By Hannah Onoguwe
The cover image of Dilman Dila’s A Killing In The Sun.
I haven’t read a whole lot of speculative fiction in recent years, so there won’t be any comparisons to other work here. Just thought I should get that out of the way first off. After getting one of my short stories accepted and published in Lawino, I spent a lot of time enjoying Dila’s blog entries and the insight he shares in his writing. And then I met him in Abeokuta at the Ake Arts and Book Festival in 2015 and took a couple of unclear selfies with him. Besides all this, another reason I was eager to read this book was because of the easy digestion short stories proffer. And as I read story after story, many times miserly-like, I kept being grateful that I hadn’t put it off any longer. It surpassed my expectations. Somewhere near the middle of this collection of short speculative fiction, we come across an old man whose advice to his protégée was that “the artist should be fluid like the wind…Go anywhere you like, even to Hell, or else your imagination will never fly” (p.93). These words might well describe Dilman Dila’s thought processes in writing A Killing in the Sun. We go from the expected: an empty car that runs amok and kills someone, or a fourteen-year-old girl who turns into a parrot at will, to the surprise of the unexpected: an artist who can create pictures which are not static, in which a demon leaps out of the water to snatch an angel from a mango tree. In other scenarios things are often turned on their head from what we know presently so that, for instance, lighter-skinned girls paint their skin with soot to have the more desirable coffee brown skin, an absence of which can mean death.
In these stories, technological advances are as important as traditional beliefs, many times with the latter eclipsing the former. Generally, both are so intertwined that you couldn’t separate the two if you tried, much like it is in real life Africa today. So you have charges by a mzungu, a white man, that a ghost is “something that can be explained scientifically” (p.73) not far from the story of a shaman who, having converted to Christianity, sets his shrine on fire and “the moment it started to burn, human-like creatures the size of small rats jumped out of the flames, killed them both, and ran amok in the village, razing several homes before vanishing into the forest” (p.78).
I am not from Uganda, Kenya, or any of other settings of the stories but besides some names and terms which were unfamiliar, I dare say any reader will enjoy them no matter the continent you’re from. Each story stands alone, but certain terms are repeated in more than one. Terms like afande, bruka, ornithopter, abasura, these spawned from Dila’s imagination so that I suspect I haven’t seen the last of them in his writing. The bruka caught my fancy the most: think bird crossed with Boeing 747 scaled down to the size of, well, maybe a small car, then you might come close to what I imagine it looks like. I hope a patent for its design is in the works somewhere because I want one.
In the first story we meet Japia, a traditional healer who, at the age of ten, inherited the healing spirits on his father’s death. Currently, however, Japia is preoccupied with evading Miss Doe, who sounds placid enough so that you think her to be an overly-amorous woman who won’t take no for an answer. In reality, Miss Doe is a modified species of the anopheles mosquito originally absent of the malaria parasites who has mutated into an intelligent predator that drains the blood of humans in seconds. The story basically explores how science messes with nature, often with disastrous results.
In the title story, A Killing In The Sun, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013, people wait impatiently for the eradication of a ‘bad soldier’ by firing squad. Mercy for the condemned man can only be found in the lap of luck. If the doctor arrives after the spectators get fed up and leave, then the man’s life will be spared as the President has decreed that an execution cannot hold unless there is an audience. The story seems to highlight the roles the military have played in Africa, not all positive obviously, with some of the absurdity they can acquire thrown in for good measure. The sobriety is lightened by pockets of humour evidenced by a prosecutor who “crumbled to the ground like a tree felled by an axe, he lay in the sand, facing the sky, fanning himself with his cap” (p.57). Or, the antimilitary picture of the firing squad who “lay underneath these vehicles to escape the sun” (pp.57-58).
In the last story of the collection, the protagonist exists long before technology begins to wow us with her wonders. Mozze, an assassin, roasts a rat while daydreaming about winning the Elephant Festival with his new song at the next full moon, which appears to be a throwback of Project Fame. However, his son, ashamed of his father’s musical bent, does everything to disassociate himself from such an unmanly pursuit, even though Mozze tells him that is the only way the family can be accepted back into society. This story takes a poignant twist on teenage angst and a father’s dreams for his family.
For many characters, you are given a glimpse into what constitutes daily life. For Benge in The Healer, a shaman and a former slave, the highlight of his day is the nightly visit from his wife – his dead wife – who tells him jokes, to which he reciprocates by singing songs and reciting poems. For Kopet, living in the Pyramid which consists of future skyscraper versions of African peasant huts, a typical day consists of waking up to the “crowing of electronic roosters, the flapping of ornithopter wings, the blaring of angry horns” (p.107). The plots are varied and run through a spectrum of themes such as friendship and loyalty, colonialism and religion, slavery and freedom, as well as race and ethnicity. One of my favourite passages reads:
“The most famous [myth] was in the Book of Life, in the tale of Mojech who led the people of Jok out of slavery from a land called Hamerikah. The Book never talked of who enslaved them, but people interpreted it to be white creatures that were half human and half bird. Their king, Wasiton, raided Jokland and took slaves in great ships. They worked for him for a thousand years until Jok sent Mojech to free them. King Wasiton refused to release them, so Jok struck Hamerikah with a hundred plagues until he succumbed. Unable to sail the ships, Mojech parted the waters of the sea with his magic staff and the slaves walked back home. It took them forty years.” (pp.91-92).
This mash-up of religions makes for delightful reading, but the humour does not detract from the grave influences of religion and colonialism on Africa’s countries and her history. The opposite however, an extreme society devoid of the white man, does not seem to bode well for the future, either. In A Wife And A Slave, white people are now the slaves, and everything ‘white’ has been banned. Books, music, painting, clothes, so that Kopet, formerly known as Mike, can no longer read Stephen King or Margaret Atwood or even listen to Bob Marley because “the Emperor claimed such musicians promoted African inferiority because they used white musical instruments and the white language” (p.115).
On the flip side, African customs are accentuated to a point bordering on the ridiculous where forks are banned in favour of using bare hands to eat and the results of decolonisation are not only that a wife “should obey her husband, but also…a true African man is not supposed to wash his own hands after a meal; his wife must do that for him” (p.122). In addition, a man’s wife must also bathe him. I could almost hear Dila’s chortle in the background as I read those words because exaggerations they might be, but knowing the heart longings of any ‘true’ African man, they are not only possible but, in fact, desired. It might not have been stated in that story, but I suspect that a wife was also expected to wipe up her husband’s behind after he finished with the loo. No, sorry, African bowel-expelling device!
Romance is given a bit of a mention as the reader meets Obil, a diver who, for three months, saves to buy jeans and a shirt he will wear on Christmas Day when he plans to propose to the girl he loves. “It would be tragic if he died before using them,” he muses before leaving to search, along with other divers, “for what was in the river” and “made it stand so still” (p.41). No, you Mami Wata loving readers, it’s not Mami Wata. For something a little more sizzling we meet Kopet whose “fingers ran over her skin, causing desire to rush through his veins like the rapids of the Nile, but he quickly withdrew his hands to stifle the temptation he felt rising in him. He did not want another three days of hard labor.” (p.107). Yes, there lies the punishment for going against an Emperor who has decreed that “sex for pleasure was not African, that it was the rotten culture of white people, and that it had led to the once incurable disaster, AIDS” (p.115). Unfortunately for Kopet, it has been five years “since he shuddered inside a woman” (p.117). At this point, he is at the height of horniness so that when a white slave lands by his shop, he can think of little else but “what they used to say about white women, that they slept with any man who showed interest” (p.113). For the number of words I have expended on this story, it just might be my favourite.
Many of these stories root themselves in stereotypes and superstition. The eviction of the white man is not a cure-all for Africa’s issues; it serves to breed new ways of enslavement, the dictator being ‘The Emperor’ in some stories or ‘The President’ in others. Genocide takes a different shade as “Africans involved in inter-racial relationships were shot dead for betraying their race” (p.120). The underlying truth Dila seems to attempt to bring out is that human beings are always motivated by any number of things: fear, love, altruism. He also illuminates how good intentions, or the appearance thereof, can evolve into dictatorship. Not everything can be blamed on the white man. The problem is, and always has been, greed.
Much as I loved reading this book, I couldn’t help noticing the dearth of female characters who did little besides complement the men. I would have also welcomed a peek into these women’s thoughts, although one excuse for that might be that the reader is afforded only the point of view of the protagonist of the story. And speaking of characters, I could empathize with a father’s near-desperation as he made efforts to reconnect with his daughter: “Kimi had to experience the magic. He could think of no other way to make her love him again…He tried to tell her to admire the beauty, but the words stuck to his throat like a lump of frozen fat” (pp.88-89).
In contrast I found Dunningham an unsavoury protagonist. I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out why, besides the fact that when given subsequent opportunities to do wrong, he dove right in. But as anyone could point out, real life is flooded with his very type. Generally, though, I could relate with the characters regarding their very human pursuits for meaning or purpose, for love or safety, their desire to right their wrongs, their efforts to heal after heartbreak. The way security personnel could strike fear even in an innocent person’s heart struck a chord. Take it from someone who has been hauled into a police station for sitting quietly in a car and not hurting anyone. Offence? Parking in ‘a dark zone’. Yes, I was with someone but that’s obviously a story for another day. But the bleakness of daily life in Africa goes on. Even with poor leadership, people must still make a living, eat, love, and work. The only thing missing in this collection is hardcore scifi— no loss to this reader— but it seems to possess just about every bit of other speculative fiction subgenres. And if, perchance, you’re a reader who is stubbornly fixated on another genre entirely, if you’re still reading to this point, read A Killing in the Sun anyway. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
A Killing In The Sun is a book by Ugandan author Dilman Dila. It was published, in 2014, by Black Letter Media, a South African publishing house, and is 194 pages. Copies of the book are available on Turn The Page’s online book shop.
Hannah Onoguwe’s work has appeared in Adanna and BLACKBERRY: a magazine, as well as online in Litro, The Missing Slate, Cassava Republic, African Writer, The Kalahari Review, Lawino, The Stockholm Review and Brittle Paper. She is a contributing author to the speculative fiction anthology, Imagine Africa 500 and has been shortlisted and longlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Award and Saraba Manuscript Prize respectively. A collection of her short stories are slated to be published as an ebook by Bahati Books. She lives in Bayelsa where, in between being ruled by the internet and her toddler, she bakes banana bread and other stuff. She’s on Twitter and Instagram as @HannahOnoguwe.