On Loving Speculative Fiction in Nigeria

Before the start of each workday, I do at least thirty minutes of reading. I do this either on my commute (when I don’t drive), or in the car at the car park (when I do drive), or at my desk an hour before office hours kick in. The first two are usually uneventful, being that only a few people tap on your shoulder in a bus or rap on your car window to ask, “Bros, what’re you reading there?”

The third, however, is a real problem.

So, I’m at my desk at work the other morning, gobbling up Ben Aaronovitch’s Whispers Underground, when my desk mate, Ele, comes in, takes one look at my book, and says:

“Looks Harry-Potter-ish. You still read this stuff, eh?”

Reasons why she’s classified my reading choices as this stuff:

  1. It’s about a wizard who’s also a policeman

  2. It involves ghosts, paranormal beings and stuff, so, too flighty for an adult.

If you’re like me and you live in a heavily traditional African country like my Nigeria, you really think you can read your SF, write your SF, love your SF in peace? The side eyes, the frowns, the shaking heads; don’t you know they’ll never end? You’re not a serious reader, not even a serious person. You're not even a serious writer if you write about these things. I mean, lots of Nigerians have no water, no good roads, no electricity, no proper healthcare, no security, no jobs and you’re here reading and writing about wizard police? Aren’t you supposed to do something, I dunno, “more productive” with your time? Any books worthy of reading should range only from motivational to self-help to academic. If you’re gonna read some fiction, you might as well read something serious like lit and stuff because you’re a grown-ass man with bills and responsibilities dammit, quit reading that childish shit!

Sigh.

The gamut of problems this sort of short-sightedness proffers is endless. I can’t even start with how it makes the escapism and pleasure that such fiction offers more of a luxury than it should be. It also means we, as Africans/Nigerians, cause the worldwide calls for diversity to be counterproductive. I mean, if you won’t read books by fellow Africans about fellow Africans who can fly or go to space, why should the rest of the world?

Then, the biggest problem for me is that, Ele's statement implies that we should reserve imagination for kids alone. Think about what that means for our future. I mean, Apple didn’t get where they did by reading Shakespeare and Biology alone, did they? This essay by Wole Talabi explains how a poll showed that speculative fiction provides inspiration for a very high number of Africans to go into STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) careers, which ultimately form a large part of the backbone of a stable and emergent future.

A quote by Octavia Butler in this essay by Percy Zvomuya on OkayAfrica aptly captures my thoughts about these matters by asking the right questions:

“What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn, to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow footpath of what everyone is saying, doing, thinking-whoever ‘everyone’ happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people?”

Maybe if more Nigerians/Africans rephrase that last question to What good is speculative fiction to us all?, it becomes easier to look beyond the traditionalist guardrails and engage in the kind of divergent thinking that leads to open minds and the realization that, maybe just like self-help and biology, speculative fiction also raises important questions and proffers answers to the multitude of problems facing Nigerians, Africans and the world today.

“Yes, I still read this stuff,” I tell Ele, reclining into my chair. “Because the world stinks and maybe I need to de-contextualise for it to make any sense, okay? Because maybe we need to look beyond the expected for understanding, ideas, solutions. Because maybe it’s the way we keep sane while keeping hope alive.”

Ele makes fewer references to my reading choices these days. Something tells me that’s a win for speculative fiction lovers in Nigeria.

Photo: 1996 Delta Vega - Star Trek by James Vaughan

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