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Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism

A couple of weeks ago, we published an essay on Afrofuturism 2.0. The Afrofuturist movement strives for a space for independence and self-determination for Black people and rejects European universalism. Yet writers on the African continent have also expressed how this label doesn’t speak to and for what they are doing. Mohale Mashigo and Nnedi Okorafor are amongst these voices, and Okorafor has presented an alternative name for what she does: Africanfuturism.

The coining of the term Afrofuturism is mostly attributed to Mark Dery. In the preamble to an interview published in 1994, he described this type of writing as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (180). In a world where technology has so often been brought to bear against Black and Brown bodies, Dery framed Afrofuturism as a kind of writing that sought to reimagine an empowering relationship to technology. At the same time, he emphasised a particular need perhaps felt acutely by African Americans – whose histories have oftentimes been violently erased by the transatlantic slave trade and its consequences – to take ownership of the capacity to imagine the future.

In the preface to her book of short stories Intruders, published in 2018, the South African writer Mohale Mashigo rejected Afrofuturism. In an abridged version, published with The Johannesburg Review of Books and available here, Mashigo articulated the view, revealed by the title of her article, that “Afrofuturism is not for Africans living in Africa.” As she put it: “Our needs, when it comes to imagining futures, or even reimagining a fantasy present, are different from elsewhere on the globe; we actually live on this continent, as opposed to using it as a costume or a stage to play out our ideas.” For Mashigo, different contexts make different demands for the type of future writers need to be capable of imagining, or making imaginable. South Africans needs to be able, as she describes it, to imagine a future not structured by poverty and the particular version of white supremacy bequeathed by apartheid. In her wording, there also seems to be an implicit critique of using the African continent as a mere backdrop or setting. This is a view I must confess some sympathy with, having been repeatedly frustrated, for example, by the insistence of Hollywood movies on casting North Americans to play the leads in films set in Africa, and a consistent instrumentalization of African landscapes as dramatic backdrop for stories that play out predominantly between non-Africans.

Nnedi Okorafor, who is perhaps the most well-known writer of speculative fiction about the African continent (find a review of her book Lagoon here), has also recently positioned herself in the discussion about Afrofuturism and alternative framings. In Africanfuturisms: An Anthology, published in October 2020 and made freely available for download by Brittle Paper, Okorafor has written a foreword called “Africanfuturism defined”. She describes how, though she had previously accepted designations of what she does as ‘Afrofuturism’, she now finds this doesn’t speak for her writing. Rather, she is writing “Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism”. The difference to Afrofuturism is that “Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view… it does not privilege or centre the West” (10). This seems to be an important distinction, and the rootedness of Okorafor’s own work in African modes of knowledge-production and storytelling is evident in the way she weaves indigenous epistemologies into her narratives. In this way, Africa is never only a setting, but is constitutively stitched into the fabric of the stories she tells.

Given that Dery’s delineation of Afrofuturism was, from the first, an articulation that positioned African Americans centrally, it is perhaps not so surprising that there are writers working in and on the African continent who find this housing doesn’t quite fit them – it wasn’t really made to. As Okorafor points out, this doesn’t preclude Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism from being in critical solidarity with each other; it just differentiates between the different needs felt and the different approaches taken.