Knowing a bit of pre-colonial African history (and yes, Africa has a history, thank you very much Mr. Hegel), I’m often a bit let down by how under-represented African cultures are in the fantasy genre. The Empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, the city-states of the Swahili Coast, the Kingdom of Kongo, the Kingdom of Ethiopia, Great Zimbabwe, the Massai and the Zulu, all have histories and oral traditions just as rich and fascinating as anything in classical and medieval Europe that a fantasy writer can look to for inspiration. The Sundiata epic has enough heroics, battles, and magic to put Beowulf to shame, but we’re more likely to find works influenced by the latter than the former. Fair enough, all things considered; if most fantasy started out from the pens of white Europeans (or those of European descent), we’re more likely to find those traditions propagated by fantasy thanks to familiarity. For the longest time, writers simply didn’t consider Africa as a place to draw traditions from: western historians believed Africa didn’t even have a history; scientific racism, helped along by a good dose of Joseph Conrad, painted sub-Saharan Africa as an uncivilized land filled with bestial savagery. What little civilization there was got attributed to outside sources: Arabs, or, in the case of Great Zimbabwe, Phoenicians. Now, however, the historical field has broken from these long-standing biases and recognizes African achievements. Thus, while I might feel let down by how few African-themed fantasy cultures are out there, I’m willing to let it pass on the grounds of either ignorance, disinterest, or concern for misrepresenting the cultures in question; I’m a bit more worried when those same nineteenth century attitudes towards Africa pop up in relatively recent works.
For example, take Jay Lake’s Mainspring (2007). Here, a giant wall separates the Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres. Now, Lake characterizes the northern hemisphere as rational and the southern hemisphere as mystical early on, which alone raises a few uncomfortable issues. But I saw an opportunity here: after all, in a book set in an alternate 1900 where the world rolls down a giant track around the sun and runs by clockwork, thus necessitating the big wall in the first place, why not showcase a sub-Saharan Africa kept away from European influence and Imperialism entirely? Thanks to malaria and other tropical diseases, there was very little contact between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa for a long time as it was, a giant wall would just reinforce that fact. It even seemed this was where Lake was going, when the main character plunged down the other side of the wall into Africa south of the equator. However, instead of finding thriving African cultures, he instead finds a curiously barren continent populated by a few tribes of ape-men and a single city of evil black sorcerers. An opportunity wasted, I think, but it also shows yet another throwback to Imperialist ideas of yesteryear: sub-Saharan Africa as a savage, empty place without any real civilization of its own except a corrupt or decadent one. Comparable in other novels are situations where blacks are shown as slaves by default, or the more odious case of the single white person accepted in the tribe who then becomes the mightiest warrior or whatever and saves it. The drive comes from colonial adventure narratives, I guess—H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc. etc., but we need to realize those narratives propagated a view of Africa that’s not only inaccurate but distasteful, and it’s not innocent fun to follow them now.
This brings me to Charles R. Saunders and Imaro, which takes heroic fantasy into sub-Saharan Africa and regales us with tales of adventure without using colonial narratives as a base. This, of course, was exactly what Saunders set out to do; as a person of colour with a great love for fantasy and science fiction, he felt that black people were under-represented or, even worst, grossly misrepresented in both genres. “The trouble is that there are so few black characters in fantasy or sf who actually matter” he told Charles de Lint (“Introduction”, Imaro, 1). Imaro was born out of a desire to “write back” to the unconscious reproduction of nineteenth-century views on Africa and people of African descent in fantasy:
Imaro would be the anti-Tarzan, and the setting in which his story took place would be an alternate-world Africa rather than an imaginary prehistoric era of Earth as we know…Imaro’s Africa, which I named Nyumbani, would serve as an antidote to the negative stereotypes about the so-called “Dark Continent” that crept—advertently or inadvertently—into the fantasy world of many other writers. (Charles R. Saunders, “Revisiting Imaro”, Imaro, 6)
He started writing Imaro stories in 1971, about a powerful Ilyassai warrior whose travels took him across Nyumbani. The ersatz-Africa of Imaro is not a declining one of primitive savagery, but a land of many cultures and civilizations (as the real-world historical Africa was). The “lost cities” so favoured by colonial adventure narratives are also found in Imaro, but not as the long-lost remnants of white civilizations (since only they had the smarts for monumental architecture, don’t you know?) but the leftovers of ancient indigenous ones. One reviewer called it a “breath of fresh air” and I have to agree. The Imaro stories are also firmly Sword & Sorcery of the Robert E. Howard sort, and are an effective way of showing how much breadth the tropes of heroic fantasy actually have, that we needn’t always have the hulking Nordic warrior trampling the decadent south as found in so many of Howard’s imitators. While Jessica Amanda Salmonson infamously called Imaro “chocolate-covered Conan” (a snippet so offensive I really must try and uncover the original article for some context), the hero comes across as the most effective response to all those “negative stereotypes of the ‘Dark Continent’” in fantasy that we have. In Nyumbani, clearly African cultures are shown possessing just as much complexity as any European one, developing on their own, and without a white man in sight. Much like the situation in sub-Saharan Africa actually was for a great deal of time, come to think of it.
It’s a shame the Imaro books haven’t had more success, as they have the power (like most fantasy does) of engaging with the past and changing our buried conceptions of history. As it stands, the Imaro series still goes a long way towards providing an effective critique of continued racial and cultural prejudice in fantasy and science fiction by providing an alternative in the same field. Would that there were more books like them.