I often ponder the differences between various groups of readers in this world, when it comes to speculative fiction. What is speculative fiction? Wikipedia defines speculative fiction as “a broad umbrella category of narrative fiction referring to any fiction story that includes elements, settings and characters whose features are created out of human imagination and speculation rather than based on attested reality and everyday life”. The emphasis in that quote is mine, and it frames the crux of my wondering about how different people read speculative fiction, and what speculative fiction even means to them.
In a very broad generalized sense, your average Western or westernized reader will subscribe to the notion that fiction which is labelled speculative is indeed created purely out of human imagination and not part of reality and everyday life. On the other end of that spectrum, I put the readership of the global south, many of whom would not just summarily define literature’s speculations as purely imagined and absent from reality. We all read books differently, but the differences in this instance I think are vast enough to be noteworthy.
Literary genres and labels are something I have been thinking about lately. Science Fiction (SF), as a literary genre, evokes certain preconceptions among readers. For most African readers I have encountered, and for whom speculative fiction is not ostensibly a genre of choice, SF is truly the domain of speculation. While such African readers would not call SF purely imagined and absent from reality, they almost always declare SF absent from African reality. The SF they are referring to is what they sometimes colloquially label “white people in space”. However, as any SF reader would know, space-based SF is only one facet of the genre, isn’t it? SF itself is also just a facet of speculative fiction.
The most popular film industry in Africa today is the Nigerian film industry, commonly referred to as Nollywood. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of Nollywood movies are speculative by genre, if you think about it. Going by the western approach to categorization, Nollywood movies are mostly fantasy/magic realism/horror etc. In fact, having lived in East Africa for about three years now, I have come to realize that thanks to Nollywood, the stereotypical image of Nigeria in the East African Community, is one where all Nigerians are dabblers in the occult, and every Nigerian knows how to do juju. Having grown up in Nigeria, I know that of course not every Nigerian is a juju man or woman. However, I do know that almost every Nigerian believes, to varying degrees, in some form of the supernatural, outside of what is taught by the country’s two monotheistic religions.
So, is a story about a witch casting a spell on the protagonist, or vampires drinking the blood of sleeping children something imagined? Something speculative? Not a part of reality and everyday life? Years ago in Nigeria, at a previous job, we got a new boss who didn’t quite gel with the staff. Eventually, someone told him that one of the directors had put juju on the boss’ office chair. This caused an instant crisis between our boss and the director in question. The boss had his chair immediately replaced and wanted to fire the accused director for trying to kill him. Lucky for the director, the organization’s board had not given our boss the authority to hire or fire anybody.
I once had a cat who gave birth to three kittens, a brown one and two that were almost entirely white. It didn’t take long at that same job in Nigeria, for me to hear that people were talking about me, saying I was using the kittens to practice witchcraft. Cats are generally disliked in Nigeria, because it is believed they are evil spirits or demons in animal form.
In Yoruba culture, when a child is born shortly after there has been a death in the family, this often impacts the naming of the child. For example, if a grandfather died just before a boy is born, this child is likely to be named Babatunde, which means The Father Has Returned. Or Yetunde/Yewande (The Mother Has Returned), in the case of a newborn girl and the preceding death of a grandmother.
Look at this thread from 2008 titled “Is Witch Craft In Nigeria Real”, on Nairaland, Nigeria’s most popular web forum. According to the majority of the posters in that thread, yes, witchcraft is quite real. In Ghana they have camps for witches, because these people accused of witchcraft are ostracized from society. This is not a speculative camp, or a fictionalized setting. This witch sanctuary is a physical and geographic location in Northern Ghana. Go there. If you dare.
What exactly is speculative to readers of these cultural spheres? And if I write stories from these spheres, do I alienate that particular readership by labeling my writing as speculative fiction, or fantasy? I have seen and experienced things which fall well outside of the realm of what, say, a European reader would consider real and part of everyday life. There are experiences I can talk about with, say, a West African, and they would nod solemnly, they would get it, and possibly one-up me with a story about a similar experience of their own. However, if I took that same narration to a social gathering somewhere in middle-class Germany, I would probably cause odd looks and an awkward silence…….
It begs the question, who am I writing for? And the answer to that is usually, I am writing for myself. At the same time, I also want others to read my writing and derive some sort of pleasure from it. If “white people in space” are speculative and alienating to many African readers, yet for European readers they’re merely “present/near future”, but “shape-shifting vampire witches pretending to be cats or office chairs” are “magical realism” at best and superstitious nonsense at worst for European readers, while deploying such witchcraft against your own boss in Nigeria could get you fired for attempted murder, then what is speculative, and what is real? What is imagined and what is everyday life? I think an everyday reality of life is we all inhabit the same planet (in space!), yet live in different worlds. And we all have so many different, and fascinating, and real and really imagined stories to tell.
Perhaps here on the continent, I should not call myself a Rwandan Nigerian speculative fiction writer, and instead say I am a Rwandan Nigerian non-fiction writer? 😉 Jokes aside, I would imagine, if I were a publisher I might have to rethink my labels and categories and genres, depending on the market I am selling to. Or else I might be short-changing my writers.
Image credits: “A vodoun fetish market in Lomé, Togo, 2008.” – Dominik Schwarz – License: CC BY-SA 3.0