In part II of our conversation with writer Masande Ntshanga, author of Triangulum – a novel that featured in the 2019 Heady Mix theme ‘Afrofuturism’, we discussed the context of the genre and to what extent it is aligned to Africa and African writers…
One of the final things we wanted to talk to you about, Masande, is Afrofuturism.
It’s a genre that’s had a lot of hype in Europe and the USA and in creating this collection, we wondered whether it’s more of a Western construct and not one that’s authentically African? What is your opinion on that and the role of it in African literature?
Well, I’ll kind of speak on that a little bit. The size of the argument that I’m familiar with, and then I’ll kind of give you my take on it.
Yes, that’d be great.
I think there is something legitimate for no other reason than the fact that a lot of what Afrofuturism draws on aesthetically, or at least how it seems to the layman or outsiders, is a recreation of the intricacies of pre-colonial culture and pre-colonial traditions and re-imagining them right?
And still consolidating them as these four systems. And the problem there, I guess, is that a lot of people feel like Africa hasn’t had its movement yet in order to present its own culture and its own systems.
It hasn’t been given that opportunity since colonialism and subsequent conquests, the narrative has always been determined for the continent.
So, some people are sceptical of Afrofuturism because they feel like it’s a replacement of something that already exists and it’s coming from the outside and basically contributing to more erosion.
And of course, there’s another side of the argument that kind of operates on the idea that it’s not a ratio; that two things can coexist. In fact, what writers from the West are doing is reconnecting with a certain imaginative current, that does have its roots in the continent, and are creating a new language that we too, as people from the continent can join on.
I mean, both sides are pretty intriguing and those are only two in a multifaceted conversation, of course. But for me, I think Afrofuturism as a label, it’s a tool. It’s a way of categorising a group of writers who are largely kind of similar.
If you take a closer look, of course, you’ll find that everyone is doing very different things, just in approach, for example, right? Someone could have something that is set thousands of years in the past and the speculative element there is reconstructing through imagination, how people might’ve existed in those times. And then on the other hand, you can have a book like mine, which is more aligned, I guess, with a cyberpunk aesthetic and more kind of contemporary political that expands on what’s happening in the country in the contemporary and tries to imagine the future from that viewpoint.
So, you’ll see that a writer like that, or a book like that and a book like mine are distinctly different, but it might be useful for someone else to categorise them as Afrofuturism because they want to read speculative fiction from African writers, for example. It’s useful in that sense, but once we start to probe deeper into it, like most labels, of course, it could do with more nuance.
Yes, definitely. Yeah, I guess by saying all science fiction from Africa belongs to this one genre is really quite narrow and that in itself is quite problematic.
Yeah, I think so too, because the thing is, in that flattening, you’re also kind of forgetting that these are writers who are coming from very different regions.
We’ve come up in very different contexts. We’re experiencing the 21st century from different vantages and we’ll also have different colonial histories, and different experiences of the 20th century event.
All of this is incredibly important.
If I read a writer from East Africa or a writer from West Africa or Central Africa regardless of the genre they are using, I would still be very much aware that this is a human being, essentially a writer, artist and the human being from a certain context, who’s expressing something very specific.
And I think that, if I had a criticism for the label, it would be the risk of losing that because that’s incredibly important.
Especially given that it really is more of a Western construct. So to present something, a Canon of work as Afrofuturism does sort of defeat the object of promoting African literature, because it’s promoting it under one label as opposed to the spectrum that is available?
Exactly. So, it’s like a feedback loop. It’s reinforcing itself instead of opening up a space for others.
Yes, because that’s what we originally titled the theme: ‘Afrofuturism’. And then through the research we discovered actually, this is mainly Western stories of Africa. They’re not African stories. But I think sort of the contradiction we found was that by giving it the name ‘Afrofuturism’, we could make it more sort of recognisable to a Western audience. I think it has purpose in that sense, but then, like you say, when you probe deeper, it’s quite problematic as a umbrella term for something that’s so different.
Yeah. And I mean, it’s incredible when it’s people like you guys, because essentially what happens is that the readers do eventually get to the books and they experience it. So even if the label might be problematic, they still arrive at the books.
I think it’s even more dangerous when it’s just simply a marketing exercise or not something that will eventually lead to a reading experience. But it’ll just kind of tell someone, this is all you need to know and you can move on.
Yeah, that becomes a problem.
Masande, it’s been brilliant talking to you – thank you again for giving us your time. We’d love to ask you to read your passage from the book now please, a section which to you, most encapsulates the essence of the narrative and its context.
Okay. So, I chose this passage because it deals with three things that are very important dramatically in the book, it deals with family. And it also deals with time and conquest time in the sense that the novel kind of posits this idea that history occurs as a continuum, especially South African history.
That is one chapter doesn’t conclude and allow another to replace it. But instead, we have these historical time periods and because of the legacies, they almost occur simultaneously. And so, this is a passage that kind of plays on that. It also evokes this idea of being invaded. Which is another perception that the book takes when it comes to its analysis of colonialism, basically. It occurs really early on as well during the narrator’s childhood:
A huge thank you to the brilliant Masande Ntshanga for sharing his wisdom and insights with our team. A hugely inspiring and educational conversation, we hope you as readers, will enjoy hearing from Masande as much we did.