An African take on fictional futures: New Frame

It’s the second night of the Open Book Festival. impepho burns softly in the gently lit room, as musician Odwa Bongo draws us into ritual with the resonance of his uhadi. Against a backdrop of rolling images, Kelly-Eve Koopman and Sarah Franc Summers step on to the stage to launch an afro-speculative fiction anthology titled Our Move Next. Behind them, an eclectic assembly of celestial photography, surrealist illustrations and dream-like digital collage scrolls across a large flat screen.

Together with Vasti Hennie, Koopman and Summers are the curators of this collection of stories and visual art that invited activists, cultural workers, organizers and healers from across Africa to imagine a different reality for our world.

After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the in-person version of Open Book returned to the South African literary festival scene – held at Bertha House in Mowbray, Cape Town. Open Book is one of the country’s most inventive and acclaimed literature festivals. Its previous programs have created space for international writers and South African writers to engage. This year’s offering, however, sharpened its focus to celebrate the work of South African authors and writers from elsewhere on the continent.

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    To imagine is to own a version of the future, to insist that we deserve to do so. This anthology, as another expression of that principle, was in part inspired by Adrienne Maree Brown’s idea that “All Organizing is Science Fiction” and the curators’ experience of working with her as Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. In Maree Brown’s words, when organizing for social justice, “we are blessing the future, together, into something we have never experienced. A world where everyone experiences abundance, access, pleasure, human rights, dignity, freedom, transformative justice, peace. We long for this, we believe it is possible.”

    The curators called this process creating “digital folklore”. Summers said that reading the selected submissions reminded her of childhood storybooks. Koopman added that folklore – the stories that form our traditions, that shape cultural belief – create mythology and shape imagination. As young Africans in a historical trajectory reset by colonialism, naming the anthology “digital folklore” is a decision to reclaim myth-making from the lens we’ve been given.

    fireside stories

    One of the tools the writers use to break from the Western imaginary is to center the ancestral realm in their narratives. In Of Pilgrims and Liquor, Xabiso Vili smudges the narrative boundaries between what is happening in the “real world” – or this realm – and what’s happening in the next realm. There’s a constant merging of the ancestral and the everyday – the merging of a protest scene, a drug-laced music festival scene and a spiritual vision. The protagonist attempts to run from their ancestral ties, connections and responsibilities but they find him, in the bar, at a protest or in the beds of his lovers.

    Towards the end of the Our Move Next launch, Vuyokazi Ngemntu titled makes her way on to the stage to read her piece After Dark. Introducing herself as a healer, writer, mother and performer, she begins and ends her reading with two isiXhosa folk songs that the audience sings in unison. Her piece of her touches on the ancestral realm but merges spiritual transcendence with bucking the norms of sexuality and gender. Ngemntu’s protagonist has a spiritual gift that allows her to travel through the dimensions, avenging women and children who have experienced domestic and sexual violence.

    This feeling of the other world, an inbetween, was evoked in a launch that felt like gathering to share stories around a fire in another dimension. As the first Open Book Festival hosted outside of the now-shuttered Fugard Theater in many years, nostalgia nibbled at the edges of many panel sessions. The Bertha House team were excellent hosts but it was impossible not to feel a sense of loss for the historic space, another Covid-19 casualty.

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