In Search of Speculative Archives
The places we go in search of information and inspiration
Every mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. So far this year, we’ve featured Chovwe, Shingai, Tlotlo, Rafeeat, Akilah and Veronica.
Today’s letter is from Chido Muchemwa, a Zimbabwean writer currently living in Canada. Her work has previously appeared in The Baltimore Review, Catapult, Canthius, Humber Literary Review, and Lolwe and other places. She has been shortlisted twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize and placed 2nd in the Humber Literary Review’s 2020 Emerging Writers Fiction Contest. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming. You can find her on twitter @ChidoMuchemwa and read more of her work on her website chidomuchemwa.com
There is a story my father used to tell me. It is said that a long time ago in Masvingo, the area of Zimbabwe that my family originates from, there was a terrible drought. Nowadays, droughts are common in that area, but those days it was unprecedented. The people, the livestock, the crops, all of them were dying of thirst. Every day, the women would go to the dry riverbed and dig deep holes in the hot sand trying to hit the water table and every day they returned home with nothing. So, the king challenged his warriors to find water for the people. He told them to set out and find salvation for his people. And the reward would be his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage.
As you can imagine, every man was keen. Being the king’s son-in-law would be a powerful position. So, the men all set out and searched for days and days with no luck at all. When they were ready to give up, one of them, a master archer so talented with the bow and arrow they called him Ngara—porcupine—shot the face of a rock with an arrow. Everyone around him must have thought the heat was getting to him, but he shot the rock two more times. Still, nothing happened. He released a fourth arrow, and again nothing. But as he pulled back his bow, ready to let loose a fifth arrow, the rock cracked, and blood gushed out. I assume at some point the stream of blood turned into water, otherwise Ngara’s exploits wouldn’t be of much use to the thirsty villagers, but I have to admit the image of blood gushing out of rock is a pretty spectacular one.
What I have just shared with you is my favourite archive—the history of my clan. It has been passed down from generation to generation as our clan’s praise poem, a history of our patriarch. When the men in my family are thanked, they are recognized as the descendants of the great Ngara Ancestor:
Maita Chirasha, maita Nungu
Weshanu uri pauta
Zvaonekwa mukwasha wamambo
The entire story I just told you is reduced to just four lines of the praise poem that give some of the titles the men of my family carry. Let me show you how.
The excerpt starts, “Thank you Chirasha”. Chirasha is short for Chirashamihwa, which is another name for a porcupine that means “the one that throws quills.” It’s a nod to Ngara’s prowess as an archer. The praise poem calls him Chikandamina, as in, “the one who shot four arrows.” These four lines are just one small excerpt from a long poem that documents my clan history. In this way, praise poems operate as indigenous archives.
My first attempts at writing speculative fiction were a response to the limits of traditional archives. In the national archives, I could only find my family history filtered through the condescending narration of colonial officials. All the romance, the magic, the infinite possibilities are stripped away in service to native/district commissioners who only collect native histories to better govern the natives.
As a writer of historical fiction, I am often thinking about the places I go to in search of the history in “historical”. So often that place is archives. I am interested in the places we go in search of inspiration and the limitations that are inherent with the framings that exist in those places. I guess what I’m querying here is the archives that we draw from in our worldbuilding and the assumptions that underpin them. Institutional archives can be a wonderful source for primary sources on how people lived in the past, but when it comes to our African stories, these archives usually tell our pasts mediated through the colonial gaze. I use praise poems here to think about the possibilities that open up when we refer to indigenous oral archives instead. In praise poems, we find an archive that does not erase the supernatural, but accepts it as fact, an archive built on gathering people into the group, rather than on individual exploits.
There is a large dolomite rock in the ground of the National Archives of Zimbabwe. On it the following quote is written in English, Shona and Ndebele, the three most widely spoken languages in the country: “Study the past to understand the present and to plan for the future.” The boulder was placed there in 1980, the year Zimbabwe gained independence and stopped being Rhodesian. In her report for 1980, the Director of the National Archives, Angeline Kamba, described the rock as a part of the public relations efforts to make sure that the archives identified closely with the new nation. That said, every time I look at the rock, I cannot help but wonder: Whose past? Whose present? And who is included in the vision for the future?
Praise poems provide a wholly native history, one that could still imagine a future untainted by colonialism. An indigenous archive, such as praise poems, makes it easier to imagine what a world would have been like in which Africans never experienced colonialism. But I particularly like praise poems because they show how storytelling can be its own archive. What kind of writing might we produce if we think of speculative fiction as archiving? What is possible in framing speculative fiction as what populates the gaps between the institutional archive and indigenous oral archive? For me, speculative fiction is a path to imagining an alternative history, rewriting the past to open paths to new possibilities for the future.