Stephen was born in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and is now a resident in Oxford, United Kingdom, after the 2022 James Currey Fellow at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University. His background is Graphic Design, Creative Direction and Film. His first short story was published in 2015 in the “Imagine Africa 500” speculative fiction anthology, followed by more in the “Beneath This Skin” 2016 Edition of Aké Review, “The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! Vol.2”, the debut edition of Enkare Review 2017, The Bloody Parchment, AfroSFv3, The Kalahari Review, Burning House Press, Omenana Magazine, and The Shallow Tales Review. He was featured in Part 11 of the 100 African Writers of SFF on Strange Horizons. His debut speculative fiction novel, Soul Searching, was published in the UK and US in August/September 2020 – and was shortlisted for the Nommo Awards by the African Speculative Fiction Society, in May 2021. He is a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society and its Nommo Awards initiative. His then unpublished YA fantasy novel, Bones & Runes, was a top 5 finalist in the 2021 inaugural James Currey Prize for African Literature, and was published in the UK in February 2022. He was also awarded the James Currey Fellowship at African Studies Centre, Oxford University in 2022. His essay “There is Magic in African Literature” (and cover feature) was published in the University of Oxford, African Studies Centre 2022 Newsletter. Stephen was the editor of The James Currey Anthology 2022, featuring short fiction and non-fiction with contributors hailing from Botswana to Nigeria, Ghana to South Africa – writing from the Continent or in the Diaspora. Stephen is one of the ten African writers making up the Sauúti Collective, a group of African writers who created the Sauútiverse shared-world fantasy and speculative fiction universe for a short story anthology and beyond. He was on the Sauúti Collective panel at the Aké Arts & Book Festival 2022 in Lagos, Nigeria.
The Sauúti Collective. Do let us in on this project
A group of us African writers, spread all over the globe, came together in early 2022 to build a fictional speculative and fantasy universe, based on our African traditions and belief systems. Early on we identified the central theme running through this universe to be the power of sound (the magic system is sound based), and the power of the word – we have, after all, vibrant oral traditions on the continent. We had a three-fold objective for what we wanted out it. First, for us to build a vast, unique fictional world where we could write and create (art, music etc.) both fantasy and speculative/science fiction. We did this in amazing ways which inspired every one of us to begin the second objective: creating stories and artwork within this fantastic world. As we all began our final drafts of our stories, second and third story ideas began emerging – a testament to the solid world-building and exciting worlds. The time was right for our third objective: inviting outside contributors into the Sauúti world. And this final objective is the magic of the project – creating a platform for other African writers, particularly those starting out or wanting to start out, where the groundwork for any storyteller (world-building) is already there. Come and build on it with us!
There has been a lot of ground broken in the area of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) with Donald Ekpeki, Nnedi Okorafor, Cheryl Ntumy, Wole Talabi, and others leading the pack. What is your vision for the future of SF, and how does the Sauúti Collective come into play?
More African writers, the ones that made themselves visible on the global stage, are now able to, and do, support and create avenues for those emerging into the field. The future, then, is African writers making their own space in the global SFF collective, creating and supporting their own mechanisms for publishing (for example, African editors editing African works – editors with an understanding of what’s on the page, including language). At the same time, we write our stories no matter the western gaze.
Then, through necessity, we have had to define our work – if we don’t then others will, and they won’t get it right. It’s important we frame where and how we see ourselves and our work. Nnedi Okorafor is someone who has boldly done this by framing her work within African Futurism and African Jujuism. This means a lot. We have this power, the power from our own continent, the power from our own stories and creations, to exert our own views on it, have opinions on it and thrive with the groundwork those before us have put down concretely. The Sauúti Collective is a safe space for African creators to play in, with its own ground work in the world-building laid out for contributors.
Dr. Onyeka Nwelue invited me to the University of Oxford in 2022. I’ve been here talking, sharing and hopefully opening doors for African creators and the work that’s been and being done in the African SFF arena. That’s not something I ever thought I would get the opportunity to do, so I will do my part to signal boost our work. For us. Grow upward and expand outward.
Last year, you edited the first edition of the James Currey Anthology. As the James Currey Fellow to University of Oxford, how did your conversations with Mr. Currey open your eyes to literature in Africa?
James Currey has given me great insight into what it means to publish African works – whether it be those he helped publish from the 1950s onwards, and are now household names, to writers today. Finding the voices of those bold enough to put those ideas, experiences and stories to paper, no matter what, is vital. I commented to him that as publishers it is a lot of work and responsibility to do it, and his response was, “It’s fun. It’s not work!” And he is right. At first, I was daunted by the responsibility of the anthology, as well as having to reject some – I’ve been on that end of the process! When you realise that yes, you may have a pile of reading to do, you have the privilege of reading these stories for the first time. I will tell you there is an abundance of potential writers out there, which is encouraging because it means there are readers as well. And the end result is allowing those unique voices to be heard. You are facilitating the sharing of those ideas and experiences. Wow!
And my own research, and evidenced by the anthology itself, shows that many or most African works of literature bend genres and cannot be pigeonholed into one. This is magic!
How effective do you think the literary structure on the continent is for SFF writers to thrive like their peers outside it? There is an immense talent base here in Africa. What do you feel needs to be done to harness this punch power?
It’s getting better, but it tends to be more in the short fiction realm than novellas and novels. More readers are coming to it but the publishing is the real issue. Eager readers don’t necessarily translate into readers able to purchase work.
Here is a sign of hope for you: While at Aké Festival in November 2022, I met with a teacher librarian who heads up a library in Ikoyi, Lagos. She shared an astounding insight with me: their two age groups 13+ and 16+ of around thirty kids in a group will take out around fifty books a day! Wow. Some taking two books and others wanting more, but can’t, because they have long distances to walk or travel to get there that they don’t get back in time to exchange when completed. That is encouraging. But they want to read on their terms. She tells how they will reject “the classics” in their school curriculum because they don’t understand the old English texts. Tom Sawyer! Boring. I agree.
This library wants to buy a minimum of 30 copies of Bones & Runes for their children (16+ years old) with 3 copies in their library permanently (the children get a copy for themselves — paying whatever necessary to get them in from the UK. They then get the kids to read the book and have a Zoom session with the author for Q&A — they try to source select authors who deal in African themes rather than Harry Potter – they want to relate to it! The kids want African fantasy. Bones & Runes!
And so, the external support for those publishing SF (and publishing in general) is what is needed. Omenana is an absolute beacon for SF on the continent – and they are free to read their editions. The Shallow Tales Review is a stellar literary journal, and it is free. We need to support these institutions in some way as individuals but also bigger organisations – but without strings and holding sway over editorial. As with literary prizes and sponsors.
In an interview, you mention you were born just on the cusp of the introduction of TVs in South Africa. You started out with web designs. How, then, did writing begin for you?
As a kid I wasn’t a big reader. Comics and TV were my life to such a degree that my family could ask me what was on TV in three days‘ time and I could rattle that off quite happily. I drew all the time and wanted to be a cartoonist. Then in Standard Seven, (high school grade 9) I read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and was blown away by his vivid descriptions. You could paint with words. I wrote one of my best essays for English, and never went back to it. By the way: there is real value in comics and graphic novels as literature, and they are gateways to longer written works.
In my mid-twenties, a friend (an engineer and collaborator in web and interactive design) gave me Iain M. Banks’ The Use of Weapons. That blew my mind in terms of its structure (mixed reverse chronology). You’re reading chapter one then you’re reading chapter thirty-eight. I didn’t know you could do that with a book, that you could structure a story creatively. That stirred something in me, and I wrote a novella (which I’m glad is not out there!). But that got me writing.
You were born in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. How differently do you think you would have turned out had you been born elsewhere?
Probably boring! Maybe not, because I’d like to think my late teens would’ve been questioning whichever world I found myself in. I began dissecting everything to understand where I fitted in. I never felt like I fitted in anywhere – still a thing for me. Yes, my world was isolated as a kid in the 80s, but boy, the 90s in South Africa was fantastic – upended but fantastic. I wanted my kids to experience that (born in the late 90s). KZN is a vibrant region (throw a dart anywhere on the SA map) in terms of the people and cultures and traditions. Zulu and Hindu culture in particular infuse all aspects of the city and surrounding area – this was true as a child even during apartheid. This is the city I love to represent on paper as best I can. It hasn’t been done enough.
How would you consider identity and race in the South African experience?
It’s part of South Africa’s makeup. What is encouraging and hopeful are those willing to openly discuss, dissect, and decolonise all the kak that we apartheid-educated individuals were fed. Hearing the stories of others, their histories, and their perspectives is what was lacking around 1994. Everyone focused on the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation) rather than the basics of everyday lives affected. Over the last ten years there has been a dedication to recording histories, language, and traditions; and groups of people are able to assert who they are for themselves, outside of the prescribed political labels. Labels that continue to linger. Those are the conversations and stories I’m interested in hearing.
How was it like for you re-experiencing South Africa, in a sense, at the end of apartheid in ‘94?
The 90s was very much an awakening. For me, going into university (1992-95) and being able to go anywhere and mingle with anyone, share ideas and philosophies, over cheap wine and beedi cigarettes, was stimulating for a design student. Or take a week-long road trip (Uni research related!) down the coast, eating tinned pilchards, and sleeping in your car on the beach in Transkei. If you look at SA art and music during that time, it was brash and bold. Everyone wanted to scream from the top of a mountain. As I say, there was all this culture we could absorb more readily.
What led you into the world of SFF writing in particular?
Though reading Iain Banks got me writing, I was drawn more to fantasy (The Shannara series) in high school as a reader. And although I’ve written some SF, I resonated with fantasy more. So, it boils down to the ideas that come to me. At the same time, half of my work is SFF, while the other tends to be literary. It is really about what story needs to be told. It just happened to be SFF ideas that propelled me into it.
Your debut novel, Soul Searching, situates the future of Africa in 2038. There will be many who might argue that SFF writers write towards the future to evade the disillusionment of the present. It’s a sort of escape for them from the realities of the now. How true is this for you?
I find it hard to write utopias, or even the opposite end of the scale – dystopias. I like my worlds to be relatable. Good engaging speculative fiction dissects our world, now, and gives us answers, but can be set in another place or time. Yes, there is an escapism to many of those worlds and stories, but the bottom line is it should be relatable. It can be a warning, it can provide possible solutions, but in finest detail, for me, it’s about being human and coping with life’s ups and downs. All good speculative fiction does this.
What do you consider as the biggest internal challenge in writing SF?
Finding the balance between world-building for the reader, and having too much exposition, aka: blah blah blah, when trying to reveal where they are and what to expect (from technology in a future, or magic and strange creatures in strange lands). One of my weaknesses!
Of Robots and War is a good case of note here. Your exhibition of technology, trauma and war in that story is handled only as remarkably as your examination of history, especially that of WW2. I remember reading it for the very first time when it arrived via mail this time last year, and being assured completely that I wanted to publish it. The story has a life of its own. Those themes I mentioned earlier run across your other works, too. How do you situate, more importantly, history in your fiction?
With all the research I do, and this became clear when writing Bones & Runes, it is apparent that where you choose to situate a story – time and place – a history has happened to get us there. This is important, particularly for real-word stories, but even made-up worlds. Language, belief systems, folklore and cosmologies of people inform and enrich the world you are representing. And with SF, in order to project into the future, having an understanding of the past is important – and adds a richness, another layer, to your world.
How has been the reception towards your latest SFF book, Bones and Runes?
It’s been great. Feedback from readers, mainly on the continent, has all been positive. Discussing the characters and plot lines and themes directly with people – Aké Festival in Lagos in particular – was very rewarding and seeing and hearing first-hand how these elements connect, especially with the younger people (those featured in the story)!
Take us through your writing process now. How long did it take you to finish this book?
Though it began as a short story at the end of 2016 (which became the first chapter), I spent two years researching. In 2018, I did face-to-face chats with various people, including izangomas. I had written nearly half (45,000 words) by the end of 2018 when I hit a block with a specific scene, and my mother passed away. I had most of the novel mapped out with nothing moving, then COVID lockdown happened. And around that time the cogs were moving in my mind and I wanted to write – and with my design and consulting work evaporating, I had no excuse. Two months, the first draft was done and I had thoroughly enjoyed writing every moment. A few days were fantastic 5,000 words a day, but generally a couple thousand a day. And by the time I finished, I knew it was a trilogy. More to research!
What writers inspire your craft?
The list grows. Bessie Head. Nadine Gordimer. Wole Soyinka. Iain Banks. Ben Okri. Franz Kafka. Edgar Allan Poe. John Steinbeck. Salman Rushdie.
What book are you currently reading?
Rereading Flora Nwapa’s posthumous novel, The Lake Goddess. Working with the family, and Abibiman Publishing, I am helping to get a wide release of it in 2023.
In retrospect, what advice would you have given your younger, unpublished self?
You can write. You think you can only draw, but you can also write. Write something now, anything. Don’t wait. Submit. Submit again. I feel I am catching up to those who have been doing it for their whole lives. But, it’s also never too late to do it (I just have to recall my Steinbeck, Cannery Row inspiration from high school). Ben Okri’s The Age of Magic says it well: “The gods would rather we use our life than squander it.”