Panel Conversation on Afro-futrism between Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar
The following conversation between Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar took place in front of a packed house at the University of Texas, on December 3rd, as part of the Symposium for African Writers. Samatar was fresh from winning the World Fantasy Award for best novel a few weeks earlier—for her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria—while Okorafor was fighting off a cold she caught over the course of the whirlwind tour for her new novel, Lagoon.
Before the panel discussion, Samatar read from her short story “Ogres of East Africa,” which can be found in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Okorafor read from Lagoon.
Aaron Bady: One of the things that struck me, listening to the two of you read, was the way in which—whether we call it Afro-futurism, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, there’s a host of words and categories that we could use, but it strikes me that these words are always opposed to realism. It’s always the thing that realism isn’t, or realism is the cudgel that’s used to beat on the legitimacy of the writing you do. But I’m thinking about how intensely realized this is, the attention to realistic details. If you know the archive of historical texts from the early colonial period in Kenya, “Ogres of East Africa” will strike you as intensely careful in its attention to “realistic” details. And Lagoon immerses us in Lagos, in a way that makes me wonder if maybe you don’t really know a city until it’s been hit by an alien meteorite.
Could you talk about realism, and how it relates to what you do?
Sofia Samatar: I think that anyone who thinks that fantasy and science fiction is in this vacuum, and it’s all made up, is lacking understanding not only of genre fiction, but actually of humans. You don’t conjure things up out of nothing. Everything is rooted in something. For me, at least, what’s great about fantasy and science fiction is that you’re often literalizing things that people talk about in metaphoric terms. But those things are realities.
So you can say, OK, let’s imagine an actual invasion, instead of just talking about “colonialism” or, whatever, in the abstract. It actually makes people’s real-world experiences clearer, or it makes them stand out in a different way.
Nnedi Okorafor: Agreed. And then, also, when we talk about “realism,” and, in particular, “African literature,” an interesting issue comes up, because I think that in many African cultures, the idea of the mystical being part of the world—the mystical and the mundane being combined—is a natural thing. So, for me, writing something that was fantastical was natural to me. I never thought of it as “fantasy.” When I first started writing, I was writing memoir, and I was digging into my own past and writing about things that had happened to me, and the fantastical aspects of those stories naturally occurred there. I never thought, I want to see magical things happen, I want to write magical metaphors. For some of us, it’s just the way we see the world. Also, the idea of separating science fiction from realism, it’s like separating the present from the past and the future. Those aren’t separated, those are all combined, so I don’t see how you can look at science fiction and say, oh, that’s not realistic fiction.
I also quibble with the word “realistic fiction,” and “realism” to begin within. Because fiction is fiction, and it just doesn’t make sense. (long pause) It just doesn’t make sense, and I think we should stop using it. (audience laughs). I just came from a festival where someone was talking about science fiction and fantasy, but he kept saying “Well, I write realistic fiction,” like it’s up here (gestures upward) and I was just making stuff up, and everything I write has no bearing on anything. And that doesn’t make sense.
Fiction is… it’s all creation. It’s all creation in some way. Just because nothing strange happens in your story, nothing mystical happens in your story, that doesn’t mean that therefore it’s realistic. There’s a leap in logic there, in my opinion.
Aaron Bady: What about futurity? Would it be right to say that speculative fiction is all about imagining something — an alien invasion, for example — that we can’t imagine now, but then neither could people in 1492. Putting a future into a narrative space that otherwise might be available? After all, so many of the traditional narratives about Africa are very historically rooted, oriented on the past, and a past that forecloses the future in lots of ways. I wonder if there’s something about the radical freedom of this kind of writing, where you’re imagining, that makes futurity possible?
Nnedi Okorafor: It’s interesting that you said that traditional African novels are based in history, and that African science fiction is free to do what it wants. I’m not sure if I agree with that. I think that when you’re imagining the future, the future has to be connected to the present and the past. Unless you’re just making up the present and the past, but even when you do that, I think you’re still bound. I think that there’s freedom in science fiction, but there’s still—I don’t want to say “rules,” I don’t like rules—but there’s still logic and connections that are being made to things that have happened before. It’s imagining a future, but you’re taking it from somewhere, you’re looking at what’s happened and what’s happening, and you’re adding to that, you’re speculating about what will happen after that, so that connection is still there.
Sofia Samatar: I completely agree, and I think when we talk about Afro-futurism, in particular, it has “future” in the name, so people think of it as imagining the future. But Afro-futurist aesthetics, whether you’re talking about music, Sun-Ra back in the day, or whether you’re talking about something like Nnedi’s novel, Who Fears Death, yes, it is “futuristic,” but Afro-futurism has always been concerned with the past. It’s always been… if you look at the role that Ancient Egypt has placed in the imagination of Afro-futurist art and mythology, all of that is so important to these artists, partly because there’s always this question of how to bridge the gap. Speaking particularly for Afro-futurism in its US-American incarnation, there’s always this idea of the traumatic break of the middle passage. How do you draw from the past in order to spring into the future? If you’re cut off from the past, you don’t have the materials to start imagining the future. It’s not like you can only talk about the future.
Nnedi Okorafor: I have a question! I’d like to know what you consider what you do. If it’s ever anything you think about when you’re writing. When you look at everything you’ve written, from short stories to novels, what do you say that you do? Do you have a name for it? Or do you have no name for it?
Sofia Samatar: I love the name “Speculative Fiction” because it’s so broad, that it’s just a big umbrella and you can stick a whole bunch of stuff under it. Whether it’s something that’s just kind of surreal, or whether it’s just… Actually, a lot of my stuff, like in most of “Ogres,” there’s no magic, it’s just people telling stories about these ogres. And it remains full of questions to the end, as to where the magic is, how much is magic, how much of the lives that we’re actually living are magic.
So, I like speculative fiction, because it lets me throw a whole bunch of stuff in there. But I do know that within the science fiction and fantasy community, there are people who will say “well this story was nominated for a Hugo award, but it’s not even science fiction!” So there are definitely these gate-keepers.
Aaron Bady: Selkies?
Sofia Samatar: Selkies, yeah. But let me turn the question back!
Nnedi Okorafor: I say “speculative fiction.” But… I don’t want any category. I want to be open to write whatever I want. I don’t know if I necessarily am, but I know I’m pretty free. I’ve done very well in being able to jump from whatever category to combine things from another category and write whatever I want and not caring. But I can see myself in the future writing something that has no magical stuff in it, and I don’t know what that is, but I’m not going to call it “realism.” I could see myself writing something like that. I have those stories, I even have a title in my head.
I know that if I took that to my agent, he would say “what are you doing?” But I see myself writing memoir. I have written a memoir, I just haven’t had the guts to try to publish it yet. But when I wrote it, I was writing memoir and magic things still happened, because I wrote it. So I don’t know what to call that.
I know what I tell people when it’s convenient, I say that I write science fiction, or fantasy, or speculative fiction or whatever. But I don’t see myself as any of those; I see myself as all of those at the same time.
Sofia Samatar: That’s very recognizable to me as well. Switching gears a little bit: I actually have a question about the World Fantasy Award.
Nnedi Okorafor: Oh, lord.
Sofia Samatar: Did Chip Delany or Octavia Butler or any other writer of African descent, who is not sitting at this table, ever win the World Fantasy Award for best novel?
Nnedi Okorafor: No.
Sofia Samatar: Or is it just us?
Nnedi Okorafor: No, it’s just us. In 32 years.
Sofia Samatar: In 32 years.
Sofia Samatar: And not that long ago, 2011. I don’t know if people are aware of the controversy. But there’s a bit of a controversy going on right now in the science fiction and especially fantasy community, because the World Fantasy Award, the actual award, the trophy that you get, is a statue of H.P. Lovecraft. It was chosen to honor his contributions to the literature of the imagination.
He was also a virulently racist writer, not only in his letters, but in his creative work as well. I actually first learned about this fact through your blog post, Nnedi, so could you say a little bit about how that post came to be written?
Nnedi Okorafor: OK, so I had won the World Fantasy Award. I wasn’t there for the ceremony, so this thing was sent to me in the mail, and it was… the head of Lovecraft. I… (audience laughs).
At the time, I knew of his racism and anti-Semitism, I knew of it, but I didn’t know the depth of it. I learned the depth of it in the most annoying way: I was showing off the bust to my ex-husband, and he looks at it and said “That’s H.P. Lovecraft! Let me show you something.”
He went on to show me a poem that Lovecraft had written which really demonstrated exactly the depth of this man’s dislike of black people. It was called… What was it called?
Sofia Samatar: It was called “On the Creation of Niggers.”
Nnedi Okorafor: So I read this poem, and as soon as I read it, I knew I was in a position where, OK, I can’t get this and not say something, it would just look stupid, and it would be wrong, I have to say something. So I wrote this blog post, kind of pointing out, in a very polite way, what was wrong with me winning this award and then getting a bust of this man. I also asked the opinion of the writer China Miéville, who had been a past World Fantasy Award winner, and he kind of gave his opinion too.
I basically said that it’s difficult, because some of the writers that you—as a person of color—it’s difficult to learn that some of the writers that you looked up to, hated you. So I wrote this blog post, and when I posted it, it became a very well-read bit of text. It kind of started this conversation about this bust, about H.P. Lovecraft. And that conversation got very heated, because you had the people who were defending having that bust as the award, and then you had the people who were siding with me. That went on for about a year, and then a year later, the awards came around again and nothing had changed. And then… Do you want to continue the story?
Sofia Samatar: Fast forward to last month! I was up for the World Fantasy Award for best novel. So I went to DC, to the convention, and I won. This is now, they have had three years to do something about this, and nobody did. So that meant that I became the first person to address the issue on the stage of the convention, at my first time to be at the convention.
Nnedi and I actually had a conversation over lunch, about the burdens that you take on, when you’re the one who can’t not say something. Because everybody else goes up on stage, all those people, all those white writers, can go up and they just accept the award, and they’re happy. And you’re sitting there, and your guts are twisting, you’re in a panic that you’re going to have to go up on the stage and say this. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
We’ll see what happens.
Nnedi Okorafor: Something better happen.
Sofia Samatar: They need to change that award.
Audience member: What did you say?
Sofia Samatar: I said…. So, you know when you give people a writing critique? Where you start out, and you’re nice, nice, nice, and then you put a little thing in the middle, and then at the end, you make it nice again? That was kind of the structure. I started by thanking the board. But then I said, look, I’m not going to get down without addressing the elephant in the room, here, which is how incredibly awkward it is for a writer of color to accept this award. We all know it’s ugly, I said. And that’s the thing! Everybody knows! And nobody says!
So I said that I was just going to put that out there. There had been noises out there, indicating that the board was aware of the controversy. Not that they were going to do anything about it, but just that they were aware. So I said, I’m glad you’re aware. And I hope the board takes this seriously.
Then I went back to being nice.
Audience question: I’d like to ask a question that’s inspired by Nnedi’s t-shirt, because she’s got a Batman t-shirt going. But I was thinking about the intensely visual nature of “Ogres of East Africa,” and the intensely visual nature of Lagoon, and since we’re genre hopping, I wonder if you’ve thought, as an artist, of turning any of your work into graphic media. I think it would just be so spectacular.
Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, I have one short story that was made into a comic, a comic in an anthology of DC Comics, it’s a story from my first novel, Zarah the Windseeker, which is very, very visual. They had Michael Koluta do it, who did a lot of the Batman comics and has been in the comics industry for many, many years. But yeah, that’s something that I’m definitely looking into; I love graphic novels. I consume them like candy, so I’d love to see some of my work take that route. The Book of Phoenix, my forthcoming novel, is not a graphic novel, it’s a novel—it’s the prequel to Who Fears Death—but within that, we’re going to have several illustrations that are going to be done by a comic book illustrator who’s done stuff for both DC and Marvel.
I’m also really interested in the visual aspect of it, because the visual… there’s an importance to the visual that you don’t get with a text, when you’re writing science fiction with people of color, or fantasy with people of color.
Sofia Samatar: I have actually created this thing with my brother—I did the writing, he did the art, because he’s an artist. He draws monsters, so we’ve done a book together called Monster Portraits. It’s not out there yet. But it’s not that I wrote something and he illustrated it; he made the drawings and then I made a one-page imaginative riff for each. But I agree, the visual is very powerful.
Audience question: I noticed the word “imagination” coming up a lot, and that might be a quality that gets talked about more in speculative, fantasy, and science fiction than in realist fiction. I wonder if you feel like there’s a difference in the way it operates in speculative fiction than in realist fiction?
Sofia Samatar: That’s a really interesting question. I’m actually writing something now that’s not genre fiction, and doesn’t have those markers. It’s about a trek of Mennonites from Uzbekistan in the 1880’s. And what do I know about 1880’s Uzbekistan? If we’re talking about the process of imagining my way into the characters, really, the biggest difference is that when I wrote my novel A Stranger of Olondria, for example, where I made everything up, the whole world, all the cultures, I had those markers, of food, of architecture, whatever it is and I made them up and then I stuck to them. Whereas in this case, I do research, and then I have to stick with whatever I found in research. These are not such different processes.
I always think that what we call “world-building” in science fiction and fantasy is really what you call “research,” if you’re not doing science fiction and fantasy. It’s that background work. But in both cases, I think, the imagination is active, and I would say, for me, it feels like it’s active in the same way.
Nnedi Okorafor: (briskly) Yeah, I agree.
Audience question: I was wondering about your short story, “The Magical Negro.” Is that supposed to be… super-funny? To expose this ludicrous thing that’s been going on for far too long? But for both of you, I’m curious how you incorporate humor into your work.
Nnedi Okorafor: “The Magical Negro.” Yes, it’s supposed to be funny. (audience laughs) When I was writing that, I was cracking up. If you don’t know about the magical Negro, um… OK. (hesitating). OK.
Sofia Samatar: Where to start.
Nnedi Okorafor: Where to start. You can google the term, “magical Negro,” you can do that. It’s maybe the shortest story I’ve ever written, it’s three pages, maybe two. It starts off with a medieval setting, a typical fantasy setting. I can’t remember if I changed his name, it was originally “Thor.” But I changed it to “Lance the brave.” So “Lance the Brave” is doing his thing. He’s on this adventure, and has this pendant and he doesn’t know what to do with it, and then this black man comes out of nowhere, and this black man is described in this very… He’s got blown out lips and an explosion of hair and he’s so black and dark and dirty. He gives Lance the answer he needs, and tells Lance what he needs to do to keep the darkness from coming towards him, and then he starts to die.
But suddenly everything switches because the black man kind of stops and says— OK, I’m not going to say what he says, but the black man says “What the F- is this all about?”
It’s like if you have a story going and you hit pause, and then this character suddenly comes alive and says “What is this, why am I dying, what am I here for, what do I care about this Lance character?” And he shoves Lance over a cliff and walks off into the sunset to have adventures of his own.
It’s a very short story, commenting on the whole idea of the Magical Negro. I wrote an essay commenting on the five aspects of the Magical Negro, in which that person has some magical mystical powers, he or she comes from a lower income or is not very smart, but has these mystical powers he uses to help the white character, in a story in which there are no other non-white characters. Then, once that character has helped the white character, he either dies or disappears and is never seen again.
To address the idea of humor, I write with a lot of humor, I was laughing very hard when I wrote Lagoon. When I was writing it, I wasn’t even thinking about publishing, I thought, wow, no one is going to want to publish this.
Some of my writing is very serious, like Who Fears Death, but then I have other things. I love monsters and creatures because nature can do crazy stuff, and that’s also where a lot of the humor works its way in. Humor is something that is very important to me. Even when there’s darkness, there’s laughter.
Sofia Samatar: I think this brings us back to a conversation we were having earlier today, about humor and African literature in general, or literature that has an African context. Very often, you get up and read something, and people are like… “Are we allowed to laugh? Would that be racist?”
You have to tell them, it’s supposed to be funny. So relax, enjoy it. But I think that there are some pressures there, where people are just a little bit unsettled, where they’re not sure if it would be good to laugh at this or not.
As a writer, that’s not really your area, when you’re sitting by yourself. You’re laughing, you’re just doing your thing. Afterwards, when it goes out into the world, there are some negotiations which sometimes involve actually telling people that, you know what, you can laugh, it’s okay.
Audience question: I have a question about how the American reception of Afro-futurism, or speculative fiction, differs from the reception in other parts of the world?
Nnedi Okorafor: Especially with Afro-futurism, one of the things I’ve always had a problem with is that when Afro-futurism is discussed, it is often discussed from a very American point of view. The roots are American, African-American in particular. But I think that’s very limited. Those who are outside the United States, who have a different experience, they experience Afro-futurism in a different way. They don’t see it as being rooted in the United States. That’s the way I see it. I wish that it would be seen more from that standpoint. To see it as just an American phenomenon, as rooted in African-American art, as a whole, is problematic. So I think that, yeah, from other parts of the world, they see the roots being in a different place, and because those roots are in a different place, it manifests in different ways as well. That’s a conversation that hasn’t been had yet.
Sofia Samatar: However! There will be a place where it will be had—or in which you can see it being had—because Jalada, which is a Nairobi-based and online magazine… Is it based in Nairobi? Most of the editors are there.
Aaron Bady: It’s a pan-African…
Sofia Samatar: It’s on the internet (laughter). It calls itself a pan-African writers collective. There’s currently in process an issue on Afro-futures, and I’m one of the guest editors, and it’s exciting to see, because the majority of the writers we’ve received stories about are based in Africa, though there are also some African diaspora writers involved. I think that once we get ourselves in gear and get the issue out, it’s going to be very exciting. I think it’s something that going to be very important as an intervention in the discourse on Afro-futurism, because it’s very much coming from the African perspective.
Audience question: I don’t have a vested interest in terms, but it seems to me that one of the terms that Afro-futurism or science fiction needs to think about—or that I need to think about—is “Magical Realism” and… (responding to Samatar and Okorafor’s expressions) you are making faces, I’m so glad of that! “Magical Realism” becomes this thing that defines writing from the third world, in all sorts of ways that we all find unattractive. I think it’s a limiting category, because people like Gunter Grass don’t count, even though they formally look like it. But I’d like to ask how you know that what you’re doing isn’t that?
Sofia Samatar: I know it’s not magic realism because I don’t really believe in magic realism as a category. Because, as you’ve indicated, when you press on that category a little bit, it rapidly becomes “speculative fiction by brown people.” I just don’t see that as a viable category that you can base things on.
I’m teaching a class right now called Weird World Fiction, which is fantasy and science fiction from around the world, and that was one of the very interesting discussions we had: “What is magic realism, and does it exist?” I find it a very fragile category. If you just go like that to it (mimics flicking it), it kind of collapses.
But I don’t know, it has such an institutional life to it; in terms of literary establishments, it does have a life, and I’m being a little bit dismissive. So even though I think it isn’t really viable, maybe Nnedi will not be so dismissive of it, because it does have a life to it.
Nnedi Okorafor: “Magical realism” is so tricky. I’ve had to use that word to get past a lot of things. When I did my PhD, they told me I couldn’t write science fiction or fantasy, so I called it “Magical Realism” and that was okay.
But I understand the issues around magical realism, but there’s one thing that I still can’t resolve. When you have writers of color who are writing from their cultures, and incorporating cultural beliefs into their works, into their worlds, is that fantasy? Those are the things that make magical realism need to exist as a separate category. It’s complicated. I look at Ben Okri’s Famished Road and he’s incorporating a lot of cultural beliefs, and then he’s got fairies in there, mixed in it.
It’s complicated. I can’t fully dismiss magical realism because of that aspect of it, because most magical realist writers are doing that, they’re incorporating the mystical aspects of their culture into their works, and that’s different than fantasy. Even though the line becomes blurry.
As for the African roots of Afro-futurism, when you think of science fiction, that’s a form of writing that’s very Western. The pioneers of it would be in the West; that’s why you have Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, and then, in terms of music, Western musicians like P-Funk and Su-Ra. So there’s that, it’s a Western form of writing, and science fiction has to come to Africa in that regard.
But I’ve always believed that the idea of science fiction is just speculating about the future, and imagining. So when “Africa”—I keep saying “Africa,” and I hate saying that, because Africa’s not a country. But in the interest of time, I’ll just say Africa—I believe that when Africans start writing science fiction, from the continent, I like to believe that they write from their own roots, rather than imitating what’s already out there. If that makes sense. And so, the roots would not necessarily be American. They could be the Dogon who were stargazing and speculating and speculating about aliens…
Sofia Samatar: A great example would be the role of Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard in Nnedi’s book Who Fears Death. In a far future, that book has become a sacred text for these futuristic African societies. That, to me, is an example of things to come.
Aaron Bady @zunguzungu is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas and an editor and blogger at The New Inquiry.