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