Thursday, July 18, 2024

Plumbing the Unfathomable


By Tinuke Adeyi

  • Title: Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa
  • Editor: Nerine Dorman
  • Publisher: Short Story Day Africa
  • Number of pages: 278
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

If, according to Rachel Zadok, the survival ethos of the publishers of the anthology Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa is to ‘reclaim a place for non-conformist writing’ and ‘subvert ideas about what it means to be a writer in Africa’, the anthology unapologetically declares they are here to not only survive but to blaze an exciting new trail. The small but rapidly expanding cult of enthusiasts of African speculative fiction – with all of her freak children, including futuristic tales, science fiction, stories of the supernatural and fantasy fiction – will find this third and latest result of the annual Short Story Day Africa Prize difficult to put down. Gone is what Chimamanda Adichie feared – the tale of monolithic Africa that ignores the variety of experiences and the continent’s diverse cultural heritage to focus only on shared experiences of poverty, slavery and unrest. This anthology boldly eyeballs Africa’s unfathomable depths, mirrors that depth in the skills and imagination of its nineteen contributors, and dares all comers to restate what they think is African in literature.

Most of the stories in Terra Incognita reflect the different elements of speculative fiction to varying degrees. Phillip Steyn’s ‘Esomnesia’ is however pure science fiction. In that story, the writer takes a look at memory manipulation, synthetic memory creation and the lengths to which humanity may go to transform the synthetic into the organic in a futuristic world.

Sarah Jane Woodward toes a similar line with ‘The Carthagion’ in which science fiction’s most recurring themes of time travel and virtual reality are rescued from tedious repetition in being used to tell a clever revenge story. In post-apocalyptic South Africa, a company has developed technology that allows people indulge their private fantasies in vivid if virtual detail through the manipulation of ‘consciousnesses’ and awareness. Bella’s job is to provide the consciousness of a twelve-year-old boy who is brutally murdered by his sociopathic older cousin, while the paying client takes on the consciousness of the murderer, for his own enjoyment and release. The rules change when Bella realises her client is the man who killed her own parents in an all too real bloodbath when she was a child. She goes completely against all of her training and serves revenge as a cold dish.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Meta-humans are becoming commonplace in futuristic Nigeria in Chinelo Onwualu’s ‘CJ’. Advancements in science and technology have heralded unprecedented changes and modified people’s behaviour but, as Nollywood celebrity Emeka Okafor knows only too well, public attitude to same-sex congress is largely unchanged. He is a gay man with two straight, best friends, CJ and Violet. The sudden possibility that CJ, to whom Emeka had always been attracted since adolescence, might be meta-human, gay, and a fantastic scriptwriter may mean Emeka’s symbolic transformation into The Super Man.

Perhaps the most representative of what Terra Incognita hopes to achieve is the opening story, ‘Leatherman’, by the novelist Diane Awerbuck, a somewhat futuristic account of an evening in the life of Joanna, a highly opinionated but reclusive feature writer for Allure magazine, who has just moved to Cape Town and is a tad contemptuous of the women in high fashion who populate her work environment. At a party, to which the staff of the magazine have been invited and which the ageing, virgin Joanna convinces herself to attend, she meets a tokoloshe named Hili and grapples with the sheer sexual magnetism which the creature exudes. Hili ultimately leaves her unfulfilled at the threshold of sexual consummation, as tokoloshe of Zulu mythology are wont. This evening of unfulfilled desires and disillusionment cruelly mimics the real-life frustrations of Joanna’s existence.

While each hue of speculative fiction holds its own appeal, a delicate blend of two or more is bound to appeal to a greater audience. This sentiment might have informed editor Nerine Dorman’s decision to produce an anthology that accommodates all that makes speculative fiction.

‘How My Father Became a God’, written by Ugandan Dilman Dila is a fine blend of magical realism, fantasy and the supernatural. It is set in a time so relatable to the present day as to make for relaxed, unhurried reading. One is reminded of the feeling of sipping fine brandy as Dila weaves his tale. Akidi is the only female child of her dotting parents’ eleven children and the apple of her father’s eye. She is his greatest cheerleader, never mind that he has been ostracised by family and society as a failed scientist, mad even, whose inventions are doomed and belong only in the darkest annals of history’s failures. We follow the journey of a child who will not be forced into child marriage, who respects and revels in the myths and traditional beliefs of her people with the same lively enthusiasm with which she believes in and encourages her father’s many science projects. She cheers him on into the eventual success that debunks long-held superstitions and cloaks him in that long elusive respectability of a man of science, a god among men.

Similar to the fascination of the mad scientist for his experiments is the rather disturbing, hapless attraction the protagonist of ‘I Am Sitting Here Looking at a Graveyard’ feels for coffins. Having witnessed the death of his brother, who died tragically from a malaria bout when he was ten years old, an artist is unable to shake a bizarre fascination for death and all of the things he has grown to associate it with, poverty, disease, heartbreak. It settles on him like a pall from which there can be no escape. He sees no angel in all the deaths, no matter how diligently he looks out for one. Not as long as poverty stays, as does his father’s voice, in his head. In this story, Nigeria’s Pwaangulongii Benrawangya writes from a place that feels like home.

In Sese Yane’s ‘The Corpse’, a coroner’s morbid fascination with lifelessness, beyond professional curiosity, leads him to steal a corpse from the morgue and hide it in his house in order to ponder on its peculiarity in private, for this was a strange corpse. The body had no lungs and had belonged to a middle-aged man who died apparently from asphyxia. A near recluse who abhors conversations even with his wife, the coroner passes a restless night trying to contain his excitement, soliloquising in bed. If the coroner excitedly has a conversation with himself, the protagonist of Brendan Ward’s ‘The Lacuna’ is forced into a conversation with his own mind he would rather not have. His mind, suddenly separate from and a superior entity to him, bares its contempt for humanity’s pitiful weaknesses in a savage verbal assault that tears through childhood terrors and adult vulnerabilities. It is a painful one-and-half page tirade on the centrality of words to the human condition, and a closer look at the Philosophy of Language.

Tiah Beautement’s ‘Hands’ is a modern-day vampire tale of magical realism which borrows a little from its author’s personal experience. A sufferer of an infinitely painful, chronic and debilitating illness is presented with sweet redemption in the arms of a vampire. She is frightened by what immortality would mean should she accept an eternal cure from this eternal man, but is tempted beyond anything imaginable by the promise of a pain-free existence, having lived in the torment of a condition that cost her happiness, her marriage and her friends. Worries about the hereafter prove no match for a very present pain.

Similarly, in Kerstin Hall’s ‘In the Water’ a firm believer in science and empirical evidence is forced to seek out a traditional healer for reprieve from a mystical being that notoriously torments the subjects of its interest for days before murdering them by drowning, so long as there is any amount of water nearby. The existence of this being, confirmed by the traditional healer, defies all the rules of science the protagonist lives by. When, however, his worst fears materialise, threatening the woman he cares about, he lets go of both science and terror, and embraces his instincts instead.

The dance with magical realism, the supernatural and fantasy continues with Toby Bennett’s ‘Caverns Measureless to Man’, in which a man is trapped in an underground tunnel and his only way out is to follow the lead of a faceless mystical creature whom he assumes to be a man until too late. In ‘Editöngö’, British-Nigerian Mary Okon Ononokpono tells a creation story from the unique perspectives of Calabar’s dieties. Duels between mortals and spirits, and ‘affairs’ between beasts and mortals are the running threads in Jekwu Ozoemene’s ‘There Is Something that Ogbu-Ojah Didn’t Tell Us’. A mirror turns the laws of physics on its head in Gail Dendy’s ‘Marion’s Mirror’ and time witnesses a regression that lands our protagonist in a different world. ‘Stations’, by Nick Mulgrew, traces the wandering steps of a man back from the dead. He struggles to relearn the topography of the very different South Africa he has woken up into as he goes from station to station on a train.

In Jason Mykl Snyman’s ‘What if You Slept?’ the lines delineating reality from dream blur dangerously for Hugh Heller, who suffers from narcolepsy and cataplexy, and who has accidentally murdered his only friend and caregiver in what he agonisingly hopes is the dream side of reality.

Cat Hellisen’s ‘Mouse Teeth’ introduces Elsie de Jagger who at seventeen is toothless from severe gingivitis and married to a man in patriarchal arrangement. Her husband routinely cuts himself as some kind of redemptive ritual. Elsie is tormented by her marriage, terrified of her husband’s habits and seeks the advice of the ‘witches’ (with whom she agrees that women are mentally superior to men) in dealing with her situation. She symbolically grows back her teeth and bares her full power to the ‘mouse’ who has tormented her for so long.

There is a ‘face-off’ between the alpha male of a pack of baboons and the human protagonist in Sylvia Schlettwein’s ‘Ape Shit’, and it is not clear who the victor in an intellectual duel turns out to be. It is however clear one must live with one’s choices, as demonstrated in Mishka Hoosen’s disturbing ‘Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch’. The ghost of a schoolgirl returns to haunt the teacher who repeatedly raped her years before. The teacher truly sees beauty in what he enjoyed and is willing to accept her punishing presence as the price of that beauty.

At the heart of speculative fiction lies this truth: no matter how outlandish the imagination that feeds the story is, no matter how far up or down the continuum of human existence a writer goes, there will always be that gossamer thin thread of humanity, which links all the narratives. This singular factor makes the speculations in this genre most recognisably human.

There is an undeniable, exciting upsurge of speculative fiction in African literature. Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, Ivor Hartman, Ayodele Arigbabu, Sarah Lotz, Henrietta Rose-Innes and other writers are modern-day players exploring themes in speculative fiction. These are exciting times, and Terra Incognita: New Short Speculative Stories from Africa proves that the best days are yet ahead.

PhotographIlluminated Manuscript Map of the World from Book on Navigation, Walters Art Museum.

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Tinuke Adeyi
Tinuke Adeyi
Books and writing saved Tinuke Adeyi from the life she was born into. For this reason, she is in a lifelong relationship with reading. She is a medical practitioner and lives with her husband in Lagos.

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