African Speculative Fiction in Classroom Discussions
Over the past few years, I have been writing a thesis that explores, among other things, the usefulness of African speculative fiction to foreground marginalisation in otherworldly settings.
Speculative fiction can also allow for critical discussions on topical issues in the classroom. By using texts that foreground contemporary issues in speculative settings, educators can have crucial discussions through the distance created by these fictional settings – both physical and otherworldly.
In my own studies, Nigerian diasporic literature written by Helen Oyeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi, has allowed me to delve into feminist issues and unearth their usefulness as texts that foreground the position of women in Africa today. After briefly defining speculative fiction, below I review books by these three authors and outline their usefulness for classroom discussion.
Speculative fiction is particularly valuable as a tool to explore a future that liberates and explores new egalitarian realities for marginalised groups. In each of these narratives, the young black female protagonist demonstrates audacious heroism that is striking for its original perspective and its contribution to a more equal distribution of power and resources in the future.
Analysing speculative fiction allows the reader to imagine a future where oppressive structures are overturned. More specifically, the subgenre of speculative fiction, Afro-Gothic fiction, foregrounds the predicament of the black protagonist overcoming otherworldly dark forces, while the concept of Afrofuturism allows for an analysis of the liberation of the black protagonist by being represented as the heroine. In the selected novels she is represented as the literal and metaphoric bringer of light.
Novel highlights the tension between Western and African traditions
The Nigerian British author, Helen Oyeyemi, has written an Afro-Gothic fiction novel titled The Icarus Girl. This is the story of a very young girl, Jessamy, of Nigerian and British descent, and her journey to unearth her Nigerian heritage while an evil spirit haunts her.
Jessamy’s relationship with her Nigerian mother is tested as her mother paradoxically both embraces and rejects her Nigerian culture in an effort to be pragmatic about what she views as superstition.
One particularly apt example is when her mother encourages her to keep an ibeji statue, a Yoruba custom to appease a deceased twin’s spirit, while simultaneously failing to take her daughter seriously when she is harassed by the malevolent spirit she is trying to expel. Jessamy has to face the spirit alone, and as she gradually becomes aware of its malicious intentions, she can be assertive and brave despite her youth.
This novel allows the young reader to consider the tension between Western and African traditions, using an Afro-Gothic lens that will be novel to many South African readers. It provides for critical discussions about identity, race and culture, and does so engagingly.
An Afrocentric lens
Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is an Afrofuturist novel, also a subgenre of speculative fiction, by the self-styled Naijamerican author. It is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia with distinctly Nigerian components to the myth and milieu explored.
Who Fears Death follows Onyesonwu, a child of weaponised rape following a genocide, who grows up to be fiercely brave and outspoken and can rewrite the future in which she knows she will die.
The book celebrates Nigerian spirituality, jujuism, and culture through an Afrocentric lens while critiquing certain aspects such as female genital mutilation of a group of girls, including Onyesonwu. Like her mother before her, Onyesonwu has special powers, and her destiny forces her into the desert to confront her fears.
While in the desert, she also encounters the spiritual wilderness and learns to traverse this spiritual plane. There she awakens her supernatural gifts. This book is empowering for young female readers who may not be accustomed to finding on the shelves stories of black heroines whose male love interest is in the position of helpmeet instead of hero.
The novel facilitates discussions about religious allegory, gender roles, sexuality, identity and empowerment, among other more challenging topics, like weaponised rape and female genital mutilation – bleak realities in Africa today.
Nigerian-American writer Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is set in Orïsha, a dystopian world inspired by her West African origins.
An evil king brutally murders Zélie’s divîner mother, and like her mother, Zélie has the signature white hair that marks her as a ‘maggot’ divîner. Zélie has to learn to channel her awakening power and realise that there is strength in restraint, as she tends to act impetuously.
The book comments on contemporary issues; in a recent interview, Adeyemi stated that it is ‘meant to be this glaring mirror’ that one can hold up to society to reflect its shortcomings. Adeyemi has carefully selected racist incidents from events in the United States and used these to inspire incidents in the book, creating opportunities for classroom discussion on police brutality and Black Lives Matter.
A comment on contemporary issues
The novels discussed above are just three narratives that foreground the audacious black heroine. Speculative fiction has the potential to liberate oppressed groups, historically sidelined and treated as different or ‘alien’ through this reimagining of reality.
As teachers, we can use novels like these to ensure that the young black reader can see herself in the audacious protagonists while also delving into critical discussions about race, class and sex. These books also allow other young readers to challenge their own bias, and view young black heroines in liberatory and empowering ways.