Nigerian author and poet Ben Okri. Okri’s recent public address entitled ‘Meditations on Greatness’ at this year’s ‘Africa Writes’ festival in London, sponsored by the Royal African Society. I say witnessed, but perhaps I should say endured. PHOTO | FILE
These are exciting times for African literature. I have said it before and I probably will not get tired of saying it as long as writers on the continent continue on the trajectory they are currently on.
Having said that many times, you can imagine I was back in December when Booker-winning author Ben Okri stated in an infamous essay in the Guardian, “…but black and African writers are read for their novels about slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision — in short, for subjects that reflect the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world.” Later on in the essay he went on to state that it was time that black and African writers ‘woke up from the mesmerism with subject.”
While I was aware on reading the essay that Okri was writing to a British audience that perhaps is more interested in African war stories, I wondered whether he had bothered to read contemporary African writing before writing his essay at all.
Aside from the worrisome and patronising attitude of attempting to tell other writers what to write, if Okri had been reading contemporary writing, he would have known that genre fiction does exist be it crime fiction (and no. I am not talking about Alex McCall-Smith), romance and even science fiction.
Of the latter, names like Lauren Beukes (who is African) bagged the largest world prize in science fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke for her novel Zoo City in 2011.
Then there are names like Nnedi Okorafor (who is both black and African), Helen Oyeyemi (black British of Nigerian origin) both of whom are world-renowned and have been on the market for years, so what has Okri been reading?
Fortunately for genre writers, not everyone is like him and others have been reading and have noticed the growth of science fiction on the continent.
Among those who have noted this are people from that organisation that is a great supporter of African arts — no, not African Union — but the Goethe Institut.
The Goethe has thus decided to have the topic of science fiction writing as a major part of the discussions during its Afrofutures Festival taking place simultaneously in the three African cities of Accra, Johannesburg and Nairobi from October 28 to 31 from 10 am until late.
The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined as far back as 1993 by Mark Dery and explains a literary and cultural movement that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity and magical realism to critique not only present day dilemmas of black and African people but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine historical events, according to my friend Wiki.
The topics for the festival will range from Africa’s speculative futures, whether technology is a means or curse for the future and the future of knowledge production on the continent in order to create something that suits us as Africans.
In Johannesburg, the aforementioned Beukes, Okorafor and an exciting new voice in science fiction who I was lucky to workshop and who you can read in the latest Caine anthology, Lusaka Punk and Other Stories, Ghanaian Jonathan Dotse will form part of the crew.
OPEN TO ALL
Among those taking part in Nairobi are filmmakers Judy Kibinge, Dr Wandia Njoya, Nanjira Sabuli and many others. Most of the events here will take place at the Goethe Institut.
I am honoured to be moderating the Nairobi panel on literature entitled Narratives in Science Fiction Literature where I will have as my panelists Karsten Kruschel from Germany, South Africa’s Nikhil Singh and Kenyans Tony Mochama, Richard Oduor and Awuor Onyango.
The last two contributed engaging (pun unintentional) short stories in the Jalada Afrofutures series published online in January and their stories can be read there. Mochama’s Nairobi 2063 is a work-in-progress and I hope to have access to both Kruschel and Singh’s works by Sunday.
Of course, the events are open to the public so we look forward to seeing many of you there. And my only regret for these events, is that Ben Okri is not going to be in any of the three cities hosting Afrofutures.
I wonder though, if he were, whether he would have given writers and readers on the continent a Booker-sized ‘mea culpa’ in The Guardian?