Right after the publication of his most recent novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize – not too shabby), Marlon James appeared on the thoroughly superb podcast “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment,” hosted by writer buddies Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. It was a great interview – those guys really bring out the best in their guests and Marlon James is one of those people who takes his undeniable genius fairly casually, a pleasure to listen to. (You can catch that here and I absolutely recommend doing so.)
At the end of the interview, James mentioned that he was working on writing a fantasy novel, partially because, as he mentioned somewhat jokingly, “I got tired of arguing about a black Hobbit.” He declared that his next project is to write “a straight up totally geeked out novel based on African mythology and African history.”
First of all, yes. Absolutely do that. James is acquiring quite the fan base, and with good reason. He’s an incredible writer, and I think we would eagerly await his next book even if it were a gardening manual. Of course, an epic fantasy novel is really so much better.
But I want to know more about this apparently longstanding argument he’s having about black hobbits, which he refers to again in his interview with Man of the World magazine (quoted in Vulture): “I realized how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings. African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings. We have stories of royal succession that would put Wolf Hall to shame. We beat the Tudors two times over.”
No one is going to deny that science fiction and fantasy are, well, pretty white. If we’re talking about books like The Lord of the Rings or the Game of Thrones series, we’re talking about writers mining centuries of Anglo-Saxon history and putting elf ears on it. Furthermore, the roots of modern science fiction were embedded in nations with overt imperialist projects, and the genre is still largely dominated by European and North American authors. (Though that is becoming less so the case, see: World Sci-Fi.)
So going back to the interview with Walter and Alexie, it makes sense that these guys greeted James’s plan with excitement as well as a sense of novelty. How zany for a ‘minority’ writer to enter into this ‘mainstream’ realm of literature!
Sherman: “You’re gonna be the godfather of the black geek movement.”
Jess: “We will be watching for the black geek movement.”
Here’s the thing – the ‘black geek movement’ is already in full swing. Black writers doing science fiction and fantasy is not really that new. There is a whole tradition of African and African diaspora writers embracing these genres to tell (hi)stories that are simultaneously violent and magical.
There are many writers I could mention, but I immediately found myself thinking about two current authors who delve into the history and spiritual beliefs of Africa and the Caribbean, and refract these through the lens of a sci-fi/fantasy format.
First, there’s Nigerian speculative fictionista Nnedi Okorafor, whose Zahrah the Windseeker (2005) and The Shadow Speaker (2007) are wonderful works for young adults that combine West African folklore, Nigerian history, environmentalism, dystopia/utopia dichotomies and strong female leads. I cannot say enough about the sheer coolness of Okorafor’s books. Her 2014 Lagoon was directly influenced by the film District 9, and explores similar themes in a Nigerian context, and her latest work for adults is The Book of Phoenix.
Then there’s Nalo Hopkinson, Jamaican born Torontonian who, among other literary feats, edited the 2000 anthology Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction as well as the collection So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (2004). One of her main themes is slavery, both fictional and historical, relying heavily upon both the folklore and the spiritual practices that form a fundamental link between Africa and the Caribbean. Her latest is the collection of short stories: Falling in Love with Hominids.
I would not necessarily expect these specific names to come up in the context of a short interview, but I also could not help noticing their absence from a discussion of contemporary black science fiction and fantasy. And I also cannot help but wonder if this is because, in addition to being pretty white, science fiction and fantasy are very male.
So if you loved The Book of Night Women and A Brief History of Seven Killings, and you’re eagerly awaiting the “geeked out” version of Marlon James, you should certainly check out Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson in the mean time.