The rise of Black speculative fiction

The rise of Black speculative fiction

The blockbuster success of “Black Panther” in 2018 was probably the global breakthrough that showed the extent of the popularity of Black speculative fiction. Although it was based on a Marvel comic, the series, written by the heavyweight award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, has created a legacy out of the world of Wakanda. It has spawned original stories by writers in the African diaspora that includes African American icons such as Nikki Giovanni for Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda. It seems that suddenly, Black writers were “exposed” as closet speculative fiction writers.

Two recent successes that have stretched across the Atlantic this year have been Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time and Tim Fielder’s Infinitum, with the latter’s graphic novel designed to make you fall in love with printed books all over again. Yet both writers have struggled to have their speculative fiction work published for almost 20 years. Now that the gate has finally been shoved open, Newland’s short story collection Cosmogramma will swiftly follow, and Fielder’s next books are primed to go, too. The protagonist of Fielder’s serial, Matty’s Rocket, is a Black female astronaut in monotone. It’s a time bender, gender bender with the target market also an age bender. Too often the best of “spec-fic” gets sidelined and “downgraded into YA fiction”, yet Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, set in a dystopian 22nd-century universe, was included in BBC News’ list of 100 most inspiring novels in 2019, with BBC premiering its screen adaptation in March 2020.

Another woman riding high is Irenosen Okojie. Okojie has been gathering awards since her first book, Butterfly Fish, in 2016. Last year she upended the habitual criticism the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing receives for only selecting “stereotypical” stories that gatekeepers in the mainstream expect from Black writers. On the 20th anniversary of the prize, Okojie took the £10,000 winner’s purse, with her story “Grace Jones” showing the future of dynamic writing from the African diaspora. Her novel Curandera is out in 2022.

It may seem as though this is a recent genre hype, but the emergence of Black speculative fiction writers is ancient news, because speculative fiction is an integral part of African oral storytelling. It is embedded in African folklore, traditions and culture, as part of our everyday existence, as Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize-winning novel The Famished Road testified. Twenty-four years later, Marlon James, the second Black writer to win the Booker Prize has moved into writing Dark Star, a fantasy trilogy. So the work of these writers is not revolutionary—at least, not to them. At the same time, they continue to look back for inspiration from early Black speculative fiction writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, whose classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937.

The publication in 2020 of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mumbi (longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize) is symptomatic of African oral storytelling brought into the modern day. He wrote the creation story of the Gĩkũyũ people in Kenya as a poetic narrative, showing that traditional African storytelling is alive. His short story “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ”(“The Upright Revolution”), which was created for his grandchildren, has now been translated into 98 languages. His myth can be found on pan-Africanist publication Jalada with no mention of it being a “children’s story”.

World building

I’ve been championing Black British speculative fiction writers since the 1990s. This goes as far as inviting Sheree Renee Thomas, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and now an award-winning novelist, to the UK in 2004 to teach workshops and be a special guest at Black publishing events and other literary events. This year I will be publishing the first anthology of Black British speculative fiction writers for Inscribe/Peepal Tree, edited by Leone Ross, author of This One Sky Day. Leone was the fiction editor on my magazine, Sable. She’s all about beautifully-crafted weirdness. This anthology will introduce the current generation of Black British speculative fiction writers in Glimpse, a book of original stories written by emerging writers and more established writers.

Genre fiction will always have hardcore fans, but like so many writers, what is currently seen as spec-fic may eventually be construed as literary fiction. It’s all Marmite. Whether or not that happens, Black writers are bolder now and looking further into the 21st century, and if they are not swept up by discerning publishers, they are likely to publish themselves.

“Black Panther” has thrown the possibilities wide open for Black speculative fiction to transition to the screen. Afrofuturism: Blackness Revisualized is a new film festival screening monthly films, with written critiques, until January 2022. Novels being optioned such as Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a good example, and Black British writers such as Micah Yongo, who has published two fantasy novels, Lost Gods and Pale Kings, are primed to move in the same direction—whether the mainstream publishing industry is on board or not.

Kadija Sesay is publications manager for Peepal Tree and creator of AfriPoeTree