

We know that Africans need to tell their own stories, but it is just as important that we are allowed to imagine our own futures.

For years, the works of HP Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert have sparked the imaginations of readers all over the world. These names are just a few in the pantheon of speculative fiction, a broad genre that encompasses horror, science-fiction and alternative history.

However, for a field of literature that’s meant to venture boldly into new terrain and embrace all kinds of ideas, it’s not the most diverse. A 2016 report by Fireside Fiction states that 1.96% percent of the science fiction stories in 2015 were written by black authors. That’s less than a piece of the pie – it barely qualifies as crumbs. With the majority of these stories originating from the United States of America, it begs the question: how much representation do African writers have in that 1.96%?

In a 2014 essay, “African science fiction is still alien”, published on her personal blog, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor reflects on why it’s important for Africa to be represented in science-fiction. As she recounts her train of thought, she reaches two conclusions:

1. Africans are absent from the creative process of global imagining that advances technology through stories. 2. Africans are not yet capitalising on this literary tool which is practically made to redress political and social issues.”

In a continent full of cultures, religions and rich folklore, Africa is the perfect breeding ground for speculative fiction stories – not just stories set in Africa, but stories written by Africans for Africans. There are more writers venturing into African speculative fiction. South Africa’s Khaya Maseko recently published a science-fiction novella set in kwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal. Okorafor is the first black author to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. The creation of the African Speculative Fiction Society in 2016, in conjunction with its Nommo Awards, is a big step in cementing African authors in speculative fiction.

The presence of these spaces – websites, magazines and publications – goes a long way in introducing readers to different writers, and getting aspiring authors the visibility they need. Ivor Hartmann has been involved in speculative fiction since 2007, with the release of his first book Earth Rise. After going from publisher to publisher, looking for someone to put his book on the market, Hartmann (a Zimbabwean) was finally able to get his story out with Something Wicked, which at the time was the only science-fiction magazine for the whole of Africa.

While I did publish it with them (Something Wicked), I was distressed at the lack of publishing venues for speculative fiction in Africa. So rather than moan about it I started up an online weekly magazine,” explains Hartmann. His decision led to the creation of StoryTime, which ran for five years until Hartmann switched to solely publishing anthologies. With enough experience in the industry behind him, Hartmann decided to take the plunge and address the inadequacies in African science fiction head-on with AfroSF, the first Pan-African science fiction anthology.

Of course, now there are loads of African online magazines but back then it was all new territory for writers and readers. No longer were we held back by the excruciating logistics and heavy capital needed to run a print magazine.”

What had started off as a fringe movement is growing into a vibrant community of people dedicated to letting Africa’s voice be heard in speculative fiction.

One of these people is Masimba Musodza, a Zimbabwean author and playwright currently based in London. Books were a part of his life from an early age, and science-fiction television shows were a big part of his childhood. Musodza recalls using a voucher he won from an English prize to buy Frankenstein. Horror is his calling, but when he initially started venturing into writing horror stories, he hit a speedbump similar to what Hartmann faced.

The publishing industry as it is has its own ideas about African literature. There’s a belief that Africans shouldn’t write about such things (speculative fiction).”

This rigid view of what constitutes an African story has hampered the growth of speculative fiction – the desire for it is there, but if publishing houses don’t believe it to be an ‘important’ genre, home-grown speculative fiction will continue to suffer. That’s not the only problem: as a master of horror, Musodza writes about witches, arcane rituals, dark magic. One of his books, Shavi Rechikadzi, details a woman resorting to magic for justice. It makes for an intense and entertaining read, but the reaction to his work wasn’t what he expected.

I’ve had journalists refuse to write on my work because they think I’m a devil worshipper,” he explains, adding that the fervent Christianity in his home country has meant that some people have interpreted his work as anti-Christian when that isn’t the case. Religious misinterpretation aside, the biggest point of concern for Musodza is the way in which speculative fiction is progressing in Africa.

We always try to follow the trends in the West. We should be allowed to develop in different directions. Let’s have more. Let’s have more from different places.”

There is power in imagination and creativity, in conjuring something new and exciting from reality. Speculative fiction in all its shapes and forms allows both writer and reader to transport themselves into an alternate world, a space they can completely immerse themselves, a space they can claim for themselves. In a modern world where issues of representation, ownership and space are constantly coming under question, it’s integral for African literature to be present in genres it was previously absent from. DM


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