On the Writing of Speculative Fiction: A Dialogue with Innocent Immaculate Acan

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a 20-year old Ugandan pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery. She is the writer of Sundown, this year’s dystopian fantasy winning story for the Center for African Cultural Experience organized by Writivism Festival 2016’s short story competition.

This conversation happened between the sun-drenched city of Gaborone, Botswana and exuberant city of Kampala, Uganda by Skype.

Gaamangwe: I am excited to be talking to you because I am absolutely fascinated by all differen genres of speculative fiction. Your science fiction, fantasy and horror. I am interested in knowing why you write the stories that you write?

Innocent: I have a fascination with the unknown. What we don’t know and what could be. So speculative fiction allows a writer to explore that fully because you are basically creating your own features. Generally the tone that I pick up from humanity is that we are racing towards destruction and so I lean towards stories that tell of endings instead of beginnings or adventures. Because I feel that, that is where we are headed, based on what we do and how we are living.

Gaamangwe: That’s interesting. It is clear that in Sundown and your other stories you are negotiating or having dialogues about the unknown. How would you categorize the kind of work you are interested in?

Innocent: I think it will fall into speculative fiction  and science fiction, which I’ve only recently just started focusing on. But I don’t know if what Africans write can only be categorized as just fantasy. I feel that the term is not accurate or complete because African culture have very rich myths and legends. Our history is very rich and I borrow from those facets of our cultures such as witch doctors and tales about people who dance at night.

I think that it’s inescapable for an African writer to tell our stories without our cultures and myths. Our culture is a bottomless pit of inspiration. You could look at the legends of one tribe and that will give you stories.

A few writers have come up with terms to describe what kind of writing we do. I have heard of the term Afrojuju. I don’t know how universally accepted it is  but it sounds like something I will readily work with because they are things that I will like to write about and there is no other way you will describe them.

Gaamangwe: I am very fascinated by writers who are bringing African mythology and folklore into the contemporary work. Its important for us to interrogates our myths and folklore.   I also see a lot of similarities between African mythologies. The Gods in Botswana also exist in East or West Africa, except they have different names.

Innocent: That is true especially for the Bantu. It’s fascinating because one thing in Uganda can mean the same thing in South Africa. It’s a great way to connect the continent.  Culturally diverse but also culturally linked.

Gaamangwe: Yes.  I found it fascinating that in your story Sundown there were elements that were connected with each other. For example, the story of Sundown is a story about the sun falling down and the main character is an albino, named Red Sun, who of course as we know has a certain restrictive relationship with the sun. Was this intentional?

Innocent: Well, writing my protagonist as an albino was intentional. In East Africa, albinism has a lot of stigma attached and it’s very rare to come across a story where an albino is starring as the main character. They are people that society has decided to literally keep out of view because they are lot of culturally implications whereby people say that if you give birth to an albino you are cursed. Writing is a very powerful tool and it can be used to influence the way people think. I was trying to bring to life the fact that just because they have a genetic condition that makes them look different it doesn’t mean that  they are not the same as us. I think I turn to write characters who will not have a high social standing. Because I like to fight for the underdog.

As for the name, that was a silly, inside joke. There is a Kenyan artist and I thought let me drop this name in for people who will understand it and chuckle about it. This complimented the title because when the sun is approaching its deathbed it’s supposed to turn red.

 Gaamangwe: That’s interesting. But I must say in most of your stories there is that gravitation towards the sun.  What is your fascination with the sun?

Innocent: What can be more unknown that outer space? I think my fascination with the unknown takes me towards outer space, and that automatically takes me to the sun.  Space is this vast existence separate from us, and we can make our own conclusions. So I gravitate towards astronomy.

Gaamangwe: What do you want to illuminate about the unknown in your work?

Innocent: The biggest thing I want to put forward is that anything can happen. You can do anything by yourself and the unknown is this vast empty space where we are able to create something for ourselves.

But it’s not just about the unknown but social commentaries. For Africans, I think that art has always been a means of getting a point across. For me it’s mostly entertainment but also with a point to put across. With Sundown, one of the things I wanted to bring across was bigotry towards the people who don’t deserve it. And also that we should try to look at the world with other people’s eyes. The main point I was trying to bring across is we need to stop destroying the world we live in. I feel like humanity is not caring enough about our planet.

Gaamangwe: I do think that often enough when we think about global warming or the environment, we think of it as just concept. We don’t actually understand and visualize the effects of global warming. It is only when someone puts it in a story the way that you did that we get shifted. What I like about your story is that it was simple but there were so many elements that you were exploring. 

How do you think bringing the narrative of African mythologies such as witchcraft and all these other elements we find in our cultures can help or illuminate the African experience?

Innocent: I feel like post-colonial most of us find ourselves in this situation where we are dissatisfied with our culture. There is a disconnection between the culture of our forefathers and the culture of now. I feel like speculative fiction can help in bringing both of these cultures forth.

I really think if we choose to explore our culture especially among the youth, as something that we can understand and relate to, something that can be integrated in our pop culture, then we can re-create our cultural identity, so that it’s something that is fully us and ours.

Gaamangwe: True. As it is we have western fiction and films to inform and influence us on speculative works. But this is not because we don’t have this genre in Africa, it’s just that it has been poorly documented.  As you said the elements we find in mythology and fantasies are part of our culture.

Innocent: I actually think that the challenge for speculative fiction writers of our time is going to be blending the modern with our culture. We cannot claim we don’t have information on the western world, because we do have. We cannot escape them, and so we must blend them with our own influences and create something unique.

Gaamangwe: Do you think there is truth to the speculative fiction or it is just myth? For example, does witchcraft exist and if it does, how does it serve the human race story?

Innocent: I think witchcraft exist.  I think that a lot of African mythology are facts that were changed with time to suit a particular narrative. For example, in Uganda the traditional Gods were actual people who lived very extra ordinary lives, and when they died they were given a different stature by the tribe. I think if we look into our mythology we can understand its interconnections with real life.

Gaamangwe: Often enough with mythology you can never remove spirituality or religion from it. The ideas of where we come from, where we are going and our beliefs about the supreme force that is governing us. How does spirituality or religion influence your writing and interest?

Innocent: I think that religion is a two sided sword. It can be used for good or for evil, and I think at this point, we are on the wrong side. I feel like there is a need for us to separate belief from fact. We need to revise our structure of religion because a lot of us follow religion blindly and used it for manipulation. It is great to have a belief, but do you know what your belief are founded on?

Gaamangwe:  But in some cases, it can be difficult to hold a conversation about speculative theories with a religious mind. Talking about witchcraft, extraterrestrials, apocalyptic and dystopian times can be scary for some people. How do you navigate that?

Innocent: I think that there is a need to write about this because witchcraft is not something that suddenly appeared. It has always been there, it depends on how you bring it forth. You just have to be careful to not make others feel attacked for what they believe in. The point is not to make people think the way you want them to think but to just make people think one way or the other, because if they are thinking then you have done your job as a writer.

Gaamangwe: True. As a medical student how does science influence your thinking and your writing? How do you navigate the conflict that arise in cases where you write about something that science doesn’t consider real or valid?

Innocent: You know I don’t think it creates a conflict.  I think being a medical student and a writer is good because I often tap into the ideas or materials from the field I am studying. For example, this myths of people that dance naked at night can be understood from a scientific perspective. There is a medical condition where the mental faculties begin to fail in the evening, and the person starts to act weird. So most of the time science and fantasy work together. You just have to know how to twist both of them.

I think the only problem I would come across is that sometimes my mind understand things in a very clinical perspective and somewhere in there my ability to relate emotionally with the reader. I get so focused with bringing the technical facts up. But really it is a source of inspiration for my work because I can never run out of information.

Gaamangwe: I can relate with that. I have found that I gravitate towards mental health in my creative works because I studied and practiced psychology. How would you like to expand your speculative writing and where do you want to see your work going?

Innocent: I feel like the writing I want to put forth and expand is writing that change the way people think because right now in my country so much is going wrong.  Financial issues, corruption and the political system is just going to hell.  I feel like my writing can be used as an instrument of change for my country. I don’t want to write for entertainment only, I want to write stories that change, improve and shift something.

Gaamangwe: I think that is the point of writing. To reveal the consciousness of a country, with the ultimate intention of shifting it. You are the winner of the Writivism Short Story Prize, how did this experience impact you as a writer and human being?

Innocent: My experience at the Writivism festival was great. First of all I met so many brilliant writers that immediately I was humbled. There is so much good writing out there that it opened my eyes. All along I have been moving around thinking that literature is just in Kampala but the writing community in Africa is huge. There is a lot of creativity in the continent and Writivism showed me that. The Writivism team are also helpful, even after the festival they reach out to you and help you. It is a beautiful.

Gaamangwe: That’s wonderful. This has been wonderful.

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