In 2015, Google Photos misidentified pictures of black people as gorillas. Findings from Project Gender Shades (a brainchild of Joy Buolamwini, a Ghanaian-American computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League) shows that facial recognition algorithms are more accurate in identifying light-skinned (white) men than dark-skinned (black) women. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Palantir-Powered Policing Algorithm has led to ‘a vicious cycle of disproportionately high arrests of black Angelinos, as well as other racial minorities’. Further biases of Artificial Intelligence can be seen in Uber’s facial recognition system which is inefficient in identifying faces of transgender drivers, Amazon’s recruiting algorithm which ranks men’s resumés above women’s, a proposed algorithm for criminal sentences which further perpetuates the American justice system’s prejudice against Black people, mortgage algorithms used by banks which ‘discriminate against Latino and African American borrowers’, and an algorithmic gaydar which, if perfected, will jeopardise the safety of gay men and women, especially those living in countries where homosexuality is criminalized. So, you see, the future is here and it is already aping the present by discriminating, erasing, maligning, subjugating, and targeting violence against minority groups – non-white, non-male, non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual – and people living with disabilities. The future is neither being shaped by some mystical, invisible hand, nor are these biases coincidental. It is merely replicating how the society has treated (or treats) minority groups. Why should we care? Because literature (art) imitates life, and vice versa. How we chronicle the past, present, and future in fiction is important, especially if you belong to a group with a long history of being erased in fiction and in reality.
African fiction has an interesting history with queer representation and erasure. While most of African fiction published in the twentieth century completely excluded queer identity and characters, the few that dared engage queer identity portrayed it as a taboo, a post-colonial residue that can only be assimilated by an over-westernized African who has long left their deep rich African roots. This is a thing African students first encountered in American and British bars on their quest to seek university education in the white man’s land, and a moral lesson to all Africans of what one must never become. Queer characters were demonized and stripped of every iota of humanity with the intent making the reader feel a patronising pity for this lost African soul. This antipathy is best encapsulated in Edia Apolo’s short story collection where the possibility of a queer relationship was dismissed as ‘grossly repulsive, un-African …’.
It is not until the 2000’s and 2010s that queer representation experienced a renaissance in African fiction with writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, K Sello Duiker, Chinelo Oparanta, Arinze Ifeakandu, Lindiwe Nkutha, and Monica Arac de Nyeko, creating fresh narratives and humanising queer people through fiction. Even with this renaissance, African fiction that documents queer experiences is too tense because of the homophobic climate of the continent. However, there is still a lingering strand of hope for things getting better and for queer Africans to love whoever they choose to in a distant future. This is where futuristic fiction comes to play, in addressing this hope since it sets out to imagine what will be. Like other forms of speculative fiction, futuristic fiction and re-imaginings have been used time and time again by minorities to dare to dream of when and if things will get better.
Google search on ‘The Rise Of Afrofuturism’ churning out 879,000 results in 0.49 seconds, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death being optioned by HBO, Lauren Beukes and Tade Thompson scooping up the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award, and Black Panther’s commercial success are few of the many testaments to the fact that the world is paying attention to futuristic fiction written by Africans or inspired by Africa. Whether in text, graphic, or visual formats, Africans are already writing themselves into futures (a genre that has long been dominated by white people).
But how diverse are these futures that we are writing?
I only started actively thinking of how and to what extent queer characters are represented in futuristic African fiction earlier this year, after reading TJ Benson’s We Won’t Fade Into Darkness – a collection of exquisitely written futuristic short stories. As I flipped story after story of men and women defying apocalypse, gods in the shape of animals, a poet in the age of extreme censorship, Nigerians in an alternative reality where they are still colonised by the British, a matriarchal future where men are subjugated and are only hunted by women for the purpose of procreation, I could not help to notice that none of the characters were queer (or at least visibly queer).
This would not have bothered me if the book had been set in present-day Nigeria, where the LGBTQ community still faces violence, discrimination and erasure. To be erased in the present is one thing, but to be erased in the future has a dead tone of finality to it.
Futuristic African fiction featuring queer characters and identity is still a shallow pool when compared to the volume of futuristic African fiction that has been published. Most of these works are barely present in literary conversations and it takes a painstaking degree of combing on the Internet and repeated soliciting for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook to discover most of them. For the sake of specificity, this article will focus on fiction that show evident futuristic elements (high-technological advancements and scientific innovation, whether realistic or unrealistic, utopias, and dystopias) or are re-imaginations of the present written by an African. The operative definition of African is a person born in an African country or who is a national of an African country by naturalisation or who has at least one parent who fulfills one of the two aforementioned conditions.
The foremost representation of queer characters in futuristic African fiction (from the pool of works reviewed) is in Lauren Beuke’s Moxyland, a cyberpunk novel set in a dystopic, totalitarian future Cape Town. The story is told through the eyes of four central characters: Kendra, Lerato, Toby, and Tendaka. Tendaka is a gay man who, with his lover, Asharaf, is passionate about change and dismantling the present oppressive system. The duo run a programme aimed at providing shelter and food for street children. Tendeka’s zeal to right every wrong compels him to marry a pregnant refugee woman in order to secure a visa for her. There is no evidence of homophobia in Moxyland as the characters go through systematic oppression that is not consequent on their sexuality. This may be attributed to South Africa’s relative acceptance of same-sex relationships compared to other African countries.
Nnedi Okoroafor’s Lagoon, published shortly after Nigeria criminalised homosexuality and same-sex marriage, is set in a distant-future Lagos. Lagoon imagines what would happen to an already chaotic Lagos if it was invaded by aliens. Although queer characters do not take center stage in this novel, they provide an important subplot. Sadly, this is a not-too-optimistic future for queer people as we see characters like Seven (a lesbian), Rome (a gay man), Jacobs (a crossdresser) and other members of The Black Nexus (an LGBTQ student organization) face the harsh realities of being queer in Nigeria.
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, set in British-Biafran Alliance (a new country in present day South-Eastern Nigeria shared by Nigerians and the Brits after the whole of Europe has gone underwater), offers a more optimistic future for queer people. The lesbian lovers in the story, Nneoma and Kioni, do not experience any form of homophobia and are generally accepted by the society. However, this is not cut-and-dried as Nneoma and Kioni belong to a privileged socioeconomic class-– they are mathematicians who specialise in calculating people’s grief and taking it away– and class privileges can blur systematic oppressions such as homophobia. The story’s main character, Nneoma, is well-rounded and exhibits a full range of human emotions as she navigates the emotional puddles of losing her mother, separating with her girlfriend and her taxing job. No, she is not a plot device. No, she is not in the story to serve as a moral lesson. This is a character who has made this story her own.
Class is also preeminent in Amatesiro Dore’s Love And Prejudice. This story, too, shows no evidence of homophobia, save for the main character’s mother’s slight reservation of her son marrying a man. The story takes place in a technologically advanced Abeokuta, a town in present day South-Western Nigeria. Throughout the story, we follow Femi’s journey to finding love while worrying if his elitist mother, Eyimofe Emiko, will approve of his choices. Femi’s lovers range from a Biafran boy whom he asked out for prom, Dapo – who, although from a privileged background, has a promiscuous sexual history – and finally Jeremy, a Scottish immigrant.
Set in a Christian utopia somewhere in East Africa fenced off by a laser-wall, Dilman Dila’s Two Weddings for Amoit is the story of two lesbian lovers – Amoit and Aceng – who live in a society dominated by brazen homophobia. The aftermath of what is described as The Big Burn has rendered some of the women sterile. The Christian government that usurped power in East Africa after event has reintroduced an ancient tradition (Nyumba Nthobu) where a woman who cannot bear children can marry another woman to produce children with her husband on her behalf. Amoit and Aceng are members of an underground LGBTQ group, Survivors Of Gomorrah, similar to The Black Nexus in Nnedi Okoroafor’s Lagoon. With the help of a doctor who also belongs to the group, Amoit is certified as barren, allowing her to marry Aceng. Due to the strict surrounding Nyumba Nthobu, the two women are not allowed to have sexual relations, a crime punishable by firing squad. However, living under the same roof with Amoit’s husband, Amoit and Aceng throw caution to the wind. A reproductive innovation, New Sera, will threaten their love affair. At the peak of all this, we see the ‘Christian Utopia’ for what it is: a community built on hypocrisy that uses faux-morality to control its people.
Imade Iyamu’s harrowing Anabiosis kicks off in 2017 Nigeria, where the amended Same Sex Prohibition Act has been modified to include the identification and killing of queer people. The central characters are two lesbians who have decided to preserve their bodies in cryosleep for one hundred years, by which time they hope the society will be more accepting of same-sex relationships. When they come out of their sleep, the country is as homophobic as ever, whereupon they resolve to be put under cryosleep for another hundred years. This cycle continues until 2317, when the narrator wakes up to discover that a power outage has compromised the process and she is the only patient to have survived. As the bleakness looms, the narrator ponders if the future will ever bring happiness for people like her.
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater uses the realities of its main character’s foster parents to show how homophobia still persists in a Nigerian city that has survived a global alien invasion. Although the novel’s primary focus is on the protagonist, episodes such as wen his parents have to obliterate their sexual-orientation biotech signals and the government’s constant attempts to decrypt them and identify members of the queer community is used to drive home the point.
Tendai Huchu’s Njuzu follows the emotional turmoil of a lesbian whose son, Anesu, has drowned. In this post-Earth story where the characters live in HUTS (Hurungwe Utility Terra Shelters), there is an evident acceptance of same-sex relationship as the narrator and her partner, Tarisai, do not experience homophobia. However, Tendai’s insistence on using the word ‘husband’ to refer to Tarisai reinforces heteronormativity.
Wole Talabi’s Debut features Ng’endo, a Kenyan computer engineer whose promising career goes on a downward spiral when the truth of her sexuality is made public. She is forced to relocate to Lagos. While there are no lynchings or corrective rape, queer people still face systematic oppression in workplace and career development.
Keletso Mopai’s Becoming A God reimagines a present South Africa where people can metamorphose into supernatural beings who can curse or bless their subjects by manipulating the weather. The main character, Mmadjadji, is a descendant of the storm god, who was raped by her own father. The resulting pregnancy is terminated by a very crude abortion administered by Mmadjadji’s mother. Mma leaves home and never looks back. Her life lights up when she meets Bontle in university, and they get married after graduation. Sixteen years after leaving home, Mmadjadji returns with her partner. Her mother vehemently opposes her relationship with Bontle but this is drowned by the haunting horrors that Mmadjadji’s family has sworn to silence and pretended never happened.
We still need to do more than representing just cis-gay and cis-lesbian characters and narratives for futures in African fiction to be inclusive. It is paramount to have everyone at the table: transgender, non-binary, disabled, intersexual, asexual characters and narratives. Sadly, very few traditional African literary spaces are open to publishing futuristic fiction, and even fewer for futuristic fiction that features queer characters. Writers who chronicle queer narratives in the continent also risk putting their lives in danger. But, there is hope as independent online literary spaces and traditional publishing houses like the Jacana Press (South Africa) are defying all odds to publish these voices. This is very important because, in the words of Otosirieze Obi-Young, ‘this need to see oneself in literature is not a ‘trend’…it is life.’
Image: a detail from the cover of Nnedi Okoroafor’s Lagoon