At Public Books, Zambian writer Namwali Serpell writes about the present and future of Afrofuturism. Whereas during the twentieth century Afrofuturism was largely a phenomenon of the African diaspora—especially among African Americans—today more and more Africa-based writers are using speculative fiction to explore themes of identity, technology, and politics. As an example he points to Nnedi Okorafor, whose recent novel Lagoon is about the arrival of an alien species on Earth. While Okorafor born in the United States to Nigerian immigrants, she identifies as Afropolitan and has set many of her works in Africa. Here's an excerpt from the review:
As Afrofuturism has begun to migrate back to the motherland in earnest, the same relative dearth continues to plague theorists and writers. Even Mark Bould, whose introduction to Paradoxa’s issue on African science fiction offers a comprehensive if nebulous syllabus, implies that it is nascent: “If African sf has not arrived, it is certainly approaching fast.” The appearance of a deluge—a trend, a fad—is in effect a trickle. Is this just what happens when you cross blackness with futurity? As Dery asks of African Americans, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Or is this lack specific to African literature, where energies might seem to be better directed toward, say, political critique of corruption, poverty, disease, and unemployment?
Nnedi Okorafor, born in the United States to Nigerian immigrants, both bridges this breach and fills it. She appears on lists of black sci-fi on either side of the Atlantic. And while she says that she has “issues with [the label] Afrofuturism,” she is one of the most prolific black writers of speculative fiction out there, and has set several of her fantasy and science fiction novels on the continent. Okorafor, in other words, is Afropolitan and African American: she insists that her “flavor of sci-fi is evenly Naijamerican (note: ‘Naija’ is slang for Nigeria or Nigerian).” Yet in an essay on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website, Okorafor herself bemoans the scant canon:
Here’s my list of “African SF.” It’s really short … How do I define African SF? I don’t. I know it when I see it … The main fact is that this list DOES exist. Africans ARE writing their own science fiction, contrary to what some may think. But the fact is that Africans need to also write more of it.
When building a canon, the question of inclusion becomes paramount. If the African v. African American debate seems unduly academic or divisive, just imagine when the question of race comes in: what does it mean, as Okorafor notes, that the first major African science fiction film, District 9, was directed by a white South African? In another essay, “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?,” Okorafor cites two experts—a Nollywood director and a scholar of African fiction—who both essentially say no. Though she is more optimistic on the question, Okorafor explains: “In Africa, science fiction is still perceived as not being real literature. It is not serious writing.… African audiences don’t feel that science fiction is really concerned with what’s real, what’s present. It’s not tangible.”
Image: Wangechi Mutu, She’s Got the Whole World in Her, 2015. Via Public Books.