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LITERATURE Imagining a seductive alternative future

When extra-terrestrials descend on Lagos in Nnedi Okorafor's 'Africanfuturist' novel Lagoon, they offer intriguing utopian possibilities, says GIBSON NCUBE

IN HIS satirical essay How to Write about Africa, the late Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina advocated a rethinking of cliched and stereotypical representations of the continent.

He was in favour of looking beyond the despair that has plagued and continues to plague Africa.

African science fiction is a literary genre which tries to imagine utopic futures of the continent, with Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor calling her brand of sci-fi “Africanfuturism.” She explains in her blog that Africanfuturism is “concerned with visions of the future” and that “it’s less concerned with what could have been and more concerned with what can/will be.”

Okorafor is on an upward global sci-fi trajectory, especially with the adaption of her acclaimed novella Binti into a major TV series. It’s among several proposed projects involving her African protagonists.

Considered especially against the background of the phenomenal success of the sci-fi blockbuster movie Black Panther, s rich body of work matters when it comes to the representation of black lives.

Her 2014 novel Lagoon recounts the story of the arrival of aliens in Nigeria, who make their ocean landing in the lagoon close to the city of Lagos. The novel focuses on Ayodele, the alien ambassador, and her interactions with three humans — marine biologist Adaora, Ghanaian musician Anthony and military man Agu.

Ayodele has shapeshifting capabilities that allow her to change her form and she transforms fluidly between human, animal and inanimate forms. Through its shapeshifting alien protagonist, Lagoon challenges long-held ideas of how gender and sexual identities are considered in Africa.

And it cheerfully disregards many literary norms. The mythical spider Udide Okwanka recounts the story, also told from multiple perspectives.

But particularly innovative is how Lagoon imagines a bold alternative future in which there is a liberation of identities and desires from rigid norms. In Ayodele’s interactions with humans, she questions how they live and think. Through her shapeshifting capabilities, she defies what humans consider the “normal” ways of being.

Ayodele is portrayed as “queer” and by that I mean that her identity defies established gender identity categories. In the novel, she is referred to as “a woman ... man ... whatever” and as a “woman, thing, whatever she was.” This fluid identity blurs the boundaries of what has been normalised as “correct.”

The narrator of Lagoon explains that Ayodele’s fluid identity makes her dangerous, in that she dismantles a well-established system that denigrates ways of being that are different or stray from what is considered normal.

Ayodele’s identity makes humans uncomfortable: “Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them,” she states at one point in the novel.

It is when humans are made uncomfortable that it becomes possible to start imagining different futures. The familiar is defamiliarised and stereotypes are disregarded.

Ayodele’s difference compels a queer student organisation called Black Nexus to come out of hiding and to confront societal stereotypes.

Before the arrival of Ayodele and the aliens, Black Nexus only met clandestinely once a month but her presence emboldens them to come out of the closet and confront their own insecurities.

The group is encouraged by how Ayodele challenges Father Oke, a bishop in a local diocese. Father Oke is known to speak out against queer individuals and for equating queer relations to bestiality.

The Black Nexus group see in Ayodele a possible ally and a radical force that could change how they are viewed in Nigeria, a country where same-sex relations are criminalised. By becoming visible, the members of Black Nexus defy the ways of thinking that marginalise them and render them invisible.

Ayodele’s shapeshifting capabilities represent a need to rethink identities so that they are liberated from the limiting ways in which humans consider them.

The novel imagines a future in which different forms of otherness are granted space to be and to flourish and Ayodele hints at this future, declaring: “Last night, Lagos burned. But like a phoenix, it will rise from the ashes — a greater creature than before.”

Lagoon’s Africanfuturist vision requires a reader who is actively engaged in co-creating the alternative future that the novel is constructing, one in which identities are freed from restrictive thinking that refuses to recognise difference and diversity.

The reader is a central participant in this process because the writer, the reader and the text are engaged in a creative conversation, one that involves challenging the present and past misrepresentations of Africa.

And it involves striving to envision counter-futures that contrast the present and past. The reader is required to be an active participant in meaning-making.

In 2017, Okorafor explained in a talk how sci-fi plays an important role in imagining possible futures: “So much of science fiction speculates about technologies, societies, social issues, what’s beyond our planet, what’s within our planet.”

That statement underlines how science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing. It’s all about the question “What if?”

Gibson Ncube is associate professor, University of Zimbabwe. This is an edited version of an article first published in The Conversation, the


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