Astonishing African Futures

an african imagination of the future.

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December 10, 2022

Wakanda is a very American version of an idealized African future. So how do African science fiction writers tell stories about their own imagined future? In this hour, produced in partnership with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), we explore Africanfuturism and beyond.

a massive futuristic African city hidden away

The "Black Panther" movies have been cultural touchstones. They’ve also sparked a lively dialogue on how Hollywood tells stories about Africa. Anne Strainchamps talked with Kenyan scholar Mshai Mwangola about her take on "Black Panther."

An African imagination of the future.

Given the chance, how do Africans tell stories about their own imagined future? And how might the story be different? To get a sense of where African science fiction is heading, we talked with Nnedi Okorafor and Ainehi Edoro.

An African man with two arms and two legs in silhouette

After Jamaican writer Marlon James won the Booker Prize, he plunged into the world of African witches and demons, tricksters and shapeshifters. James recounts how he created his Dark Star Trilogy by digging into old African myths and folklore.


Show Details 📻
December 10, 2022
October 07, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

- It's To The Best of Our Knowledge.

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

(movie reel whirring)

Sitting in a movie theater
watching Angela Bassett,

Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright

light up the screen in "Wakanda Forever,"

it is almost hard to remember

what it was like when the first
"Black Panther" movie hit.

That impact that practically
exploded around the world.

- My name is Mshai Mwangola.

I'm a performance scholar

exploring what storytelling can do.

- Millions of years ago, a
meteorite made of vibranium,

the strongest substance in the universe

struck the continent of Africa.

(hip hop music)

A warrior shaman

received a vision from
the Panther Goddess, Bast.

The warrior became king,
and the first Black Panther,

the protector of Wakanda.

- On the day that the film
was opening in cinemas,

I was running a Black
History Month program

at New College in Florida.

As part of the Black
History Month activities,

the students had organized a trip

to go and watch as a group.

- And I'm just over the roof excited

to see Black people portrayed as heroes,

kings and queens, as we are.

- On the day that we
were going to watch it

there was just such a party atmosphere.

(people cheering)

I remember getting there

and realizing everybody was driving up

and they were playing the soundtrack,

the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack.

They were singing along.

It struck me that they
already knew the songs.

- When you talk about superheroes,

you only talk like
Captain America, Ironman,

and all those stuff,

but you don't really see

one of those Black superheroes, right?

So that's why it's really good for me

to like see a, like a
superhero that's good like me.

- Okay, is this Wakanda?

- No, it's Kansas.

(audience laughing and clapping)

- You're watching a film

and this is the first time
all of us are seeing it.

Not all of whom were American.

So we had students from the Caribbean,

students from the African continent,

as well as the Baucau from the US.

And coming out, it was all
completely infectious excitement.

(audience applauding)
(hip hop music)

(slow rhythmic music)

Coming back to Kenya.

The theaters were full.

All my students were talking about it.

And I teach in a center

which brings students from
different African countries

and finding the same enthusiasm.

- I watch "Captain America,"
"The Avengers" and all that.

I was very eager to watch this one.

- They feel that "Black Panther"

gave them a sense of being
represented on the global stage

in a way that has never happened.

So even when there are
very important critiques

that I think we must take on board,

the work that "Black Panther" is doing

is one that I'm fascinated about.

(upbeat music)

- And what is the work that
"Black Panther" is doing?

Mshai Mwangola would say it's
less about adding superheroes

of color to the Marvel universe

and more about creating a
space for Black Americans

and continental Africans to
engage in imagining the future.

I met Mshai for the first
time in Addis Ababa.

She was leading a kind
of contentious discussion

of "Black Panther" for
humanities scholars,

including Valmont Layne

of the University of the Western Cape,

Surafel Wondimu from the
Institute of Ethiopian Studies,

and Pfunzo Sidogi

from the Institute of
Technology in Tshwane,

formerly Pretoria.

- Is this a Black centered film

or is it an African centered film?


- I said that even though I liked it

when it comes to the music
and the technologies,

I didn't find it originally Africa.

The spacecraft, for example,

that is common in other
movies that we watch.

The fighting the main character
does is similar to Batman,

Spider-Man and the like.

The music, that drum beat.

Jumping, they are naked.

That is just an imposition
from colonial tradition

of portraying Africa for me.

So I didn't feel like it is
genuinely an originally Africa.

- So he's suggesting to us

that even though it's set in Africa,

it's got nothing to do with us.

A friend of mine wrote a
piece in the Washington Times,

called Galala, that, you know,

some people very uncomfortable about.

They said it's a great
film for African Americans,

got nothing to do with us as Africans.

- Yes, I was in the states when
"Black Panther" was screened

and I saw it there.

I didn't like it.

That 19th century anthropological
kind of representation.

Africa was old, cultural attire.


What the hell is going on?

I mean the filmmakers

claim that it's an
Afrofuturist experience,

but for me, even in
the Afrofuturist world,

we were not allowed,
you know, the writers--

- So a very interesting phrase

and I'm not, I want to explore that.

Even in the Afrofuturist
world, we are not allowed to.

I want you to hold onto that.

- Yeah, this is--
- Can I enter

the Afrofuturist debate?

My biggest grip with
Afro-futurism is the Afro.

For example,

you don't have an
equivalent of Asian futurism

or European futurism.

- Yes.
- You have the future.

And in order for Africans
to take Africa out of the

developmental form of
spaces that it is in,

we have to ask ourselves, how
did China conquer poverty?

How did they conquer maldevelopment?

It was certainly not by going back.

It was certainly not by celebrating
their form of Asianness,

which is what essentially
Afrofuturism does.

And we have to ask ourselves,
who is benefiting from that?

So we celebrate the fact
that it was a Black director

and the cast was mainly Black and so on.

But fundamentally, the owners
of that product, who are they?

And where is that money going?

Those billions and billions of dollars

that were made from that movie.

Do Africans have the space

and agency to create movies

in the caliber of "Black Panther"?

Right now, of course not.

And I think those are the
discussions we should be having.


(people chatting)

- My kids were so depressed.

(people chatting)

- So what do you think are
the most important critiques?

- I think one of the biggest critiques,

and I think some people
really love the fact

that they do not focus on
any one African culture,

but picked from right across
the continent, very liberally.

Other people hate it

because it takes people back to this thing

of Africa is a country

and you can just pick and choose
what you want and move on.

I've also met people who are very critical

of what they felt was a portrayal

that seems to suggest that the diaspora

in coming back to the continent

is number one, very aggressive.

And number two, is not
conscious of a certain politics.

- Can you explain what you mean?

- So the portrayal in the film,

the one person you see coming
back who comes into Wakanda

from the diaspora is Killmonger.

And Killmonger is the villain of the film.

He comes back, he's a CIA agent.

So we are told by Agent Ross,

look, he's been trained to do this,

to destabilize the country.

So is what we see him doing

representative of an American agenda?

Or is it the whole idea,

which is a very old idea
of the return to Africa.

And some people have read it by saying,

those who are outside
come back into a continent

that's very rich, that's
got the resources,

that's got the intelligence,
has got so much to offer,

but see themselves as
coming back to take over.

It's a very American imperial way

of coming back to the continent.

- What do you want?

- I want the throne.

(Mining Tribe Elder laughs)

(Mining Tribe speaking in Xhosa)

(other Elders laughing)

- Y'all sitting up here comfortable.

Must feel good.

It's about 2 billion
people all over the world

that looks like us, but
their lives are a lot harder.

Wakanda has the tools
to liberate them all.

- And what tools are those?

- Vibranium.

Your weapons.

- Our weapons will not be
used to wage war on the world.

It is not our way to be judge, jury,

and executioner for people
who are not our own.

- So some people have been
very critical about that.

When we've had a very rich history

of people of the historical
diaspora coming into Africa.

I mean, I know members of
the original Black Panther

who live in Arusha.

This is Charlotte O'Neal and
her husband, Peter O'Neal.

And they have become
part of the community.

That's not the way they have come back.

People like W. E. B. Du Bois

who came back and settled in Ghana.

So there's a whole history
of the diaspora's return

that is not portrayed in that film.

- I could imagine somebody saying

those represent an African-American vision

versus a continental African's vision.

- Yeah, and I'm just not sure

that we can make that
distinction so strongly because

Africans on the continent
have also suffered.

One of the things I personally
find very compelling

about Africans in the diaspora

is that when you have lived for centuries

and survived for centuries,

it's very much in your face
oppression on a daily basis.

People find ways of not just
surviving, but thriving.

And of not just thriving, but healing.

And there is a grace and a strength,

and an ability to fight
when people need to fight

and an ability to survive

that I find is very
compelling from the diaspora

and is also in the continent.

So I find it very difficult
to make the distinction

because I think both on the continent

and in the diaspora,

there's been deep pain, deep
oppression, deep injustice.

And then there's also been
great resources for healing,

for thriving, for making do.

- I do wonder if those two,

how those two populations
relate to each other.

I mean, I'm living in the states,

I'm more familiar with what Africa

and an African homeland represent.

I'm not nearly as certain

what Africans who live on the continent

think about Africans in the diaspora.

- So I think one of the big critiques

I have of "Black Panther" is

there seems to be such
separation in the film,

even as there is this
longing of bringing together.

And I think again, it's positionality.

I mean, I grew up, I remember
as a very young child,

my father would play LPs of
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

So to this day I can recite
message from the grassroots,

from memory, right?

From the beginning to the end,
because you keep hearing it.

Now as somebody who went to
graduate school in the US,

I also know that there are also sometimes

very artificial divisions.

A lot of us from the continent
will be told people of there,

they're lazy, they could
do a whole lot better.

And you know, know Africans go
from the continent and think,

how could you not do well
in such a wealthy space?

Africans from the continent,

it's very difficult for
you to understand race

when you first get there.

I mean, it's not that we don't know race,

but I always say,

I really, truly, honestly become Black

when I cross the border in the US

in a way I'm not quite
Black anywhere else.

And it's somewhat stereotypical
to say it, but it's true.

And so I think sometimes
continental Africans

do not always appreciate

the reality of living as a Black
person in places like that.

And I think people from the diaspora

also do not really fully
understand what does it mean.

There's been so many of the stereotypes,

there's been so many of if
look at your televisions

and your films,

what you see of Africans
is they are backward,

they're ignorant, they're stupid.

Because you look at how do you
do this to your own people?

How do you kill all your,
they're all the stereotypes.

And I don't think we've had
enough spaces to truly engage.

- I wanted to talk a little bit about

the role of story like Black Panther in,

you could call it Afro-futurism
or thinking about the future

either from African American
writers or African writers.

- So one of the things that for me

really works about "Black Panther"

is that on one hand you are
working with a particular genre,

which is the superhero genre,

which is very American in its orientation,

in its foundations, in its history.

But they have also chosen to use

very deliberately, Afrofuturism.

And Afrofuturism comes from this space

of imagining the future.

Now, a lot of also our folk tales,

our traditional folk tales,

do have this mythic space
of anything can happen.

And they also have this heroic
figure who is a human being,

but with extraordinary powers.

And I think what that allows people to do

is to lift their eyes from the present,

is to start to imagine that
there are possibilities

that a 16 year old girl

could be the greatest genius
that the universe has produced.

And she just happens to be African.

This space of imagining the
future, this space of saying,

we don't have to leave
our traditional folk tales

in the 18th and 19th century,

but to ask what do
African stories look like?

Africa has as much stake in
the future as everybody has.

And I truly believe, you know,

we are the continent of the past,

but we are also the
continent of the future.

- How many times do I have to teach you?

Just because something works

doesn't mean that it cannot be improved.

- You are teaching me, what do you know?

- More than you.

(upbeat music)

- Mshai Mwangola is a performance scholar,

theater artist and storyteller.

And that's from a conversation
we had a few years back

at the Africa as Method
Conference in Addis Ababa.

More about African futurism

and the politics of Wakanda coming up.

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge

from Wisconsin Public Radio

(rhythmic music)

and PRX.

The "Black Panther" movies

are the first superhero blockbusters

with an African American director

and a predominantly Black cast.

It's build as an Afrofuturist project,

which means, what exactly?

Steve Paulson caught up with two women

who have been thinking and
writing about Afrofuturism

for a long time.

Ainehi Edoro and Nnedi Okorafor.

- So I'm curious, how long
have you two known each other?

- Oh my gosh.

- It's kind of a while, no?
- Do you know? I don't know.

It's like been just continuous.

It feels like we've
known each other forever.

It's been a while.

- Do you remember when you
first met or how you first met?

- We've never met in person.
- Oh, you've never met in

- No, no, no.

We have, we actually, we
met in, we met in Berlin.

Take that back.

We met in Berlin.
- Yeah, we met.

- Yeah.
- Yeah.

2018 ish, maybe, for a book festival.

- Wow, this really is the
new digital world, isn't it?

You clearly know each other pretty well,

and yet you've just met
like one time in person.

- Yes.

- Yeah, and I remember when
we met, it just felt normal.

It didn't feel like, oh, we're
meeting for the first time.

It just felt like, hi.

You know?

- Yeah.

Because in a sense, we
have known each other,

I think in the digital space,

you encounter each other
through your thinking

and your work,

and it's something intimate,
actually, I think about that.

- Yeah. Yeah.

- Ainehi Edoro is a literary scholar

and the founding editor of Brittle Paper,

the preeminent online platform

for readers of African literature.

Nnedi Okorafor is a celebrated
Nigerian American author

of science fiction and fantasy,

and she's the writer who coined
the term African futurism.

- We should talk about

what this term African futurism means,

'cause Nnedi I know that a few years ago

you called yourself an Afrofuturist,

and then more recently you said, you know,

that label doesn't really fit anymore.

And you've drawn this
distinction between Afrofuturism

and African futurism.

Can you explain the difference?

- Yeah, yeah.

For a while, I tried to embrace
the term of Afro futurism,

and then specifically around 2018

when the "Black Panther" film came out,

is when I began to understand

that I was doing something else.

And the way that I learned that

was through other people telling me.

So, a lot of people saying
that I was writing narratives

that were not from the perspectives

and the stories of direct
descendants of African slaves.

And that is true.

And if you look at the
definition of Afrofuturism,

it's stated that way,

that it is a story of African Americans,

the direct descendants of African slaves,

or stolen Africans, is
what I prefer to say.

And so that's where I coined
the term African futurism,

which, you know, it's in the
same universe as Afrofuturism,

but it is more directly rooted
in African culture, history,

mythology, and point of view.

- So what would be some examples
of the difference between

African futurism and Afro futurism?

- Well, if Black Panther were
an African futurist narrative,

a lot of things would be different.

The very concept of
Wakanda would be different.

- I wanna come back to that.
- But like.

- So.
- Yeah.

But like, in the "Black Panther" films,

Wakanda, at the end of the
movie, the first movie,

Wakanda builds an outpost,

and their first instinct is to build it in

Oakland, California, the United States.

An African futurist version

would be that Wakanda
would build their outpost

in a neighboring African country.

There'd be dialogue directly
with African countries

around it first.

- Ainehi, I'd love to get your sense.

Do you define these terms in the same way

that Nnedi was talking about it?

Or how might we think about a
big, a huge Marvel Hollywood

blockbuster movie like "Wakanda Forever"?

I mean, how it fits into this
conversation we're having?

- I would say that for the longest time,

Afrofuturism was enough for me

in naming a certain kind of
Black imagination of the future.

That changed when Nnedi began to advocate

and think about this new term.

And that so an idea of science fiction

or of the future that is centered

on the Black experience in America,

which is kind of framed
in relationship to slavery

and also is in conversation
with whiteness,

is going to look completely different

when we go to a space where

the history is framed
by colonialism, right?

Because sometimes people present
it as a kind of antagonism.

You know, like Nnedi is trying
to say that Afrofuturism

is not enough.

I think that that is simplifying it.

It's just identifying

that there are two different genealogies

of Blackness in relationship
to ideas of the future.

- Let me pose the
question a different way.

Is it a problem that we have
the two Black Panther movies

that are about this
idealized African country?

I mean, very much
obviously from an American,

from a Western perspective.

Is that a problem?

Or is that just, okay,

we just need to understand
this is for one audience,

a largely Western audience,

and I suppose if this
movie were made in Nigeria,

it would look totally different.

- No, I don't think it's a problem.

I think that "Black Panther"

is a very important cultural event.

I think that the world
needed "Black Panther,"

but how well does "Black Panther"

represent a kind of African
imagination of the future?

I don't know that it does that very well,

but I also don't know
that it needs to do that

in the sense that that's not its project.

The problem comes when we begin
to expect "Black Panther" to

encompass every Black
experience in the world.

- So Nnedi, I'd love to get
your perspective on this,

because of course you've been immersed

in the Black Panther world.

- Yes.

- You've written Marvel comics

about the characters in "Black Panther."

- Yeah, for me it's complicated.


My issues with Wakanda,

and these were things that I thought about

when I was trying to decide
whether I was gonna write

T'Challa and Shuri,
T'Challa's little sister.

These are things that I have grappled with

and that I've thought hard about.

And I agree with everything
that she just said.

What I want to add to
it is kind of specific.

My issues with Wakanda go
down to the very bones of it.

The existence of a
landlocked African country

that is supposed to be the wealthiest

and most technologically
advanced nation in the world

and it never participated in helping with

issues of slavery, colonialism, all that.

It never gave back to any
of the African countries

around it.

That's just the, an issue with me.

The idea of this advanced
nation being a monarchy

is an issue to me.

It's technologically
advanced and futuristic,

but it's a monarchy, really?

- Yeah.

My reaction to the two
Black Panther movies is,

so you have this incredibly sophisticated,

technologically sophisticated
country, Wakanda,

but you kind of see the sophistication,

especially in the weapons they have,

the spacecrafts they have, you know,

how they can defend their country,

and then this one science
lab that Shuri runs,

and it seems like it's just her

and maybe a couple of assistants.

It doesn't seem very futuristic to me.

I don't know.

Is that incongruous to either of you?

- No, I mean, I think that

what you say about the emphasis
on weapon as kind of the

central figuration of the future, right?

Is like we see the future in weapons

as opposed to other places,

speaks to the ways in which Black Panther

betrays itself as a Western project.

- Mm hmm.
- Hmm.

- Right?
- Mm hmm.

- In fact the very idea of vibranium

as an extractive technology,

it's almost as if
everything that the West did

to make itself powerful in the world,

we just take all of them

and layer it on an African world, right?

And imagine that that is

a much more liberated idea of Africa,

whereas a truly decolonial
representation of the future

is one that will essentially
evacuate everything

about the West that has
led to its greatness,

but that has also led to
eternal violence, inequities,

and things like that.

So it's almost as if,

if you look at Wakanda
from a certain perspective,

it's the West that you're seeing,

but acted out by Black bodies.

It doesn't push as far
as it could have pushed

in terms of truly reimagining

what a future that is centered on Africa

can really look like.

And I think that if you want to see

how that is done at a
level of storytelling,

a book to check out is Nnedi's "Lagoon,"

where literally the
geopolitics of the world shifts

from land to water from
the West to Africa.

- So you're really talking about

how to tell these stories about the future

from a non-Western perspective.

- Right.
- To de-center

the West in all of that.

- Yeah, what we're really
talking about is worldview here.

I don't even like saying when
you don't center the West.

It's just, it's a different worldview.

And that results in a
different type of narrative,

a different envisioning of
what the future will be like,

different wants and needs
and goals and ideas.

Because Western culture
dominates things so much,

this is often very difficult

for people to imagine and understand.

- And can I add to that?

A retold Black Panther that
hangs on an African worldview,

I think might have three characteristics.

One, whiteness will not be legible.

- You basically won't
see white characters.

- Right. Right.

That it's not just a space where

whiteness will be a thing
that you have to think with

or even think a way.

It just wouldn't be part of the world.

So it'll be a world that will be

very, very, very, very Black.

And that will also explore

and make visible the diversity
of life within the continent.

And one thing I love about
African worlds is the chaos

and the messiness of it.

It doesn't mean it's disorderly.

Sometimes people mistake the two.

It's just a world that is not obsessed

with forcing everything into
categories and hierarchies.

So there is order,

but order works differently
and looks different.

And I think that a work
like that will embrace that

in terms of its feel and aesthetics.

And it'll be a world that
puts an end to colonialism

and all the things that are
wrapped up with colonialism.

So extractive capitalism.

And lastly,

it's a world that will
definitely de-center the human.

- Yes.

- And you see this all over
African science fiction

and fantasy.

These are stories that
allows the animal to exist

in much more interesting ways,

that allows mythical figures,
ancestral figures to exist.

- Which is so interesting.

If we're talking about science
fiction, which is futuristic,

and yet talking about the ancestors

is maybe looking to the past,

but I don't know, how do you
bring those two together?

- So one of the things that became clear

after my student and I started to

advance in our foray into
African science fiction

is the extent to which

many authors are interested in the past.

So one image that keeps popping up

in novels that we read is the masquerade.

And this is a figure that
appears, I'm talking everywhere.

By the end of the class,
my students were like,

"If we see one more masquerade again."

(Steve and Nnedi laugh)

- Wait, wait, wait.

What do you mean by masquerade?

- So the masquerade
tradition is a very pervasive

and ancient tradition
in many African worlds.

So these are essentially ancestral figures

who come into the world of the human

in the form of different
kinds of masquerades.

In the Yoruba tradition,

they are festivals like
the gala de festivals,

where it's literally

the ancestors appearing from the forest.

When they come in this really
elaborately designed costumes,

they appear and then they
go back to their world.

They are figures of the past,

but they're also figures of the future

because insofar as they are
ancestors, it means if I die,

I'm going to meet my
ancestor in the future.

So they're in the past,
but they're in the present,

and they're also relevant
to the future as well.

And in some of the stories that we read,

writers would take this figure
that because of colonialism,

we've come to exclude
them as primitive times.

Writers would take these figures

and kind of re-energize them

or rethink them within
the context of the future.

And when they do that,

what you see is that African
science fiction writers

do not see the past as a kind of dead time

that they don't have to engage with.

- Well, and Nnedi,

I would think that as a
creator of imaginative worlds,

that must be so rich

that you feel like you
can draw on all of these

mythical characters from
different African traditions

to create a novel about the future.

- Yeah, I mean, for me,
masquerades are big.

They are like, they're very
much the center of my work,

my imagination, all of that.

It's complicated for me to explain why,

but like I see the past, present

and the future all mixed together.

I like literally don't see the ancestors

as beings of the past.

They're very much the present.

They're very much part of the future.

When I'm writing, I feel them
looking over my shoulder.

I feel them affecting
everything that I do.

And when it comes to masquerades,

masquerades are a much
more intense concept to me.

I don't even know how to describe them,

but for me personally as a
writer, they're not mythical.

They are very much now,
they're very much here.

Like when I'm writing,
I can see them dancing,

I can hear them dancing.
- Wow.

- Like it's part of the story.

And I love that.

I love masquerades.

I don't even know how, there's just.

Yeah, I love masquerades.

- So I'm curious, I mean,

I'm fascinated by you're saying that,

oh, it's like you feel the ancestors

looking over your shoulder.

I mean, how?
- Oh yes.

- How literal, do you mean?

Are they with you right there
in the room as you're writing?

- Yeah.

Yeah, it's literal.

Like they're there.

They're beside me, they're
looking over my shoulder,

they're in front of me, they're
criticizing what I'm doing.

They're telling me, "Don't write that."

You know, they're
telling me to write that.

They're around me.

I've always felt my ancestors
very strongly, always.

Even before I was a writer.

It's just always been like that.

- Ainehi, a few years ago
you wrote an essay that

I think proved to be
somewhat controversial

about Chinua Achebe,

one of the giants of
modern African literature.

He wrote an essay in
1965 where he said that

essentially that African writers
had this moral imperative

to be a teacher,

to teach their readers about
the horrors of colonialism,

about the trauma of
feeling racially inferior.

And you said that edict
from half a century ago,

just basically, it
doesn't hold up anymore.

What's missing in that way of thinking?

- I think it's a thinking that captures

his moment beautifully,

in the sense that decolonization

is a very specific kind of project.

Achebe saw himself as at the forefront of

a cultural re-engineering

or revolution that needed to happen.

But for somebody like me,
looking back at that statement,

I bristle at it a little bit, right?

Because I am not in the eye
of the war against colonialism

in the way that Achebe was.

It's possible that my
problem is different.

What keeps me up at night

is different from what he bothered about.

Again, I can sympathize
with the ways in which

realism came to be the
right African form to pursue

and why this idea that, you know,

we should all be on message, right?

As we are fighting this really
powerful cultural enemy.

But today, we are still
fighting colonialism,

but it's a different fight
that looks differently.

Part of the fight today
is to be able to literally

tell different kinds of stories.

We are not trying to stay
on message, on brand.

We are trying to literally
break the frames of reference

and open up a space where

we can reach people
through romance fiction,

through science fiction,
through graphic novels.

And that so that decentralization

has created a space where we
are able to resist the system

or fight the fight

by making a space where
storytelling can proliferate

in different forms.

- We could go on for a long time.

This is really fascinating.

I'm just loving this conversation.

Thank you so much.

This has been such a pleasure.

- Yeah, this has been a
great, great conversation.

- Wonderful. Nnedi?

- Yeah?

- Nice chatting.

- Yes, you too.

Always, always.

(rhythmic music)

- Now with Steve Paulson
talking with Ainehi Edoro.

She's a literary scholar

at the University of Wisconsin Madison,

and the founding editor of Brittle Paper,

which is an online platform

for readers of African literature.

And we heard from Nnedi Okorafor,

the celebrated African futurist author.

Her most recent YA novel is "Akata Woman"

and her most recent novel
for adults is "Noor."

Oh, and she also wrote
the "Shuri" comic series

for Marvel's Black Panther universe.

(rhythmic music)

Coming up,

Jamaican writer Marlon James
on his "Dark Star" trilogy.

Looks so epic and so magical.

They make a certain famous
HBO series pale in comparison.

- Now you've been quoted as saying

that you wanted to write
an African Game of Thrones.

And I don't know if that
was just a throwaway line

or if you were kind of serious about that.

- If a throwaway line,
it certainly hasn't died.

- No, it hasn't.

- I mean, I'm actually,

I'm actually gonna be talking to

George R. R. Martin in a few weeks.

He's probably gonna ask me about that.

So this is nothing like my book.

(dramatic music)

The reason why I think I
gravitated to "Game of Thrones" is

in a very, very different
way from what I am doing,

he's also telling really,
really adult stories.

(dramatic music)

George is telling really,
really adult stories

while refusing to let go of
the world of make believe.

Here are people dealing
with some really complex,

complicated, sometimes
intricately layered things,

but they're still ghosts

(ominous music)

and demons.


People fly.

And people shape shift.

(ominous music)

And people just disappear.

(wind whooshing)

- A conversation with
Marlon James after this.

(ominous music)

I'm Anne Strainchamps
and you're listening to

To The Best of Our Knowledge,
from Wisconsin Public Radio

(ominous music)

and PRX.

In 2014, Jamaican novelist,

Marlon James won the
Booker Prize for his novel,

"A Brief History of Seven Killings."

It's about the attempted
assassination of Bob Marley.

And the book is all post-colonial
fallout, geopolitics,

gang wars.

But for his next book,

he went in a completely
different direction

into a world of African myth and magic.

- When I left my father's house,
some voice, maybe a devil,

told me to run

past houses and inns and
hostels for tired travelers,

behind modern stonewalls
as high as three men.

Street led to lane and lane led to music.

drinking and fighting,

which led to fighting,
drinking, and music.

Cellar woman were closing
shops and packing away stalls.

Men walked by in the arms of men.

Women walked by with
baskets on their heads.

Day riders with spears, in flowing robes,

black armor and gold crowns
topped with feathers,

mounted horses dressed in the same red.

At the gate, seven riders were approaching

and the wind was a wolf.

(ominous music)

- "Black Leopard, Red Wolf"

was the first in Marlon
James' "Dark Star" trilogy,

a series that's been
referred to repeatedly

as the African Game of Thrones.

Although honestly, that's
selling it a bit short

because this fantasy world is
more like a multiple universe

layered with witches and demons,
shape changers, enslavers,

and all based on African
myths and folklore.

(ominous music)

Steve Paulson wanted to know
more about the character

at the center of it all.

- This is such a great character.

Your narrator, who goes
by the name Tracker.

How would you describe him?

- Tracker is sort of
rambling around the world,

trying to escape story

and escape purpose and escape meaning,

and all those things keep falling on him.

He discovers things about himself.

He goes on a mission
to find somebody else,

but it's himself he finds.

He's not prepared for it

because, you know, he's a smart ass.

He's a wise ass

and he's,

he says he doesn't believe in belief.

So he's this sort of cynical creature

running around in a world that
demands a lack of cynicism.

And he ends up being surprised

and being changed by things
he just didn't expect to.

- Hmm.

And we should mention that Tracker

has some particular talents.

He has this incredible power of smell

that just by smelling someone,

he seems to know everything about them.

- Yeah, and he never really forgets them

or loses track of them until they died.

Used to cause him a madness before,

before he learned to control it.

I think that was me not being able to

totally banish my love of comic books.

- Hmm.

- That in a lot of ways this
is a story of a superhero team.

- Right.

So you grew up reading comic books, right?

- Mm hmm.

Well, that implies I stopped reading them.

(Steven and Marlon laugh)

I still read them pretty regularly.

But yeah,

a lot of my fantasy imagination
was shaped by comics.

Not so much the sort of
giants of fantasy literature,

because where would I found in Jamaica?

But I could find a new episode
of the new issue of X-Men

or Dr. Strange or Spider-Man.

- It's so fascinating
to hear you say this.

I mean, you're saying that this novel,

which has gotten so much
acclaim in the literary world

is, I mean, it's kind of like
this grownup comic in a way.

- Yeah.

Although I'm a big believer that

if you're gonna write
literature, you can't grow up.

So fantasy to me felt like
almost a logical turn.

It didn't feel like a
change of direction for me,

because I do believe, at least
in terms of your imagination,

you shouldn't grow up.

I think we have this idea,

and it's a very Western idea,

that letting go of make believe

and letting go of the fantastical

and letting go of the
spirits under your bed

and the things that go bump in the night

is a sign of maturity
when it really isn't.

- Yeah.

So, I mean, this is this
incredibly fantastical world

that you've created.

I mean, there's a moon witch,

a leopard who can transform
into other animals,

a talking buffalo, a
vampire lightning bird,

and lots more.

How did you come up with these characters?

- Well, a lot of them, I didn't
come up with them at all.

I found them.

A lot of it was

discovering all these
characters while researching

all these mythologies,

all these things that I didn't know.

I, you know, I know enough
about Greek and Norse mythology,

maybe to write books on either.

When it came to African mythology,

I only knew what survived

hundreds of years in the Caribbean.

And a lot of that was more
a hybrid between African

and Black American and European folklore.

So a lot of those creatures I didn't know.

So when I discovered them or
came across a lot of them,

I didn't really have to do much work.

As a writer I was playing catch up

to stories that already were there.

So characters like the impundulu

are a part of African folklore.

And I really wanted to
play in that universe.

I really wanted to sort of

use the mythologies that were there

in ways that I have never read before.

I mean, it's, I guess it would
be sort of like, you know,

Tolkien using elves and goblins.

He didn't even, you know,

elves and goblins were already there,

but he found a way to use them.

- So what did you read

to find out about all this
sort of African folklore

and mythology?

- Well, a lot of it

would be stuff that's not
even compiled in books yet.

A lot of it is really
contemporary research

and a lot of contemporary
information gathering.

For me at least, when I'm researching,

when I'm checking sources,

I will read tons of books

and then I'll flip right to the back

and check the bibliography
and read what they've read.

And more often than not, that's articles,

that's loose paper, that's
stuff on academic websites.

That's for a lot of it,

stuff that's not even
translated in English yet.

So a lot of straight information
that I had to compare,

which is why it took
me two years to do it.

- Wow.

So why did you wanna conjure up

this mythical world of Africa?

- Well, at first I didn't
conjure it up to write something.

I conjured it up to read

because I just felt as a
Black person in the diaspora,

too often, ground zero is slavery.

And I wrote a slavery novel
and even I am tired of that.

There has to be a story, a
history, not even a pre-history.

There had to be a history before
something was interrupted.

I wanted to go to African
mythology in the same way,

say C.S. Lewis could depend on British.

I gave a lecture,

I gave the Tolkien
lecture a couple weeks ago

and one of the things I talked about is

what a great thing it is to
take mythology for granted.

If you look at the UK, Britain,

how Robinhood, which is
basically a mythology,

Robinhood is essential to the
idea of British independence

and the idea of British justice.

And King Arthur is essential

to the idea of British civilization.

There must be a Camelot,
otherwise they are a bunch of,

you know, backward,

barely inbred people who
are living in dung huts.

- Right, I mean, there sort of,

you need those myths for a
sense of national identity.

- Absolutely and that's
not always a good thing.

You know, Hitler used myths, too.

Neo-Nazis are using mythologies, too.

So it's not always a great
thing going back to the myths.

But I still understand why,

for good or bad, you need an origin,

an imaginary origin story.

- So I mean obviously you
are not African yourself,

you're from Jamaica.
- No.

- And I guess I'm wondering,

is any of this African cosmology

that you've been talking about?

Is that part of the Jamaican

or the Caribbean storytelling tradition?

- Absolutely, we just don't know.

It never occurred to me
until Ghanaians came to me,

how much Twi I was still speaking.

A person from Ghana or from Kenya

is stunned when they come
to Trinidad or Jamaica

'cause they didn't know
so much was retained.

So yeah, it was there.

I just didn't know it was.

I thought Brer Rabbit

was something Beatrix Potter came up with.

Brer Rabbit is African, Anansis African.

Well, I knew that.

The thing I didn't know
was that there was also

a lot of sophisticated storytelling

involving these mythologies.

And that's something that,
yeah, I had to find out.

- Hmm, well, I mean,

I have to say this story just
kind of explodes off the page.

I mean, you keep coming at us

with all of these amazing characters

and I'm struck by, I mean you
mentioned Lord of the Rings.

Your story is so different than
that kind of a fantasy epic.

I mean there's a lot more sex,

a lot more violence in your book.

There's also a lot more
ambiguity about who's good

and who's bad.

Is that just your vision

or do you think that's a
particularly African sensibility?

- I think it's a combination of both.

One of the things about Tolkien

that I think is important to remember

is that he was responding to World War I.

In a lot of ways, the this
is good, this is evil,

was almost a necessary
thing he had to take

to make sense of it.

For me, and certainly one of
the things that I connected to

with African stories was just how much

a lot of that was up for grabs.

It wasn't as clear cut.

For one, a lot of the
original African stories

are being told by the trickster.

So you already know
you're being told a story

by an unreliable narrator.

But that's a crucial part
of African storytelling.

In fact, it's a crucial
part of oral storytelling

because a lot of Indian stories

and Arabian stories are led at as well.

It raises this really
tantalizing possibility

that our ancient traditions

are actually more sophisticated than ours.

Because we treat literature
like pre chewed food.

- What does it mean to you
to bring back these stories

that, as you say, have
largely been forgotten?

This old world of African folklore?

I mean there are still
people obviously who

practice in some of these traditions,

but it's in the literary
context, it's not well known.

So what happens when you bring it back?

- Yeah, for me, and I can
only speak for myself,

it feels like something
snapped into place.

Give a very concrete example,

how I approach queerness,

and African mythology

is the last place in the world
I expected to find validation

as a queer person.

Last place.

Especially given the reputation

that a lot of African
countries are developing

for a pretty virulent homophobia.

- Where it's outlawed
in a bunch of countries.

- Mm hmm.

But when you come across the fluidity

of a lot of these pre-Islam
and pre-Christian religions,

and the whole idea that
say, Shoga, Shoga warriors,

and Shoga's used as a kind of pejorative

in some countries now,

but there was a time
when that kind of warrior

was the only warrior entrusted to say,

escort a bride-to-be to her husband

because everybody knew he was gay.

So everybody knew
nothing was gonna happen.

It's like, yeah, totally.

I totally trust you with my virgin bride

'cause we all know, you're here for Chuck.

You're not here for me.

(Steven laughs)

But that society found
ways to absorb, utilize,

even value those kind
of people was shocking

and also very affirming

because I also drank
the homophobic Kool-Aid

about Africa and African
countries, rather.

And to go back to the mythologies

and finding a kind of validation
was totally unprecedented.

- So you've been talking about

being part of the African diaspora

and we're clearly seeing more of this,

not just your novel,

I mean movie "Black Panther"
would be an obvious example.

All the artists who've been
embracing Afrofuturism,

it feels like something new,

something amazing is happening now.

I mean, just really quite recently.

Do you see it that way?

- I do.

Even in the writers who aren't explicitly

going back to Africa in their work,

are still really, really touching on

the sort of hyper real or
supernatural or fantastical.

Like Victor LaValle.

His narratives have always
been playing with that.

Yeah, it is a time

and it should be said that
there's lots of writers

coming from the continent as
well that's also responding.

In a lot of ways more sci-fi than fantasy,

which I also think is
really, really interesting.

Afrofuturism in a lot of
ways is as old as Sun Ra,

if not older.

And I just think it's
re-tapping into this sort of

vast reservoir of imagination

that I know I never had before.

I think for a lot of us, and
I'm just speaking very blankly,

I think for a lot of us,

the reason why we're writing so much

is that we're discovering so much.

And maybe it's because it's
the beginning of the century.

Maybe it's because I think
we are still early enough

that we can write proper narratives

as opposed to always trying to
figure out where is my space

in the Eurocentric fantasy story.

We can just create another
space, but an open space.

I love that readers of all races

and nationalities find
something in the book.

(relaxing rhythmic music)

- That's Marlon James,

the Booker Prize-winning author
of "Black Leopard, Red Wolf"

and the sequel "Moon Witch, Spider King."

Also co-host of the literary podcast,

Marlon and Jake Read Dead People.

He talked with Steve Paulson.

(relaxing rhythmic music)

Thanks for listening.

This hour was produced by the

To The Best of Our Knowledge
team at Wisconsin Public Radio.

Our technical director is Joe Hardtke

with additional sound
design by Sarah Hopefl.

Extra Music this week,

courtesy of Simon Cervita,
Rocky Marciano Mekhi Beats,

Kevin McLeod, LT, and Clay, the producer.

Special thanks to Sara Guyer

and the Consortium of Humanity
Centers and Institutes.

And to the organizers

and participants in the
Africa as Method Conference

in Addis Ababa.

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Join us again next time.

(relaxing music)

(relaxing music)

- PRX.

Last modified: 
October 06, 2023