Thursday, 2 February 2017

Rethinking the Function of Literature in Society: Reading Fantasy and Horror in the context of modern African Societies

The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) kicked off its African Speculative Fiction Series yesterday with a talk by Nigerian horror writer and fellow African Speculative Fiction Society member, Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso entitled The Challenge of Writing African Horror and Fantasy Fiction and the Need for a New Critical Theory: A Philosophical Survey. A more compelling reason to leave Middlesbrough and head south for the time this year could not be contemplated. So, I went down for the lecture and came back this morning on the overnight Megabus to Newcastle.

Like me, Chukwunonso comes from a society where demonic entities and the means to summon them, ancient curses, supernatural powers of any sort etc- subjects dear to the heart of any speculative fiction writer- are quite real. Accounts of the supernatural and the occult occupy the mainstream media. A few years ago, a Committee of Zimbabwean Cabinet ministers was covered by the mainstream press as they took part in rituals supervised by a grade-2 drop out who claimed the vadzimu/amadlozi (ancestral spirits) had given her the ability to draw diesel from a rock. More recently, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank, Mr Gideon Gono, appeared in a press conference with the leaders of two of the largest evangelical churches, Uebert Angel and Emmanuel Makandiwa, amidst claims that their followers were finding "miracle money" mysteriously deposited in their bank accounts.

What this means for writers such as Chukwunonso and myself is that our work is treated not as fiction, but source material that reinforces such beliefs, especially to the literate classes. Rather than explore themes in works of horror, such as the fear of immigrants in Bram Stoker's Dracula or the corruption of a town in Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot, readers from such backgrounds view horror fiction as confirming what they have been told about monsters, demons and the occult by those they consider as knowledgeable about such things. They also view writers of such fiction as having inside knowledge of such matters.

Since my stories began to be published, I have been accused of being a devil-worshipper. Being a non-Christian in a society dominated by the charismatic evangelical churches doesn't help. I have also been approached by people who would like to acquire such powers. Many of the journalists I have approached about doing an interview or a review have started off enthusiastic, then frosty when they read some of my work. I am reminded of that passage in the short story Jerusalem's Lot, when Robert Boone makes enquiries about a book his crazy brother has expressed a desire to get hold of.

On 12 August, this notation: 'Rec'd two Letters in the Post today. . . one from Johns & Goodfellow in Boston.
They have Note of the Tome in which P. has expressed an Interest. Only five Copies extant in this Country. The Letter is rather cool; (Italics mine) odd indeed. Have known Henry Goodfellow for Years.'.....

Finally, 16 September:
The Book arrived today, with a note from Goodfellow saying he wishes no more of my Trade. . .

My reaction to all this has been to pen my only non-fiction book to date, The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Played in which does exactly what many Zimbabwean readers think my fiction does- expound on the occult. However, in it I emphatically deny the existence of the supernatural and offer evidence to support my argument.

I might add that the idea that African literature must always contain some sort of truth is a little older, and guided the approach of Europeans during the colonisation of the continent to writing by Africans. In A Foundation For Speculative Fiction in ChiShona, an essay I presented at the SOAS Asixoxe Conference 2016, I observed that:

As early as 1925, when Thomas Mofolo’s
Chaka was translated from SeSotho to English,
it was treated by Europeans as a biography of the
Zulu nation-builder rather than the brilliant work
of African fiction it is. A “behaviouristic study of Zulu
Life under the despot Chaka,” one reviewer described
it in 1931 (Oyeyemi, 2016).

Chukwunonso, on the other hand, has sought to understand and interpret this phenomenon as part of a wider discourse on the development of post-colonial literature in many parts of the African continent. He argues that African literature, beginning with the role played by Chinua Achebe's seminal Things Fall Apart and the Heinemann African Writers Series in defining the genre, is seen as and taught to have a functionalist value rather than an aesthetic one. The idea that a story can be enjoyed simply because it is a fantastic read rather than because it offers a profound truth about the entire continent's past and present is hardly entertained by those who have set themselves up as the gatekeepers of African literature. This is what I took from Chukwunonso's presentation. He demonstrated that such an approach to literature is not unique to the continent, nor to this time; he cites Plato and Aristotle and what they saw as the role of literature to their societies, perceptions which have continued to this day.

A theme that I think needs further examination is how African Science Fiction is celebrated while Horror and Fantasy are often kept at a a safe distance. Given how Africa has been depicted over the last few centuries, I suppose stories that depict a future where Africans travel to distant galaxies or create awesome technology are far more functionalist than those that revolve around voodoo, cannibals and homicidal maniacs- themes that have been employed to libel the entire continent and its people. Here too is the conflict between functionalism and asetheticism.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening. I was delighted to meet once again Michelle Clarke and Alena Rettova of SOAS. Writer and lecturer Geoff Ryman was also present, he offered me a suggestion for MunaHacha Maive Nei? that I will certainly act on once I finish what I am working on now. I hope I will be able to attend all of the lectures.