Makeshift modernity

The rise of African Speculative Fiction and other exciting cultural production indicates that modernity is not an exercise in “catching up” with Europe, but an entirely new condition.

Strange fishes and sea-monsters and mighty plants live in the rock-bed of our spirits. The whole of human history is an undiscovered continent deep in our souls. … We must look at ourselves differently. We are freer than we think. … We can redream this world and make the dream real. Human beings are gods hidden from ourselves.

― Ben Okri, The Famished Road

“AFRICAFANTASTIKA continues to boom,” wrote scholar Mark Bould in 2016. His words are almost an understatement today. Here, I will examine some commonly referenced reasons for the rise of African Speculative Fiction (ASF) in 2007–2008: the global financial crisis; the rise of the middle class; accelerated flows between diaspora, African America, and the continent; and phones. I argue that the last point needs more fleshing out, and suggest we look deeper at the new, technologically facilitated cultural wave in relation to the dawn of “makeshift modernity.

Space is the place

While there were only about five ASF publications in the 1990s, since 2010 the numbers have jumped to hundreds of publications per year. Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 came in 2009, followed by his 2015 film Chappie. In 2011, South African writer Lauren Beukes won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her cyberpunk-inspired Zoo City (2010). There have been several successful anthologies, such as Lagos_2060, AfroSF, AfroSFv2, and, most recently, the brilliant Africanfuturism Anthology, published by Brittle Paper and edited by Wole Talabi. The first issue of Omenana, a pan-African speculative fiction magazine, appeared in 2014, and the magazine continues to grow stronger. In 2016, Nnedi Okorafor made headlines when she received both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for her novella Binti (2015). That same year, the African Speculative Fiction Society was launched at the Aké Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria, together with the annual Nommo award for best African speculative fiction. Lauren Beukes’s “The Shining Girls” (though not set on the continent) is coming to Apple TV+ in 2022 and Okorafor’s Binti is becoming a TV series on Hulu as we speak. Though the film may be divisive, I cannot avoid mentioning Black Panther and its striking characters T’Challa and Shuri. Their role in propelling both Afrofuturism and ASF onto the global cultural stage is undeniable.

First off, let me argue how excellent the rise of ASF is for everyone, but most importantly for us, the people of African descent. “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it,” said James Baldwin. To make it, one must first imagine it; to make change, one must first imagine a different kind of future. ASF can be linked to the decolonization of the mind in many ways: we must break the molds of colonial prescriptions, education, and decisions about Africa’s place in the world, much like speculative fiction breaks the mold of what can and cannot exist.

ASF points to an insistence on partaking in the technology-steeped global future and represents a push to actively influence that future. Furthermore, publishing and sharing tales and ideas about the future shows a new kind of optimism and self-confidence. Newfound confidence also arguably comes from stronger and more frequent connections with cousins from another planet—those in African America—facilitated by modern communication technology and faster cultural exchange. Africa is looking to African America for cool self-confidence, and African America is looking to Africa for roots and authenticity. This has been going on for a long time. Increasingly, however, African American interest has given cultural expressions from the continent a boost onto the global stage. After five centuries of the rest of the globe telling Africa its cultures and inputs are useless, those cultures and inputs suddenly find themselves at the forefront of global “cool.” But this time around, we might actually gain something from it.

Attack of the academics

With success comes scholarly interest. Canadian science fiction writer Geoff Ryman has compiled his 100 interviews with African writers of speculative fiction and fantasy, and the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry and the magazine Paradoxa are not alone in publishing special issues on ASF. In my working group CoFUTURES, we are looking at cultural expressions of speculative futures from around the world, outside of the US and UK. I am looking specifically at ASF in relation to imagined “climate changed” futures.

From what I have read so far, the limited scholarship on ASF is in agreement on two points: first, that science fiction from and on the African continent is in no way new, and that it is our job as scholars to fight that misconception. Many have written about this, including Mark Bould (the scholar quoted above) and Ugandan filmmaker and writer Dilman Dila. Dila talks about oral traditions and rich mythological universes, bringing in stories like that of Luanda Magere, the man made of stone, and Kibuuka, the man who could fly and shoot arrows. He points out how many societies linked ancestry to aliens, citing most famously the Dogon of West Africa and, according to his research, possibly the Baganda too (see more here).

Part of the colonial hangover is arguably a belief that westerners have dibs on speculation, on looking to the stars and wondering about it all. Or on wondering about the effects of technology, as though this very basic human inclination was completely foreign to the continent until some project sent down an iPad and people could watch Iron Man on it.

Dila’s conclusion has a strong kick to it: “When some claim that the genre is alien to Africa, that Africans don’t consume scifi, that there is no audience, I want to ask; which African community are you talking about? When they say Africans are not ready for scifi, what do they really mean? … Africans won’t relate to Captain America, or Star Wars, or Spiderman, but they’ll relate to stories of John Akii-Bua running faster than a rally car, or to stories of trees whose branches are living bridges strong enough for buses and lorries to drive over, or, as we see in Nollywood films, they pay to watch alternate worlds spiced with juju fantasy.”

So that is one battle that creators of ASF are waging. Second, it is agreed that the boom of what can perhaps more correctly be called new, published written work—the video games and films circulating globally—began around 2007–2008.

“Boom! What was that?”

But the reasons we have settled on this timeline need to be examined further. According to academic Peter Maurits, the first reason is the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007–2008. He calls the GFC a fall and rise moment, both for global capitalism and for TINA—the sense that There Is No Alternative. In that moment, Maurits argues, lots of other possible systems were imaginable, and many people were even inspired to fight for them. This was also the start of the “Africa rising” moment, when public discourse embraced the idea of a shift of economic centers away from the West.

A second reason often listed is the growth of the middle and upper classes. The growth of the middle class allows content producers to imagine audiences at home. Writing for African readers completely changes the game, both for writers and publishers. Today, writers are daring to write less apologetically from “under their own stars,” and there are fewer creators now than before who feel pressured to “explain Africa” to imagined western audiences. Interestingly, writer Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso blames the third wave of African writers for setting too rigid and constraining expectations on what African literature can and should be. “African literary fiction,” he writes, “is again awakening from the coma it had been in after the era of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and other writers of that generation.” Writers have been expected to be political or social activists more than anything else; as a result, a lot of literature resembles pamphlets with characters. “African writers are traumatized,” writes Dila. “They forever have to defend their work. If it’s not someone questioning why they are not tackling the problems of their societies, it’s someone wondering why they only write about misery and gloom in the continent.” Whether or not one agrees, having these conversations is another reason why the rise of ASF is so important.

To this can be added the effect of vastly accelerated global flows, which allow diasporas to more immediately participate in cultural production. Undeniably, a lot of those producing ASF have studied or lived outside of their home countries. The influence of African America is no less undeniable here, including the explosion of Afrofuturism onto screens all over the world. This is both the “coolness” factor—Beyoncé with tribal markings and everybody walking around making the Wakanda sign—and the ideology behind Afrofuturism, which is based on a construction of the future as a political project. Again, this shift is related to audience: Afrofuturism and ASF communities on the continent seem extremely conscious of conceptual questions like what kind of point of reference are we writing from, and whom are we writing for?

Through the black speculative imagination comes an assumption of self-respect and confidence which can translate to real-world effects in the present—sometimes phrased as “taking what’s ours.” For example, I believe that the massive solidarity shown for Black Lives Matter around the globe (even here in Norway) can be explained in part by the recent rise of Afrofuturism’s popularity in the global imagination. That solidarity translated into feet on the streets. These feet then become political headaches, which finally result in policy changes and statue replacements. The future matters.

A glorious new dawn

A third reason, linked to the other two, is what Maurits calls the “conditions of possibility,” i.e., the rise of democratizing technological innovations like cell phones. I read this argument again and again, in different contexts: the reason for something happening is that Africa now has phones. But I am always left with a feeling that this argument does not quite cover what is going on. Phones are coming, yes, and they have changed a lot of things—at least for the middle class. But this again sets communities in a passive role, as mere receivers of technology. How are the phones being used, and what does that tell us in cultural studies? Is technology bringing Africa into the digital age, in the way the term is usually understood? Is it ushering in posthumanism, modernism, postmodernism? Is it final proof that the continent is leapfrogging industrialization?

To take the first question first: it is not reasonable to argue that the African continent is in the same place as the global North when it comes to posthumanism or digital lifestyles. But it does not seem quite right to say that it is “behind,” either. The latter statement would suggest that the continent is “developing” both on the same trajectory and toward the same position as the global North. That doesn’t seem right. Pennsylvania State University Associate Professor Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra writes about the African continent being framed globally as a part of Ferguson’s “global shadows,” spaces of absence or negation. The shadow space “haunts” the West, yet is instrumental for its self-conceptualization: “There is, after all, no “civilization”, “modernity” or “development” without its opposite.” Part of the decolonial global paradigm shift I have advocated for elsewhere is rejecting the shadow narrative and insisting on filling those spaces of perceived absence.

In the case of the second and third questions: what should we call the new cultural wave facilitated by new technology? I would argue that on the African continent, if we must suppose a linear trajectory and if it must be compared to European history, both early industrialization, modernism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism exist all at once. The expected timeline is collapsed. There are parallels to each, and yet this is something new.

The best term I can come up with to try and describe the new cultural wave is makeshift modernity. Modernity, because the emphasis is on self-definition, advancement, technology, and change. This emphasis reveals a sense of optimism about technological possibilities, leading to a perceived gulf between this generation and previous generations (that of third-wave writers, early postcolonial leaders, and theorists). It cannot be called an “African version of modernity,” defined against the West, as with Geoff Ryman’s comparison between the Africa rising moment and England in the Elizabethan age. This is because it is an entirely different meal, though cooked with many of the same ingredients: urbanization, conflict and war, an enormous and widening gap between rich and poor, massive amounts of new opportunities enabled by groundbreaking technologies, a sense of gritty optimism, a spirit of cutthroat entrepreneurship and innovation, a new global sensibility and space in the world, and a growing confidence in taking up that space.

The “makeshift” encapsulates all the innovative, often improvised ways that both technology and culture are being used and reused. In the words of Jean and John Comaroff, this is “a retooling of culturally familiar technologies as a new means for new ends.” But it is not only hardware that is being rethought and reappropriated, it is also modern sensibilities, global culture, and pick-and-choose cultural concepts from around the globe.

Additionally, “makeshift” emphasizes the agency of the practitioner. It highlights the temporality of that modernity, of everything being a temporary make-do solution. Indeed, it underscores how entire lives are being lived with make-do solutions, in lieu of something better; how people are constantly looking toward a better condition and how cultural movements are steeped in a sense of “one day” or “heading towards a better place.”

Dilman Dila points out how having this kind of hopeful other reality in the mind can cause what he calls a kind of “schizophrenic” state. “It hurts,” he writes, “to daydream of better things. It hurts even more to write about it, for at some point I begin to feel like afrofuturism is becoming something like a mind-control drug, something like a religion that makes you endure a horrible life with promises of a paradise after death.”

“Nkoloso, launch the second rocket!”

In this post, I have looked at some commonly referenced reasons for the rise of ASF: the global financial crisis and the momentary disappearance of TINA; the rise of the middle class and accelerated flows between diaspora, African America, and the continent; and phones. I have argued that the last reason often needs more meat to it—what are phones being used for?—and suggested one possible answer: that they are part of facilitating the age of makeshift modernity on the continent. Makeshift modernity is no derivation or exercise in “catching up” with Europe, but an entirely new condition, which in turn is facilitating exciting new cultural production.

Dila and others have expressed worry about the global interest in ASF. They fear that it will become too popular and become watered down, like the horror genre. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. I would argue that with new global interest, the tables may have shifted some, yet they have not turned. I strongly doubt whether this will translate into any meaningful change in the lives of the average African, economic or otherwise. In Brittle Paper’s Africanfuturism Anthology, there is a great story by Tlotlo Tsamaase extrapolating this phenomenon. In the story, we follow a young woman who gets a great new job at a tech company. Yet her mind is slowly being taking over, and it turns out (spoiler!) that the international company is “mining diversity” directly from its Botswanan employees, drawing from them patterns for fashion, ancestral connections. It is quite gruesome, yet makes an interesting point. The effects of being “cool in the USA” need to be further explored.

In my opinion, the great global gaze comes and goes, without really leaving many tangible marks. What really matters is what ASF is doing on the continent. ASF has already made its mark as part of the next phase of decolonization. We have all looked back and agreed that, for several reasons, the past 500 years were very bad. Now it’s time to ask: what’s next?

Further Reading