Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, Ed. Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications and South Africa: Cassava Republic, 2015. [Released 2016]
Imagine this: in a dingy house by a river, you feed your mother and brother sardines and cigarettes, until one day you take them to the river in a pram, slide them in, and watch them swim away with a flick of silvery, sequined tails.
Or this: by a lake pinkened with algae, you, a police detective, flip over a body bloated with water and reeking of juniper, the very scent of your much older, much more jealous lover.
This are the trips–watery, psychedelic, intimate, and audacious–on offer in Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, a collection of 21 short pieces from established and emergent authors in South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The anthology is a synthesis of digital storytelling platform Short Story Day Africa’s annual thematic prize competition, which garnered a deluge of 456 submissions from 13 countries on the theme of “water” in 2015. While many of the stories could be classed as “African SF”–a century-old genre that’s gotten lots of recent love thanks to Marvel’s Black Panther movie and a flood of interest in Afrofuturism in the U.S.–Water moves from the magical, mystical, and galactic to taxidermy, resource precarity, class anxiety, and love.
Diverse representations of water begin with the evocative cover collage, a pastiche of thin strips of aquatic scenes–waves, dock workers, piers, ships, and seagulls–created by co-editor Nick Mulgrew. The cover art quickly dismantles illusions of Africa’s singular relationship with water or, more broadly, of a single Africa characterized by war, disease, poverty, starvation, or corruption. Mulgrew and co-editor Karina Szczurek conceptualize water as both divisive and unifying, a border and source of conflict, but also what cleans and fuels our bodies, connecting our humanity to others’.
Mulgrew and Szczurek selected Cat Hellison’s “The Worme Bridge” as the collection’s winning entry. Its narrator constructs a dark and compelling alternate reality: first her father, then her brother and mother begin to grow gills and scales; the skin of their legs melts together like wax and their hands and feet are webbed. Our narrator cares for them in the bathtub before dragging them to the river and consigning them to the deep. In “The Worme Bridge” and in Christine Coates’ “How We Are Now” (also about mythical mermaids), water makes possible through a combination of violence and sacrifice the transgression of boundaries between human, aquatic, and mythic, land and marine, life and death.
Elements of speculative and science fiction, dystopia, and the apocalypse are present in a number of stories. In Dayo Ntwari’s “Mother’s Love,” a ruling oligarchy of abusive religious leaders, the Evangelical Realm, rules a futuristic West African world, persecuting shape-shifters and building a wall against the ocean and its goddess, Yemoja:
[All] the major industrial sewage of the megacities along the West African Atlantic Coast were rerouted and discharged into the ocean. Natural rivers and water bodies within city limits were artificially dried out, and soon, the Veil began shrinking as the ocean’s pollution increased. Yemoja fell ill…sores had appeared on [her] legs and they seemed to drain her of more and more of her power.
Drawing on the West African tradition of the half-human, half-fish goddess Mami Wata, Ntwari’s Yemoja moves in the opposite direction as Hellison and Coates’ tales. As environmental waste invades her underwater kingdom, Yemoja loses her memory and the ability to protect her children with inky black breastmilk, becoming more and more human. While Ntwari’s incorporation of Nigerian pidgin may have an other-worlding effect on some readers, for others it brings the dystopian potential of rampant capital accumulation and religious fervour close to home. In a similar move, Louis Greenberg’s “Oasis” uses non-gendered pronouns “e/ir/eir” in a dystopian world where rights to the world’s water are controlled by a Swiss-based corporation and a resistance of magical water-Makers gathers in Mali. Futuristic tech has become ubiquitous in African speculative fiction thanks to the Kenyan sci-fi short film Pumzi (2009) and Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy (2015). Ntwari and Greenberg showcase the particular flexibility of the short story form, folding capitalist and (neo)colonial critique and linguistic innovation into the creation of alternate worlds.
Other stories in the collection take up and transform the conventions of detective fiction, a genre known for replicating exotic and racialized colonial fantasies. Adopting the conventions and formulas of Euro-American whodunits set in Africa (think Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile), Efemia Chela’s “The Lake Retba Murder” and Alexis Teyie’s “Mama Boi” explode them from the inside out to democratic ends. Their murderers, revealed in the final lines of tightly-controlled narratives, are African analogs of Euro-American globetrotters: one marries an Icelandic man, the other has a PhD and “muzungu problems.” Both female, the murderers disrupt stereotypes of gendered and sensationalized violence through rather mundane murders-by-drowning (no voodoo here!). Instead, Chela and Teyie refigure the Western detective story to show how quotidian middle class anxieties–an love affair, indoor plumbing—are the conditions for murder the world over.
Water as a resource also has life-or-death consequences in Pede Hollist’s “The Tale of the Three Water Carriers,” a cheeky portrait of the frenetic excitement and danger of young hustlers in Sierra Leone. Orz, Timba, and Fish capitalize on resource shortages to make a precarious income delivering siphoned water to local residents; they are simultaneously heroes of an epic freedom struggle and symbols of the community’s bleak lumpen future. Hollist playfully exploits the language of development “experts” in Africa, blending microfinanciers and “modaforkas” into a clever indictment of the conditions of resource inequality—“You want real mfs, go to the NGOs,” a government official councils when the boys ask for a loan. When Timba is killed threading traffic on his water cart and Orz and Fish die of cholera poisoning, the salvific potential of business savvy literally falls by the wayside.
Water’s final piece, Mary Okon Ononokpono’s “Inyang,” makes a historical turn, tracing the role of waterways in the slave trade and the Africans whose mastery of water routes made them complicit and wealthy. Hidden high in the branches of a tree, a young girl watches a flotilla of canoes slide below her:
Faces [appeared] as scores upon scores of small dark islands, dotted in pitch waters illuminated by the distant lights that troubled the heavens….These were people of the creek, powerful fishing folk…How cruel are the webs of Abasi Ataia to ensnare us in the very things that would give us power, but from which we are unable to draw.
The stakes are raised when she spies her father, dressed as both an African and a white man, guiding the passage. Convicted, the girl vows to “return and stem the tide,” to become Mother Ocean “whose waters house constellations and multiverses yet unknown to humankind.” Inhabiting a moment when a counterfactual—a “what-might-have-been”—future is still possible and evoking the black diasporic idea of the sea as grave, “Inynag” prefigures a growing trend of watery feminist histiographies in African fiction, including Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (Ghana), Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King (Liberia) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea (Kenya).
Thanks to Nigerian novelist Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous 2009 TED talk, today’s readers of African fiction are thoroughly disabused of the myth of the “single story.” But certain themes still prevail: in Africa, scarcity and conflict are often represented in terms of thirst, drought, and water wars. Water’s great strength is its celebration of the many watery cartographies within African fiction: its rivers, lakes, oceans, pipes, tubs, and bottles. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes, African literature is best imagined like “the sea or the ocean…The sea is constituted of many rivers, some of which cross many fields, but the rivers and their constituent streams do not lose their individuality as streams and rivers. The result is the vastness of the sea and the ocean.” Water captures this vastness, moving fluidly through diverse styles and forms. A constellation of dystopia, fantasy, mermaids, murder, love, and scarcity, it embodies
SSDA’s “survival ethos:” to subvert singularity and to reclaim a multiplicity of genres, times, spaces, and languages. Ngũgĩ turns to the ocean as a way to rethink the traditional organization of literature along national boundaries, and we would be wise to consider his ideas in relation to Water. The collection features stories from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Kenya, but the presence of South and southern African looms almost as large as silences from east and north Africa, not to mention Francophone, Lusophone, and vernacular languages. While it’s certainly not a prerequisite nor even possible to represent all 54 African nations in a collection this size, it’s notable that the top prizes were awarded to three white authors. Asked about this decision,
SSDA founder Rachel Zadok defended it by reasoning, “[Just] read Water. You’ll find at least 10 other stories that could have won.” That’s true—the quality of every single piece is magical. So why didn’t they? Ultimately the answer, like the question of water itself, is one of pipelines. For most of the history of modern publishing, African writers have had restricted access to global publishing houses, creating a small pool of fiction digestible within the “single story” framework. Authors in racial majorities or highly developed countries receive more training and opportunity. An innovative online and social media publishing platform, Short Story Day Africa (who received their seed funding from GoFundMe campaigns) is changing the game, expanding opportunities for mentorship and publication for African authors, especially those pushing the high water marks of style, form, and subject matter. Along with a growing community of online African literary platforms like Jalada, Afreada, and Brittle Paper, SSDA is active on Twitter and Facebook. They hold an annual competition and writers’ workshops, and participate in the yearly Writivism festival identifying and promoting young writers. Slowly, the pool is widening and deepening, shimmering with new narratives and new voices. As readers yearning for deeper and broader representation of authors from the entire continent, it’s urgent we participate in these trends—clicking, reading, sharing, and funding—so the tidemark of African fiction continues to rise.