AiW Guest Stephanie Bosch Santana.
The cover of Jungle Jim issue no. 16, the magazine’s “South African Sci-fi” edition, depicts Zulu warriors casting tiny, toothpick-like spears at the Goliath of an alien bearing down on them. Styled after the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, Jungle Jim is adept at paying homage to the pulp aesthetic while simultaneously poking fun at many of genre fiction’s stereotypes and assumptions. In this case, the magazine’s bold red and blue cover evokes a stereotypical image that 1950s Western audiences may have had of African sci-fi. However, Jungle Jim’s cover may be more relevant than we think. As Kenyan science fiction writer Wanuri Kahiu reminds us, Western pop culture often still relegates Africa to a technological stone age, citing the scene in Independence Day of Masai warriors fighting the alien ships with spears while the rest of the world deploys missiles (listen to Kahiu’s interview with Lauren Beukes here). While the cover of Jungle Jim tells us what current South African science fiction is not, the short stories inside give us a snapshot of the genre’s multiple trajectories, preoccupations, and possibilities.
I am not—let it be known—a usual reader of science fiction. But after finding a few interesting references to rocketry and the space race in South African pulp fiction from the 1950s and 60s, I thought it might be helpful to explore how current South African writers are using the sci-fi genre. In the mid-20th century, writers seemed to use the space race to position themselves between the polarizing forces of US imperialism and Russian communism, imagining a third option, which often took the form of pan-Africanism. How does current South African sci-fi (which I am taking to be sci-fi written by writers of South African origin) position itself in relation to Africa and the rest of the world? Is sci-fi better equipped to address these issues than other genres? Is it, as Wanuri Kahui suggests, an optimal vehicle for African writers, who were often denied the right to record the past, to now write the future?
The current debate on genre fiction in Africa—which has focused heavily on crime fiction but is now also turning its attentions to sci-fi—is symptomatic of a larger trend: an increased focus on World Literature and a shift away from previous lenses, such as postcolonialism, through which ‘African’ and other ‘Third World’ fiction has been read. In her interview with Katie Reid, Jenna Bass, the editor of Jungle Jim, speaks about genre fiction in precisely these (globalizing) terms: “Genre can be a universal language, allowing us to share stories and challenge popular conceptions between the very different countries in Africa – and giving African stories a potentially broader audience internationally, allowing foreign readers a familiar access point to a culture they may not be at all familiar with” (see full interview below). By mixing the language and themes of crime, sci-fi, or fantasy with local idioms, cultural references, and locations, African writers can create a heady “glocal” brew, one that will hopefully appeal to international and local audiences alike. Genre fiction in Africa, in Bass’s terms, is not just a result of globalization, but an active tool for African writers to globalize their fiction on their own terms.
The danger, however, is that genre’s universalizing tendencies will overwhelm the local, leaving it either flat and placeless or a mere caricature. At the “Crime and its fictions in Africa” conference held at Yale earlier this year, a number of the discussions circled around the question: what is particularly ‘African’ about ‘African crime fiction’? Are these stories that need to be set in Africa, or that are somehow changed by their African setting? As Jonathan Dotse, a Ghanaian sci-fi writer and author of the blog AfroCyberPunk, suggests, this issue is even more complicated for a genre like sci-fi since it is usually set in outer space or in an imagined future. However, sci-fi’s ability to spatially and/or temporally transcend the Earth’s current geopolitical divisions may be precisely why it appeals to writers who wish to move beyond the categories in which they find themselves routinely ‘shelved.’ Wai Chee Dimock, professor of English and American Studies at Yale, argues that one of the most critical tasks currently facing literary studies is to find “alternate geographies” that cut across the limiting frameworks of the colonial, national, and postcolonial. Creative writers face many of the same challenges as their critics: South African writers also want to move beyond the strictures and expectations that come with being labeled as a ‘national’ writer and have long chaffed against the homogenizing designation of ‘postcolonial.’ By using genre fiction to create new “geographies,” can South African writers shed some of the expectations and preconceptions about their work, and only draw upon a local setting when it is relevant to the stories they wish to tell?
The short stories in Jungle Jim’s sci-fi issue are set in a variety of new landscapes. Of the four stories in the issue, two are set in outer space, and two in a future ‘South African’ landscape. Constance Myburgh’s first installment of the serial story “All This Was Made For Us” takes place in the near future and describes an unexpected finding on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The story features Americans, Russians, and Austrians, but no South Africans (at least not in this installment), and refers to a real astronaut love-triangle known as the Nowak affair. Similarly, “Ghost in the Machine,” a short short story about Artificial Intelligence told from the perspective of an asteroid prospector, does not feature any specifically South African characters or language. These stories suggest that South African sci-fi writers do not feel bound to a South African setting or to specifically “South African” themes. Conversely, both “San Junction” by Tembisa Cochrane and “The Dead Yank” by Rossouw Nel refer to South African people/places that have since been reconfigured, the former into an alien colony and the latter a re-mapped world in which Americans are a refugee population. Many of these “yanks” turn up in Africa, where they are called—by those who wish to be politically correct—“American Africans.” Beyond their focus on future technology, “San Junction” and “The Dead Yank” have a great deal to say about South Africa’s past and present as they reframe issues of race, colonialism, xenophobia, and diaspora [read AiW’s extract from Nel’s “The Dead Yank”]. Sci-fi, it should be noted, is a genre that has long engaged with issues of race and belonging. Since this is already a generic expectation, these themes are perhaps not as obvious or marked in South African sci-fi as they might be in another context. I was a bit disappointed, nevertheless, to note the lack of a pan-African vision in the stories that are set on the continent: the future Africa they depict is reconfigured, but still deeply divided.
Overall, in its treatment of global and/or interplanetary issues, South African sci-fi demands to be read as world literature. It is literature for the planet, considering what it means to be human, now and in the future. Interestingly, discussions of World Literature at past conferences have also often verged on the sci-fi. I remember someone once asking, “What is World Literature, what does it want?” prompting the image in my mind of a monster, not unlike the one on the Jungle Jim cover, hovering greedily over the world’s texts. By writing into a “world” genre such as sci-fi—which like many other forms of genre writing is currently being reevaluated for its literary merits—South African writers (and their critics) hope to move simultaneously out of genre- and national-writing ‘ghettos,’ and into a larger discourse. Once given entry, South African sci-fi’s more lasting contribution to world literature, and to the liberal humanist ethos that undergirds it, could be its insistence that issues of race and inequality not be written out of accounts of the future. Oddly enough, it is perhaps through genre-fiction, and sci-fi especially, that postcolonial themes can be re-injected into African literary studies.
Stephanie Bosch Santana is a graduate student in African and African American Studies at Harvard. Her work focuses on southern African literary networks and the migration/transformation of genres in the region. From 2005 – 2008, she worked in South Africa and Malawi where she assisted with literacy campaigns, short story competitions, and story-writing workshops. You can read more about the ongoing Malawian Girls’ Short Story Competition at www.malawigirlshortstory.blogspot.com.
With links to more AiW guest reviews of Jungle Jim content, the previous post in this series is ‘From Roswell to Rosebank: South African SF and Jungle Jim’ by Graham Riach.
See AiW’s Q&A with Jenna Bass – co-founder and editor of Jungle Jim pulp fiction magazine.
And extracts from Jungle Jim stories (issues 9-16), including Rossouw Nel’s ‘The Dead Yank’.