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Shadreck Chikoti: Speculative fiction is wide in its scope

Shadreck Chikoti

Shadreck Chikoti

Shadreck Chikoti is passionate about the development of writing in Malawi and across the African continent at large. In 2013, he started the Story Club, a gathering of like-minded enthusiasts of the arts, encompassing writing, books, criticism, filmmaking, etc. He was vice president of the Malawi Writers Union, MAWU, for a while, and also co-founded Pan African Publishers, where he serves currently as director. In 2013, his futuristic novel, Azotus the Kingdom, received the Peer Gynt Award – one of the many literary accolades he has won. He has been featured in several literary anthologies, including All The Good Things Around Us: An Anthology of African Short Stories and To See the Mountain and Other Stories, from the Caine Prize. Notably, he was celebrated by Africa39 as one of the “most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature” in Africa. The Malawian writer and social activist has also been identified by CNN as one of the writers to read in Africa.

Chikoti spoke with Wesley Macheso.

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Wesley Macheso: Shadreck, most people know you as a versatile writer who experiments with style and genre. You were recently listed by CNN as one of seven must-read African authors and you were previously nominated by the Africa39 project as one of the most promising African writers under forty; tell us more about your passion for writing and what you intend to communicate through your work?

Shadreck Chikoti: I write what I like. I put my writing in the public domain because I presume that there might be some people who might be persuaded to like what I write. I don’t write with an audience in mind. I don’t have one particular intention for my writing. Sometimes I write because the story is funny and I want to laugh out loud. Sometimes it’s to challenge a notion, while other times it might just be for the aesthetics of writing, experimenting with words, or just for the pure joy of describing a scene or scenery. I don’t believe in what people say, that a writer is a teacher, or a custodian of culture, that he must have one purpose for his writing. A writer is simply a person who tells stories by using the written word. And writing is my passion. I published my first article when I was nine. Now I am getting close to forty. So, you see, it’s my life.

Wesley Macheso: African literature is known for being a battlefield for several debates – ranging from colonialism, independence, to the gender/sexuality question. What is your take on how these debates should be handled in writing, and what do you think is the role of the contemporary African writer on the same?

Shadreck Chikoti: I think every writing is a battlefield for so many debates. That’s why we have critics all over the world having things to say about what we write. But yes, the world looks at African literature differently from the way they look at other literatures. Many critics, when talking about African stories, concentrate on the “what” question. Like what is the author saying here. They would ignore the “how”; the beauty of one’s writing. Writing needs to be meaningful, but not always. I need to be at liberty as a writer to write about a butterfly, describing its colors, and how it flies. I can, if I want, relate the colors and the flying of the butterfly to a particular aspect of life, but I am not mandated to always do that. There was a time I’d written a love story set in Copenhagen, Denmark. It had no black person in it. I sent it to an agent. It was accepted. The agent sent it to a publisher. It was accepted. But then, the publisher learnt that I was an African from Malawi and declined to publish it because it didn’t sound like African literature. And I have a problem when people describe African literature by its content and describe other literatures through descent. Like an African writer is a writer who writes about African issues but an American writer is simply a writer from America.

Wesley Macheso: Among these debates is the issue of African writers writing “poverty porn”. It has been argued by some critics of African literature that African writers are often writing for Western audiences who are very central to defining the standards and quality of our literature. As such ‘we write what they like’ to our own detriment. The Caine Prize, for example, has been accused of aiding this practice. Knowing that your short story “Child of a Hyena” appeared in the Caine Prize anthology, To See the Mountain and Other Stories (2011), what can you say on this controversial issue?

Shadreck Chikoti: The West has been very central in defining African literature. I guess it started with the publishers. I don’t think Chinua Achebe would have had the same impact on the continent had he published his book in Nigeria. But the thing with publishers is that they have their own lenses of looking at literature. And as African writers we never sat down to challenge that. We allowed it pass for ages. The Caine Prize doesn’t really tell you of how you should write your story for it to win, but then you study the stories that have won before, and you begin to form a pattern in your head. You convince yourself to write in that particular way, your story is then selected and it is poverty porn. I wonder though because most of the judges for these African prizes are African. Like is it really the West, in the case of the Caine Prize, or is it us? That we have gotten used to business as usual and that we have internalized the poverty porn mentality? One solution is to have African publishers and African Prizes on the continent. I am happy that this is happening already. I see how that African speculative fiction is growing. There is a society of speculative fiction that was born two years ago called the African Speculative Fiction Society and it has gathered so many writers across the continent in the genre. They even have an annual award for various categories called the NOMMOS. It is an organization that has set a pace and that will define, on its own terms, African speculative fiction. So, in short, the West is not entirely to blame, we have played our part in bringing about this concept of poverty porn by dancing to the tune. Also, do you see how a work of art in Africa will be meaningless until someone from the West begins to celebrate it? My book was published in Malawi but people got interested to read it in Malawi when it was featured on CNN, and when they heard it had been shortlisted on this all-Africa speculative fiction award and that it was being studied in some university in the US. It’s a cycle we need to break and I am happy we are already doing that.

Wesley Macheso: As you say, you have gained a reputation as a champion for African speculative fiction or what is known as Afro-futurism. A publishing company you founded – Pan African Publishers – published a collection of speculative fiction titled Imagine Africa 500 (2015) and your futuristic novel Azotus the Kingdom (2015) won the 2013 Peer Gynt Literary Award, tell us more…

Shadreck Chikoti: In November 2014, Pan African Publishers, (which is a company I founded in 2008) and the Story Club, a space that gathers anyone with an interest in the arts, hosted a writers’ workshop in Lilongwe. Ten young writes from Malawi gathered together and led by Billy Kahora (editor at Kwani?, Kenya), writers; Beatrice Lamwaka, Jackee Batanda, (Uganda), myself, and Trine Andersen from Denmark, co-founder and director at PAP, developed skills in short story writing and focused on speculative fiction, (world building and all).

The last assignment for the young participants was to write a story for an anthology, keeping in mind the subject of Africa 500 years from now. Apart from the Malawian stories, there was also a call for submission for writers across Africa who ably contributed their thoughts about the continent’s future. This is how Imagine Africa 500 came about. It has been defined by other scholars as one of the finest anthologies when it comes to African speculative fiction. Among others, it features writers like Muthi Nhlema Tiseke Chilima, Dilman Dila, Lauri Kabuitsile, Chinelo Onwualu, Catherine Shepherd, and Stephen Embleton. My novel, Azotus the Kingdom, is also set in a future Africa.

Wesley Macheso: While we are on the topic of Afro-futurism, a recent article titled “Writing the possible and the future: style in Malawian speculative fiction” which appeared in the Journal of Humanities argues that “Malawian writers appear unaware of the functions and ways of storytelling, especially in speculative fiction”. The critics argue that, in Azotus the Kingdom, for example, you fail to follow through the basic concepts of world building. The argument is that you and other Malawian writers are not creative or imaginative enough to write the future. A bitter pill to swallow?

Shadreck Chikoti

Shadreck Chikoti

Shadreck Chikoti: It turns out the critics were mere students of literature. They have never studied speculative fiction at all. In their paper, they ignore the fact that speculative fiction is wide in its scope. They define it as, “Writing that rewrites a reality.” I had a problem with that from the onset. The lens was so small to be used on a wider spectrum of Malawian speculative fiction. Generally speaking, speculative fiction is very broad. It encompasses science and fantasy, and all other kinds of writing such as horror, magical realism, superhero, alternate history, and sometimes it may even be used to categorize stories that don’t fit anywhere. That said, I realize that as a writer my work is subject to scrutiny and that I must not be incensed or react inhospitably when someone points out defects in my work. It actually helps me to grow as a writer.

Wesley Macheso: From your experience as a writer, do you think there are ground rules on how an author must imagine the future?

Shadreck Chikoti: No. The ground rule there is, is one that suits all types of writing. Make your story believable, and there are ways of doing that through characterization, setting, and all other elements. Just make us believe in your imagination.

Wesley Macheso: This argument on writers failing to creatively imagine alternative and possible worlds has also been raised in a review of the recent movie Black Panther – “Africa is a Country in Wakanda” – that appeared on Brittle Paper. The argument being that if Wakanda (the fictitious country in the movie) is centuries long in isolation from Africa, why is it that its inhabitants have failed to generate their own unique culture or language (since most of the characters exhibit aesthetic influences from various African cultures). A compelling argument perhaps?

Shadreck Chikoti: Can’t really say much on Black Panther because I watched it once. I know that Nneedi Okorafor, a writer from Nigeria and based in America, and also a friend and someone I highly adore in the speculative writing field, developed the story line for the movie through the initial comics. I, in fact, had to travel all the way to Zambia, more than 1000 kilometers from Lilongwe, to watch it, because you know, we don’t have cinemas in Malawi. Why? Because we have other important things to do and look at. LOL.

But here was what I understood about the movie:

Wakanda is a futuristic country in Africa but it is not in the future. It has been isolated from the rest of the world for centuries but its inhabitants have been in touch with the rest of the world and this includes the former Black Panther himself, who even had to birth a son in a foreign country. It is no wonder that the ingenuity of the Wakandans themselves allows them to incorporate different cultures from across the continent to form their own cocktail of a culture. Question is; why do we continue to imagine that the future will completely be devoid of elements from the present?

Wesley Macheso: As a writer of speculative fiction and a gender activist, in a way, what do you think should be the place of gender in an African writer’s imaginary future?

Shadreck Chikoti: I seriously hate templates or formulas in writing. So, my answer is simple on this one. Write stories that are believable and that are not biased towards a particular gender. People in any story should be portrayed as people with all their strengths and flaws. Write stories that are positive and not preachy towards the issues of gender. There is no limitation to imagination.

Wesley Macheso: And Azotus the Kingdom was shortlisted for the Africa Nommo Awards for speculative fiction….

Shadreck Chikoti: The Nommo is currently the biggest Award on the continent when it comes to speculative fiction. Being shortlisted was an enormous privilege for me. It is encouraging and it has given me extra wings to fly this path.

Wesley Macheso: You are arguably one of the most active of Malawian writers. Your efforts in the industry range from establishing a publishing company to setting up The Story Club in Lilongwe. Tell us more about these projects.

Shadreck Chikoti: The Story Club was founded in December 2013. It is a space that gathers artists and lovers of art to celebrate the arts. It features all disciplines.

I strongly believe that in this century art will continue to shape the affairs of our society. And as someone who is biased towards speculative fiction, I believe that art reaches far into time, creating possibilities ahead of now. Leonard Da Vinci imagined the future hundreds of years before it came into being. Artists, writers, have envisioned floating cities, robotic empires, artificial lives, and a take-over by machines. Science follows these dreams, tracking these thoughts, these possibilities, approving or disapproving them. Art is the architectural model, while science is the actual building project. The power of art is in the imagination while the power of science is in making those dreams material. In this century art will be as important as science. It was this realization that birthed The Story Club.

Since its inception the club has invited writers and artists from outside Malawi as well. We have had Tsitsi Dangarembga, Jackee Batanda, Billy Kahora, Shafinaz Hassim, Zukiswa Wanner, James Murua and many others. A few months ago we launched a book written by the former Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi, Asbjorn Eidhammer. We have had music performances by Malawi’s finest, workshops, film festivals, and many other events. One interesting aspect; the Club does not run on any funding from anybody. It is funded through the artists themselves.

Wesley Macheso: You will be sitting on the judging panel for the Writivism Short Story Prize in Kampala, Uganda, later this year. What does that mean for Malawian writing?

Shadreck Chikoti: Writivism is arguably one of the best spaces showcasing African literature. They have labored so much to promote writing and their prize has gained a reputation of its own. It is one of the most legit prizes on African writing. Chairing the panel of judges this year means a lot to me as person but also speaks volumes of where we are going as a nation when it comes to literature.

Wesley Macheso: On a lighter note, Shadreck, who do you think holds the future of Malawian writing and how should they handle it?

Shadreck Chikoti: Working with the Story Club and Pan African Publishers Ltd has made me a very happy writer because now I realize that there is so much talent in Malawi. There is so much hope. I think all we need are skills and outlets for our works. There is hope in upcoming writers, and I am one of them, I think. Together we will make this dream possible. We need networks, encouragement, and support. But we are getting there and it won’t be long.

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