Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Looking into the Future of African Creativity

by Stanely Mushava Arts Correspondent
James Arnett with Tinashe Tafirenyika, photo courtesy of Tafadzwa Gwetai

In a good year for African heritage at the box office, “Black Panther” has flared up discussions for its daring, optimistic and controversial reinvention of the continent. While the top-grossing movie has made Afrofuturism pop worldwide, literary Africa has been also warming up to science fiction as a platform for floating big ideas about a century tangled in big problems. The Bulawayo Science Fiction Reading/Writing Workshop, incepted in November last year, is one such initiative.
Between April and June this year, James Arnett, a visiting literature professor from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, conducts the second and final season of the workshop at the NUST-American Space. Arnett, who currently teaches in the NUST Journalism and Media Studies Department, registered his presence on the Zimbabwean literary scene last year, giving an Afrofuturism-themed talk at LitFest and Intwasa, in between studies on the Bulawayo book sector and Zimbabwe-raised Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.
Aspiring science fiction writers will interact with classic texts, local publishers and the visiting scholar whose interest in African writing has found expression in journals such as African Literature Today, Genre, Ariel and LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, with a view of coming up with their own future-leaning stories. Bulawayo-based author Stanely Mushava (SM) sits down with workshop convener James Arnett (JA) for a wide-ranging interview on the workshop and Afrofuturism.
SM: Welcome to Wakanda!
JA: Wakanda forever.
SM: What’s happening at the Bulawayo Science Fiction Workshop?
JA: For the second iteration of the workshop, I wanted to expand the nature of it to include reading influential American science fiction writers, and develop our critical reading abilities to sharpen our own writing abilities.
SM: You went to Litfest and Intwasa last year preaching the gospel of Afrofuturism – the idea of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction breathing new energy into Zimbabwean literature. What makes Afro-futurism “that thing”?
JA: Afrofuturism is a way to apply a kind of natural Afro-optimism, I believe. It’s a way to use exploratory, imaginative thinking to pose and solve problems, project future issues, imagine alternative outcomes to present narratives.
SM: We have seen Afrofuturism approvingly reassessing the myths, cosmologies and self-concepts that we lost in the colonial crusades, and challenging the cold tyranny of history and science. How does this moving of the centre enrich literature and the arts?
JA: I think that Afrofuturism allows for a pragmatic embrace of modernity – I’ve never seen a country wield cell phones more potently than in Zimbabwe – as well as a way to pull through traditions and knowledges from precolonial cultures.
SM: Let’s talk Zimbofuturism. Which of our writers anticipate high-concept fiction and how do their pioneering contributions expand the canon?
JA: The first, most sustained Zimbabwean (Rhodesian) explorer of speculative fiction was the Nobel-winner Doris Lessing. Although her experiments in science fiction and space opera are often tedious and difficult to read, she also sometimes strikes a rich vein. I’m particularly fond of her Mara and Dann, which explores Africa (“Afrik”) in the future, after climate and conflict have done irreparable harm to the planet.
SM: How fair is it to suggest that the wheels of culture only begin to turn when the metropolis points the way? Cultural innovators working outside big tents and big phases seem condemned to toil away in the underground. 
JA: I understand that that’s a common feeling, but so long as literary publishing and the mass culture industries are intertwined, all creators of popular art get swept into prevailing currents until a new disruptor is crowned, and a new strain of imitation emerges. I think that African cultural producers have to jostle hard against market forces (God, how chilling to think) that privilege certain forms and genres of writing at certain times. Zimbabwe has produced writers adept at merging with emergent tastes – Yvonne Vera, during the era of postcolonial trauma narratives; Petina Gappah during this Afropolitan phase. Zimbabwe has a long history of producing terrific writers; and I think the time has come for Afro-SF.
SM: What partnerships have made the Bulawayo sci-fi workshop possible?
JA: Happily, the US Embassy in Harare, and Bulawayo publishers amaBooks are sponsoring the event, and I’m thankful to the American Space, Bulawayo, for its donation of space and time and technology, as well as to the NUST Departments of Journalism and Media Studies, and Publishing Studies for providing a home for my research and teaching this year.
SM: I understand you are bringing a speculative fiction writer to the workshop.
JA: Yes! We’re still working to confirm her visit, but when we do, we’ll make an announcement.
SM: What would be your essential reading list for an aspiring writer approaching Afrofuturism for the first time?
JA: There are some obvious classics, mostly American, as that’s the cradle for Afrofuturism. A terrific origin point is the jazz musician and poet Sun Ra’s Space is the Place – a documentary of his ideas; and a good follow-up is his syllabus for a class at UC-Berkeley in the early 1970s. Samuel R. Delany is another classic African-American science fiction writer, whose works are really cerebral and challenge a lot of underlying assumptions about the workings of the world. And Octavia Butler is the third is this triumvirate; her novel Kindred uses time travel to explore and challenge American attitudes about race and gender; and her two Parable novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are both really prescient speculative works.
SM: How do you plan for this workshop to live on?
JA: Students will always be encouraged to submit their work to appropriate venues, and calls for stories will be circulated. Ideally, we’re hoping that we can produce an anthology of contemporary Zimbabwean science/speculative fictions, together with established writers, some from the diaspora, for a well-rounded and eclectic collection.
SM: What have been some of your observations on Bulawayo’s book sector, and Zimbabwe’s? 
JA: I think that Jane and Brian of amaBooks are founts of energy who do a lot to keep the literary scene going; John Eppel has hosted workshops and readings in the area; book launches have happened at Intwasa and over the course of the year. There’s an active literary scene, all told, even if it is a little sparse and a little estranged.
SM: Things are looking up for Afrofuturism. We are looking at popular inroads by distinctly Afrocentric voices like Nnedi Okorafor, and publishing incentives for writers on the continent in the form of fantasy-themed awards, magazines and workshops like your own. Do you foresee speculative fiction becoming the next big phase of African literature?
JA: I think that as we move through the Anthropocene – the term for the latest geological age, defined by the irrevocable intervention of man onto earth, often contiguous with colonialism’s history – we are trying to learn to express and explore our anxiety. I think that speculative fiction is a way of struggling with the feelings of the inevitability of a deeply altered future.
SM: The Anthropocene is coming up more often in discussions of the future like a horseman of the apocalypse. Who must lose sleep over this creature?
JA: The Anthropocene goes by several names – the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene (after HP Lovecraft’s amphibious demon). Under any guise, it’s the scientific and social-scientific consensus that humankind has interfered so dramatically with the natural produce, function, and systems of the earth, that it is a whole new era of geology. In one reckoning, the Anthropocene starts when fossil fuels are burned for the first time, accelerating man’s emergence into “modernity,” in others, the nuclear era with its long-lived isotopes that will never leave our earth and atmosphere. But the Anthropocene is putting a name to the comprehensive evidence from all areas that modernity has exacted a steeper price than we are willing to pay, but that we will have to pay for our sins anyway.
SM: It feels like the shadow of the apocalypse is stretching everywhere. This feeling that Earth will give in any day now under misanthropic stress. What is speculative fiction doing to inspire hope?
JA: I think there are writers like NK Jemisin who are exploring hard-fought ways to better futures through, in her case, fantasy that is deeply engaged with questions of race and otherness, gender and sexuality. In some accounts, Wakanda is utopian. Although, on the other hand, a panel at the National English Literary Museum in South Africa pointed out that under apartheid much black literature was concerned with the apocalyptic, inasmuch as living conditions often approached it. So it’s an ambivalent force.
SM: Can you think of distinctly African traits that literature can benefit more from in the Anthropocene?
JA: All oral traditions and folk mythologies carry with them knowledges pertinent to lives lived where they arise; and so I think any literature that engages with traditional knowledges about the land and its produce is beneficial to a people. And, more to the point, I think African science fictions can bring science into folk knowledge, and the synthesis can be really powerful.
Stanely Mushava is an award-winning Zimbabwean writer and a teaching assistant at the National University of Science and Technology. He can be reached at

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