3 Brazilian Authors Explain Why Afrofuturism Matters

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
Read more

Pop culture is full of movies, books, and comics that try to predict how humans will be like in the future. Often, we arrive at this future without the promised innovations or dystopias coming true. And yet, several productions have been modeling our idea of the future: flying cars, advanced computers that know it all, the revolt of these same computers against humanity, and much more. But writers and activists constantly question the virtual absence of Black people as both characters and authors of works imagined in the future (or imagining the future), not only with an African (or Afrocentric) perspective but also carrying elements of the African Diaspora across the world and the cultures developed over centuries. 

In Brazil, the Afrofuturist movement shows strength, with authors also mixing elements of Afro-Brazilian culture and religion in their writing, such as Canbomblé, a syncretism of African religious traditions (notably Yoruba, Jeje, and Bantu) brought to Brazil by enslaved Black people. The principle of Afrofuturism is to seek in African and Afro-Diasporic traditions and elements the construction of the future. It traces its origins to the philosopher and musician Sun Ra, who in the 1960s said he came from another planet where the Black race lived in a futuristic utopia.

Even though more than 50% of the Brazilian population is Black, this number is not reflected in our artistic production. If on the one hand in the U.S. the movement already has great acceptance and penetration, in Brazil, it still takes its first steps gaining even more relevance as a counterpoint and resistance to the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro. In a conversation with Remezcla, Afrofuturist author Lu Ain-Zaila says that Bolsonaro’s government is a cause for concern, but that “we [as a movement] don’t have a stance against because we are very busy with our aquilombamento [self-organization].”

Remezcla talked to three Brazilian Afrofuturists to understand a little more of their works, the movement, and its meaning. Ain-Zaila created the first work of speculative fiction starring a Black heroine in her duology Brasil 2408, as well as a book of short stories in 2018 Sankofia and in 2019 Ìségún, a cyberpunk story of futuristic chaos. Fábio Kabral is one of the best-known names of the Brazilian Afrofuturism movement, and his published work includes Ritos de Passagem (Rites of Passage, 2014) and A Cientista Guerreira do Facão Furioso (The Warrior Scientist of the Furious Knife, 2019). Waldson Souza’s book Oceanïc, published this year, is a science fiction story that takes place in a world where cities are built on the back of giant creatures in constant motion.

Fábio Kabral

What are the main themes and perspectives of your work?

My main concern with my works is to present the humanity of Back people in their virtues, defects, and contradictions, from our own cultural image. My intention is to promote literature in which the philosophies, sciences, and cosmologies of African matrixes are the center of the fictional universe. Above all, my goal is to write good stories for everyone’s appreciation. After all, literature is for everyone, all human beings.

From publishers and the public, is there still resistance to Afrofuturist literature?

It took me about 10 years to publish my first book Rites of Passage, which is Afrofuturist before I even knew the word existed. At the time, there was even a great publisher who told me, “Your work is very good! Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit our profile.” What profile would that be? Nowadays it is apparently easier, and my two following books found more acceptance and space due to the current social cries for more diversity, representation, and plurality. However, prejudice and racism still persist.

Why does Afrofuturism matter? 

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t give a shit about labels. By chance, everything I write and will write is and will be Afrofuturism because my writing coincides exactly with the characteristics of the movement. My only interest in Afrofuturism is to encourage more Black people to express themselves and create more speculative fiction, especially those fictions that have African cosmologies at their core. 

Now, for the anti-racism militancy of the internet, there is practically no difference between Afrofuturism and other antiracist movements. As we live in a country where the Afrocentric perspectives suffer brutal erasure, any shallow message becomes an antiracist reference. Thus, any spectacular nonsense has been considered Afrofuturism. Militancy itself is not my focus, but to write the best possible literature for the appreciation of all people—a literature that is a worthy legacy, especially for those who are Black. 

Lu Ain-Zaila

What are the main themes and perspectives of your work?

Do you know why in Afrofuturism we say that we were “abducted?” Because we were brought in to build modernity of which we would never be part of. We were taken not only from our timeline but from the right to remember our own. From learning from our ancestors how to deal with nature and technology.

My obligation to the Black thinking and writing of this movement is to give my part, [on] foundations already written in the words of our own so that racism does not camouflage our voice, and we are strong to build new bridges. That is why my protagonists mirror Black women, domestic servants, and astronauts between cultures and justice. More important than thinking about ending racism—something that has no date in the near future—is to build our own citadels, where racism and its updates do not enter like a virus trapped in our clothes or already in our organism. A place where we can take a deep breath, dream, and realize our aspirations. 

From publishers and the public, is there still resistance to Afrofuturist literature?

Afro-futurism is a Black movement of resistance on the rescue of our protagonism. It speaks of our worthy existence in the world, in the rescue of ourselves, fragmented by racism. We do this through dimensions of memory re-signified in the present and reoriented protagonism to instigate the need to always materialize our existence in the future. This statement alone already leaves us in conflict with any portion of society that uses racism as a revolving door where we will always be locked out. And that portion is everywhere—in the literary world as well. Soon, publishers and the public will show their resistance to themes forged by Back people. This is already happening, even more so when space is the power of [making] decisions.

Why does Afrofuturism matter? 

We cannot compare ourselves to any [other] movement, for there has never been a Black movement like this before. We’ve never been so connected and never had such access before. This is due to the struggle of the Black movement that created the generation of those who did not conform to the structural racism of our society. Each Afrofuturist has the responsibility to be a link that makes a difference. Our Black history needs to be told. History has never been unique but is taught like this today, focusing on barbarism and the obliteration of non-white peoples, when in fact, we are also the knowledge base of the world. And that is what we focus on: our right to exist.

Waldson Souza

What are the main themes and perspectives of your work?

In Oceanïc, one of the main themes is how we deal with the contexts created by the spaces where we live. The cities in Oceanïc are literally alive—they were built on the back of giant creatures. But at the same time that they are in constant movement, their inhabitants are limited to the territories. This limitation is directly linked to social inequality, existing even in a futuristic context in which no one else can live on the earth’s surface. The result is a world that is more dystopian for some groups than for others. In A Sphere for Every Spell, despite the different themes, focused on the use of virtual reality, we find reflections about work, usage of technologies, displacement, and the relationship of the characters with space are some of the themes in common. 

[Also], a central concern in my works is the protagonism of Black and LGBTQ+ characters. I try to develop intersectional perspectives that are not limited to the racial issue. Even if sexuality does not become an issue directly discussed, it is an essential characteristic for the construction of my characters. The goal is to have diverse Black people living fantastic stories with incredible possibilities.

From publishers and the public, is there still resistance to Afrofuturist literature?

Thinking about the public, not directly. But analyzing the editorial market, then the question becomes deeper. The term Afrofuturism and the concept itself usually call the attention of Brazilian readers. The release of the film Black Panther, in 2018, stimulated discussions on the subject and the interest did not end at that moment. Something very positive is to see that, today, events are already taking place focused on discussions about Afrofuturism and that we have more black people publishing fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror.

However, the scenario is far from ideal. The little space we have is in small publishing houses or through independent publications. Valid paths, but this demonstrates a problem when we consider that the authors present in the catalogs of large publishing houses. Consequently, those with greater distribution and reach are mostly white, mainly men. When we point out the lack of representativeness in speculative literature, we find greater resistance in relation to the fundamental concerns for Afrofuturist thought. Not everyone wants to recognize the problem generated by the lack of more plural voices in our literature, or understand that the racist stereotypes reproduced by white authors over the decades are unacceptable.

Why does Afrofuturism matter? 

Afrofuturism allows us to tell stories about ourselves. To leave the position of an object and become a subject is a political act in itself. I believe that using speculative fiction to rescue the past, to question the present, and to create futures (positive or bad) is a very productive way of thinking about the experience of the Black population in the world. We can speculate to the point of creating worlds where racism and other oppressions do not exist or even imagine even more oppressive situations. Regardless of the path, in Afrofuturism we are in a central position, leading stories and proposing discussions from our perspectives.