Dismantling the Echo Chamber: On Africa SF

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Mark Bould




Dismantling the Echo Chamber: On Africa SF by Andrea Hairston

January 16th, 2014 reset - +

I GREW UP in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, PA. Tarzan was swinging through TV jungles, yodeling to the apes, and terrifying the natives, who all spoke ooga booga. I can still do the yodel and a few lines of ooga booga. In my post WWII black and Sicilian neighborhood, calling someone African was worse than a smack upside the head with a tire iron. In cartoons, stories, comic books, TV shows, paintings, films, and the news, Africa was a hot, primitive mess — a “voodoo” horror in need of Enlightenment. Like Indigenous Americans, Africans were seen as having no worthwhile culture, no significant history, and no real future. In the glorious march of progress, savage Africa, with its primitive “voodoo” religions, quaint languages, and exotic proto-cultures, was destined to disappear.

Colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and globalization were rarely presented as intrinsic, fatal flaws of Western Civilization. The Atlantic slave trade was apocalyptic, predatory capitalism—nothing personal, just good business, profit at any psychotic cost. Imperial progress eschewed empathy.  So, although cruel and deplorable, slavery supposedly “rescued” American Negroes from a pathetic savage destiny and gave us an opportunity to evolve, to assimilate. We diasporic colored folks definitely had to leave Africa far, far behind if we wanted to enter history and make it to the future. The regrettable but inevitable demise of the “native” was mourned and celebrated in museums and movies, novels and plays. Equality meant we could be white too, or beige, but not our African selves. In the echo chamber of popular culture, European superiority and African inferiority were taken for granted. To a large degree this is still the case.

Rewriting the rules that define/constitute the fantasy we call reality in order to dismantle colonial structures and transform said reality is an incredible challenge. Black to the future was/is a radical, dangerous, and daring dream—an impossibility. Science fiction and fantasy (sf&f) is a rehearsal of the impossible, an ideal realm for redefinition and reinvention. For Africans and their descendants in the diaspora, decolonizing our mind/body/spirits was/is an on-going sf&f project. Freedom is a Magic If. Indeed, for all of us, humans, non-human animals, and plant-life, recovering the past and decolonizing the future is a critical survival question in the subjunctive case. How might we coevolve, but be different, together in a (post)colonial empire hell-bent on global monoculture, the commodification of identity, and the monetization of everything? What of our past should we carry with us? What might we chose to leave behind? What new possibilities could we embrace and manifest?

Speaking of a past that I’d rather not carry with me, Warner Brothers is planning to shoot yet another Tarzan film in 2014. Alexander Skarsgard of True Blood fame will play the white ape man and Samuel L. Jackson might do Tarzan’s African American buddy/sidekick as they rescue the Congo from evil Euro-warlord, Christoph Waltz. Try as I might, I can’t help but wonder, would Jackson be replacing Cheetah, the wonder chimp? Like “voodoo,” Tarzan is entrenched African/world mythology. Have you heard of the big budget, international sf&f movie where Africans (or any postcolonial natives) save themselves, save the world? Watch Kenyan writer/director Wanuri Kahiu’s 2009 short sf film Pumzi for that. In Pumzi, Asha, a citizen of the future engulfed in a water war apocalypse, calls on ancestral wisdom, geek ingenuity, and trans-class sisterhood to decolonize her spirit and offer the world hope. Wanuri Kahiu plans to make a film of Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s sf&f novel, Who Fears Death. Such are the signs of hope cautiously taken up in Paradoxa 25: Africa SF. As editor Mark Bould says, “If African sf has not arrived, it is certainly approaching fast.”

Africa SF is a marvelous meditation on African cultural production. It celebrates and troubles, analyzes and reviews, critiques and illuminates the black-to-the-future science fiction and fantasy project from the 1880’s to the present. Mark Bould gathers writers, artists, scholars, and critics so that we can talk to each other and everyone else about what’s been going down and what might be coming up! Sf scholar Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) interviews me about my sf&f novels and plays. Essays, reviews, and interviews explore novels, comics, film, music, and visual art. This range is a treat for readers well-versed in the topic while still being largely accessible to curious readers unfamiliar with this tradition in change.

Africa SF declares: You don’t have to be Eurocentric to make it into the future! As Bould points out in his introduction, Africa figures prominently in science fiction from the genre’s 19th century inception, mostly as setting for lost race tales by Europeans and Americans. Without ignoring this history, Paradoxa 25 focuses on sf&f produced in Africa and the diaspora since the 1950s. In addition to the “Dark Continent” conjured in the colonialist imagination and made real by the international might of empire warrior tech, African and diasporic artists imagine other Africas, past, present, and future. And since we’re all in this together, if there’s another Africa, there’s another world. These African sf&f artists are not disappearing natives; they are not beige citizens of Western empire in the iron grip of the indicative case. They challenge normal.

Normal is the secret weapon of empire. Invisible, taken for granted, running constantly in the background, normal is the default setting for the empire of the mind. Africa SF, like the artistic works its authors describe and analyze, engages readers in deconstructing normal. It is an intervention in what goes without saying and an explication of the many universes we might make and that might make us. Africa SF resists the empire trap of reductionist categorization. A stunning array of nuanced and provocative essays engages the reader in a conversation. The authors explore how different ways of seeing allow transport to other worlds, other ways of being. They illuminate the non-linear, co-evolution of our narratives and show how the stories we tell, tell us how to be. Only occasionally is the academic prose too dense for understanding and engagement. A few articles wander a bit before making salient points, but the level of thought is always superb.  Africa SF invites readers to be agents of history and speculators inventing the future.

Discussing the novels of Mohammed Dib, Sony Labou Tansi, and Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Mark Bould alerts readers to the complex questions facing critics who examine African literature through the lenses of science fiction. Bould asks: Is First World genre classification an imposition on the Third World? Is sf a non-African way of knowing, shaping, creating the world? Can sf be African? Or do we live in a continuous geography, all affected by global power differentials, economic exchanges, and cultural expressions? Bould examines Dib’s, Tansi’s, and Towfik’s novels in their historical and cultural context from anti-colonial struggle through postcolonial disillusionment to the current concentration of wealth and devastation of the middle and working class. Bould investigates the ways the novelists use fantastical narratives to distance themselves from mimetic realism’s commodification of their (quaint, exotic) lives. To realize alternatives, we must first dream them. Bould demonstrates that in their fiction, Dib, Tansi, and Towfik rehearse a “better, more sustainable, more just world.”

Lisa Yasek rethinks apocalypse and the “Afro-pessimism of the futures industries,” which she defines as a: “coalition of mostly Western corporations and non-governmental organizations whose ideas are reiterated throughout the mainstream press.” Yasek discusses how African sf artists, working across cultures and in different media, take apart the futures industry myth of the Western, corporate savior. Like their Indigenous American counterparts, African sf artists work with broken images generated from the futures industry to create alternate tomorrows that combine Western and Indigenous modalities.

Melissa Kurtz explores the work of Lauren Beukes, a white South African novelist who in Moxyland and Zoo City uses ghosts, haunted spaces, and animal familiars to challenge the notion of a truly post-Apartheid South Africa. Kurtz points to ways that African sf artists such as Beukes challenge the notion that there is no alternative to neoliberal, predatory capitalism. Kurtz addresses cyberpunk’s complicity in re-inscribing colonial ideologies, particularly in its enchantment with disembodiment. She discusses the privileged nature of the straight, white, non-working class male’s romance with discarding their “normal” bodies for cybernetic rapture. Kurtz connects Beukes’s postcolonial cyberpunk to feminist, ecological, and anti-racist sf.

Lisa Dowdall sees black women writers such as Nisi Shawl, Jarla Tangh, Tananarive Due, and Nnedi Okorafor as disrupting “normal” genre mappings that position fantasy as the diametric opposite of science fiction. Dowdall reads Okorafor’s Who Fears Death as a hybrid form that merges the rational and the intuitive, the scientific and magical, the old and the new to get at the complexity of our everyday lives.

De Witt Douglas Kilgore explores comics and their cultural, economic context. He examines the complex and contradictory education to manhood that black men experienced in late 20th and early 21st century comics. He considers what we are willing to believe and what we are willing to be entertained by. Looking at the development of Marvel’s T’Challa, the first black superhero in blockbuster comics, Kilgore explores a black-to-the-future transformation of the lost race tale. T’Challa rules Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation, a hidden utopia that has never been conquered by Europe. T’Challa is no ooga-booga savage, but a super techno-geek peer who threatens white male privilege. Selling T’Challa to the predominantly white male fans is quite a trick. Kilgore charts the difficult course that black and white comic book artists navigated through the mainstream in order to create and sustain a black utopian Wakanda and its superhero King.

John Rieder illuminates and celebrates visionary afro-futurist musician Sun Ra and his jazz Arkestra. Riffing on reality, going underneath the harmonies and beyond the beats, Sun Ra lived a science fictional life. He did rehearsal/performances that shook audiences free from empire normal. An impossibility specialist, Ra was the improvisational change he wanted to make in the world. With the meta-artistic facility of a jazz musician, Rieder brings Sun Ra to life and offers Ra’s space-is-the-place sf/mojo/conjure to 21st century audiences.

Other articles in Africa SF explore Nollywood, Ian McDonald’s Chaga series, Afro-mythology in the visual art of Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, and comic book inspiration for Octavia Butler’s Patternist series. Lively interviews with afro-futurist authors, including Nalo Hopkinson and Minister Faust, plus reviews of AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor W. Hartmann,  The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes and Samuel Delany’s recent publications, round out the issue.

Paradoxa is an academic journal publishing volumes on genre literature—sf&f, horror, mysteries, children’s literature, romance, comics, and more. Paradoxa’s editorial board is an international group of scholars, critics, and authors. Presumably its primarily audience is scholars and students of genre literature. Africa SF’s authors discuss popular culture using academic vernacular. In a few articles written in highfaluting academese, their arguments remain elusive. The futures industry and other empire narrative productions always use accessible languages. The citizen/consumer has little difficulty taking in empire normal at the level of sentence or image. Africa SF brilliantly charts the work of sf&f folks who rewrite the empire’s rules and revise reality. It offers invaluable insights on the world we inhabit and create. Readers are guided toward significant, beautiful artistic expressions that they might not otherwise discover. Africa SF engages us in marvelous critical thought and pushes us to reconsider what we take for granted, what we imagine that will become our futures.

It often goes without saying that academic discourse is beyond the reach of many outside the academy. I, as a member of the academy and a theory hound, ask why? Are rigor and depth necessarily obscure? Can we explore and analyze beyond the 101 basics without resorting to rarified jargon? Most of the articles in Africa SF are challenging and accessible. Read Paradoxa 25 for the pleasure of the theories, for the boldness of the thoughts, for the questions it will make you ask, and for the change it might make in your universe.

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