These Black science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction authors build fantastical worlds that reach beyond what we experience here on Earth.
Story makes the world go round. It’s a tool for us to preserve and process the past but it is also a means by which we conjure our futures. Writers throughout time have taken to the page to imagine the possibilities of what could be. The nebulous genres of science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy are prime incubators for pushing the boundaries of conceptualization and morality, the perseverance of humanity in less-than-likely places. It’s for this reason that stories that explore hypothetical realities from a Black perspective tend to resonate strongly with readers everywhere.
Meet eight griots of fictional storytelling who build fantastical worlds that reach beyond what we experience here on Earth. Some worlds are vastly different, occurring in alternate realities from ours. Others are only slightly divergent from what we know, but with a difference so crucial, it allows us to see our own world in a completely different light. Hailing from different countries and backgrounds, each of these writers has a unique perspective to share. OkayPlayer wants to shine a light on them in the hopes that more people can read their wonderful work and be transported both elsewhere and deeper within themselves.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – Uganda
Get ready to challenge your concept of the past. Makumbi is such a talented speculative fiction writer, it can be difficult to maintain where her hypothetical histories end and the truth begins. What makes Makumbi’s writing so potent is her ability to translate oral tradition-based cultures to written word. Equally arresting is her strength in covering vast swathes of time, legitimate eras, with secure thematic threads. It rivals that of Gabriel García Márquez and his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude.
Her first novel, Kintu, displays all of these literary qualities. Taking place mostly in 1750, a Bugandan man named Kintu receives a curse that plagues him and his descendants through to the 2000s. While exploring the power of curses, the novel also educates readers on how the Kingdom of Buganda actually did evolve to become what we know now as modern Uganda. The story weaves folklore into colonial history and modern independence with an intriguing persistence. Since Kintu, Makumbi has gone on to pen two other novels and a collection of short stories. Get involved with them all.
Suggested read: Kintu
W.E.B. DuBois – USA
OK, so W.E.B. DuBois is probably one of the most famous Black American authors of all time. From being the first Black American to earn a doctorate from Harvard and his seminal book The Souls of Black Folks to co-founding the NAACP and much more, DuBois has been a pillar of American social conscience. Yet many people don’t know DuBois also penned a science fiction short story, “The Comet,” in 1920.
In eight short pages, DuBois unfolds a freak phenomenon in which a comet passes through Earth’s atmosphere, releasing toxic gasses and instantaneously killing everyone in New York City. Well, almost everyone. The majority of the story follows Jim Davies, a Black messenger who was spared due to being deep underground in his company vaults searching for lost files, and Julia, a wealthy white woman who had been in her basement darkroom. The unlikely duo is thrust together and begin searching for life and navigating the horrendous destruction — a new Adam and Eve. Spanning a pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic reality, DuBois challenges the reach of racism and the depths in which society bends to uphold it. “The Comet” was written before the term “science fiction” was in popular use, but many consider this story fundamental to the development of Afrofuturism.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa – Nigeria
Suyi Davies Okungbowa hails from Nigeria and is a creative writing professor and celebrated author of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction for young and adult readers alike. If you like fantasies that bend towards badass, he’s your guy. There are almost always elements of violent beasts and illegal sorcery. His characters would sport leather jackets — if it were necessary to give them modern garments as forms of identification.
Okungbowa’s latest novel, Son of the Storm, is a tale set in pre-colonial West Africa and has received numerous accolades: Best Sci Fi/Fantasy of 2021 from The Washington Post, an Amazon Editor’s Pick, and USA Today’s Staff favorite for starters. Luckily, Son of the Storm, is the first in a series called The Nameless Trilogy with the second set to release next year. If you can’t wait that long, later this month will see the publication of Stranger Things: Lucas on the Line. That’s right, an official YA Fiction novel that expands the world of the hit Netflix series and focuses on the point of view of character Lucas Sinclair as he enters another strange world: high school.
Suggested read: Son of the Storm
Micah Yongo – UK
Micah Yongo is a novelist, essayist, and poet who seems to find inspiration in all things. The two novels written by the Manchester man are both fantasy tales of an Africa conjured for him through the stories he heard in his youth. Perhaps that is why they maintain a sort of childlike steadfast belief in righteousness and possibility — you really want the good guys to win. What’s more, the good guys are teenagers. “Adolescent assassins” as his website says. The stories, Lost Gods and Pale Kings, build upon one another with Pale Kings unraveling to have the protagonist of Lost Gods learning even more about the cult-like environment he was raised in.
Yongo’s work has garnered him some worthy attention. The manner in which he crafts his young characters not only does great justice to his chosen genre’s reputation for challenging real world societal norms, but also to the confusing realities of discovering the world as a teenager and venturing out past the home you were raised in. The aligning of the adolescent perspective with the fantasy/sci-fi values is a combination that is not only effective, but natural and extremely relatable for readers both seasoned and novice. Let’s hope he has a few more books up his sleeve.
Suggested read: Lost Gods
Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o – Kenya
An essayist, playwright, activist, novelist, and professor known for expertly and artistically unraveling the layers of neo-colonialism through story, Kenyan writer Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o has been celebrated as one of Africa’s greatest authors for decades. His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, arrived in 1964 as the first novel by an East African to be published in English. Thirteen years later, the subject matter of his novel Petals of Blood and a play he co-wrote called Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) got him jailed for a year — where he wrote another novel, Devil on the Cross, on prison toilet paper. He has been in exile since 1982, and currently lives in Irvine, California.
Wa Thiong’o’s 2006 novel, Wizard of the Crow, is a magical realism/fantasy novel like no other. Full of satire and sharp humor, Wa Thiong’o surgically attacks the perils and absurdity in dictatorships using outlandish and headstrong characters (one of them being a magician). Wa Thiong’o stopped writing in English in 1970 and vowed to write all of his works in his mother tongue of Gikuyu (aka Kikuyu), so the English versions of his works are translated by Wa Thiong’o himself. This is key in the way East African oral techniques and style become a main source of impact for the novel as a whole. It’s a powerful work of both representation, preservation and activism. And, at the base of it all, incredibly engaging and hilarious to read.
Suggested read: Wizard of the Crow
Helen Oyeyemi – UK
Born in Nigeria, raised in the UK and now living in the Czech Republic, Helen Oyeyemi’s novels mirror her life in that they leave you a little unrooted, and thus, unmoored. Some might call her work fantasy, others might peg her as magical realism but the genre doesn’t really matter. What does matter is Oyeyemi’s ability to bend perceptions of what’s real and what’s not, her deftness at warping the border between perception and imagination. She does this both in the worlds of her novels and in the minds of her readers, leaving people in a daze of uncertainty that becomes a bit addictive.
Oyeyemi had her first novel, The Icarus Girl, published at the age of 18. She wrote it in six months. Now, nearing 40, her stories have honed in on her skills of creating what can best be described as trippy fairy tales. Fables with neon, psychedelic lighting. Her subject matter can be incredibly heavy, yet you’ll feel light-headed as you turn the pages. It makes for truly transportive tales.
Suggested read: Gingerbread
Rivers Solomon – USA
Rivers Solomon has had three books under their belt and every single one has been showered with praise. Their debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, is a science fiction tale set in the distant future and amongst a generation ship — meaning a space-traveling vessel that is on a centuries-long journey where multiple generations can live their entire lives on the ship. Solomon uses these concepts of inter-generational drama and the knowledge of being trapped to explore broad themes about ancestry, nostalgia, intuition, fairness, and rebellion.
Solomon is a nonbinary, intersex author with a knack for establishing a more immediate depth of character by creating scenes in which the reader cannot (and should not) rely on gender norms. To do so would be to ignore the richness of internal battles that are driving the plot. Instead, Solomon’s personas have a quick emotional resonance with the reader, creating an additional layer to explore the challenges and strengths of humanity — past, present and future.
Suggested read: An Unkindness of Ghosts
Nnedi Okorafor – Nigeria/USA
Nnedi Okorafor has received a Nebula Award, a Hugo Award, and an Eisner Award. That’s basically the EGOT equivalent of the fantasy fiction world. A true legend in her own time. With over 20 novels/novellas to her name alone, she has the legacy to back up the moniker. In addition to novels, she also pens beautiful short stories and comics — including Marvel’s Black Panther: Long Live the King and Wakanda Forever.
Okorafor crafts intergalactic stories led by strong Black female characters. One of her greatest strengths is to weave the perspective of immigrant life here on Earth in with the perceived dynamics of merging intelligent life from across the vast expanse of the universe. How do the galactic adventurers preserve and honor their culture lightyears away while engaging with the one they find themselves in? How can foreign cultural norms pave the way for peacebuilding between distant planets and species? Okorafor’s characters find themselves in predicaments that beg those questions. It’s Okorafor’s manner in which she conveys the answers to those questions, the scenarios she builds to better frame those questions, that make for truly remarkable and visionary writing. Just a few pages in, you’ll understand why her award shelf is sagging from the weight it carries.
Suggested read: Binti: The Complete Trilogy
Nereya Otieno is a writer, thinker and ramen-eater currently based in Los Angeles.