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 Hannie, Koopman and Summers are the curators of this collection of stories and visual art that invited activists, cultural workers, organisers 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 programmes 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.
Our Move Next reflects this by intentionally locating speculative fiction in Africa. Speculative fiction reaches through reality, sometimes playing at its margins, often moving far beyond them by imagining narratives that invoke new possibilities and actions. In an earlier Open Book panel called “Present dystopia: Imagining a landscape of the future on that of the present”, moderator Edgar Pieterse framed speculative fiction as the artistic or imaginative arm of thinking about justice and the future in urban space.
“It’s vital that we author our futures from the continent,” said Koopman. She explained that as a genre, this literary domain has been dominated by the Global North, with mostly white male writers and editors presenting dystopian futures of breakdown beyond capitalism. The curators of Our Move Next sensed that visions from Africa and its diaspora would offer something potentially very different.
Owning the future
Funded by the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Our Move Next uses speculative fiction to create a space of imaginative freedom for African activist-storytellers, thinking outside the limitations of realism. This enabled the storytellers featured in the anthology to use narrative mechanisms such as reimagining history and the exploration of parallel realities. Coupled with themes of African spirituality and redemption through community, this led the curators to describe the anthology as neither utopian or dystopian, but somewhere in between – a place that holds pain, fear and hope in tension.
Their invitation for contributions from activists, specifically, is characteristic of the style that the curators’ creative platform Backyard Pitch is developing. Their work celebrates imagination as transgressive and important. Previous projects that explore this theme include early-pandemic project The New Normal Game and digital story archive Until We Remember.
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 Organising is Science Fiction” and the curators’ experience of working with her as Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. In Maree Brown’s words, when organising for social justice, “we are bending 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.
One of the tools the writers use to break from the Western imaginary is to centre 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 makes her way on to the stage to read her piece titled 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 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 Theatre 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.
However, set in the Activist Cafe, usually bubbling with the voices of Cape Town’s young and hopeful, the Our Move Next launch offered some of the warmth that the Fugard always afforded. Audience members engaged with the discussions and stories while sitting cross-legged on soft rugs and nestled in comfortable armchairs. This fireside feeling is something the curators will likely recreate during the upcoming Johannesburg launch, which takes place at The Forge on 3 June.
The anthology is available to download free, with a mobile version for cellphones as an alternative to social media, one that helps readers feel more connected. “By the time it’s over, you’ve moved through something with yourself and with the writers,” said Summers about reading the anthology. Though filled with pain, most stories have some form of redemption or catharsis embedded in them, usually found through relationship, with self, other and ecosystem.
This is perhaps best captured by a refrain from Hannie’s opening contribution to the publication: “Where I’m from the people give what they can, where they can, how they can.”
Correction, 26 May 2022: This article preciously misspelled Vasti Hanni’s name.