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Africanfuturism:  A Literary Plane of Infinite Possibilities for Africa’s Future

Africanfuturism:  A Literary Plane of Infinite Possibilities for Africa’s Future

Africanfuturism Anthology - Afrocritik

The philosophy behind Africanfuturism awakens that tendency to think, to ruminate over the portends of the future and its roots in the present.

By Chimezie Chika

In the story, “Destiny Delayed” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, we are introduced to a hyper-capitalist futuristic Nigeria in which society has evolved into a corporate dystopia of the most insidious kind of economic exploitation. The main character, Chinedu, a bank employee, is one of those tasked with the job of marketing to the unpropertied class, the merits of using individual destinies as collateral to acquire huge loans. As expected, problems arise from this attempt to strip poor humans of their intrinsic metaphysical value — their destiny, as it were — especially as we knowingly discover deeper into the narrative, that the purposes for which the bank claimed it was motivated to engage in this bizarre loan scheme was false. The real intent, we find with frozen terror, is that the scheme further reinforces the holders of power in this futuristic Nigeria. Without the conceit of the future, this story begins to ring very close to what we are already accustomed to within the political and social sphere of Nigeria.

On another level, what struck me about this story was what I might perhaps tentatively call the horror realism of our corporate, political, economic, and spiritual future. The world of “Destiny Delayed” is what you get when these crucial areas of human endeavours are merged into a monolithic behemoth holding the reins of life itself. At one point, as Chinedu is being taken round the bank’s facility, he encounters the destiny extraction machine: “The technicians switched on the Destiny machine, and it emitted a whirring noise. There were a number of wires connected to the machine, which in turn were connected to screens around the room. The machine’s whirring turned louder, and the air rippled in front and behind the young man. The air rippled and roiled, taking on a dark grey hue. The hue turned from dark grey, to purple, and then to grey again. Then the air stopped whirling and one of the technicians switched off the Destiny machine.” This description recalls so vividly the chilling world evoked by the early science fiction films of the 1950s and ‘60s, a pattern which American critic, Susan Sontag, extensively discussed in the essay, “The Imagination of Disaster”. Or, more acutely, in encountering that passage, we cannot help but visualise something similar to the dark, foreboding halls of The Dark Tower in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower sci-fi/horror series — the very epitome of a ravaged futuristic society’s thralldom under an impregnable, all-powerful institution.

But what I have described here is only a very grim view of the future. Other visions of the future — nay, of the past and a fantastic transformation of it  — abound in the genre now being called Afrofuturism, or more fittingly, Africanfuturism, a term which was coined by Nnedi Okoroafor in an article published on her personal blog in 2019. Arguably Africa’s most renowned author of speculative fiction, her work in the African context falls under the overarching term of “Africanfuturism”. Crucially, a differentiation between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism is important in order to understand the latter. Afrofuturism, according to the writer and editor, Sheree Renee Thomas, is “speculative fiction from the African diaspora” which invariably includes the experiences, cultures, and environments of the African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latins, and all other African peoples who have centuries of history away from the African continent. In Okoroafor’s reckoning, Africanfuturism operates exclusively on the basis of an African background, in its contemporary, historical, or mythological ramifications. The point being that Africanfuturism is about the African continent itself, its people, its culture, and its environment. 

According to Okoroafor, it was necessary for her to define what her work is about since “Afrofuturism”, to which her work was previously tagged, did not capture what she was doing. Her definition of the term precisely highlights its most salient attributes: “Africanfuturism is concerned with visions of the future, is interested in technology, leaves the earth, skews optimistic, is centred on and predominantly written by people of African descent (black people) and it is rooted first and foremost in Africa.” She clears the ground further, “Africanfuturism does not HAVE to extend beyond the continent of Africa, though often it does. Its default is non-western; its default/centre is African.” One can subsequently conclude that Africanfuturism is separated from other forms of speculative fiction by its exclusive African (as opposed to “Black”) identity and worldview. 

Nnedi Okoroafor - Africanfuturism - Afrocritik
Nnedi Okoroafor

We also find that this subcategory of speculative fiction is propped by congeries of Africa’s social and political aspirations, chiefly, an often hopeful projection into the future, in light of its present extensive dysfunctions; but the point is that there is always a mythologising of the African future, an optimism even in the most quotidian arenas that, at a future time, the continent would finally get it right, reach its full potential, and encounter a lasting positive transformation. Here, different speculative genres are used to centralise the African experience. 

There is science fiction, fantasy, magic realism or animist realism (or what has been called jujuism in some quarters), alternate history, horror, and others. Most importantly, these genres are altered considerably in different stories, considering the imaginative liberties demonstrated by speculative fiction writers. Realism is seen as limiting and inadequate for the exploration and building of worlds where the restraints of the real world are absent and where anything is possible. Within that umbrella, too, works such as Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road become possible as the effulgent recordings of the cultural philosophies found in folklore and myth. Brought to the wider view of the world, such stories become an opportunity to show the depth of Africa’s past and the age-old knowledge systems which have created the unique African cultures of the present, and therefore of the future. 

The genres within Africanfuturism speculative fiction also echo its all-encompassing themes, each genre representing a vivisection of particular worldviews or realities. Fantasy and magic realism are the oldest of these genres in modern African literature; part of their relevance is their manifest restoration or retellings of African legends, myths, and folklores. While there are realist works that incorporate folk stories within their larger narrative, African fantasy and the different iterations of magic realism as a genre are distinguished by their complete embodiment of the complex world of fable, magic, or an outrageously imaginary world. From D.O Fagunwa’s 1938 Yoruba language novel, Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmole (Forests of a Thousand Demons in Wole Soyinka’s 1968 English translation) to Sierra-Leonean-American writer, Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, the recurring themes we find in African fantasy is usually somewhat linked to a metaphysical encounter or struggle between good and evil, between the forces of order and the forces destruction. We see this play out in immensely popular novels series such as Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orisha series and Okoroafor’s Akata series. In these novels, as in others of that creative ilk, Africa is reimagined as a world of larger-than-life heroes and monumental clashes. In another strand of fantasy known in some quarters as “Godpunk”, the heroes are tremendously amplified and placed at the crossroads of epoch-making events. One such example is Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s David Mogo, Godhunter whose eponymous demigod, in the aftermath of a near-apocalyptic event known as The Falling, walks around the streets of an alternate Lagos, hunting fallen gods. A more recent novel about the politics of gods is Wole Talabi’s 2023 novel, Shigidi and the Brasshead of Obalufon. The current surgence of the godpunk genre seems to be an entirely Nigerian phenomenon. Indeed, one noticeable trend about fantasy in Africa is that Nigerian writers overwhelmingly dominate the genre. Apart from Nigeria’s overpowering population, it is not exactly clear why this is the case.

The Gilded Ones (The Gilded Ones, #1) by Namina Forna | Afrocritik
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna | Goodreads

Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon (Hardcover) | Bookshop Santa Cruz

The themes of magic realism are more subtle, and orientate its stories around realistic events or occurrences in an African environment. The magic in the stories are vestigial manifestations of the characters’ environment and culture. Mozambican writer, Mia Couto’s 1992 novel, Sleepwalking Land, captures all the intricacies of the genre, especially in its dreamlike sequence of events, the merger of the real and the unreal. On the other hand is Ugandan writer, Moses Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles, which like its famous forebear in world literature, Indian-British author Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, attempts to conflate magical determinism with national fate. As a genre that represents the gestalt of African identity and culture, magic realism’s link to fantasy is in its elevation of ethereality and otherworldly power as a crucial aspect of Africa, and as somewhat its saving grace.

Science fiction, perhaps the genre that is most semantically linked to Africanfuturism, cuts across different aspects of contemporary engagement with the continent’s future. In some sci-fi, we are treated to the torrid, pulverising world of a horror-filled dystopia, as we see in, for instance, the story with which I began this essay, Ekpeki’s “Destiny Delayed”. South African writer, Lauren Beukes’ 2010 award-winning novel, Zoo City, captures a futuristic Johannesburg where criminals are punished by attaching them to an animal familiar. The descriptions of an alternate South Africa in which crime-fighting and the treatment of criminals have been reordered is extremely interesting, especially with all the societal disintegration and polarisation that comes with such drastic measures. Okoroafor’s Lagoon tells the story of an alien invasion of Lagos. What immediately comes out of such an idea seems to not only be where Africa would be in the event of such a future occurrence, but that this is also an example of an imagined human-alien synergy of the future.

Zoo City By Lauren Beukes | Konga Online Shopping

Within Africanfuturism, different sub-genres of science fiction already have writers whose works are ideologically or formally a part of the unique arc of the narratives in these subgenres. In cli-fi (climate fiction) the stories are either dystopian or utopian. The dystopian stories are unflinching portrayals of a ravaged world, warning about the grim ecological future of our planet if extreme care is not taken to stem the continuous anthropomorphic destruction. Perhaps by virtue of its sombre subject matter, African cli-fi stories are chastening imaginations of the future. Nigerian-Canadian writer, Chinelo Onwualu’s story “Letters to my Mother” published in the 2022 anthology, Meteotopia: Futures of Climate (In)Justice, is a meditation on the prospects of transcending the current climate issues bedevilling the continent. The story captures a time in far-future Bonny Island after an event known as The Climate Wars. In this future dispensation, society has polarised into self-contained settlements uniquely attuned to their environments. 

The narrator describes the idyll of living in an environment where nature, in its pristine state, is symbiotically complemented by humans. The narrator’s dwellings are “nestled in the heart of an island in a river delta, never far from our forest. There were fruit trees and berry shrubs at every turn, and vines and creeping melons twined along walls and balconies. Even the moss underfoot was edible.” A notable subtext of the cli-fi subgenre is biopunk, which deals with projections and implications of biotechnology in the future. The narratives around it are often tipped toward dystopia, often in scenarios where biotech corporations have taken over the earth or where a bio-experiment had collapsed with decimating consequences or where a bio-war of attrition has erupted and humans are collateral damage in a race to develop, enhance or manipulate human DNA, and other similar scenarios. The important message with the realm of biopunk, I suppose, is for Africa to tread carefully in all its future drive to solve the environmental and biological problems facing it.

Solarpunk, another of the sci-fi sub-genres, is what Onwualu’s story might be more accurately tagged. (Perforce, as closer perusal reveals, all sci-fi subgenres are linked). Solarpunk is marked by its exemplarily optimistic vision of the world. It envisions a sustainable future by means of solar or renewable energies and a decolonised, egalitarian, post-capitalist world. The imaginative rationale behind solarpunk is that there could be a time in the future when humans would have solved all the rankling, persistence problems of ecology, economic failure, and social hierarchies. In fiction, this is often shown as societies in flux, with the related problems of such periods of transition. 

An example of solarpunk is Nnamdi Anyadu’s story, “A Dose of Life in Utopia”, published in Iskanchi Magazine in 2022. In the story, a young woman leaves home and moves to a distant model city called Utopia, ruled by its citizens in an egalitarian arrangement. Through her frequent (and then subsequently infrequent) letters home, we learn that in certain instances, model utopian societies could, in trying to achieve an unblemished society, tip on the side of stifling regimentation and tyranny. Clearly, genres like solarpunk manage to rattle the reader’s senses with troubling ethical questions that force us to consider the errant aspects of our well-considered futures. In this sense, “A Dose of Life in Utopia” recalls, but only in principle and vision, American writer, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic 1973 short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.

In some respects Anyadu’s story can also be tagged cyberpunk, another sci-fi sub-genre, which is closely related to solarpunk. Cyberpunk however has nothing inherently utopian about it. Cyberpunk envisions a society that has advanced scientifically and technologically but has also badly disintegrated as a result. This is the idea that seems to fuel many Hollywood sci-fi films or series in the 21st century: the corrosive effects of a hyper-advanced world. In the context of Africanfuturism, however, the stakes are skewed towards the portrayal of societies that teeter between dystopia and the kind of high-tech society no African country has attained at present; one between regression and advancement — a futuristic society where the great and worst versions of what Africa could be are juxtaposed side by side. Cyberpunk societies seem to be caught at the confusion point between halted progress and an ongoing disintegration. This kind of febrile world is often marked by street gangs, attritional drug wars fought with high-tech weapons, advanced vehicles, rusting cities and decrepit urban conurbations under the tenuous control of a high-tech ruling class. The scenarios, in short, abound. One prominent example of this genre is Ekpeki’s 2022 Nebula-award winning novelette, “O2 Arena”. Set in the underbelly of a semi-lawless future Lagos, where oxygen (O2) has become a prized commodity and a legal tender controlled by the privileged few. 

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Many of Beukes’ novels are cyberpunk-esque, not least of all Zoo City, with its grisly depictions of the seedy alleys of a degenerative version of Johannesburg. In the same manner, Okoroafor’s 2021 novel, Noor, also needs mention. Here, a near-future, near-apocalyptic Nigeria controlled by an organisation called Ultimate Corp is crawling with cyborgs, AI, and all kinds of advanced technology. The protagonist is a young cybernetically-enhanced woman on the run for murders she committed in self-defense. British-Nigerian writer, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater Trilogy (2016-2019) has all the trappings of cyberpunk. The narrative follows a Nigerian agent investigating an insidious alien invasion. The alien known as Wormwood emits a fungus called xenoforms. Thompson’s provocative portrayals of a dying world is of particular interest here; in Rosewater’s parallel society which oscillates between strict policing and lawlessness, the world appears as if on the last throes of its swansong — there is enough here for several weeks of sleepless thinking. 

Rosewater (Thompson novel) - Wikipedia

The philosophy behind Africanfuturism awakens that tendency to think, to ruminate over the portends of the future and its roots in the present. There is no reason why we cannot explore the crucial questions of Africa’s future. Having spent so much time pondering the past, which in itself is not bad, we must go further — which I suppose some are doing already — and juxtapose the past and the future to better understand where we stand at present. This is where Africanfuturism offers a ready platform; though the true significance or meaning of that platform remains a debate even among African speculative fiction writers.

There are those like Amanda Ilozumba who believe that Africanfuturism presents African writers the opportunity to project what the future of Africa can be, away from its redundant colonial history. “As it is, many Africans do not know where the story of Africa begins and where it ends. This is what Africanfuturism does: the ability to show the past and the future. When it is positive, it shows that Africa has ability to far beyond the realities of its present.” Ilozumba would go on to state that for her what makes this idea possible in speculative fiction is the “world-building, the ability to create something new entirely apart from the systems already in place in the real world.” But Ilozumba’s views are only one side of the ideological wall. 

For Senegalese writer Mame Bougouma Diene, the winner of the 2023 Caine Prize for African Writing (alongside his wife, Woppa Diallo), categorisations like Africanfuturism impede creativity. “[Though] I was in the Africanfuturism anthology, I am not an Afro or Africanfuturist. I like the aesthetic of ‘Afro’ and I appreciate the attempt at distinguishing Africans from African-Americans by coining that term, but I am concerned that while it claims to be inclusive it is intended for populations of Sub-Saharan descent and does not represent Africa in its modernity and diversity but is just another way of saying ‘Black’. I reject this lumping together of Black and African. They aren’t the same thing, they overlap. But I’m tired of racialised politics, it’s reductive and somewhat colonial and that’s a little ironic for terms that seek to operate in a decolonised space.” It is interesting to note that Diene’s problem with the term stems from what he claims is its focus on using Black to mean African when the latter is not limited to Blackness. I especially do not think that is the case, or that it has been implied anywhere in the context of Africanfuturism. Still, it is important to keep Diene’s concerns in mind going forward. 

What must be clear, what I think I have made clear here, is the vast canvas that Africanfuturism in literature offers for mythologising the future of Africa. In its vividly imagined worlds, its themes, its genres, we see a plane of infinite possibilities for Africa and we are given, even in its less hopeful images, the much-needed sobriety to move the continent forward for good. 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Terrain.org, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

Cover Photo: Africanfuturism: An Anthology edited by Wole Talabi | Wikipedia

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