“What is the legacy and the future of Africa and the African Diaspora?”
Any long time reader of science fiction and fantasy in English can attest to how White the genre is. A large percentage of us, including BIPOC readers, depending on who, where, and how we were, would not have even described it that way when we were younger: it was simply what SFF was. As a young Black Jamaican girl and woman growing up on Tolkien and Yeats, Diana Wynne Jones and Patricia A McKillip, I never thought much about why someone like me was never present in those stories, except in damaging manifestations which my mind carefully banked into the dirt, dampened with fear to keep the dust settled, stilled.
It has been a long journey to N.K. Jemisin and Bethany C. Morrow, P Djeli Clark and Nalo Hopkinson—to this expansive increase of my interiority, the grounded sense of rightness of the I an’ I (the “I” that is self and the “I” that is humanity existing in and amongst each other) in these fantastical, epic, titanic land, sea, sky, and cosmic scapes in all their majestic, beatific, horrific potential.
Will I ever lose that giddy pleasure at reading a familiar outer planetary buddy caper with a character like Odun searching for his ngunja? Tried and true tropes once presented as being uninhabitable now grow lush, pulsing, beating, peopled with the Black Atlantic. Will I ever lose that surprise at how fun and glorious it all is? A part of me hopes I never do, that our words replenish wonder into the ever after.
When one of the editors offered me an advanced review copy, I had no idea what I was in for, but the cover art screamed quality, and there were few things more exciting than seeing a raft of new-to-me African and diaspora writers. Dominion offers an incredibly varied range of speculative writings that incorporate elements of subtle and graphic horror; time, space, and inter-dimensional travel; magicians with the power to change history; scientists with the power to alter memory; artificially Intelligent dogs with the ability to envision a new home. These stories are set in past, present, future, and alternate worlds, all informed by diverse realities and imaginations to tackle the question: “What is the legacy and the future of Africa and the African Diaspora?”
On the copyright page after the usual script of rights and disclaimers that all content that follows is pure fiction, there is this unusual addition: “Any resemblance to the aforementioned is otherwise purely subliminal from our shared ancestors.” And so you enter a particular framework, a mindset that is not only conscious of and reverent towards literary predecessors or immediate family but to the lineage of particular peoples. Some of these writers tap into particular forms and traditions that read as distinct from much of “Western” tradition.
Horror enters the scene through Nuzo Onoh’s ‘The Unclean’ from her 2015 stories collection entitled Unhallowed Graves. One of the most established writers featured, she is known as “The Queen of African Horror” with her bona fides unmatched with their most memorable and gripping novelette about an abused wife and daughter who seeks help from the spiritual powers to resurrect, in some fashion, her dead son. I give all the trigger warnings for this one, narrated in an affecting first person by the wife in a preternatural forest at the dead of night, sitting beside her husband’s corpse as she “speaks” to the reader.
“All is still. Nothing breaks the grave-like silence of the vast forest. Apart from the occasional snake or lizard, no other creature stirs in the perennial gloom of this accursed forest. From my kneeling position by my late husband’s body, I force my bloodied eyes to look upon his reviled face coal-dusted by death and decay...The white cloth shrouding his bloated body is stained with the death fluids seeping from his fast decomposing body.”
What follows is a frightening depiction of the dangers in a patriarchal society when the men vaunted as protectors neglect and harm in equal measure and too many of the women perpetuate the abuse in order to maintain their positions in the blighted pyramid, complete with the worst haunted, desecrated graveyard in history. At one point I wondered out loud, “Why??” Only to read an interview in which Onoh revealed it was inspired by a family friend’s actual experience of being forced to drink corpse-water and sit by her husband’s corpse in a forest. What could be more horrific than that? Read ‘The Unclean’ to find out.
Suyi Okungbowa Davies represents a newer generation of Nigerian writers with his ‘Sleep Papa, Sleep’ which also addresses the consequences of breaking the rules that regulate the relationship between the living and the dead. Where Unoh’s pulled on oral narrative form and the unique blend of newer and older spiritualities to create a sense of place, Davies’ story foregrounds this through language. I loved, loved, loved reading the incorporation of Pidgin and Hausa which gave the story an immediacy and grounding in the familiar even as corpses appeared in living rooms and wandered outside beach shacks. Our protagonist Max Aniekwu must work fast to deal with unresolved issues between him and his father when they reappear in the most unexpected, corporeal way imaginable.
With a short story and poem Marian Denise Moore experiments with memory in New Orleans. In ‘A Mastery of German,’ Candace, a project manager in a genetic engineering company, is put in charge of a wayward project: the team leader has developed a way to transfer a specific skill, a memory, from one person to another. She tries to discern its desired purpose, commercial viability, and ethical implications through her own investigations, in conversations with her father, the family historian. Not only with a Black USian but through a New Orleans lens she addresses the intersections of colourism, race and class; the gaps in archives due to race and gender, workers’ rights in a capitalist society; commercialisation of genetic science; the history of science and black bodies; and no doubt much else, briefly, but in a manner that incites a reader’s curiosity to learn more and fabulate further on what her story starts.
As if pushing past the blank limits that impeded Candace’s father from knowing more of their family tree, Moore grafts a story with her poem ‘Emily,’ about “a presumed runaway, a seven-year old enslaved girl” in antebellum New Orleans. Contemplating this memory held in suspension the speaker in the poem projects into the girl’s past the many destinies she may have lived—the “so many horrors” but also the gift of hope which, in one line, creates space for the maroon communities in the southern United States. It’s another story in a collection that belies the stagnant conceptualisations of the possible ways to experience time and self.
Yet the jewel in Dominion’s transcendent crown is surely ‘Convergence in Chorus Architecture’ by Dare Segun Falowo, a “writer of the Nigerian Weird.” Even as I type this I get goosebumps remembering the imagery created in his enigmatic novelette about a community of war refugees of different tribes who re-settle in a new place, guided by the Awo Meta, three babalawos. Everything appears to go well until a damaging flood appears to portend disasters both mundane and otherworldly, subterranean, and intergalactic. To give a taste of what defies my powers to describe:
“At the center of the white ocean hung a circle of eleven bodies made of rough serrated bones that ended in crowns where the heads should be, like dead trees ending abruptly without branches. They had no faces. Instead, they wore beneath their crowns hemispheres crafted from long spikes. Inside these hemispheres pulsed bright violet light. Small blinding suns sat where their chests should be, their light also of ultraviolet hue. Their arms and legs dangled uselessly, covered in big bony plates and a proliferation of spikes and scales.”
There is no context or detailed summary I could give you to prepare for this imagery’s arrival. Each word’s note created a permanent residence in my mental scape. I am impatient for a Falowo novel, short stories collection, or scribbled notepad.
This review skims what this collection has to offer. Death and life pulse on the page as each writer had their characters run from, towards, play with or learn to cope with its consequences. Blackness in its multiple, unlimited manifestations here. It will do you no good to predict what to expect—each story is sure to surprise you. For the first time I've considered the important role independent presses and self-publishing have played in enabling Black speculative writers to access the Anglophone book market in a way that may not be true for any other genre except romance. I am grateful: to all those who self-published, to those who stepped up to be publishers and editors of books and zines, and who continue to ensure we are in the archives of the past, the present, the future, and the different dimensions.
Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora
Edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald
300 pages. 2020