Africa scenery

South Africa: an African vision of fictional futures

Afro-speculative fiction anthology Our Move Next imagines a different reality, bringing together storytellers, healers and activists in Africa to write about the future.

It’s the second night of the Open Book Festival. Impepho burns softly in the softly lit room, while musician Odwa Bongo draws us into the ritual with the resonance of his uhadi. Against a background of scrolling images, Kelly-Eve Koopman and Sarah Franc Summers take the stage to launch an anthology of afro-speculative fiction entitled Our Move Next. Behind them, an eclectic assemblage of celestial photographs, surreal illustrations and dreamlike digital collages scroll across a large flat screen.

Along with Vasti Hennie, Koopman and Summers are the curators of this collection of stories and visual art that has invited activists, cultural workers, organizers and healers from across Africa to imagine a different reality for our world.

After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the in-person version of Open Book returned to the stage at the South African Literary Festival – held at Bertha House in Mowbray, Cape Town. Open Book is one of the most inventive and acclaimed literature festivals in the country. Its previous programs have created space for international writers and South African writers to engage. This year’s offering, however, focused on celebrating the work of South African authors and writers from elsewhere on the continent.

Our Move Next reflects this by intentionally locating speculative fiction in Africa. Speculative fiction cuts through reality, sometimes playing at its fringes, often going far beyond it by imagining narratives that invoke new possibilities and actions. In a previous open-book panel titled “Current Dystopia: Imagining a Landscape of the Future on That of the Present,” moderator Edgar Pieterse defined speculative fiction as the artistic or imaginative arm of thinking about justice and the future in the urban space.

“It is vital that we create our future from the continent,” Koopman said. She explained that as a genre, this literary field has been dominated by the Global North, with mostly white male writers and editors presenting dystopian futures of collapse beyond capitalism. The curators of Our Move Next felt that visions of Africa and its diaspora would offer something potentially very different.

own the future

Funded by the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Our Move Next uses speculative fiction to create a space of imaginative freedom for African activist storytellers, thinking outside the bounds of realism. This allowed the storytellers featured in the anthology to use narrative mechanics such as reimagining history and exploring parallel realities. Coupled with themes of African spirituality and redemption through community, this has led curators to describe the anthology as neither utopian nor dystopian, but somewhere in between – a place that contains pain, fear and hope in tension.

Their invitation to the contribution of activists, in particular, is characteristic of the style developed by the creative platform of the curators Backyard Pitch. Their work celebrates the imagination as transgressive and important. Previous projects that explore this theme include the early pandemic project The New Normal Game and the Digital History Archive Until We Remember.

To imagine is to own a version of the future, to insist that we deserve it. This anthology, as another expression of this principle, was partly inspired by Adrienne Maree Brown’s idea that “All Organizing is Science Fiction” and the curators’ experience of working with her as Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. In the words of Maree Brown, while organizing for social justice, “We are transforming the future, together, into something we have never known. A world where everyone experiences abundance, access, pleasure, human rights, dignity, freedom, transformative justice, peace. We yearn for this, we believe it is possible.”

Curators have called this creative process “digital folklore”. Summers said reading the selected submissions reminded her of childhood storybooks. Koopman added that folklore – the stories that form our traditions, that shape cultural belief – creates mythology and shapes the imagination. As young Africans in a historical trajectory reset by colonialism, naming the anthology “digital folklore” is a decision to reclaim myth-making from the lens given to us.

Stories by the Fireside

One of the tools writers use to break with Western imagination is to center the ancestral realm in their stories. In Of Pilgrims and Liquor, Xabiso Vili blurs the narrative boundaries between what happens in the “real world” – or this realm – and what happens in the next realm. There is a constant fusion of the ancestral and the everyday – the fusion of a protest scene, a drug-infused music festival scene and a spiritual vision. The protagonist tries to flee his ancestral ties, his relations and his responsibilities but they find him, at the bar, during a demonstration or in the beds of his lovers.

Towards the end of the launch of Our Move Next, Vuyokazi Ngemntu takes the stage to read his article entitled After Dark. Presenting herself as a healer, writer, mother and performer, she begins and ends her reading with two isiXhosa folk songs that the audience sings in unison. His piece touches on the ancestral domain but merges spiritual transcendence with the overcoming of sexuality and gender norms. The protagonist of Ngemntu has a spiritual gift that allows her to travel across dimensions, avenging women and children who have suffered domestic and sexual abuse.

That otherworldly, in-between feeling was evoked in a launch that felt like a gathering to share stories around a fire in another dimension. As the first Open Book Festival has been held outside the now closed Fugard Theater for many years, nostalgia has nibbled at the edges of many round tables. The Bertha House team were excellent hosts but it was impossible not to feel a sense of loss for the historic space, another victim of Covid-19.

However, set in the Activist Cafe, usually bubbling with the voices of Cape Town’s young and hopeful, the launch of Our Move Next offered some of the warmth that the Fugard has always offered. Audience members engaged in the discussions and stories while sitting cross-legged on plush rugs and tucked into comfortable armchairs. That fireside feeling is something the curators are likely to recreate at the upcoming Johannesburg launch, which will take place at The Forge on June 3.

The anthology is available as a free download, with a mobile version for cellphones as a social media alternative that helps readers feel more connected. “By the time it’s over, you’ve been through something with yourself and with the writers,” Summers said of reading the anthology. Although filled with pain, most stories contain some form of redemption or catharsis, usually found in relationship, with self, others and the ecosystem.

This is perhaps best captured by a refrain from Hennie’s opening contribution to the publication: “Where I’m from, people give what they can, where they can, how they can.”