Shifting Focus to the Future: The Afrofuturist Shapeshifter as (Unmenacing) Radical

By Khadeeja Khalid.

The genre of speculative fiction has always been fertile ground for evaluating and deconstructing boundaries of gender, race, sexuality, capitalism and systematic forms of oppression. Having only been legitimised in recent years as having the potential for academic relevance, many sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction have flourished. The figure of the metamorph or shapeshifter has always been met with revulsion and distrust, reaching as far back as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to as recently and culturally embedded as X-Men’s Mystique, and the alien race of Skrulls in Captain Marvel. These depictions of the shapeshifter offer a more sensationalist approach in popular culture through their constant positioning as antagonist. I would argue that focusing on other examples of the shapeshifter might yield more interesting narratives, thus producing a means for tackling material issues affecting the world today. Although there are many great examples of how this might be achieved, this article will focus on shapeshifters in Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seed (1980), and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014). Both novels are from the Afrofuturist sub-genre of science fiction, which is characterised by its confrontation of past and present instances of the oppression of black people, in order to chart a productive future beyond these systems of oppression. Both Butler and Okorafor present alternative modes of existence for historically oppressed peoples who continue to tackle sentiments of Afro-pessimism worldwide, in turn subverting stereotypes of the menacing shapeshifter and downtrodden black communities.

Much in the same way that Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa’s figure of the nagual (the Náhuatl word for shapeshifter), and Donna Haraway’s cyborg (A Cyborg Manifesto (1985)) embody alternative modes of existence free of rigid human boundaries, the shapeshifter in literature and other media can be used to explore means of resisting oppressive power structures. Oftentimes oppression seems so pervasive that any resistance short of completely toppling oppressive systems seem insignificant. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon takes place in modern-day Nigeria, and unflinchingly addresses many of the issues plaguing the country, from its corrupt government to its unsafe roads, which contribute to thousands of deaths every year. Although much of postcolonial discourse continues to discuss how nations might recover from their former colonisation, and whether this is even possible, Okorafor’s vision of a recovering Nigeria necessitates an alien invasion – chaos ensues. Okorafor’s scathing political critique throughout Lagoon cuts deeper than the unfolding chaos detailed within the novel itself, but identifies the root of these problems – a failure to realise a self-determined Nigeria independent of its colonial history. Her satirical narrative plays on familiar situations to highlight humans’ dislocation from their environment, making it not difficult to believe that preoccupied with dismembering a beached whale, a crowd of Lagosians ‘never looked twice at the space people walking out of the sea’ (p.116). Despite this, the novel never collapses into a tiring polemical work, as Okorafor deftly moves between narrative perspectives from different levels of the social strata, moving between the browbeaten Prime Minister of Nigeria in one chapter, to a mute, nameless and homeless orphan in another. Okorafor also challenges the privileging of anthropocentric perspectives, the mesmerising prologue from the perspective of a swordfish being a perfect example of this. The reader is drawn in as a witness – willingly or not – much in the same way that Okorafor’s characters must face the alien invasion of Lagos. 

The invasion is spearheaded by a shapeshifting alien ambassador named Ayodele, who embodies both future change as well as a return to the past. Military and religious fanatics immediately deem her presence menacing, yet it is this disruptive quality that attracts a disenfranchised underground LGBTQ+ group to seek her out as their spokesperson and protector, and also establishes her as a coveted figure for monetary gain. All of these conflicting groups see Ayodele as a means of destabilising the system, and are either vehemently repulsed or inextricably attracted to her. Adaora, a marine biologist and one of the first to encounter Ayodele, is convinced of the shapeshifting aliens’ benevolent purpose, which is augmented by the fact that she takes the form of Adaora’s favourite cousin. However, she finds herself unnerved by Ayodele: ‘If there was any strong hint of the alien in Ayodele’s appearance, it was in her eyes. When Adaora looked, she felt unsure… of everything. A college friend of hers used to say that everything human beings perceived as real was only a matter of the information their bodies recorded’ (p.37). Looking and seeing are prominent motifs in the novel; a mute orphan sees Ayodele’s first appearance as the auspicious incarnation of Mami Wata, whereas a prostitute sees her as ‘the devil’ heralding the end of days, which causes her to lead a crusade against those she arbitrarily identifies as aliens (p.13-4). It is arguably the orphan that has a keener insight, however lacks the social standing as well as a literal voice with which to share his perceptions. Besides exploring the menace of not being able to identify the shapeshifter based on looks alone, Okorafor’s aliens possess the ability to see in to minds of humans. This ability allows them project humans’ comforts and insecurities through assuming the shape of people in their lives, and although it is never used malevolently, this ability is deemed menacing as the aliens possess power in being able to see that which humans cannot.   

Amidst rioting and military violence against civilians, Okorafor’s polyvalent narrative brings together Lagosians, animals, aliens, and African deities, embodying what Anzaldúa sees as the spiritual purpose of the nagual – to act on behalf of a community to fight their ‘collective shadows’ (‘Speaking Across the Divide’). In the context of Lagoon, Ayodele as nagual/shapeshifter thus becomes a neplantera (Anzaldúa’s figure of a border-crosser between different worlds), an ‘agent of awakening’ that appears at points of crisis to ‘see through our cultural conditioning and through our respective cultures’ toxic ways of life’ (‘Speaking Across the Divide’). When questioned about her purpose, she simply remarks, ‘We are change’, however states that the alien invasion is simply the catalyst to amplify ‘the sentiments were already there’ and ‘impulses already present in [human] minds’ (p.39). The Lagosians can no longer turn a blind eye to those elements of life that they have been neglecting, as roads become anthropomorphised and insatiable in their hunger for human life, looters party with African deities in the streets, and sea creatures rise up to avenge their polluted waters. This augmentation of chaos, although at first met with distrust, is understood to be necessary, as a Lagosian civilian regards an alien in awe: ‘she was not human. She was not earthly. She was something completely other. But she was not evil either’ (p.206). The shapeshifting aliens supplant corrupt leaders and allow the Lagosians to build their communities from the ground up – a luxury that was not afforded them and other colonies in establishing nations in a post-colonial era. They are able to reconnect with that which they have neglected on a personal and national level, although the close of the novel sees this as the first step in the decolonising process. This might be read as analogous to movements such as Black Lives Matter, which campaigns for social change not just with regards to police violence towards African-Americans, but their socio-political status which remains part of America’s slaveholding history. Although BLM protests are vilified in the media, and its supporters understand that there is still much to be done to attain racial equality, it is undeniably a productive way of using the past and present to project a brighter future for the disenfranchised.   

Deemed the mother of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler has been praised for her ability to challenge restrictions of genre, as she seamlessly merges the slave narrative with science fiction elements in her popular novel Kindred (1979), as well as within her Patternist series (1977-84). The first book of the series (chronologically), Wild Seed (1980), follows the immortal shapeshifter Ayunwu and her fraught relationship with Doro, the only other immortal in existence. Having lived for millennia, Doro has established a number of settlements across the globe during the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and traverses continents in search of other supra-humans to populate these settlements. Ayunwu is taken to Wheatley, a settlement in 1690s colonial America, which is protected from the country’s formative years characterised by land-grabbing and its growing slave economy. The inhabitants of Wheatley are spared from social death – the condition of slaves, landless Native Americans, and those deemed mentally disturbed (in this case due to their psychic powers), which establishes them as sub-human. This idea of social death is still prevalent within the contemporary world, in America alone evidenced by the BLM movement, appalling conditions in detention centres on the US-Mexican border, and the epidemic of violence against Native American women. These forms of social death more often than not lead to actual deaths without recompense. Within Doro’s distorted plantation, there is no fear of racial discrimination, as many of the inhabitants are children of Doro – born black but father to many through his ability to assume the body of others at will. They therefore have mixed heritage and become racially ambiguous through Doro’s exacting and often incestuous breeding programme, and revere him as patriarch as well as a god-like figure. The success of this programme allows Doro’s children to become a race of their own in subsequent novels in the Patternist series, and colonise entire races due to their supra-human legacy. Ayunwu, as ‘wild seed’ – born and having lived for centuries outside of his settlements – is afforded a special status due to her unprecedented shapeshifting abilities and healing powers. These powers serve to protect Ayunwu from Doro’s wrath when she openly challenges his immoral and murderous approach to propagating his supra-human race. 

Butler’s Wild Seed provides the reader with two opposing approaches to constructing a community of Othered peoples, and the equally opposing shapeshifters that establish them. Doro’s shapeshifting abilities necessitate death – innumerable deaths that stretch infinitely back to his original body, and infinitely forward to the future in an immortal chain of existence. He can be read in many ways as propagating systems of oppression associated with slavery, especially through his obsessive breeding programme, which values its participants only in terms of their genetic code. Poet and essayist M. NourbeSe Philip observes: ‘“Dis place” – the space between. The legs. For the black woman “dis placed” to and in the New World, the inner space between the legs would also mutate into “dis place” – the fulcrum of the New World plantation’. Ayunwu recognizes the incongruity of separating the Othered people of Wheatley from the rest of slave-trading America whilst maintaining one of its integral systems of oppression. Although at first she cedes to Doro’s demands to produce children to add to his brood, having ‘given in to him again and again’ (p.211) she pushes back against this force that renders her the ‘fulcrum of [Doro’s] New World’, and eludes his influence for a century by assuming various animal forms. 

Doro reveres Ayunwu for her literal female labour, which encompasses her reproductive and healing abilities as it serves to further his own ends, but views her shapeshifting as menacing as it undermines his power. Devaluing such labour is still prevalent today, as entire nations were built on the backs of slaves, yet their descendants continue to fight for their rights within these nations. The devaluation of female labour also continues in the 21st century, evidenced by gendered wage inequality and the lack of maternity leave in many so-called ‘developed’ countries. Philosopher Rosi Braidotti remarks that with regards to the female shapeshifter or metamorph, ‘[t]he fact that the female body can change shape so drastically is troublesome in the eyes of the logocentric economy within which to see in the primary act of knowledge and the gaze that the basis of all epistemic awareness’. Ayunwu’s existence beyond a sexual and reproductive object disconcerts Doro, which is exacerbated by the fact that ‘as an animal, she was beyond him’ (p.97), as he cannot ‘see’ her presence when she assumes animal forms. This evasive power gives Ayunwu the mobility to establish her own community independent of Doro, and she creates a safe haven for supra-humans and racial Others by assuming the disguise of a wealthy plantation-owning white man. Although Doro immediately sees this as ‘competition’, accusing Ayunwu of ‘raising witches of [her] own’, she sees them as ‘people’ who ‘need someone who can help them’ (p.231). Alongside being the white plantation-owning patriarch, Ayunwu assumes the role of ‘mother, older sister, teacher, and when she invited it, lover’ (p.235). Instead of creating a supra-human race through a dehumanising breeding programme, Ayunwu ‘was herself, gathering family. […] They felt like her children’ (p.235), establishing a protected community based on peaceful interdependence amongst social outcasts. From the outside, the plantation’s inhabitants are viewed as socially dead, whereas Ayunwu facilitates their revival independent of wider society. As a white plantation owner, Ayunwu marries a high-class white woman who is deemed to be mentally unstable who in fact has uncontrolled psychic powers, buys and sets free a male slave destined to be no more than breeding stock, and creates a safe space for numerous other social outcasts. Although Ayunwu must assume the shape of a white man, this is not seen as an action stemming from Afro-pessimistic sentiments; Anzaldúa regards identity as ‘a changing cluster of components and shape-shifting activity […] We shift around to do the work we have to do, to create the identities we have to do to create the identities we need to live up to our potential’ (‘A New Mestiza Nation’). Ayunwu therefore understands the necessity of presenting as white to wider society to protect her community’s safety. Within her community, she is still revered for every form she takes, whereas others see her transitioning as grotesque and indicative of her awesome power. In this way, Ayunwu cultivates attitudes within her community which challenge Othering and anti-black sentiments that still continue to plague society today. 

Although this article barely skims the surface of the subversive potential of sci-fi, it demonstrates the multitudinous ways in which Butler’s and Okorafor’s writings are applicable to material contemporary issues, and can be excavated further still. Sci-fi has for too long been relegated to the sidelines of literary and popular culture, and looked on as merely a means of escapism. As evidenced in this article, literature and other artistic media can be used as thought experiments to bringing about radical socio-political change, building on past and present issues to envision a radical future. As Butler and Okorafor illustrate, radicalism may necessitate going against centuries-old systems of oppression, but what truly radical movement has ever been exempted from a bit of chaos?

Khadeeja is currently completing her MA in Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She completed an English MA (Hons) at the University of St Andrews.

Artwork by Molly Marie Aysu.

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