Thursday, September 19, 2019

Omenana #13 (2019)

Omenana: Speculative Fiction Magazine, ed. Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu. Issue #13: Urban Legend (May 2019). Online at

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

This issue of Omenana: Speculative Fiction Magazine is, as the editorial tells us, both the last to be co-edited by founder Chinelo Onwualu, who is retiring to focus on her own work, and the first issue to be on a tight theme. The editorial also welcomes guest editor Iquo Dianabasi, and introduces the theme of Urban Legend—hard, and thankless, to define, but including a mix of modern mythology, almost-believable monsters and cryptids, stories told to scare one another at night… The one nonfiction essay in this issue, “Urban Legends as an Outlet for the Modern African Writer of the Speculative” by Nigerian comics author and editor Hannu Afere, serves almost as a secondary editorial commentary. Afere muses on some of the ways in which the belief in or symbolic functions of urban legend or contemporary supernatural stories are particular to the African continent and peoples, whether cautionary tales, explanations for tragedy, or consolation. The stories in this issue approach this theme in very different ways, and with varying success, but in combination do a very effective job of illustrating the concept the editors have chosen.

“The Last of Her Kind” by Mame Bougouma Diene is a beautiful, magical story narrated by the aging personification of the river Mzintlava in South Africa, the last (as the title says) monster of her kind in this world owned by humans. The development and even dénouement of the story is rather given away by the very nice but totally spoilery illustration right at the top of the page. In my opinion, the final part of the story, told in a mundate third person new story, is completely superfluous, and the story would be stronger without it. Another South African piece, Keletso Mopai’s “Becoming a God” is a deeply uncomfortable story that follows a child struggling against conformity in a traditional community full of living deities, as she becomes a woman unable to escape her notorious family however far away she moves. The story covers difficult topics such as homophobia, corrective rape, child abuse, family and community complicity, and the expectation of forgiveness, and is really quite harrowing to read—it should really come with several trigger warnings. The writing is powerful and never gratuitous, however, and the glorious apotheosis at the climax makes no pretence at making everything alright… Very impressive work from Mopai (whose story collection If You Keep Digging [Blackbird, 2019] is worth looking out for).

Mazi Nwonwu’s “Goody Goody” is a Nigerian-set story of a childhood crush, and of schoolyard gossip (that is both misogynistic, as is common, and potentially deadly, although that is not suggested or acknowledged by the story). The distinctly unsurprising twist ending does nothing to undercut or repair the use of these unpleasant tropes, but as it is all told from the point of view of a child, that ugliness may be intentional. “Abiba” by Ugandan writer Dilman Dila is the story of Apeli, an orphaned witch living with her bigoted Christian aunt and hiding her increasing powers as the ancestors manifest in her. The writing is didactic and expository, and the story somewhat pedestrian, but the parade of powers, monsters and antagonists that Apeli discovers and overcomes en route to a better life is original and refreshing.

I now want to discuss what are undoubtedly the two most successful stories in this issue. Kenyan author Shingai Kagunda’s “Holding on to Water” is the standout piece for me: a heartbreaking story of a village rainmaker, and the sacrifices she and her family have to make to save their village from drought and the curse of their ancestors. The story is told in two threads, “Now” and “Then,” in the present and past respectively, threads which weave together and finally meet in an entirely foretold but no less devastating climax. (The illustration again gives this ending away, but then so does the opening paragraph, so it is not such a flaw as it might be.) Chikodili Emelumadu’s “Sin Eater” is a truly monstrous story, full of violence and evil and atrocities both on- and off-screen. Set on a Nigerian university campus, a student discovers her roommate is a vengeful and unspeakably carnivorous creature, a predator whose terrible appetites are only surpassed by the sins of her prey. There is something primal and mythical in the unapologetic bloodbath of this story—you can see why the author has been on award shortlists.

Like most issues of this impressive zine, #13 contains a deep range of stories, an uneven mix of quality and style, and an incredibly impressive breadth of talent; the editors of Omenana have been proving for four years now that there is as much potential for great speculative fiction to come out of Africa as any other continent. They are no longer alone in this feat, but this is still an exciting and monumental zine, devoured by many as soon as each issue appears.

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