The Unbearable Solitude of Being an African Fan Girl

121
11184

By Chinelo Onwualu

Being an African fan girl is a strange, liminal thing. You’re never quite sure that you exist, you see. A part of you is rooted in your culture and its expectations for how a woman ought to behave – church, family, school – but another is flying off into the stars carrying a samurai sword and a machete. Not one thing or another, you’re both at the same time.

It doesn’t help that you’re invisible. In all the representations of geek culture, in all the arguments for inclusion, it doesn’t seem like your voice can be heard. After all, shows like The Big Bang Theory which are supposed to be modern representations of geeks and their culture seem entirely populated by white people with plenty of free time and disposable income. If you don’t look like that, don’t have that kind of money or time, are you still a geek? If a tree falls in the forest… Even in the niches that have been carved for ourselves on the continent, you are still a strange, semi-mythical beast – the only woman at Lagos Comicon who wasn’t working or attending with her significant other.

And what of those pop culture representations that have given you your identity? The books, movies, television shows and comics that formed the language of your childhood and helped you understand notions of heroism and virtue? Even in them your reflection is distorted.

The mutant Storm who you discovered in middle school is an African woman, certainly. But her tribe is made up. And remember that episode of the cartoon that took us back to her childhood in her village? Remember how you noted that her snow white hair was straight even then and you wondered where on earth she had found the time and money to relax her hair? And don’t forget your horror when you rewatched Conan the Destroyer and realised that Grace Jones’ Amazon, whom you’d long cherished for her fierceness, her beauty and her strength, was a racist stereotype.

You look on in anger and despair as the black female characters on your favourite shows are too often written as stereotypical or one-dimensional. They aren’t allowed to grow or learn and are too quickly dispatched to make way for someone or something deemed more interesting. Their bodies – and by implication yours – are the site for the unconscious racism and sexism of the writers and their fans. You wonder: “If people hate Tara from True Blood, or Gwen from Merlin, and Martha from Dr. Who – black women who are smarter, more beautiful, and far more interesting than I am – so much, then how much more will they hate me?”

You watch as your entire continent is reduced to a black man yodelling nonsense and white children dressed in feathers and face paint in an “Africanised” version of a popular song and you seethe. Quietly, for among your people it is not seemly for a woman to make too much noise.

You understand that geek culture is supposed to be the refuge of the misunderstood. All of us were at one point the kid who stayed inside during recess reading in the library rather than playing with the others. We were the ones pretending to have lightsaber battles when the other kids were playing soccer. Your Barbie dolls never played house; they were too busy exploring the alien landscapes of your bedroom floor and befriending the monsters under you bed. None of us fit into the easy boxes of our societies – you know this. But when you see that the self-appointed gatekeepers of the world you claimed before you knew they existed have erected wall to keep out members of your sex and race, it can’t fail to hurt.

So you turn away.

After all, you have always existed in isolation. Your favourite books were not ones you could discuss with your friends who always gave those puzzled, pitying looks when you mentioned them. You watched your favourite shows in your bedroom, laughing into the silence while your family avidly discussed the latest Nollywood film in the next room. You go to see your favourite superhero summer blockbusters by yourself, aware that you may be the only woman in the audience who has actually read the comic book that the movie is loosely based on.

You make sure to defend your beloved characters when they are denigrated, but you do so in your heart. You don’t have the unlimited bandwidth that your peers in richer countries do and in the empty spaces of the internet you’re never quite sure anyone is listening anyway. You pore over pictures of conventions far away, admiring cosplays you can’t afford to imitate and reading recaps of panels that you wish you could have attended. There are no libraries from which you can borrow the sci-fi and fantasy books being written today and you can’t really afford the few online portals which will accept transactions from your country and deliver to it, so you trawl e-zines for short stories. And in the eerie quiet of the early morning, you write your own stories. Worlds browner than the ones on screen, filled with women just like you who are torn between two identities.

You know you are not alone. There are thousands of women just like you all over the continent. They have fought to forge their unique identities outside of the prescribed roles they were expected to fill. They have kept that childhood sense of wonder and aren’t ashamed to squeal like schoolgirls when they get excited. They run when they are in a hurry and they take the stairs two at a time. Like you, they are still curious and aren’t afraid to ask questions, but they scattered like magic beans across a vast farm. They are growing into their own twisted shapes and no one around them can understand why.

So you call to them. You ask them to come and pour their hearts and stories into this space you’ve helped to create. You assure them that they are not alone, that in the vast spaces on the worldwide web, there are others like them. Like a song in the darkness you have put out your own story and you hope that they recognise its notes, and that they respond. For you may not have any answers; you may not have any original insights. But you know your own experience and you hope that that’s enough.


 Chinelo is  a writer, editor, journalist and dog person living in Abuja, Nigeria. She is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion West Writers Workshop which she attended as the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. Her writing has appeared in several places, including the Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, Jungle Jim Magazine and the anthologies AfroSF: African Science Fiction by African Writers and Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond. She runs Sylvia Fairchild Editorial Services, a consultancy providing writing, research and editing services to individuals and organisations. For more of Her work, check out her now-defunct blog: Chinelo.onwualu.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter via @chineloonwualu

121 COMMENTS

    • She meant Martha. The white fand of Dr Who were reeling from Rose withdrawal. They wrote and said bad stuff. Later on people mellowed out and accepted Martha by then Donna was the companion.

  1. Do you know about Con-or-Bust?? It is an organization that helps provide financial assistance to fans of color to attend SF conventions. I don’t know if they are able to assist fans outside of the US, but you so deserve to be able to go to a convention and if they can help, you should know about them!!!!

  2. The hate for Martha really irritates me. She was one of the top-three companions of the new series, easily, and her run was far too short.

  3. Love this article. You really hit some nails on the head here….and don’t even get me started on the Tara/Martha/GraceJones/BigBangTheory Conundrums. As an African American geek-girl who likes everything from Conan graphic novels to playing Dungeons & Dragons, I have been called a “rare unicorn” and treated with wonder, irritation & even sheer disbelief by geeks of other races/genders. Growing up in the deep South only served to make life more interesting w/regard to this, since “The South” likes to give African American women a really small bag of stereotypes to play with. And when you step outside the bounds of those stereotypes you can find yourself catching some dirty looks from both whites and blacks alike. In the end, I think all this weirdness just makes a person stronger. And though I am often the only brown face at alternative concerts, geek events or comic shops, I feel like an ambassador of sorts. I show white people that they’re not the only ones that are into awesome stuff and I really hope that other African Americans see me and realize that all these fascinating avenues are actually open to them too=)

  4. Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing it.

    And by the way, Martha Jones continues to be one of my favorite companions. I always wished they could’ve developed her character a bit more beyond her love for the Doctor, like they did with Clara in Series 8.

  5. This article was amazing!!! Though I wasn’t a fan of Martha on Doctor Who, I thought she didn’t bring much to the table or have much depth. Why are African American women always given such shallow and rascist roles!?! Anyway, your honesty and art in this article was beuatiful and amazing. I hope you find yourself some fellow African fangirl friends. <3

  6. I’m beginning wonder if geek culture in general, is a semi-Western aesthetic. True across Asian media (which I don’t know because I don’t follow animes, comics, etc.) has its own portrayals…some of it quite sexist.

  7. Reblogged this on sheknowsshewrites and commented:
    Hey everyone!
    Time and again, I have tried to explain this very topic to people who never quite seem to get it. This post is so insightful. It hits every note I have ever aspired to,but never quite succeeded at. Please take the time to read through….I promise you will come back to thank me.
    Stay graceful

  8. I’m so glad I came upon this. As someone seeking to help the people of America who racial identity has made feel this way in whatever society or group they choose to be a part of based on interests rather than race alone, this definitely uses a lot of the same words and evokes the same emotion as I hear in my work. You have a lovely voice, please use it far and wide. Write your own comics and bring them to the internet. Create those fantasy worlds on paper that your Barbies explored in your bedroom and share them; I’d love to help you bring them stateside! Also as someone married to a self-professed Unicorn (https://www.createspace.com/4077745), you are far from alone in these feelings, and sharing them makes the rest of us feel less alone, too, in having them.

  9. Reblogged this on hypheNation and commented:
    To learn a little bit more about any culture, country, or continent, read the words of those who feel misunderstood inside of its society; they often have the best insight into what life there is really like.

  10. Thank you for sharing this perspective. It’s given me a lot to think about.

    Is there anything white fans can do to make fandom more welcoming and inclusive for African fangirls?

  11. You are most definitely on the right track. Your writing kept me curious about your life and work and what you’d say next. All I can say is that, certainly, the answers to your questions won’t be found in pop culture, at least not in general. All too often, particularly in mainstream media, it’s just cotton candy. The Big Bang Theory, for example, is nothing but fluff. It became a hit despite itself. The demographic found it and the show caters to it. The further away you get from mainstream media, the more interesting and diverse the picture becomes.

  12. First thing, this is a great and very well written article! Thank you for letting me read your work!

    If I were to comment on this as “insightful” then its the same as saying “oh I imagine it to be sooo true!”.

    No disrespect but its feels off talking like I know something of whats going on right over there. Because it needs to be experienced and not just read so that I can be certain that what I say is credible.

  13. This read like an article I would’ve read in Roxane Gay’s brilliant ‘Bad Feminist,’ which I highly recommend you read whenever you get the chance, if you have not done so already. She tackles a multitude of issues in this essay collection, the misappropriation of African culture among them. Her simultaneous dissection and call to arms against the myth of the media is fascinating. It was a privilege to read that book and it was a privilege to read this article. Your writing style is so fluid and accessible and you really spoke to me. Thank you, Freshly Pressed, for bringing me here!

    Well done! I’ve followed you.

    I had a poem featured on Freshly Pressed a couple of months ago, which snowballed into a three part series wherein I tackled the ludicrous expectations foisted upon gay men and domestic violence victims. I’d love it if you could check out my own work whenever you get the chance!

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece with us!

  14. As a fan/nerd/whatever, but one that’s more in line with the Big Bang Theory deal (minus the disposable income, sadly) I thought your post was really interesting. It would be good if writers took the wide diversity of fans more into account – they’re not just really fat or really skinny white dudes in their 20s and 30s, as the popular depiction has it.

  15. I was quite touched by your expression of the, I will say, so called “African Fan Girl”. The plight of African women worldwide is unacceptable especially after all the changes we have gone through as humans. The ideas of culture are not responsible for religion but tradition.
    Let me not dwell much on that but if you have a voice, use it to liberate those whose is suppressed. Hats high for you at that you highlight this issue but also focus on a global solution for it.
    We are free to choose. If you want to be culturally fan, you can, just know that people don’t accept different until different has accepted herself. If you want inter-cultural fan it’s the same thing.
    One big thing, however, is that;
    You did not create yourself. Since that is true only your creator knows why he created you and why now and why there! Find out what your purpose for being is, before you worst his time doing what you were not meant to do.
    #Linkfordbiztalk (*opinion*)
    linkfordbiz.wordpress.com

  16. I can honestly say that this post just sums up everything I’ve been feeling for a long while now. Where’s my identity and how is it being represented?

  17. I’m not sure if this is an indictment if geek culture or pop culture pretending to be geek culture. Big Bang Theory us as realistic to white people as “Friends” was…ie not at all. There are quite a few minority folks in the groups around here. I have to stop and think to count them up because I don’t tend to see them as such. I don’t see Christine for example as a “black gamer.” She is “the woman who makes great steam punk outfits.” Or John the Asian dude who I just see as “the guy who likes dragons a lot.”
    Not denigrating experiences, but sometimes it isn’t a group of people as a symbol but a group of people as PEOPLE that we have issues with. Get out and get your geek on. Doesn’t rake lits of money to have fun just the right friends! 🙂

  18. As somone who has done some traveling in (East) Africa over the years, its always been amazing to see what people enjoy. It’s always been a little wierd (at least to me) to see a native Ugandan or Kenyan getting excited over a Celine Dion or Michael Bolton record, but you like what you like, I guess, and, at the end of the day, who is anyone else to judge?

  19. Reblogged this on PRESTONCHRONICLES and commented:
    Not too often do I read something as warm and as close to myself from a writer whose world is far from my own. Except for my gender, my Afro-American culture and the specifics of the narrative, this story is not so unique to my very own strangely liminal self. Really and truly, who hasn’t been in that place where current cultural and social norms left you provoked by your own questions of self identity. Achieving a peaceable existence with oneself is quite the accomplishment, but not without wadding through the landmines of ruthless silence while your truest voice of your truest self is being developed. Read it. See for yourself how Chinelo’s voice sounds like your own.

  20. Brilliant perspective. As an Asian, I’ve often found myself alone in geeking out on Doctor Who and Sherlock; I’ve always attributed it to having different tastes and preferences to my fellow Asians who seem to be more into the Korean culture. As time went by, I just convinced myself it’s better to be a unicorn than to conform.
    The internet is a wonderful place to get together with other people from different cultures with the same interests; but it seems that we can only join the crowd when hidden behind an avatar or username. On my travels I’ve met people from different cultures, in the flesh, and they’ve always been so welcoming towards me, but almost always when they are alone too. People tend to congregate towards what is familiar, and that’s okay, I just wish sometimes people would see past the colour of my skin.

  21. Really poignant post–you make your bitter point without exhibiting seething anger. I would not have been able to have ridden above that wave. You also write very well.

    I don’t know if you’ve yet discovered him, but Daniel Dockery of “Daniel Is Funny” is a fantastic writer who may write on topics of interest to you. Since I am not a true geek (I self-refer as one, but am an ex-computer geek, and now merely an Aspie dork), I am not certain. The last link below shows all the sites he writes for, some of which include horror and comics/comix stuff.

    Here are three of his posts that I particularly loved:

    the godzilla roar one;
    the youngerer Daniel one;
    the less-funny woman one.

    He MAY be
    looking for writers, which you may be interested in.

    Here’s that list I mentioned.

    Gee, I hope I have no typos in these links–about to hit Enter…now.

  22. African fan girl like, female geek living in African? This is the first time I’m hearing that such a creature exists. Is there an African comic con?

    Oh an how does my man the Black Panther not get a shout out in this article!? T’Challa’s sister Shuri has be the Black Panther since 2009.

  23. Great post thank you for sharing. Im sitting here way up in the north with snow outside and 10 below.

    It is truly an amazing world we are living in when I on the othet side of the world can read your words. Again thank you for sharing.

  24. I have loved being a Geek for a long time, and your post sings an anthem to me. May I call you sister? Not because I’m black or because my mom is Nigerian but because we share two tribes: that of the writer and that of the geek.

    I look forward to reading your work.

  25. Frankly, I would say that we blacks are not the only ones to have issues with the genre. The sexist (or simply BORING) roles for white women still need to be accounted for. And in SFF good luck seeing a Asian (West, East or South). Queer? (cue Barrowman) Even the white guys need some work where the writing is concerned in SFF.

    Meh. My own take? I used to yell while watching TV, “Look, there’s a Black person on that spaceship!”

    But lately it has more a case of, “Hey mom, remember that Black Actor who won the Oscar/SAG/BAFTA/GG/Tony last year? S/he’s gonna be on that SFF blockbuster next week”

    And I know – I keep a list of ALL of them *grin* https://www.pinterest.com/MsKMaitland/black-actors-in-scififantasy-in-tvfilm/

  26. I’m sorry you have to deal with that. It’s a huge problem in geek culture. I don’t get why it’s so hard and why people are so violently against getting more representation in there.

    I hope I can write something some day that helps change that, even in a small way. I just am also sometimes nervous that, being white (and having grown up in a 99% white town), it will be a misrepresentation. I’ve seen other authors skewered for it (often justly).

  27. So true! The appreciation and integration of the African fan girl is tolerated at the very least. It is sad that we have genrations of creative geeky souls out there that could be part of a biased and much too caucasian culture. The African fan girl can geek out too, like pop music too, be a fan of science fiction and comedy and adventure and not have to feel like the outsider! Great post

  28. I have noticed that there’s rarely any sort of coloured “geek” person around unless they are white or Asian (Or male in general) … I always wondered about that. I do agree that women are forced into a mould, no matter where they live and no matter what culture they have. Diversity is cheered upon but when you stray too far, you are frowned upon … Kind of feels very hypocrite.

    Never watched Dr. Who btw, I have no idea what that is all bout. 😉

  29. I too suffer the woes of under-representation in my geekdom. Honestly, I can’t think of a single role model in geekdom from my own culture and it’s a harsh reality to come to face with. But there is always the capacity to change and that is what your voice exists for, or so I tell myself. Hopefully I shall add my voice to geekdom and we shall all grow just a little more. I’m sure you’ll do the same.

  30. […] reminded me of an older article that the Rec Centre recently dug up, namely this article entitled “the unbearable solitude of being an african fan girl” . This article reminded me of a lot of the conversations I have with my poc friends looking for […]

Comments are closed.