The transcendence of boundaries

What kinds of radical emancipatory futures are being imagined in Africa’s speculative fictions?

Ouadane Ksour, Mauritania. Image credit Carsten ten Brink via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Speculative fiction in Africa is currently enjoying a renaissance moment. For those “Who No Know Go Know”—to borrow Cape Town platform Chimurenga’s motto—it’s becoming an increasingly prominent genre and an exciting challenge to keep up with the great range of authors and texts imagining possible futures in Africa.

By setting narratives in spaces not only beyond our real world but also in it, and writing stories that blend mythological and futuristic elements, Africa’s speculative fiction writers are imagining manifold emancipatory futures.

In an introductory essay titled “Afrofuturism: Ayashis’ Amateki” and published in the short story anthology Intruders in 2018, the South African novelist Mohale Mashigo presented a manifesto of sorts for speculative fiction writers on the continent. She proclaims there that to fully engage with this body of fiction, there is a need to engage with the continent as a whole and then with the specificities of specific sites, cultures and languages in Africa. This proclamation nuances, and even counters, some of the tenets of Afrofuturism, an African American cultural aesthetic that emerged in the twentieth century.

It may seem obvious to say so, then, but Africa takes center stage in its speculative fictions. And the simple act of centralizing the continent has key emancipatory potential. Malawian writer Wesley Macheso’s “Waking Up in Kampala” (2016) illuminates this point clearly. The story is set in Kampala, the so-called Silicon Valley of Africa, during the age of the post-Technocalypse in the summer of 2515. While the story explores futuristic forms of life in all sorts of ways, the depiction of a technological takeover that has destroyed the Western world and left Africa as a single country is the driving force of the story. Africa has combatted the Technocalypse by means of its “rich natural resources” (for Macheso); indeed, Africa is the world’s leading power. Here, Macheso works to reverse the global order of socio-politics today, and with it the story registers a radically transformed future.

An interesting addition here is that, while speculative fiction’s project is to centralize the continent as landmass, as a place, as a unified power, it also projects Africa’s people as a collectivity in the future. Of course, there are some powerful superhero tales out there which focus on the individual, but concepts such as ubuntu are vividly interwoven in speculative texts in Africa today. Further to this, one could also add that much speculative fiction works to collapse the self-other dichotomy—there appears to be very little interest in producing yet another “Other” in Africa’s imagined futures. In this sense, the future is inclusive.

The above points contribute to the idea that speculative fiction in Africa intervenes in and disturbs dominant present-future narratives so often prescribed by the West. Further to centralizing Africa, then, writers of the genre are also effectively unravelling the thread of logic that keeps progress narratives in place. This is largely achieved by disrupting linearity. Let’s take Zimbabwean Tendai Huchu’s “Njuzu” as one example: Huchu’s story is set on Ceres—the agricultural hub of the main asteroid belt—but it also incorporates the Shona water sprite believed to live in lakes and rivers. Various expectations are subverted here. For one, the story immediately wreaks havoc with linear temporality by integrating a traditional mythical creature into a futuristic tale based on a planet in space.

Beyond the existence of njuzu in the future, the blending of spirituality and technology in the short story is also important. In a moment of ceremony on Ceres, the story’s characters gather around Bimha’s pond, joining drummers and ululating women in front of a hologram of “Nyati, the buffalo, their clan’s totem” (included in Afrosf, the 2018 anthology edited by Ivor Hartmann). From this simple extract, we see that hologram and totem—spirituality and digitality; past, present and future temporalities—are conjoined. Nyati—a traditionally sacred figure—is technologically advanced and digitally connected here. This leaves the reader with the strong impression that indigeneity is certainly not antithetical to technology or modernity. Ultimately, Huchu combines apparently incompatible things to create a radically different, emancipated futurescape.

While mythical creatures are significant in speculative fictions in Africa, the depiction of human-nature interaction is yet another interesting way in which writers are imagining radically liberated futures. Think of Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s many works. In Lagoon (2014) alone we find various marine creatures, a bat, and a spider. Beyond mere representation, each of these creatures owns a first-person narrative in Lagoon. Similarly, in Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019), mosquitoes tell their story. A dragonfly is central to Wole Talabi’s short story “Incompleteness Theories” (2019). Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City (2010) incorporates various animals in the dystopian landscape of Johannesburg. Another example is Stacy Hardy’s short story “A Butcher Fantasy” which asks: what would it be like if a person got trapped inside a cow? What if human-animal roles were reversed? Engaging with multispecies in this way, by attempting to understand the experiences of various animals and giving voice to creatures in narratives, is an essential step toward acknowledging non-human agency on earth; a significant step in our current age toward a more sustainable future.

In sum, the imagined future in Africa’s speculative fictions is not restrictive. On the contrary, it is open-minded, multiple, non-linear, and ultimately focused on the transcendence of boundaries.

On a final note, the above sentiment carries from the content of speculative fictions to form. Not only is “speculative fiction” an expansive category, but the form in which many speculative fiction writers are publishing their works today contributes to its emancipatory potential. Transcending some of the boundaries imposed by a publishing industry which largely performs a gatekeeping role, writing in the short form, and to a large extent appearing in the digital space, the speculative text seems not to be so constrained by some more traditional publishing structures. This is importantly helping to diversify—indeed, emancipate —the narrative of the future in interesting ways.

Parts of this article are based on Woods’s paper in the journal Scrutiny2: Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa. Permissions under the Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Joanna Woods is currently working on contemporary southern African speculative fiction. She is a PhD student in English at Stockholm University.

Further Reading

Cyberpunk Thriller

Zoo City is set in an alternate Johannesburg, where criminals or those who have serious moral failings, get landed with an animal familiar as a permanent attachment.