This year starts with big good news for my writing

This year has started with really big writing news. My book, Where Rivers Go To Die, my second collection of stories, is a finalist for the Philip K Dick Awards! Yay! I woke up one morning to find their email and all I could say was ‘f***! (But why is that a taboo word? It’s one of the most useful words in the English language. You hurt your toe, and you say it. You get shortlisted for a big prize, and you still say it, and people will know exactly how you feel. Strange, yeah?) A few days later, the longlist for the British Science Fiction Association Awards comes out, and again, my book has made the list! Hmm, I’m hoping it gets voted into the shortlist, then I’ll really scream F***! in all caps. For now, I can celebrate these victories with this blog post, which talks about the stories in the book, when I wrote them, the inspirations, and such behind-the-scenes stuff.

If you have a dollar, I’m still struggling to breakout out as a filmmaker. I make a lot of short films mostly for target practice, and you could support my journey on patreon or on ko-fi. Even a dollar does a lot to my boost my ego, since the imposter syndrome wrecks me with a lack of confidence.

The opening story in the collection, Fragments of Canvas, is one of my earliest, and the second SFF story I ever published. The first, Stu’s Honeymoon, is in my first collection, A Killing in the Sun, and it came out in an ezine in 2004, while Fragments of Canvas was published in the Dark Fire ezine called in 2005. Needless to say, both underwent major rewrites that they are now completely new stories, though the idea and structure remains the same.

The main difference is that the earlier versions featured nondescript characters in vague locations. In the early 2000s, I was trying to break out and so I wrote in a way that I thought would appeal to readers in Europe and America, since publishing was (and still is) so white, so Western. To illustrate why I thought so, or rather to paint a picture of the hurdles non-White and non-Western writers have to overcome, just take look at the Goodreads reviews on my novella. One person says, “I will admit that it’s possible that I bounced off A Fledgling Abiba because I didn’t have much pre-existing knowledge of or emotional attachment to the mythology and story-telling of the African Great Lakes region (modern Uganda, Rwanda, etc) and so I’m sure some of the resonances were lost on me.” While another person says that it “takes place in a mythological world I’ve not previously been exposed to. I can’t really say that I was impressed with the book as such”. Perhaps they wanted detailed or encyclopedic descriptions of everything non-Western, perhaps with a glossary to explain all the non-English words, which would take the joy out of writing for me. These reviews were made in 2022-2023, so you can imagine what it was like in 2004!

By the time A Killing in the Sun came out in 2014, I had given up trying to please readers in the West. I rebelled. I refused to write the kind of stuff other African writers wrote so as to excel, the headline topics and trauma themes. I took joy in writing what I’d enjoy reading. By the way, I don’t like reading descriptions of places and people. I tend to skip those paragraphs, since I make up my own impression of the place and descriptions of characters as I read. So while writing, I assume the reader will do the same, and my job is to provide the bare minimum of clues. If I write a sentence like ‘She flew a bruka’ I find it hard to describe what a bruka is, how it works, because it would be too much of a chore. When reading a sentence like ‘She used the ansible to communicate’ I don’t really need an elaborate description of what that device is. You know, I used to read sentences like ‘She ate a hotdog’ and I never even had an idea what that was! But it never stopped me enjoying the story, or imaging what the character was eating. So yeah, by 2014, I had given up trying to play by the book, and so the current version of Fragments of Canvas is one unapologetically set in the small town I grew up in, with characters who might have lived in there in the 1990s. If you want to see the earlier version, I uploaded it as a gift for my patrons. Click here to get it.

Read: Is Science Fiction Really Alien to Africa?

I don’t remember why I started to write Fragments of Canvas, but at that time, I wanted to write mystery stories. I was enthralled with the likes of Agatha Christie and James Hardly Chase. Many of my first stories were in the detective genre, and I liked the idea of an investigator finding pieces of canvas as clues, and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Screenshot of a two-starred goodreads review of a book A Fledgling Abiba. The book cover is to the right of the screen. To the left is the text: This sadly didn't work for me: choppy and unevenly paced, with shallow characterisation and the kind of ending that makes you flip back a page and say "wait, that's it?" I will admit that it's possible that I bounced off A Fledgling Abiba because I didn't have much pre-existing knowledge of or emotional attachment to the mythology and story-telling of the African Great Lakes region (modern Uganda, Rwanda, etc) and so I'm sure some of the resonances were lost on me. I was also never sure whether Dilman Dila wanted the reader to take some elements of the book in earnest or whether they were supposed to be comical (e.g. the farting/pooping fire parts), or even if the tone was consistent. Those who have a greater grounding in the storytelling rhythms of this part of east Africa may find more to enjoy in this book than I did.
Screenshot of a two starred Goodreads review of A Fledgling Abiba,
Screenshot of a two-starred goodreads review of a book A Fledgling Abiba. The book cover is to the right of the screen. To the left is the text: For me, this book is just plain weird, and very interesting because of it.

It reads more like Homer or the Edda than a modern novel and takes place in a mythological world I've not previously been exposed to. I can't really say that I was impressed with the book as such; it's jerky, lacks a ton of "normal" elements - such as environmental descriptions, character depth, etc. - and seems to assume some reader familiarity with the mythology (despite the author providing an intro clearly showing that he anticipates that many might not have this very familiarity.

That being said, the world Dila shares with us is a world of exploration for me; it's a window into a wholly different (mythological/spiritual) reality. I like the book for this and feel like I've grown in my experience of the world. I'm now very curious and will be doing some further reading about the world Dila has given me a glimpse of.

Who knows, maybe upon reading this you'll feel something similar
A much more positive review, a reader who acknowledges the strange world but doesn’t let it totally ruin the story.

I wrote Monwor, the second story in the collection, around 2015, just as I gained recognition and I got invited to contribute to the African Monsters anthology, which features monsters unique to African mythologies. By this time, I was leaning heavily toward science fiction (I think now most of my stories are sci-fi) and a lot more political in my writing, with the viewpoint that there has always been technology in African knowledge systems. Well, Monwor has a monster I heard about when I was a kid, but without a supernatural origin. This is perhaps the last detective story I have written so far. (I’m not sure, my memory is not what it used to be, but I can’t think of another detective story after this one).

The third story, The Last Storyteller, is among my most recent, though the idea for it played in my head for a long time. I perhaps first thought of it after I watched the Al Pacino film, Simone (2001), which revolves around a struggling director trying to make an art film. When the leading actress pulls out, a scientist-fan gives him a secret invention, a deep fake technology, and he makes a star out of Simone, short for Simulation One. As a struggling filmmaker (support me please!) I fantasized about a technology that renders your thoughts, all you have to do is write a few prompts. This story was first published in 2020, two years before the explosion of generative AI. I wish I had written and published it much, much earlier when I first got the idea, then perhaps I would be celebrated as having predicted the use of prompts in generative AI models.

Read: Can Science Fiction Inspire Technological Independence in Africa?

Next is The Flying Man of Stone, a novella I wrote in 2015, upon request from Ivor for the AfroSF v2 anthology. He had read a couple of stories that appeared in A Killing in the Sun, these are Lights on Water and A Wife and a Slave, and he wanted me to give him something set in that world. A very dark world. I didn’t want to go back to it, but when an editor requests something, well, the writer in me couldn’t say no. I churned out the novella in about a month and it didn’t get much rewrites. At first I wanted it to be a superhero kind of tale, but I realised I do not like superheroes at all, especially since I did not grow up with comics. The inspiration for the title were characters in folk tales I love, Luanda Magere, a man made of stone, from the Luo in Kenya, and Kibuuka, a warrior who could fly and shoot arrows from the sky, from Buganda. In these tales, they were not invincible, they both died in their stories, and so I wanted my main character to meet a similar end.

I wrote Where Rivers Go To Die in one sitting, sometime in February 2018. I was attending a writing workshop in the shores of Lake Kivu, Rwanda. We were supposed to have given our mentors a first draft, and I did, but they did not believe what I had submitted was a first draft. It’s too polished, one of them said. So I asked them for a prompt to write another story, and there was a bird with a broken leg hopping about a short distance away. It must have taken me about four hours to churn out that story, and I didn’t rewrite it much after that. “You are a literary genius,” one of the mentors said. I didn’t think writing a story in one sitting was a big deal, since I’ve heard of other SFF writers churn out a 120k-word novel in three months, so a 5k story in a day is not a big deal. But I guess in mundane fiction, where book lengths tend to be what we in SFF call ‘novellas’, writing a complete story in one sitting is something only geniuses do. I gifted these two stories to my patrons in 2018, you can read find them here.

The Green Men Who Fly is from the early 2000s, and I think I was beginning to rebel against the conditioning that sci-fi stories have to be set in the West, with Western-sounding and Western-looking main characters, but I wasn’t brave enough yet. I must have written this in response to a call from an ezine called Would That It Were, and they rejected it because the journal-style made it a bit “unafrican”. I’ve looked for this email but can’t find it. I used to save everything back then, but this one is missing, mysteriously. Anyway, that rejection letter gave me the green light to write stories totally embedded in my cultures, because this editor wanted something “authentically African”.

Read about: Ghost tales on the road to Nairobi

The Terminal Move is a novelette, first published as a stand alone book by Fox and Raven, a small press publisher in South Africa, in 2014, and later in Ravensmoot anthology. The metadata on the .doc file says I wrote it sometime in 2007. By this time I was actively writing stories firmly set in my cultures. I saw a call for a zombie anthology, and the editor specified that they wanted something unique, something other than the zombies they knew, and so I thought of setting it at a time way back in the past, when African people were migrating… You know, at school we learn about Bantu migrations and Luo migrations, how this people moved from this place to that place, but we don’t have the actual stories about these travels. There are a few about why they had to move, like in the Luo tale of Labong and Gipiri, but not the adventures people must have encountered as they searched for a new home. I know, these migrations were likely not dramatic, not like the Jews moving out of Egypt, and it might have happened in bits and pieces over long periods of time, but I wanted a story set in that period. I gave an interview at that time, and I’ll make it public next Sunday, on 28th January 2024. You’ll find it here.

A final word, I think the DOS video game, Monster Bash, inspired The Terminal Move in some ways. I used to play it a lot, actually the only video game I’ve done more than three levels.

Book cover, with African art style

Support Me

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here #monsters 

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