2021 WorldCon-DisConIII: PANEL TRANSCRIPT – Words and Awards—Creating Visibility in Africa
Words and Awards—Creating Visibility in Africa
Sunday 19th December
This panel decided to talk about WORDS – terms used to describe what we do – and where we feel our work fits into. Plus highlighting new writers to keep an eye on.
Mame Bougouma Diene, Dilman Dila, Mazi Nwonwu, Stephen Embleton
All Mazi: Good afternoon, good morning. Good evening. Good afternoon afternoon, good morning, and good evening because people are watching online from all parts of the world. Good morning for somebody, he could after -- the afternoon for the other person. We come to this panel discussion on Africa. At the moment -- fiction from Africa. But aside from those who have made a big name from themselves, there are a multitude in Africa putting out work in the different genres. Today, we are going to look at the work and try to draw light and pay attention to them. In this conversation, I will be talking with a panel of established writers. Please introduce yourselves. I am a writer of fiction, a journalist, and a cofounder of a magazine --
Stephen: My name is Stephen Embleton, I write science fiction and fantasy, a number of particularly short works that have been published throughout the continent and internationally as well as my first science fiction novel which was published in the U.K.
Mazi: Thank you, Stephen.
Dilman: I'm a writer and a filmmaker. I am based in Uganda. My short stories have been in a few works here and there. Most recently, there was a short compilation of my works . Briefly, that is me.
Mazi: Thank you. Mame, let's come to you.
Mame: I'm generally a speculative fiction writer and also a minor Francophone editor. I've got a regular column, maybe we will have time to talk about that.
Mazi: Thank you. I apologize again for the plane that goes by. I want to start with you. The question that I want to ask is in terms of words, -- Mame: that's a really interesting question. Obviously if we are looking at the angles -- the Anglosphere, clearly Afro futurism has gained a foothold in representing black arts, black speculative arts, generally. And it's interesting to see how the Afro futurism is coming to -- I'm not sure if the word challenge is completely accurate, but maybe to complement the vision of what Afrofuturism wants to be, or have -- if you have both terms that can exist on even footing. Obviously, those are the 2 -- again, I'm not sure of the dichotomy. Maybe there is a bit of an overlap. When it comes to my column, I found it wasn't really appropriate for Africa in the sense that it reduces us to a Western racial dynamic as opposed to looking at what the continent has to offer north to south and also all those variations brought in by colonialism because there was only so much you can do about the past besides addressing it the present. I started that column by looking at Afro Brazilian speculative fiction, thinking it would be interesting to see what Afro Brazilian authors think of the terminology and how it plays out in the Anglosphere. It was a mixed bag. Two of them said that they used the term. The other two said that they don't necessarily consider themselves futuristic because they don't write speculative fiction, but they write steamo punk. One of them said I use it because it does help you position yourself in a certain sphere and gain some traction for the work. But it's not necessarily something that I would cling to. It was supposed to be a one-off thing but then it stayed and I just kept using ironically and now it is irony inside of irony inside of irony. What I do see, from the continent specifically, is that when I discuss Afro futurism with nodding was writers, they have barely heard of the term at all. The reaction most interesting to me was the bit about the discussion of the guy who writes mostly supernatural crime. We were having a conversation about all international scene, and he is stuck in this Francophone bubble where it is very difficult to do that kind of visibility. And he said that sounds like an interesting discussion, maybe I will look into it one day. The concept of African futurism hasn't been ingrained in the way he was made to think about his art or the political positioning he had to find with his own words. And so it is all of those terms and none of those terms. But obviously I think if you want to have an honest discussion about where is we are, who it is we are as a collective, if that is what you are about as an author, as a person, I think African tourism is one that pushes us to have conversations that are a little bit more pertinent, also sometimes painful.
Mazi: Thank you.
Stephen, why don't we talk about that? It is likely or trying to copy what the Americans are doing. I always see Afro futurism as something political, it is like a conscious movement. I don't think there is any cultural design beyond the individual level. An individual sense of what he wants to do probably has an easier way of doing it. But then African futurism differentiated entirely. Can you maybe expand on that a little bit?
Stephen: Firstly, I didn't really resonate with Afro futurism as a term and I think what has fortunately come out with the advent of the Africanfuturism and expanded single word that was coined by Nnedi Okorafor and described, I think there is later discussion that makes a distinction between the two, which I appreciate. I tend to lean toward the Africanfuturism for lots of reasons, but I think also with us writing, we don't seem to be writing with a particular term or genre in mind other than broadly speaking speculative and fantasy and that kind of thing. My new novel is purely fantasy. It is based on traditional beliefs and that kind of thing. Africanfuturism doesn't have the themes in that story. There is no futurism involved, it is present day, is young adults, all those kind of fantasy themes. The other thing that I am also quite adamant about is that we should be the ones discussing and coming up with those terms. Nothing is ever carved in stone. It is for us, the writers and obviously the people reading to work out what those new terms are to frame our work from our perspective, because what is going to happen is that the outside world is going to do the labeling for us and we are not going to like those labels. Rather, we should be having these discussions like we are now to say well, what is African fantasy? I know there is Africanjujuism is a term used to incorporate the magical, the fantastical in terms of African literature. That is one, but there should be more. We should be having those discussions and coming up with the term and breaking it down and really, everybody saying what works for them in terms of how they are writing.
Mazi: I think it is very, very important to have this conversation. Like I said, I wasn't confronted with African futurism but now I embrace it wholeheartedly, I talk about it every day and I mentioned -- like you said, it is important. And if we named this, people are going to stick with the name we give to them. I want to switch over to something rather different. -- difference where we have now and knew voices coming up.
Dilman: You broke up for one moment.
Mazi: My network is probably acting up. Talking about writers and their craft and stories that are coming up. I'm asking over the last few days, what kind of stories have you been seeing? Is there a particular theme you are seeing and stories?
Dilman: You broke off again, but I think I get the gist of the question. From around the time when ""Black Panther" came out, it kind of inspired people to think differently about Science Fiction and stuff like that from Africa. Before that, there was a lot of writing, but they were not called in their works Science Fiction or something like that. Since then there's been mostly superhero kind of things and mostly the comic world. A lot of people are trying to make comics. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them, they want to write very much like the mainstream comics, the Marvel comics and that kind of thing. I was in South Africa recently and I saw a comic and I thought let me pick this up and see what it is about. I was disappointed because he just turned out to be another superhero kind of story. In Uganda, we have a lot of people trying to create stuff, but it is more in imitation of the current superhero things. You find somebody writing a comic about children with superpowers and they are in a school, a professor who is in a wheelchair, and you can see very close similarities with what we are seeing in the world. Those who try to create the heroes are influenced by Hollywood films. And if you see the ones that have gone viral like the boys in Nigeria who use their phones to make sci-fi films, you can see a very strong tendency to try to make things for Hollywood. But among the writers, a lot of people have got courage to call their works Science Fiction. And I know people who have been writing mainstream literally once and they are now actively trying to write Science Fiction works. I've had conversations with them why they have made the switch, but it is something that is happening. One thing is that the markets, there is a lot more market perspective the fiction and there's a lot more people asking for stories of fantasy. You want your work to go out there. It might not pay all your bills, but you want one or two things. There is now a market for this speculative fiction. There is a lot of work, I think, to do for both. They might have been writing Science Fiction before they wrote literary fiction, but I see that happening a lot as well. I think once a week with me when I started out I started writing sci-fi. But at that time, there was barely a market for African Science Fiction stuff. I remember publishing my first horror stories in 2004 in very small online magazines. 2003, 2004. But other than those really small magazines, you couldn't get people who were actively looking for African Science Fiction stuff until after, I think, 2010, 2011 when people started taking a lot more attention, paying a lot more attention. That is when I started actively submitting to specular fiction magazines. I think maybe the writers have been having that bit of crisis, though they are much younger writers and they are just coming-of-age. They have room to start, speculative fiction writers. But there is that shift. I think Science Fiction is becoming more acceptable and much more relatable. A few people still call their works magical realism and things like that, but it is kind of a steady move. When they started publishing short stories that were sci-fi, that kind of gave other people courage to venture into these kinds of stories because before that, you know, literature and Africa is still very much based on Western trends. People look at Science Fiction stories and then take courage to write Science Fiction. That kind of has been what has been happening the last five years or so. The one thing, of course, with the people were coming from every village, every background, they are not trying to imitate the Hollywood stuff. And so we are seeing a lot of original stories coming out and really great stories. Though I think also, because a lot of people are trying to question their pasts and they are trying to reimagine futures and things like that, it is easier to do this writing within a spec that a fiction genre . One or two of them who approached me to read their works, I could see that in their stories because they were mostly Reading and Science Fiction but they wanted to write stories set in alternative worlds or secondary worlds because they are building things and trying to imagine what things would have been like. So that pushes them more into speculative fiction than literary fiction. It's a good thing, I think.
Mazi: Thank you. I think I agree with you. A couple of years ago, a blog is about the only place to publish speculative fiction of any kind. It probably wasn't the only one, but it probably was the easiest one. I remember I published my second story. That was an anthology I did a couple of years ago. That is the inequality of stories.
Stephen: What I have noticed, and funny and I'm going to reference Dilman's novella, and a lot of the work that has come out in the last two years has really dealt with themes of traditional belief in folktales. Somebody -- and I know Dilman has spoken about this, but something that a specific culture has, whether it is a folktale and they look at what that is, or extrapolated on that to create a story for themselves as a writer, a folktale kind of format. There's a few that I've noticed specifically, those cap -- those kinds of genres, if you want to call it. What we call those? Do we call them African folktales? Going into the story of people have grown up with his children and looking at those particularly in a modern context, how do those beliefs translate, how can they actually come through into our fictional work? Also, the other thing that -- also, what I'm looking at is how those stories, those narratives even from a historical point of view have been labeled as superstition. They don't call them necessarily superstition, stories that were told the children for specific reasons. They are not just entertainment, they are there for life lessons, for character building, for putting communities together. There is a lot that has been thrown it Africans as superstition. I think the work that is coming out is really treating those really as fiction, but in a real sense rather than the old school kind of look at the superstition beliefs and traditions.
Mazi: Thank you. There's a story, if I'm not mistaken, where she basically took what his old world, traditional storytelling and put it in the modern world. And it was about this widespread belief in the heart of Nigeria that the ancestors are always with you. The ancestors are always with you, they guide you. So she basically brought that to light again. And we have this tradition in Africa that you -- to your ancestors. And the ancestor responded and came. It was a beautiful story . People are sort of embracing these pasts, embracing these beliefs, and they are trying to make something beautiful in another context. It is almost like taking the past and building it into the present. I think that is what is happening. Is a very good thing I think the world should see. I think these writers should get more attention, a lot of young writers. And than female. We tend to get more female and male, but very good young writers.
Mame: If I may, I guess it fits. This magazine out of Malaysia released an issue a few years ago where they were focusing explicitly on folktales, reimagined in the modern space. And it was Troy Wiggins who won the Hugo award yesterday who was doing the editing for it. I had a story in there called "the contest of Farts." It was based on a full tail called "a Contest of Farts." It is an absolute riot, and it was four paragraph long and it is about this father who is weighing the contenders for his daughter's hand by who is going to drop the biggest, nastiest fart. And it is like four paragraphs long and set in Harlem, New York and it just ends up with an earthquake because that is how the kind of thing would end up anyway. And it was just a lot of fun, but it was also looking at some of the ways stories were told. Sometimes it is the message they are trying to articulate. And I thought that was a very -- that was an eye-opening experience. Just in case some people have missed that, I'm not sure if the call is still open, but was it UNESCO that just opened a call for films that reimagine African for tales? And they want explicitly filmmakers, I think it may be writers, two, filmmakers and writers who are specifically from the continent. That is a really good opportunity to get funding and a lot of visibility on that. But I agree entirely with everything that was said. Trying to strike that balance between the influence of what we see as modern-day Science Fiction which is Western versus where we come from culturally and bringing that together. But also in the way we write the stories, it is definitely key to the question of what is African speculative fiction?
Mazi: Thank you. I just jumped on the next segment. There was something you mentioned here and I think it is important to highlight that, and there is a lot of humor in the stories that I've seen from Africa. No matter how serious it is, you get a live humor, you get a laugh. People play with these themes and stuff. I think it is something that the world needs to pay attention to. It is made to be fun. You clapped, you sing, you dance. A lot of these young writers are also embracing that and putting that into their work. We are talking about writers, new writers. Who are these writers? This time we are going to look at a couple of writers you've seen over the last few years, the runs writing from the continent. I want to look at the people who are writing so that we can talk about them and maybe draw attention at this point. Can I go with you? What writers are out of Uganda, what writers are you seeing that you should take note of and what kind of work are they putting out? Carbo Culture OK Pete -- --
>> OK. Rose, I think -- she has written a couple of novels. Like, they are kind of self-published. One of them, she went on to win for not exactly speculative fiction, but somehow in the continent. I think she is one who you will probably have to look out for. The other one has been around for a while. I think you all know his works. I think he published him. Let me get the right spelling. Racheal Mutabingwa. I think she probably will go somewhere. And also, somebody who is little published but people keep asking. Doreen Muhanuzi. She is great and she has a written release some great science fiction short stories, but she was focusing more on writing a novel. But writing novels is a bit complicated, so maybe focus on short stories. She is worth recommending. She is published as of now. I ended up watching a TV series I'm producing Uganda and she is one of the writers. It is not speculative fiction. It is comedy stop and things like that. She is one of those published who I think this writing a series. It is almost set in an alternate timeline almost literally, but not set in this timeline, a secondary world kind of ink. There's all those belief systems and stuff, too.
Mazi: Thank you. I also want to use a portion of the time to look at the writers for the commendations. I'm hoping that we will get folks out there doing the same work and get more space for this writers to publish. I am going to come to you now. What writers have you seeing now ?
Mame: Besides what I'm reading it, it is the experience right now doing the editing very nice reversal of perspective because they get to talk to them about what motivates them to write and what they are trying to express. And so I get to see a process that I don't see in the cities -- stories that I'm reading. For them, it is pretty clear what it is we are trying to achieve. And there is this young author from Malian to send who is from Strasberg in France. She is going to be upcoming in not this one, but the next one. We got the story and at first we rejected it because it was a little bit all over the place in terms of the narrative. But damn, she had a voice. There was clearly something epic about the way she was writing and it is set in an alternate historical period within the Mandingo Empire in them calling her to talk about the story because I want to work with her on it to see what we can get. She picks up the phone and I'm like when a second, this girl isn't even 18 years old yet. Turns out she is 17 years old. This is one of her first forays into things and she is writing a story that looks at female characters within the empires of the time, but also the relationships based on caste systems and really tries to question some of the lesser-looked at aspects of African history. It is easy to try to address colonialism as an external evil. It is easy to try to look at transatlantic slavery. The more I've read recently on slavery as it was practiced in Senegal and some parts of the country, it looks almost an exact parallel except for some of the forms and the scale of it. But the possession of the person was there, the dehumanization, the removal of the name. NIC have a former slave caste is a class of domestic servants who still suffer from a lot of the same ostracization in society. And when it comes to Africa, we tend to like to remind people that the myth of the happy savage isn't true, but we also like to play that when it comes to our own issues and our own problems. We are very shy to say our societies were not perfect before white people came here. And trying to look at that to me was something that really spoke to me. Plus, she is 17 years old. She is talking to me about authors who I completely ignored in my curriculum because I was like, she sounds boring. She is telling me about them and I am like witty second, you actually read that person? That is what I like seeing. People who want a challenge -- to challenge some of the narratives even if it is a little painful to look at history and how it affects us today. But that is who I want to give a shout out to.
Mazi: Thank you. South Africa has a longer tradition of fiction than other parts of Africa. Most of the major writers that we know are within that part of the continent. Are their young raters upcoming from the continent?
Stephen: From South Africa in particular, not really that I can see. The writers that I have seen that have been published in other magazines, from my point of view, it has been very difficult to get any of my work published in South Africa. Most of my work has been published around the continent from Kenya to Nigeria. And I think that that is a major barrier in South Africa itself, is that it is very focused on literary works. There's not a lot of scope in terms of publishers for South African speculative fiction in any form. Some of us have to resort to self-publishing to get the work out or, like I say, putting it out to Omenana and what is obviously a huge beacon in Africa in terms of getting new writers out there, publishing some of us. In the last couple of years, I think the one that I'm keeping an eye on, Tlotlo Tsamaase, and Innocent Chizaram Ilo, all of us tied into the short story. Both of those authors, they've got imagination, they deal with fantasy as well as speculative. And then on the longer form, a really prolific writer. Eugen Bacon. In terms of how much she actually gets out there and just really her prose is really -- I feel intimidated when I read words that she puts on paper. The structure of the words that she uses and how she uses them. Those three. I think with all of them, with anybody that is breaking ground for themselves in short story, I always anticipate whatever they going to do with a novella or novel? And Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. It would be nice for them to be able to get longer pieces published and find the time and the support to be able to actually take the time to spend a couple of years writing a novel because I think they will really be able to fly in terms of novel output.
Mazi: Thank you very much. I am always in all of people who put us first.
Mame: before you do, absolutely, Eugen Bacon. She is like Stephen King and her output. And she is just phenomenal in her prose. I think that guy deserves a nickname or some sort of anagram or acronym or something. When I finish reading the stories, I can't exactly tell you what they are about. I am just left in a place of absolute like "what the hell just happened to me?" And it is not so much a reading experience or a visual experience, it is like a full sensory experience. I don't know exactly how he does it, but between the tone, the writing, the subject matter, you are completely immersed into another reality and I find that absolutely phenomenal and I don't understand how he doesn't do more work as a published author.
Mazi: I just want to share a couple of writers. We got the story called "buddies" and I think she is somebody to look out for. I talked about a very, very humorous story. I don't know where he is from. He is somebody I really want to see his work again. Love the story, love the writing. I think at this moment we are in a very good place. We feel what the future is going to bring. It is not something a lot of us need to contend with because we have people who are coming out and they are actually doing the work and they are doing it well. So it is not like the early days when you get stuff and you wonder how am I going to study it? Where am I going to start from? I think it is an important time for us to use this time , so I am going to go with Stephen first.
Stephen: My next novel, Bones & Runes, is coming out on the 14th of February. It is young adult, new adult, 20-something characters exploring traditional beliefs within southern Africa and isiZulu, Khoekhoegowab languages – Hindu, all sorts. The three main characters, the main character's an isangoma in training, his friend Dan is a druid in training and their friend Amira is a Hindu warrior magician. I have had a lot of fun with that and I'm glad it is coming out. I will be launching that in the U.K.
Mazi: Thank you. Fast, fast, fast. Time is not on our side.
Mame: I actually have a story coming out tomorrow. I don't really write that many stories, it looks more at my black experience in the West, in France and putting that into a futuristic perspective. Largely because it is part of an experience that I've had to push back to the back of my head and outside of my consciousness just to function sometimes and it is interesting how 20 years later all of this comes back and unable to talk about it. So I am interested in seeing how people are going to respond. I've got a story coming out in an anthology next year. Actually, that story was rejected one time. I wrote it like six years ago and it is really nice to find a home today. It is climate fiction sort of, more science fantasy than anything else. Mythology is blended in. Finally, Africa risen is coming out with -- Senegal and possession in the traditional spirit is coming through to deal with all of that.
Mazi: Cool, thank you. You have less than a minute.
Dilman: I have a second collection coming up next year. I was hoping to have two books, but the publisher decided to put it all into one thing. Some of them are reprints. I am hoping to finish a novel for young adults as well, but I didn't get around to completing it quite. So that one collection is coming out.
Mazi: For me, I have a collection coming up next year, and that would be my first. It has been a long time coming. Thank you to the Panelists. Until next time. Bye-bye. I am trying to chop for time.