Afrofuturism And The Search For A New Africa: A Dialogue With Imade Iyamu
Imade Iyamu is a young writer from Lagos, Nigeria. She has been longlisted for the Nommo Award 2017 (nominated by the African Speculative Fiction Society) and recently won the Awele Creative Trust Award 2017. Her work has also been published in Wolves Magazine, Afreada, the International Women’s Day Anthology of Praxis Magazine and was featured in the ‘Dearly Beloved’ Anthology of Zoetic Press.
BY TOLULOPE OKE
This dialogue took place under a brown rusted roof in Ibadan and in JIC Taylor Courthouse, Igbosere, Lagos.
Tolulope: My fascination with Afrofuturism is perhaps triggered by my immense study and interest in the fields of New Historicism and the African American literature, especially the Slave Narratives. Afrofuturistic writings are allusive, creating a past-present historical parallel, and offering alternative historical realities. Afrofuturism as an Afro(-American) literary concept is laced with the profound ideologies of New Historicism, a literary theory, among which are the re-investigation of the past, cohesiveness, equality and the embrace of an alternative reality. What spurred your interest in creating an alternative/speculative African reality?
Imade: So, when I was younger I watched a lot of old Japanese science fiction films with my Dad, like Godzilla. I remember, in one, there was an invasion of aliens and the aliens were speaking Japanese, subtitled in English and this was their first time on Earth. It was strange to me, so I asked, “How come they know how to speak Japanese?” And my Dad replied, “Well, how come all other aliens know how to speak English?” Honestly, that shook my world. It was the first time I ever considered the possibility of a future framed from a non-white, non-western viewpoint. Literature, and humanity as a whole, is enriched by our diversity of thoughts and experiences, so writing speculative stories from an African perspective are my way of contributing to that.
Tolulope: Interesting! That seems to align with the ultimate mission of various Black Speculative Narrative movements. On the definition and evolution of Afrofuturism, the unknown protagonist in “How much We have Become” by Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto offers a micro definition, ruminating on the past and speculating on the future: it says, “I marvel at how much we have become, and how Africa, as a whole, will turn out in a decade.” Afrofuturism was first coined and proposed as an ideology in 1994 by Mark Dery as a “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century techno-culture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism”. Since the unmemorable Trans-atlantic Slave trade, Africa and Africans (all blacks alike) have been in a constant pursuit of defining and redefining what Africa is and who they are as Africans. Thus, Afrofuturism as an ideology, movement and a speculative tool, for me, is a cultural and critical ground on which Africa as a whole is being interrogated. As a speculative writer, what do you make of this?
Imade: First, I don’t really identify with Afrofuturism. I don’t reject it neither, but it isn’t what I immediately see myself or my writing in. I completely agree that Afrofuturism and African speculative fiction in general can be a way of exploring and creating an identity. Speculative fiction, above and beyond any other genre, opens your mind, takes you to other worlds and dimensions with different rules, and in all that, it shows you who you really are at the end of the journey. I acknowledge the effects of slavery and colonialism and racism but I don’t think Africans or black people are defined by that. We can’t be defined by external conditions we have no control over, rather we should define ourselves by the actions and words we decided – the way we bend to greet our parents, good Jollof rice and plantain, our slang, our music. I think those are more accurate descriptors of who we are, and I really don’t want to write stories that frame Blackness as a cross to bear or defined by struggle; but simultaneously, I don’t want to ignore our struggles or problems either. I want my stories to explore both sides openly and honestly.
Tolulope: Two things: do you mean speculative literature can assume the tool by which an individual can reach an ultimate truth, about himself? And while I agree that these external forces shouldn’t dictate who we’re, do you think they can be much repressed to the extent that they do not shape us or our reality? Like whether you love to think of Blackness as a cross or not, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re black, and being considered “Black” bears its own semiotic significance, both positive and negative.
Imade: Speculative fiction is the best tool we have right now in fiction and I’m not saying people should ignore negativity and live in their own bubble but focusing on that as the definition of your identity is just…unhealthy to me. You were someone before the negativity, you’re still someone after. If you want to fight your oppressors while accepting their definition of you as your own, then I just don’t see why you should bother fighting. Experiences shape us, but it’s tragic if they control us and then you find yourself in a self-perpetuating cycle – Expect to fail. Fail. Feel ashamed. Rinse and Repeat. It’s exhausting and not a burden I find necessary to bear. Ignoring it completely and focusing on it exclusively are both extremes that I don’t subscribe to.
Tolulope: Afrofuturism has garnered enormous interest and followership, and Black Speculative narratives too, from Nnedi Okoarafor, Black Panther to Tomi Adeyemi. This enormous interest is what has been identified as Astro-Blackness: An Afrofuturistic concept in which one’s state of mind as a Black gains freedom, and awareness of the multiple opportunities that abounds within the universe, a walk-away from the shackles or slavery and colonialism (Rollins, 2015). Now, like revolution, what hope do you think Astro-Blackness as a state of consciousness holds in the attainment of a truly Afrofuturist Africa?
Imade: I’ve loved Nnedi Okorafor for years and I absolutely loved Black Panther (Wakanda Forever and ever). I think we’re living in a time when more and more attention is being given to African-based narratives of the future. I don’t think it’s limited to Africans or Black people; people all over the world just want original and creative stories from a different perspective, that’s why Black Panther did so well all over the world. An interest in afrofuturist stories is amazing, but if we want to see the science and technology we read about and watch, it goes beyond fiction. I know Nigeria’s space agency has 3 satellite programs for monitoring sharp changes in climate and tracking Boko Haram, and that’s with the little funding they get. We have to do the hard work of laying a foundation for that. Good governance, funding for research and federal agencies, technology transfer policies and implementation. Stories are best when they actually inspire work for good.
“It was the first time I ever considered the possibility of a future framed from a non-white, non-western viewpoint. Literature, and humanity as a whole, is enriched by our diversity of thoughts and experiences, so writing speculative stories from an African perspective are my way of contributing to that.“
Tolulope: I quite agree with you on that. Speculative literature, at best, is a tool for the realization of a better future. As regards reality and setting in Afrofuturist narratives, critics have identified the creation of temporal complications and anachronistic episodes that disturb the linear time of progress…the temporal logics that condemned blacks to prehistory. Time, the temporal setting, plays an immense role in the aesthetics of Afrofuturism. Often times, in the plane of the narrative, there is the constant flash of time, forward and backward, as if to contrast the past with the future to better understand the present (or the past, as the case may be). How much would you say you rely on facts, reality and your imagination to emplot your narratives?
Imade: For me, consistency is key. I try to establish the rules of the world of whatever story I’m crafting and work inventively within that. If you’ve established that, you lose a bit of sanity every time you use magic, then stick to that. If your humans are on a different planet, I need to know how they’re dealing with the difference in gravity or if there is one. A lot of people think speculative fiction is just about making it up as you go along, but that’s a recipe for very bad writing. I spend at least a week researching my stories and marinating on ideas and I go back to edit afterwards. Like I had a story about Popobowa, a Tanzanian monster titled, Popobowa, Pilgrim of the Night, and I would just spend the days casually reading accounts of people terrorised by it and I picked out some common themes of the monster from that. In the end, though, I stay faithful to the substance of it, but I feel very free to twist and mangle facts any way that serves the theme of my story best. It’s fiction, after all.
Tolulope: Fascinating. I remember how much I was swirled by the complexity and artistry deployed in “Oduduwa: The Return”. How you’re able to handle the technicality of the narrative with little faults leaves the impression of a bigger picture in mind. Perhaps, as I have already assumed, have you ever considered the possibility of writing series, or better still, having any of your works adapted to the movies?
Imade: You know, I spend a lot of time in the world before actually writing it. The geography, culture, weather, and everything, is where I immerse myself, so I already have so many details about the characters that it’s hard to fit into a story. While I was writing Oduduwa, I was thinking of a sequel where the heroine goes in search of her destroyed planet. It’s every writer’s dream to have their work adapted to a movie and that would be so amazing to me if it were to happen. Screenwriting sounds like a dream job to me. But for now, I’m concentrating on making my ideas fit into short stories for now because I want to have a good command of the form first. Next year, I have a fantasy novelette in mind set in the Evil Forest which should be around 15K words so I can expand my ideas more.
Tolulope: On the exposition and exploration of Afrofuturism, Kodwo Eshun (2003) declares that “Afrofuturism uses extraterrestiality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectivities: from slave to negro to coloured to evolué to black to African to African American.” This is no doubt true, most of your narratives as a case study, but what do you think, about the intentionality of this said “extraterrestiality as a hyperbolic trope”?
Imade: Alien Invasions are the most interesting characters in science fiction (second are robots). On the prospect of other beings apart from humans out there in the universe, everybody is either terrified or excited, there’s no in-between. I have a soft spot for alien stories because they’re unique in how they make us critically examine our world and our society from the eyes of a complete stranger to our world (I think Terry Bisson’s Meat is my best example of this). When I wrote “Oduduwa: The Return”, I had two things in mind: colonialism and the way human beings see and treat sentient animals. It’s something I’ve thought about since reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I think that showing aliens who believe in their superiority and see humans as ‘the other’ forces the reader into the position of the oppressed. It gives you understanding, compassion and it’s a new way of looking at racism and tribalism.
Tolulope: Indeed. Such forced retrospection brings to mind the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass where a white character is depicted to have been a victim of the Trans-Atlantic slavery, what are the odds, right? The rear case is that of the white masters’ descendants/relatives inheriting their cruelty; they are by default not cruel. Talking about aliens and invasions, come to think of it, who would you categorize as alien? The word alien is quite polysemic: Aliens can rightly be argued to be the invaders, the foreigners, or the oppressors and it can rightly be said to be the marginalized, those who are classified as not belonging to a particular class. Some claims Blacks (African Americans precisely) already experienced the whole spectrum of marginalization aliens do in sci-fi’s.
Imade: It depends on how you see it. I think the alien invasion is a unique and very accurate, compelling analogy for colonization. Typically, they are strangers with advanced technology, no method of communicating with the natives and they automatically assume themselves superior or the natives to be inferior. Sounds familiar. But I’ve also read books where the aliens are the maltreated ones. Like in Anderson’s The Last days of Krypton where a traveller gets lost and crashes in another planet and he’s distrusted from the start and eventually killed by the natives. Sometimes, the aliens are locked up, tortured and fetishized. But in everything, alien invasions will always be fascinating just because it’s interesting to watch different cultures and different philosophies collide.
Tolulope: At the front burner of Afrofuturism is Feminism, Black Feminism to be precise, and the projection of females characters in your narratives are predominant. In “The Night they Stole the Sun”, there is the depiction of women as an object of sexual gratification, the case of the Marongo man who sexually harassed the Princess – also, the contrast of such projection as “the beautiful Oriah” who is female and “the ugly man” highlights an existing tension between both genders. And then, the final submission of the Princess to “the man and others around who beat her to a bloody pulp.” Is this a conscious drive, feminism I mean?
Imade: I feel a lot more secure writing in the voice of a Black female for one thing. I have one or maybe two stories in a male voice. I feel like there aren’t many stories told through the eyes of Black women and having my characters as African women is in response to that. Growing up, I would have loved to have more female representation especially in fantasy and science fiction. I am a feminist and I want my characters to be anything and everything – slaves, soldiers, mothers, inventors, aliens – but that doesn’t mean casting the men as the antagonists automatically.
Tolulope: Similar to the feministic appeals present in your narratives, there are many subtle attempts at propagating LGBT ideals. What exactly would you say is the overall mission statement of “Anabiosis”, the futuristic projection or the gay thrust, and would you consider yourself a pro-LGBT?
Imade: I mean, I am pro-LGBT, and I’ve written a few essays about that and everything. But I don’t like stating or emphasising it so much in fiction because at the end of the day, it’s a relationship not a prop and it has little to nothing to do with who my character is or what happens in the story. I don’t know why, but I think more of my stories have a lesbian relationship. It’s not purposefully done, but oh well.”Anabiosis” is an exception to this. The LGBT theme was actually necessary to the advancement of the story. It was just after hearing one of the many stories of another gay person being attacked and people flooding in to approve of it. And I was just tired. I don’t feel like I propagate any LGBT ideals or know if there’s such a thing to even propagate, but I hope that people read a story of two people loving each other and can somewhat see themselves in that. So, next time, maybe they won’t be so quick to condemn others.
Tolulope: While re-investigating the past, Afrofuturism seeks to refine and re-define with positivity the relics of the African culture and past that’s been shaded as fetish, dark and unacceptable. The use of magic, portrayal of black art; for instance, in “The Night they Stole the Sun”, magic is referred to as energy, Eriye, the narrator, says “I called it energy because there was no other word to describe it”. Now, as in your narrative, there is a somewhat transformation of magic as science – a notion that has been described as a black secret technology to attain a point of speculative acceleration in Afrofuturism – a sort of aesthetic attempt at embroidering our acceptance for wider acceptability. What’s your opinion on this?
Imade: That was something that was actually very important to me. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in the African magic system that hasn’t been explored. And it’s funny because growing up we all had magic. “Don’t pick up money on the ground or you’ll turn to a goat”, “Don’t swallow seeds or the fruit will grow inside you”, things like that. And I see a lot of possibility in that. A short story, “Witching Hour”, shows the bond between an older witch and her new apprentice. I think Yoruba films do this extremely well sometimes, badly other times.
Tolulope: I quite agree with you as regards the yet “untapped potential” of the African magic system, and I believe Black Panther has this at the centre of its thrusts. But I don’t quite agree with you on such beliefs as “Don’t pick up money on the ground or you’ll turn to a goat” constituting part of our magical system, such beliefs are superstitious, and at best taboos preaching moral and cultural ethics. Asides, being very realistic, do you think Magic can be freely allowed as part of our existence in Africa, or anywhere else, considering the fact that it’s been met with much enmity for ages and banishment in almost every part of the globe?
Imade: Lol, really? I remember one of the first books I read as a child. An epic story about two brothers on a journey and at some point the older brother eats yam from the floor and I have a very liberal concept of what magic is. It’s not just a witch with complex spells or the babalawo consulting Ifa. Magic is anything that happens without a natural or scientific explanation, and then magic systems are about formalising that and creating rules for the manifestation of the magic. People may not always believe in the supernatural, but they’ll always be drawn to it. Whether you call it religion or juju, people believe in “impossible” things without physical explanations or evidence passed down by oral tradition. That’s magic. The superhero culture trending right now, that’s magic. A lot of the Western religions demonize traditional religion but they share so many of the same elements.
Tolulope: Well, that’s true to an extent, considering they are manifestations of our collective unconscious. Afrofuturism envisions an Africa of immense possibilities, an Africa that is not always the zone of absolute dystopias often projected in sci-fis, an Africa where the future can be further enhanced and the horrors from the past reverted, redefining it away from an Africa whose social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenerios, doomsday economic projections, weather prediction…all of which predicts decades of immeserization. However, while the immense possibility Afrofuturism and other African speculative literature affords Africa is imaginable, like the sad realities of post/neo-colonialism, Afrofuturism is held in bondage of what it seeks to liberate. A large spectrum of it is engulfed in doom and darkness.
In “Oduduwa: The Return”, Oduduwa is projected as the progenitor of all humans, as the saviour, but according to Asha, this is only a future of possibility, sustained by hope and ends in the same spectrum, a future “…he was satisfied to never see as long as the hope for it outlived him”. Likewise, “Anabiosis” pursues a future of limitless possibilities, simplest possibilities as “any future where we could be free to love each” and the impossibility of such common possibilities. After the first 100 years, the protagonist inquired “what is the outside world like now?” and to her dismay, she discovers nothing has changed; in fact, “…that it’d grown worse.” Again, after the second 100 years, there’s only been a mild change. And in the third 100 years, there is another record of failure, “a technical problem”. This hope is ceded by disillusionment: in the words of the protagonist, “Maybe we were wrong; I thought we were so sure that all the answers to our happiness were waiting for us in some indeterminate future, but what if our happiness was in death? Something so simple and easy, staring ahead of us.” Why is this? Scholars like Mark Sinker already assumed apocalypse already happened in Africa. Why is the hope for a better future engulfed in the smoke of disillusionment and constant disappointment? Foremost, as a person, and as an African, then a creative, like the characters, do you see beyond this doom?
Imade: I don’t know if I’m the right person to be answering this. My stories do tend to be tragic because that’s what I prefer; it’s what I react most emotionally to, as a reader and a writer. I think there’s a lot of truth and introspection buried in unhappy endings – or endings with a Pyrrhic victory – that you just can’t replicate with traditionally happy endings. Especially with the kind of social science fiction I write. My favourite kind of science fiction has always been dystopian sci-fi; tell us how humanity finally rears itself apart. Like 1984, or like Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. I like it because it warns us, scares us, jolts us into action. Maybe seeing and digesting the worst case scenario will be the only thing strong enough to push us to work against it.
Tolulope: I love that, much like the forced retrospection you mentioned earlier. Now, of all your narratives, “The Night they Stole the Sun” offers the most intriguing aesthetics of Afrofuturism. Largely, the re-investigation of the past, the possibility of subverting the supposed future (the present). The failure of Eriye to save her people in time past is symbolic on so many levels: it is a direct consequence of challenging existing orders (her father and ancestors); her failure is an establishment of the spiritual belief that there are superpowers controlling the destiny of man as flies to wanton boys. It appears to be an attack on the aesthetics of Afrofuturism of re-investigating the past. I mean, no matter how deep or far we’re able to re-investigate the past, it doesn’t alter the past nor does it necessarily suppress the present chaos and other looming future predicaments; thus, perhaps, the only way forward is to look forward like the Futurists advocates, which is contrary to the proposition of foremost Afrofuturists like Greg Tate and Reynaldo Anderson on moving forward but looking backward, and not severing connections with those pasts respectively. What do you make of such delicate antithesis?
Imade: I think the only benefit the past should have is in how it can be used to improve the future. Reflecting on the past can be an important tool in preparing for the future, but that’s as much interest as it holds for me. I’m a lot more drawn to the mixture of mystery and fear laden in the future and by the fact that it’s perpetually being formed by the present. Eriye’s hubris, like most tragic characters, was that her actions led to the very result she acted against.
Tolulope: Like Oedipus, Eriye’s hamartia re-emphasizes my point on the ever looming cycle of doom, and perhaps the need to embrace the past and just move on. While reading “Oduduwa: The Return”, many parallel levels of interpretation struck my mind: there is the surreal interpretation of the narrative as a projection of the entire human race against aliens (supernatural forces); there is the metaphoric interpretation of the narrative as a recast of the white-black superior-inferior antagonism; and there is the ecological interpretation of the narrative as a reflection of man’s survival amidst other existence within his environment.
There are elements of fusion and diffusion: on the first level of interpretation, the narrative portrays the unification of the entire human race under the colonization of the aliens (the Azuma’s – who can be assumed to be far more superior beings). This suggests, on a spiritual and psychological level, a common fate for humanity and the existence of greater forces above humans, in which man is always in conflict with. Thus, two things, do you believe the unification of all mankind to achieve a common good is possible, and do you believe in greater forces, and if you do, do you suppose they are man’s enemies or allies?
Imade: There’s this quote that always makes me smile (I think it’s by Christopher Hitchens) and it’s something like, “In the end, the only thing that will make all of Earth unite is to fight against another planet”. I think the unification of all humanity is possible and will, more and more, become necessary to preserve the Earth or escape it if need be in centuries to come. But if we were to unify, I’d like it to be on equal terms as people with different experiences but mutual respect standing shoulder to shoulder instead of one culture and one people just becoming subsumed under the other for the sake of the veneer of unity. I’m very optimistic about the fate of humanity and I do think we’re surrounded by greater forces. Nature is one force humans haven’t been able to tame. With global warming, we still don’t know if we’ll fall to it in the end. Aliens could be another. God, too.
Tolulope: On the second level of interpretation, “Oduduwa: The Return” is an aesthetic reformation of the hideous Transatlantic slavery, whence the colonizers (westerners/whites) had arrogantly assumed their subjects as backward, savage, pagans etc and therefore needed to be ‘cultured’ and ‘saved’, as the case of the humans and the Azumas is in the narrative – the gross cruelty of the transatlantic slavery is sharply represented by the “happy” consumption of humans (Blacks) by the Azumas (westerners). Was this your intent, I mean, to deliberately recast the transatlantic slavery experience?
Imade: To be honest, slavery and colonialism in general were more of secondary influences in that story. My main influence was animal cruelty. How human beings use weaker animals for food, for entertainment, for clothing. And it never crosses our minds that they have awareness and feelings of pain just like us. That’s exactly what I had in mind, especially with the opening scene peddling the humans as meat in open market. But then, I’m not saying I didn’t have any thoughts of slavery while writing because I did. It was one of my general influences, though I can’t say I had any particular type of slavery in mind. But then, anyone is free to interpret it as they deem fit and I welcome that. Your interpretation is as good as mine.
Tolulope: Shortly after the publication of “Anabiosis” in the Fourth Issue of Dwarts: A Magazine of African and Mainstream Literature, I remember chatting you up, tagging you an Afrofuturist, which you subtly declined saying “I don’t think I write Afrofuturism”, and at the onset of this conversation likewise. Now, after all has been said and done, would you say the label of an Afrofuturist fits your creative person?
Imade: I remember that conversation and I still don’t consider my writing Afrofuturist though I wouldn’t reject the tag anymore because there are so many works I admire placed within that sphere. In the sense that I write speculative fiction exclusively from the point of view of Nigerian or African-based culture with Nigerian/African/black readers in mind, yes I accept the label. But in the sense that I explore Black futures from the paradigm of struggle – hardship, slavery, racism, strife – I hope my work doesn’t fit into that. My work includes a lot of that but only if it serves the story and not as a defining point of a character. I’ve noticed slavery is often used as character development for only black characters the way rape is often used as development for female characters. I don’t vibe with that.
A lot of times it feels like Afrofuturism is us explaining ourselves to the world or seeking to reclaim some long-lost validation. It’s unnecessary to me. You don’t need permission to be, you can actually just be. I don’t want to imagine a future in the year 3655 where Black people are still fighting for basic human rights and still asking others for inclusion. I just think of an ideal future that I can relate to, and a compelling story within that future and I write that.
Tolulope: That’s quite similar to Soyinka’s view on Negritude. On the contrary, I think these conversations are necessary, I mean, if we don’t, who will? Lastly, Imade, what’s your opinion on the contribution of Africans towards the projection, evolution and reception of speculative literature?
Imade: People assume Nigerians just don’t read spec fic, but as a reader, I just never found fiction that was relatable while also being…good. Now, there are so many choices, it’s very nice. On a global level, African writers can fundamentally change perceptions of science fiction and consequently, how we see the future of humanity. There are certain tropes and clichés in sci-fi, like in every genre, and African writers are the best candidates to disrupt that with fresh, original viewpoints and voices.
Tolulope: Imade, it’s a delight to hold this dialogue with you, and I hope you’d keep the speculative light blazing, “May the force prosper!” and I look forward to your story set in an ideal future with a happy ending.
Imade: Thank you so much for your time and for this conversation, Tolu. You’re amazing!
Tolulope Oke is an introvert, an art enthusiast, an entrepreneur, a nyctophilia and a fellow of progress. Tolulope studied English at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan where he recently completed his M.A. degree. He is the Publisher of Lunaris Review: a journal of art and the literary, Fiction Editor at Parentheses Journal, and an Editor at Africa in Dialogue. Tolulope lives in Ibadan where he is comforted by her hills and their bliss.