Speculative fiction symbolises our changing times and aesthetics

Kenyan author, chess champion and Jalada Africa co-founder Mehul Gohil is known for his unique, innovative writing style

In Summary

• It serves as a refuge from the constraints of reality

Extraterrestrial topography, including two suns
Extraterrestrial topography, including two suns

Speculative literature in Africa serves as a captivating source of entertainment and escapism, offering readers a break from the mundane realities of life. This genre has evolved significantly, becoming an integral part of Kenya's literary scene, characterised by its diverse and vibrant aesthetics.

Its growing popularity among young urban Africans can be attributed to its unique ability to craft imaginative and allegorical narratives that address contemporary societal and political issues. This enables readers to connect with their cultural backgrounds in a global context, fostering creativity and providing fresh perspectives on their rapidly changing urban environments.

Speculative fiction also serves as a refuge from the constraints of reality, acting as a platform for discussions about identity, social challenges and historical narratives. This multifaceted genre is a compelling and thought-provoking force for the younger generation.

Within this realm of vibrant creativity, speculative literature draws from African oral traditions, echoing the colourful folk tales that once captivated our ancestors. This age-old tradition has left an indelible mark on our post-colonial popular culture, with witty maxims adorning public transportation vehicles and various forms of commercial prose available in both English and Kiswahili. An amusing maxim I came across in a matatu to Thika read: “Do not insult the donda (conductor), he may be your in-law!”

From urban living guides on how to get rich using religion, to marital salacious gymnastics how-to manuals, the literature on our streets covers a spectrum of wonder. It even includes recycled Internet content transformed into testimonials on Christian ethics, and manifestos offering advice on avoiding neighbourly disputes due to Kenya’s sky-rocketing taxes.

These books find a home in our bustling “Inama” bookstores, where readers, several in bending formation, often start their visits by peering, without purchasing, at headlines from our politicking newspapers before engaging in spirited debates and mock fistfights about the current president’s virtues or lack thereof.

It’s common to see these same individuals uniting against the national government’s policies, with disappointment etched in the corners of their sneers, bent lips betraying saliva-droplets of hunger, particularly regarding exorbitant textbook prices for the new curriculum.

The ingenuity that fuelled our ancestors’ creation of myths, fantasies and surreal tales is the driving force behind contemporary African speculative fiction. This genre embraces supernatural and futuristic themes, with science fiction being a prominent example. These stories resonate particularly well with Africans, especially those in urban landscapes.

A writer recently explained to me why there is a ready market for speculative literature and pop art in our midst. Speaking between mutura bites at the old Ngara bus stations near Jamhuri High, and using a miniature wooden lance made out of a matchstick from a box in her purse to pick her teeth, she argued chewinglingly that Kenyan children raised on cartoon networks and smartphones have had an entertainment gap since preschool.

As they grow and become literate through formal education, they seek to fill this void in their minds with the phantasmagoria of sci-fi movies and speculative fiction. Her earnest expression convinced me; I’m a father of several Ninja Turtle addicts who compete for the TV remote gadget with their Sophia-the-First sisters.

Kwani Trust, known for its unwavering commitment to alternative narratives, techniques and aesthetics that express the essence of contemporary Kenyan society, has played a pivotal role in nurturing speculative fiction. This organisation has become a literary hub for complex works, including those by writers like Nikhil Singh and Mehul Gohil, a celebrated speculative and experimental author.

Gohil, a Kenyan author and one of the founders of Jalada Africa, Kenya’s most vibrant literary network today, is known for his unique and innovative writing style, influenced by authors such as Don DeLillo and Dambudzo Marechera.

His passion for the aesthetics of Michael Jackson’s musical art is well known. This remarkable speculative author, who began his journey within the folds of Kwani Trust, is now recognised for his distinct contributions to the genre.

His hallucinatory short stories, such as Farah Aideed Goes To Gulf War, challenge conventions through non-linear narratives, incorporating diverse elements like literary references, chess, cultural observations and unexpected twists. This distinctive narrative style fosters thought-provoking discussions and adds depth to the realm of speculative fiction.

He also plays for the Kenyan national chess team and is an ardent storyteller when he’s not working at a firm in Nairobi. Currently, he’s working on a book about chess. Gohil identifies DeLillo’s meticulous attention to sentence-level details and technical tricks as a significant influence, along with Marechera’s surgical precision and plastic storytelling style. I introduced him to Marechera after falling in love with his extraordinary approach to African narratives.

A prominent figure in the speculative fiction landscape on the continent today and abroad, Mehul, alongside Clifton Gachagua, was featured in the 18th issue of The Manchester Review in 2017, dedicated to Speculative Fiction from Africa. This issue showcased the works of prolific speculative fiction authors, including Nnedi Okorafor, Ziphozakhe Hlobo and Ugandan Dilman Dila.

Gohil acknowledges the challenges in the Kenyan literary scene, particularly the presence of literary tribalism, where writers are divided into factions. This division poses obstacles to the unification of literary voices and recognition of new talents.

He mentions the need for established publishing houses to evolve and scout for fresh talents more effectively, similar to how Jalada operates in discovering and nurturing emerging writers across divides. Gohil believes that the newer generation of Kenyan writers, influenced by the post-Binyavanga era, embraces individualistic writing, contributing to a more diverse and vibrant literary landscape. Despite these challenges, he remains optimistic about the opportunities for talented writers and the positive atmosphere in the Kenyan literary scene.

As one of Kenya’s foremost speculative fiction writers, Mehul Gohil is excited about the opportunities and positive developments in the African literary scene. He looks forward to furthering his career, especially through events like the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project. For him, writing is not just about aesthetics; it’s the power to invent universes and multiverses of wonder beyond imagination.

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