Nick Wood - Science Fiction in South Africa

Part 11 - Science Fiction in Southern Africa (December 2010)

Our Ancestors Are Not Ghosts

Just a little under 25 years ago I started working as an intern clinical psychologist in a legally designated 'black' psychiatric hospital in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. One of the first 'patients' I was assigned to was an amaZulu man in his thirties, prone to bouts of confusion and falling asleep at 'odd and inappropriate' times. I was asked to accompany him ('Phulani') at set times to talk with and observe his behaviour, particularly if I noticed that he'd fallen asleep. On him waking, I was asked to assess if he was confused and disorientated, as they (primarily the consultant psychiatrist) was concerned about possible 'post-ictal' (epileptic seizure) or narcoleptic phenomena being at play. This I did for a week, although the ethics of such 'observations' are obviously of concern. Although he appeared quiet and lethargic, there were no obvious confusional episodes. 'Phulani' did tell me, however, that he was convinced the ancestors were calling him to become an isangoma (traditional healer.)

After my report back at ward-round, it was felt 'Phulani' was well enough to go home for the weekend. We reviewed him the day after he came back and he was...glowing with happiness. He unfurled a blanket in the ward-round which was filled with smoothed multi-coloured stones and then recounted how the ancestors had called him to a nearby river and he had dived to the bottom to retrieve the stones - stones for healing as well as tangible signs of his calling to become a healer.

Yet again I was asked to spend some time with 'Phulani' during the week as - although this looked like a positive development - there were a few concerns about a possible 'manic' reaction to a hidden, underlying 'process' illness (psychosis, typically possibly 'schizophreniform'.) Needless to say, there were no such indications of this when we spoke and there were plenty of people keen to meet up with 'Phulani', to discuss possible healing in their lives including a white Afrikaner woman security guard! As we spoke about his 'calling', he moved his hands to indicate his ancestors were near and I could indeed almost sense them. He was discharged at the end of the week and - as far as I know - he never came back.

This was an early lesson for me in the limitations of Western psychiatry and the 'validity' of alternative enculturated experiences. So it was I first learned about the ontological (everyday reality) of the ancestral presence for so many South Africans and - as the decade heated up into the State of Emergency - increasingly the extent of the political repression too. I aimed to try and include at least some of this diverse reality as a focus for my science-fictional writings too - but how can one effectively integrate 'scientific' discourse with the ongoing living beliefs of so many, where science generally focuses on the physically tangible?

My first attempts were met with editorial queries about my writings as a 'problematic' mix of science fiction and South African fantasy, i.e. being 'neither fish nor fowl' - and where was the market for such writings? Still, eventually I found a publisher (MML) willing to take a risk on my supposedly 'peculiar' blend of local 'fantasy' and science-fictional extrapolation, as encompassed in my YA book The Stone Chameleon.

And so it was that I eventually came across another postulated sub-category of speculative fiction: tentatively called Sci-Fi Strange, by its main proponent, the SF author Jason Sanford. Sanford describes this as a literary and culturally aware form of writing (similar to the New Wave movement in 60's SF) pushing the philosophical boundaries of science with a (Golden Age style) strange 'sensawunda' - but crucially, this is now also (apparently) emerging from a diverse multi-cultural perspective.

It's this last component of the rough definition of Sci-Fi Strange that particularly intrigues me. I probably do not have the literary credibility to belong to such a 'movement' - if indeed it is such - but I surely share at the very least a desire to see SF transformed by diverse and different voices, moving beyond traditional Euro-American perspectives.

One reviewer followed up on Sanford with an interesting post on Sci-Fi Strange, appearing to agree with the notion - on some level at least. I was thus surprised when he reviewed my story Lunar voices on the (solar) wind in Redstone Science Fiction and was unhappy with the 'ghost story' he felt was tacked onto the scientific lunar setting. While he's entitled not to like the story, I think a critical approach that encompasses a multi-cultural perspective should preferably aim to try and judge a story in the terms on which it is written. I took care to show the characters (e.g. 'Inja' - meaning 'dog' in isiZulu) had a 'real' impact on the lunar environment. Why? Because, as I mentioned above, these characters have a literal reality for many - they are as real as the living - and are certainly not ethereal and capricious 'ghosts'. They are not an accidental and vague presence. Similarly, the 'folk-lore' aspects are central to the plot too - for many non-Western (and plenty of Western) people - there is an ongoing conflict about how to integrate scientific and traditional/religious/supra-natural models of the world. This story is about alternative voices and beliefs within a setting traditionally dominated by the louder voices of Western science. Yes and this is about silent 'Deaf' voices too, which in some settings can perhaps be more effective than vocal communication. (There is much evidence for this in both deaf and hearing development.) So why reduce analysis of stories written with non-Western traditions or perspectives to purely Western genre tropes?

As Nalo Hopkinson (2004) stated in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (I paraphrase and interpret, hopefully faithfully) there has been a move by many previously colonized people to seize the 'tools' of the colonizer and to rebuild 'houses' (of stories). These stories are by implication emerging from different 'plans' or conceptual 'blue-prints', differing foundations (sources of material) and differing perceptions and experiences - but using the shared discourse of science-fiction, altering and subverting it. Are these perhaps examples of Sci-Fi Strange? If 'strange' is part of the categorical label, to whom is it 'strange' - presumably a 'traditional' Western SF reader?

So, in the end, do I agree with Sanford's definition of Sci-fi Strange? Well, I'm not sure about the boundaries of the definition and how exactly it differs from New Weird, apart from a 'scientific' leaning but it makes good sense to me. It also appears to open up discussion about potential new ways of writing, a good thing in my view. I'm also not completely averse to labels, as long as they're not used to pigeon-hole writing. And, who knows, perhaps if I'd had such a category to hang before South African publishers a decade or so ago, it may have been easier in the end to publish The Stone Chameleon?

Finally, for a listing of writings considered by Sanford as representative of Sci-Fi Strange, see http://www.jasonsanford.com/jason/2010/08/scifi-strange.html (There are many great stories on this list that are available online, whatever label is applied!)

And just remember - if you come across ancestral shades or 'spirits' in African writing - they are more than 'ghosts'.

Nick Wood - © December 2010

 

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