By TJ Benson
All writing is speculative. No matter how grounded in history or current reality; even nonfiction requires a reimagining, a speculation on what we think we know. I sit comfortably with ‘speculative fiction’ as a way of seeing rather than a genre because it is impossible for me to divorce it from everyday life. Consider Harry Garuba’s opening sentence in the paper Explorations in Animist Materialism:
In front of the National Electric Power Authority of Nigeria headquarters is a larger-than-life statue of Sango, the Yoruba god of lightning, clad in his traditional outfit, presiding, as it were, over the ofﬁces of the major power generation and distribution corporation of the country.
In this description, he situates the supernatural, from an African religion mostly abandoned by descendants of its followers, in direct relation with an establishment whose utility to the Nigerian, though lamentable, is fundamental. How do we measure, in text, the utility of having the God of thunder placed in front of a modern establishment meant to provide electricity to the people? How do we gauge the extent to which our lives are shaped by urban mythologies and Legends? We speculate.
Speculative fiction is defined today as a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements. My argument is that the supernatural and the futuristic is experienced in the real world. All life, all living, is imagined. To be satisfied with this definition is to relegate the genre, to present it as a marketing tool for the publishing industry.
This thinking has led to its ostracisation and neglect in the literatures of former colonies like Nigeria, a phenomena that has endured a reversal only recently. Until now, excellent literatures like Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Bottled Leopard had to stand in isolation from other literatures that were considered to be more “realistic” yet they were greedily embraced by a generation of high schoolers whose lives, though contemporary and influenced by the western education their parents received, had space for the supernatural and mythical.
It never occurred to me that “speculative fiction” was a genre apart from any other. In my teenage years, I devoured everything from hundreds of Harlequin romances distributed in my high school to Stephen King and R.L. Stine. So when I started expressing myself a little more seriously at age 14, especially in the memoir form, I recreated pivotal experiences from the same place I would write my fiction from, my imagination. I came late to the literary establishment and so I didn’t know I was supposed to regard the genre as not being serious enough. All I knew was I was deeply interested in wonder. I pursued wonder in everything I read and everything I wrote. I never thought to question the utility of speculative fiction because my very perception of literature was through a speculative lens.
How do you question the influence of the speculative in a country where people’s penises get stolen in the market or where an entire brand of detergent was banned from the market for having “demonic” processes in its fabrication? How do you make sense of the worlds our living intersects or make any predictions about the future?
To play by the rules of the genre, speculative fiction has long served civilisations, right from ancient Greece where playrights used the genre to examine alternate versions of truth up to the 1940s when it was officially coined as a genre by Robert A. Heinlein, in a time when the “fantastical” imaginations of other writers were already foreshadowing the physical appearance of aircraft and man’s first landing on the moon. I personally would argue that the first act of speculation, the crucial element of “speculative fiction”, occurred when the first sentient organism woke into consciousness and had to make sense of the world.
This “making sense” of the world was what I was trying to do in my collection of African futurist short stories, We Won’t Fade Into Darkness. My government had thrust me into a part of the country that wasn’t ideologically a part of the country due to war and neglect. I couldn’t find any news links or reports to corroborate what I was experiencing, I felt like I was living in a conspiracy theorist’s nightmare. To grapple with the question of borders, the wastage of youth and transient national identities, I turned to the futuristic. The collection was read as a fantastical thriller, but every sentence in it was inextricably yoked to my reality and the realities of millions of young Nigerians.
I speculated. What would become of us in a hundred years to come? The collection turned out to not only be a vehicle to extrapolate current realities into the future, but also to speculate on specific cultural traditions from the past that had all but perished in the Abrahamic fervour of post-colonial Nigeria. I had set out to write science fiction, to populate my imagination with Nigerians, Africans, in the same way European fairytales and American science fiction had when I was a child, and I ended up producing something I couldn’t exactly categorise until professor Nnedi Okoroafor came up with the term African Futurism.
Spurred by the acclaim of the collection, I decided to complete my novel, The Madhouse, which I had been writing since I turned 16. In childish wonder, free from the snobbish “literary” school of thought, I had been pursuing the tale for almost a decade, seeing where my imaginations or the characters would take me. I was aware of the disagreement in categorisation my first book was causing reviewers, but I tried to not think of the implications of their concerns for the novel when it was published; I focused on capturing the general consciousness of middleclass northern Nigeria in the 1990s, when political violence unleashed on the masses went hand in hand with the rise of more fervent strains of Abrahamic religions and the pervasiveness of myths and urban legends in the society.
In rewriting my third book, People Live Here, I had to shift away from the heavily researched facts of the Yemeni Uprising and speculate on a specific human experience of the event, alongside an imagined land contest in a fictional region in Nigeria. None of these speculated realities I depict in my fiction comes close to the reality I and countless humans experience; in fact I have published an essay some have considered to be “speculative nonfiction” because it features a child of a colleague I met in Taraba state who preferred to live in the underworld as a flower. Nigeria is not bereft of events that challenge any fixed ideas of “reality”: snakes swallow millions of naira meant for examination bodies.
Rather than question the utility of speculative fiction, I am more interested in using it to question the nature of our reality. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize Lecture, he insists, “I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters.”
Certain questions can be asked in speculative fiction that might be too dangerous to ask elsewhere. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Who Will Greet You At Home asks, what would the world look like without the presence and need of men? What covert ways does the society lean towards maleness? Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass wonders, what would your life be like if you were forced into a different race? Pemi Aguda’s work asks of us, to what extent do we allow culture affect our individual lives? These questions are wielded by everyday characters who look like people we have met in the real world. They are merely navigating concise plots and are rendered in lucid language.
I use speculative fiction to seek wonder. It is abundant in ordinary life and it is my job to capture it in the ordinary clothes it wears and show it to you, dear reader, so that you can search for it in yours. So tell me, When was your last experience of wonder? E
TJ Benson, writer and visual artist, is the founder of Za! Magazine. He has published three books.