Recently, the World SF Blog held a roundtable on the issues of non-Western narratives in speculative fiction. Touched upon in the talk, were problems of inclusion, the lacking (or often-ignored) presence of non-Western writers in the genre and the entire post-colonial project when it comes to writing and the non-Western world. It was an insightful discussion that can be read in its two-part entirety starting here. What received the most discussion by the panelists however, was the topic of how Western writers depict non-Western settings, including issues of exoticism and the sometimes futile search for “authenticity.” This left me with my own set of questions. What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world? What about those people within the larger dominant society, who are marginalized from its center similar to the ways in which a colonized geographical space is distanced from the metropole?
The clamor for diversity in speculative fiction has long been heard–and answered. In fantasy, this has come about partly in the form of writers of African descent creating their own realms of spears and sorcery. Termed “Sword and Soul” by some, this sub-genre of fantasy uses an often fictionalized Africa as a backdrop, creating heroes, stories, lands and adventures outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yet a cursory glance shows that most of these writers (self included) are several generations removed from the Africa of our imaginings. So what happens when the Westernized-other seeks to depict the non-Western world–one which remains both prominent and elusive in his/her imagination?
As with most things, there’s a history . . .
The Africa of Our Imaginations
What is Africa to me? Copper sun or scarlet sea / Jungle star or jungle track / Strong bronzed men, or regal black / Women from whose loins I sprang / When the birds of Eden sang? / One three centuries removed / From the scenes his fathers loved / Spicy grove, cinnamon tree / What is Africa to me?–Countee Cullen
African-American poet Countee Cullen penned his famous Heritage in 1925, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, where a “New Negro”–cobbled together by an existent Afro-American and Afro-West Indian diaspora community, descendants of those survivors of the Middle Passage–sought to negotiate identity, race, alienation and belonging, in the western world their ancestors had helped shape. Within this cultural flowering of literature, painting, sculpture, performance, jazz, philosophy and politics, echoes of Africa were never far from mind. From visual artists like Aaron Douglas to the UNIA Garvey Movement to West Indian radicals to the historical symbols chosen for black collegiate organizations, Africa figured prominently.
The Africa of Countee Cullen’s Heritage was both romantic and exotic, at once lavished as a black “Eden” and stereotyped as filled with “savage . . . jungle boys and girls.” For Cullen, as many other black artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance, Africa was not readily accessible as a physical space, but instead visited primarily in books and writings. Most of these were written by white scholars and in the travel journals of self-styled explorers, which depicted Africa as a “dark continent,” an exotic, unknowable place filled with strange peoples and stranger customs, utterly devoid of the norms of Western “civilization”–or as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), where civilization went to die. This was the influence that would shape the Africa of Cullen’s imagination: jungles and primitives, wild animals and naked flesh. Yet, despite these unflattering stereotypes, it is at the same time a place he yearns for, a lost piece of his being that he believes lurks just beneath the surface, waiting to be rediscovered “in an old remembered way.” Cullen clings to this imagined Africa, willing to give up all the trappings of his Western life to return to a dream-like past. As one writer notes, in Heritage the dark “paganism” of even the most fantastical imaginings of Africa “triumphs over Christianity,” and the oppressive alienation of blackness in American society—”and for Cullen that is finally a good thing.”
For many other Renaissance writers, Africa was not just an “exotic” allure, but a genealogical memory of which they had been robbed by the unfortunate circumstances of history. The Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay in his 1922 Outcast, spoke of this theft and sense of displacement plainly: “For I was born, far from my native clime,/ Under the white man’s menace, out of time.” Near always, this imagined Africa was one of the past rather than the present–of the premodern and precolonial, separate and distinct from the reality of white dominance that now engulfed much of the continent since the fateful Berlin Conference of 1884. Often this past invoked pharaonic Egypt and Ethiopia, both of which figured prominently in contemporary histories of Africa and were recognizable from the literature of antiquity; with their primacy, they also served to challenge Western (Greco-Roman) claims to hegemony of the ancient world. Gwendolyn Bennett in her 1920s poems dreamt of an Africa of “slim palm trees” and “lithe Negro girls,” where she could listen to “silent sands, / Singing to the moon” before the face of the Sphinx, and hear the “chanting / Around a heathen fire / Of a strange black race.” This was the glorious Africa she believed surged within the sad souls of an oppressed people, that lay “hidden” behind the dehumanizing “minstrel-smile.” This African past, stereotyped or romanticized, was thus a source of pride and power, a place to which the natally alienated could return, physically or imaginatively, that would negate the seemingly all-powerful grip of white supremacy (in its varying forms of historical exclusion, scientific racism, Jim Crow terrorism, colonialism, etc.) that permeated the Western world. An article on the African Image in the Harlem Renaissance at the National Humanities Center sums it up best:
Africa as the perceived dark continent and America as part of western civilization provides the generalized clash that shapes African-American representations of Africa during the Harlem Renaissance. Africa becomes the space of license, the imaginative arena in which a speaker in a poem or a character in a text can shed the clothing of civilization and live a simpler, more natural, more uninhibited life.
Social activist and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1897 expose, Strivings of the Negro People, would term this discordant sense of belonging and alienation “double-consciousness,” created through the “othering” of people of African descent in the United States that reduced them to a state of colonized persons:
One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with [wish] to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
Du Bois in the “Negro” finds his link to Africa. It is the Negro’s dark skin, his very “blood” that marks him as different, the “other,” set apart from the dominant “whiteness” that typified American self-perception. To be born black in America was to carry this Africa, this markedly undeniable difference, in your everyday existence, by which you would be judged. Yet despite all its negative connotations, it was not something blacks were willing to surrender, to “bleach” away. And contrary to all the pronouncements of white Western superiority, there was something it could learn from the African experience.
For Du Bois, Africa was also a distant home, a place of “Negro beginnings,” distinguished by ancient kingdoms and rulers–whose deeds and imagery would appear in later books or headline the NAACP Crisis, which he managed. Yet Du Bois was not unfamiliar with the Africa of the present, becoming a fervent Pan-Africanist and helping to draft the London Resolutions of the Second Pan-African Congress of 1921, insisting that Africa be ruled by Africans. Neither was the poet Langston Hughes, who in the early 1920s traveled throughout much of West and Central Africa. Though the Africa he saw, fractured by class, caste and in the grip of European colonialism, was far from the romantic ideals set forth in his earlier poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, it nevertheless remained a source of pride and continued to appear in his writings. It is this attachment to Africa, this loyalty and longing for a perceived ancestral home, that would unite so much of the black Western world against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, of which I’ve written about previously.
This connection to the African past in black Western art and writing has reemerged at various stages in American history, reaching likely its greatest post-Harlem Renaissance height during the Black Protest Movements of the 1960s, which saw it expressed especially in Black Pride, the Black Arts Movement, the creation of Black Studies departments in academia and social activist alliances between Afro-American activists, West Indian radicals and African independence struggles. It would surge again in the late 1980s/early 1990s, during Hip Hop’s “Golden Age,” as a young, black post-Civil Rights Generation, found identification through verses written to the Motherland, giant wooden beads, Africa Medallions, colorful clothing, hairstyles, Afrocentricity (both in academia and without) and Malcolm X. The jazz-funk-Hip Hop trio Digable Planets would succinctly capture the brief era in their 1993 song Where I’m From: “The kinks, the dance, the prints in all the shirts/ My grandmother told my mother it’s Africa at work.” As was the case previously, this Africa was both one of the imagined past and the reality-based present– the former taking the shape of Ankhs, the latter symbolized most graphically by Apartheid. Around this time “black” would also shift into the more ancestral “African-American,” an attempt to hyphen (if stopping short of merging) Du Bois’s “two warring ideals” into one symbolic appellation.
Rewriting Africa with Sword &
If you grew up black, fascinated with fantasy, you likely spent a great deal of time searching for yourself in mainstream, books. Any mention of the word “swarthy” or “dark” would do. There you were in Far Harad, riding your Mûmakil. Or you could be found waving your scimitars about in the Underdark. So what if Drizzt Do’Urden had features like the rest of his Euro-Elven brethren? He had ebon skin! Good enough! Too bad among the cursed black-skinned Drows, he was the only “good one.” The few times I did run across any Africans, they were brutish savages who lived alongside hordes of ape-men in the Hyborian Age. Loving fantasy, and attempting to negotiate a healthy black self-identity as a child, typified the “unreconciled strivings” of Du Bois’s double-consciousness.
At the time, due mostly to the inequitable state of affairs that is the nexus of race, the publishing world and political economic theory, I had little idea that some alternative visions did exist. In the 1970s, African-American (now Afro-Canadian) writer Charles Saunders began publishing short fantasy stories in small magazine presses. From the beginning, his stories pulled on African history, as opposed to, as he put it, “the usual Celtic, Arthurian and Scandinavian underpinnings” that dominated (and continue to dominate) the modern fantasy shelves of bookstores. “I saw a need,” Saunders claimed, “and believed I could fulfill it.” This would lead to the now famous and ground-breaking Imaro saga. Set in a precolonial African-based world of spears, monsters and magic called Nyumbani, Imaro tells the tale of an outcast warrior and his larger-than-life quest for his unknown origins (yes, I catch the irony of that theme too). Saunders, who had grown up reading the likes of Edward Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels and Robert E. Howard’s Conan, struck upon the idea of writing fantasy during the heady political days of the 1960s–in part due to the heightened race consciousness about identity and Africa, which he credits to a good number of African students at his predominantly black college: “I started reading more about the history and culture of Africa. And I began to realise that in the SF and fantasy genre, blacks were, with only few exceptions, either left out or depicted in racist and stereotypic ways. I had a choice: I could either stop reading SF and fantasy, or try to do something about my dissatisfaction with it by writing my own stories and trying to get them published. I chose the latter course.”
Saunders wasn’t the only one. In 2008, indie author Milton J. Davis introduced the aptly named world of Uhuru in his Meji saga. Like Saunders, Davis was inspired by a diversity of popular speculative fiction, including Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert E. Howard (like myself, he had previously never read Imaro). After reading the Guadeloupean author Maryse Conde’s Segu, a work of historical fiction depicting 18th century West Africa, he was inspired to create a fantasy world drawing on African history and mythos. By 2011, having been introduced to each other through their respective works, Saunders and Davis collaborated to co-edit a volume of writings called Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology. *Saunders coined the term Sword and Soul sometime after 2005, to make the sub-genre distinct from the larger Euro-dominated Sword and Sorcery.
I was fortunate enough to contribute a short story called Skin Magic to the anthology. And I’ve published two other African-based fantasy stories online, one called Shattering the Spear at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and another flash-piece called The Nganga’s Nkisi at Hogglepot. Like Saunders and Davis, I found my alternative vision to fantasy in Africa’s varied histories, languages, folklore and cultures. My worlds are not Africa per se (you wouldn’t recognize it on any map), but drawn from various composites and semblances to peoples, kingdoms and myth.
I do attempt to police and critique my writings–every now and then stopping to examine it for tones of sexism, racial/ethnic stereotypes, homophobia, othering and all those unsavory concepts introduced to me through my liberal collegiate education. Still, I’m consciously aware that I am indulging in the long-held diaspora tradition of “re-imagining” Africa. And I do so for my own distinct purposes, tied into those conflicting feelings of belonging and alienation that typify the Du Boisian double-consciousness. My perceptions of this vast, diverse continent and its equally complex history, is inherently that of the outsider, or worse still, the dreaded tourist. I see things with the western gaze, translate them through a western lens and even learn through western methods. At what point was my cultural borrowing a form of “appropriation?” When does culturally distinct cross the line into exoticism? With whose voice are my African-based characters speaking? How does a writer several generations removed from Africa build “authenticity”–and does such a thing even exist? Are these attempts to subvert the dominant Eurocentric narrative in fantasy postcolonial? Or is it merely Western-derived fantasy with an African face?
The discussion on the World SF blog provide some interesting insight to these questions, which I’ll try to explore (without the promise of any answers) in Part II.
*blog art- DAW cover art for Imaro II: The Quest for Cush. Yes, it’s kinda sexist. That’s a whole notha blog.