Part 8 – Insider versus Outsider Fiction?

I managed to track down a book on 'African sf' called Future Earths: Under African Skies, edited by Mike Resnick and Gardner Dozois (Daw Books, 1993). I had a brief e-mail exchange with Gardner Dozois in my efforts to locate this book – he was very helpful and said it had taken a lot to sell the idea, given it was largely set in Africa, but it had unfortunately ended up selling in disappointedly small numbers. As Gardner had mentioned, it's actually sf set in Africa rather than being sf emerging from Africa – much of it is interesting and well-written, although at times it does have the feel of being an external lens onto the continent, rather than being from an (African insider's) perspective.

Notwithstanding this, many of the stories are strong, engaging and struggle valiantly for verisimilitude – in my view, some better than others. Standout stories for me were Dave Smeds' Termites and Janet Dubois' Etoundi's Monkey. The Smeds' story (spoiler alert) ends with a wonderful scene when the characters are confronted with the (hope inducing) vast expanse of Lake Victoria. The Dubois story is a fine attempt to get 'inside the skin' of someone from Africa, rather than being from the usual perspective of an itinerant passer-through. In both cases it was also good to read a story about hard-won hope, especially within an overall set of stories that on occasion felt somewhat stifled by a pervading sense of Afro-pessimism.

There were indeed many other strong works in the anthology, as represented by Mike Resnick (Kirinyaga series), Ian McDonald (Chaga series), Naomi Mitchison, M. Shayne Bell, Kim Stanley Robinson, George Guthridge and Bruce Sterling. I'm hazarding a guess here, but I'd say – and I'm open to correction – that there was probably not one story from an indigenous black African author. (No doubt extremely hard – if not impossible – to find at the time, with regards to the writing of 'pure' science fiction. It is worthwhile mentioning however that Naomi Mitchisonhas built strong links with the Bakgatla people within Botswana.) Praise is due to both Mike Resnick and Gardner Dozois, however, for looking to extend the reach of sf into diverse environments and seeking to extend potential audiences – and perhaps develop eventual producers/writers – of science fiction too.

But as per Ingrid Johnston's article in SF in SA (section 7), is it indeed the case that: 'far richer reading experiences of African literature…' [will be found once there is]: 'access to African novels by writers from all backgrounds and experiences', i.e. African literature as written by indigenous black Africans?

Cue, onwards to Chimurenga, a double issue of 12 and 13 forming a combined African speculative fiction and non-fiction issue. In the fictional side (vol. 12) there is a thick and rich – if uneven – mixture of stories and visual pieces, thrown together in a creative 'post-modern' scattering of voices from across the continent and indeed beyond. Thus there are writings from (in no particular order) Angola, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo; Congo (Brazzaville); …and from without Africa – France, Portugal, India, Jamaica, Israel and even the UK, as represented by a snippet from J.G. Ballard. A rich 'melting pot' literary stew indeed and speculative fiction in its broadest sense, encompassing myth, 'magical realist' traditions, alternative (non-Western) perspectives of 'reality' and with a few pieces of science fictional bone and gristle thrown in.

So does Chimurenga help to confirm Ingrid Johnston's thesis that reading stories from a variety of ethnic/cultural and political stances within Africa will provide 'far richer reading experiences'? On the whole I would have to agree – although I also think it depends on how well the stories resonate with the readers, so I think there is something to be said for individual or group experimentation and selection. Even within this interesting mix of generally more 'insider' (African) fiction, it felt as if some stories 'enriched' my perspective more than others – but perhaps that's also to do with me, as much as the stories themselves. This will probably also be true for most people – after all, I think it's the intimate cross-over's with one's own life that helps a story 'resonate'. perhaps the issue of 'insider' and 'outsider' is salient only if a story is poorly written or lacking sensitive authenticity?

So, for me; I particularly enjoyed Rana Dasgupta's (India) The Horse, about the encroachment of change, technology and business on communal words and meanings. James Sey and Minnette Vari's (South Africa) The Map and the Territory, which provides for an intriguing, yet uncertain tale of colonisation, 'ghost hunts' and a colonised response in the form of an 'Inventory of the Resonant Apocalypse'. Peter Kalu's (Nigeria) Doppelganger is a short but biting piece on identity, loss and adaptation. Joao Barreiros' (Portugal) The Test is a cyber-punk vision of pedagogy and the possible dangers of empowering children too much.

I did also think, though, that the best pieces were in the 'non-fiction' side of the double issue of Chimurenga (vol.13), particularly the piece on The Making of Mannenberg by John Mason (South Africa). Having worked in Manenberg over twenty years ago and having seen the song performed live on several occasions in the nineteen eighties by Basil Coetzee et al, I ransacked my cobwebbed archaic tape collection, only to find the song has disappeared somewhere down the years. I shall hunt it down on the Internet – no doubt to find a crisp clear digitalised version, perhaps even scrubbed free of its' 'Struggle' associations. There are also several other strong pieces in this section, including Louis Chude-Sokei's (Jamaica) lead article on Dr. Satan's Echo Chamber, exploring sound and reggae in the history of the Universe, as well as John Akomfrah (Ghana) and Edward George's The Last Angel of History, involving a cyber-surf through the 'psycho-geography of Afrofuturism'.

Chimurenda is thus an eclectic and inclusive mix with representation both from within Africa and the rest of the world, effectively blurring places at the edges, which is as it should be, I think. That is, Africa viewed not as an exotic 'heart of darkness', but a place like any other, connected to the rest of the world – where many different people live varied lives, some comfortably, others considerably less so. As Parker & Rathbone (2007) maintain in African History, there is a vast range of people who can authentically be considered 'African' and many others with an assorted experience and knowledge of Africa, with what could also be considered 'insider' knowledge too. Thus, as per land and identity, the distinction between 'insider' and 'outsider' fiction blurs too. So, regarding Chimurenga, please support this truly African venture and try and organise yourself a copy: www.chimurenga.co.za and if you can also find a copy of the Dozois and Resnick collection UnderAfrican Skies – I found mine through Abe Books at www.abebooks.com – it's a great read too.

So again yes, overall I think it is certainly true that the more diverse the voices and stories we have that are available to be heard/read – and hopefully actually listened to – the richer we will all potentially be. (So many voices have been silenced in historical and perhaps even in contemporary discourses of power and control.) As Ingrid Johnston also mentions: 'authenticity is a thorny issue in writing' – in my view, the degree to which one is a (cultural) 'insider' or 'outsider' is perhaps less important than the internal veracity of the tale. So, to a richer world then, built on our shared stories and different voices, developing empathy, new understandings and respectful meetings at the interfaces between 'insider' and 'outsider'. After all, we are all both insider and outsider, at various points and
places in our lives.

Nick Wood - July/August 2008