Review of Africa Risen, a collection edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Sheree Renée Thomas, and Zelda Knight
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki has had an incredible year. He recently won the Nebula Award for his novelette ‘O2 Arena’, and the World Fantasy Award for the reprint anthology The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction, which he edited. Following on from the success of that collection, and of Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from African and the African Diaspora (edited by Ekpeki and Zelda Knight), Africa Risen offers another much-needed opportunity to celebrate the range of African-descended voices in modern speculative fiction.
And boy, does that range turn out to be vast. This anthology is so huge it’s hard to know where to start as a reviewer, and the variety of stories featured means there’s bound to be something for every reader. (A particular favourite for me, as a librarian, was Tobi Ogundiran’s ‘The Lady of the Yellow-Painted Library’, in which a man who has failed to return a library book finds himself pursued across Nigeria by an indefatigable, lizard-eating librarian.) The authors, some of whom are well-established and some of whom are just starting to make names for themselves, cover an enormous amount of ground between them, from ‘hard’ science fiction to folklore-inspired fantasy and pretty much everything in between. The perspective is unfailingly fresh, unapologetic, and unafraid to push readers out of their comfort zones. Not familiar with terms like Kizomba, amandazi, or Igodomigodo? Tough. Read on and let these writers expand your horizons!
One story that stuck particularly firmly in my head was ‘Rear Mirror’, by Nigerian/British horror writer Nuzo Onoh. The story follows Vincent, a funeral director trying to rally his team after “the tragedy”. It turns out that Vincent’s attempts to foist “the new Christian cremation process” on the determinedly pagan people of his town has been leading to some unpleasant supernatural incidents. Superbly written and darkly funny, this story asks important questions about culture clash and the imposition of religion on unwilling communities.
Tobias S. Buckell addresses similar concerns with his story ‘The Sugar Mill’, in which a Caribbean real estate agent attempts to sell an old sugar mill to an American couple, while dealing with interruptions and protests from the ghosts of enslaved workers who lost lives and limbs to the mill machinery. The Americans, busy planning to build their dream home on the site, are unconcerned by the awful history of the mill, and Buckell captures this gulf in attitude beautifully: “The question isn’t will people be upset, the question is, why would you do this?” The comedic possibilities of the story gradually wind down towards a poignant, heart-breaking ending, with the narrator feeling that he has lost everything and the ghosts gently reminding him, “But you’re free… We are so excited for you.”
The concept of virtual or alternate reality crops up quite frequently throughout the anthology. ‘IRL’ by Steven Barnes paints an impressively detailed vision of a future where Garrett, depressed by his miserable reality, escapes as ‘Shango’ to a virtual world “modelled after a fantasy Nigerian kingdom”, and has to decide where his loyalties lie as his real and virtual worlds begin to intersect. Wole Talabi takes a very different approach in ‘A Dream of Electric Mothers’: the Odua republic keeps digital copies of its citizens’ memories on a server, which can be accessed and consulted by cabinet members in times of need. Dolapo, however, wants to use her time in the “dream-counsel” to try to find the data imprint of her mother, who died recently.
Perhaps the most disturbing alternate-reality story in the collection (in fact, probably one of the most disturbing stories I’ve read full stop) is Tlotlo Tsamaase’s ‘Peeling Time (Deluxe Edition)’. Structured loosely as a rap song, this is the story of Motsumi and his muthi-tech (“part-hardware part-virus”) that allows him to edit abstract things, such as people’s trauma, into his music, “bending kidnapped women into rap songs”. Trapped inside the virtual world of the song and “chloroformed by masculinity”, Motsumi’s victims reflect on the damage done to them and other women in this fascinating, feverish examination of misogyny in the music world. I can’t say this was an easy read, but then, that’s not the point, and that goes for every one of these stories.
Africa Risen is a hugely important collection, with significance far beyond its obvious entertainment value. Black voices have been historically underrepresented in the world of science fiction and fantasy, and in bringing together some of the best new writers in the field, Africa Risen cements its place as easily one of the best collections released this year.
Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages.
When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs.
Her short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, The Antihumanist, the Nashville Review, and the anthology Mother: Tales of Love and Terror, from Weird Little Worlds Press.
Katie can be found on Twitter @_McKatie_