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Despite the growing popularity of science fiction among African writers and readers of African fiction, there are people who insist that science fiction is not a legitimate category of African literature. Brought up on the assumptions that realism is the only authentic form of African literary expression, they question the legitimacy of African fiction that imagines the future along the lines of science fiction.

In a recent interview published in Ventures Africa, Nnedi Okorafor the author of Binti-–a Harry Porter-esque space odyssey—takes up this very question of African fiction and the future.

Her response was prompted by the question:

“African science-fiction was not a genre that Africans read or wrote actively until recently. Some even deemed it ‘un-African’. What would you say influenced your ideas and writing of a sci-fi Africa? Does your background in the diaspora have anything to do with it?”

Okorafor’s response is both objective and poignant. She begins by clarifying that science fiction is just one way of imagining the future—something that African literature has always done in other ways. She goes on to explain what she—as an American and Nigerian writer—finds generative about science fiction and why, even though the origins of the genre is western, it remains a powerful way of conveying a certain kind of global African experience.

I can’t possibly see why imagining Africa’s future, considering the role of technology and social shifts in the evolution of humanity, or the possibility of the existence of aliens, etc, could be un-African. It’s human.

That said, it’s a fact that the genre of science fiction as we know it was spawned in the West, so why expect Africans to write copiously within a genre (and let’s define genre here as a WAY of telling a story) that was not born in Africa? So, I think it important to fully understand what we are talking about and the various angles of it before we discuss it. Science fiction as a genre is popular in the West; it’s a style of storytelling that is normal and expected there. It’s a style into which imagining the future, the coming of aliens, social shifts, etc, is part it by definition.

Now, I was born and raised in the West; thus, I was exposed to the genre of science fiction and its importance to and popularity in society. Nevertheless, I couldn’t relate to these narratives within the books and films because I never saw reflections of myself, my family, my cultures, Africa in those stories. When I read science fiction growing up, I felt more like a tourist in those stories than a citizen. So when I first started to tell my own stories, I didn’t lean toward writing science fiction; magical realism felt most natural. But as I got older and started noticing more whenever I travelled to Nigeria with family to visit family, I started noticing Nigeria’s (Africa’s) futuristic ways. Then I started imagining. Then I looked for novels imagining what I was seeing and imagining and realized there were none. So I decided to start writing some. And because I was exposed to the genre of science fiction, I wrote the stories that I created from my experiences and observations in Nigeria in the style of the genre of science fiction that I was exposed to because I grew up in the United States.

That’s my longwinded way of saying, my being Naijamerican (Nigerian American) played a pivotal role in my writing my flavor of African science fiction, despite the fact that I really had no previous examples. I can cite stories and novels by African writers that glimpsed the future or used a sort of remotely scifi spice to tell a tale, but honestly, I wouldn’t call most of those early African narratives flat out science fiction.

Read full interview here.

What would you add to her response? Is it African to tell stories about the future?

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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