From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Reclaiming a Traditional African Genre: The AfroSurrealism of Ngano

I fell in love with AfroSurrealism when I was drafting the stories for my forthcoming debut short story collection Drinking from Graveyard Wells (University Press of Kentucky, 2023). So many absurd things have happened in my life. I bought a loaf of bread for ten million dollars when hyperinflation hit my country, Zimbabwe, which means that I’ve been a penniless billionaire; I’m only twenty-six and have lived under two dictatorships. In AfroSurrealism (also spelled as Afro-surrealism, Afro-Surrealism, and Afro surrealism), I found language to capture the flavor of the absurdity and horror I experience daily as an African woman. Commonly associated with Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, AfroSurrealism uses absurdism, horror, and fantasy to tell the narrative of the contemporary Black experience; these experiences being things that are so absurd, like workplace code-switching manifesting as an eerie “White Voice,” that they seem surreal. Black life under capitalism and racism is so bizarre that “realism” cannot fully capture this absurdity, and so my fiction became weirder to reflect my reality. In Drinking from Graveyard Wells, gentrification, neocolonialism, and erasure are filtered through the lens of a neighborhood gossip who wakes up to find that houses are mysteriously disappearing in the night in her neighborhood; an immigrant woman finds herself in an American state that demands that she pay a toll of the thing she loves the most to be allowed to stay in a state that demands body parts as tolls; African heads of state are immortal beings who do not leave the seat of power; Black tax is an ancestral curse; and gods are part of a capitalist scheme designed to bar Black people from generational wealth. As my AfroSurrealist collection took shape, I leaned more into traditional African storytelling modes and found that surrealism was a genre convention in Ngano, a traditional genre in my country.

In his craft essay, “On fiction genres and the elements that power them: Part 1,” Nigerian author Suyi Davies Okungbowa describes genre as “the different forms fiction can take.” Ngano, also known as Inganekwane in Ndebele, which translates to “fable or fantasy story,” was the first fiction form I heard told around the fire by my gogo and sekuru. In Ngano my grandparents told, trees could fly, the dead got up and walked, magical creatures roamed the land, and animals talked. These stories were fabulist and AfroSurrealist in nature and held a mirror to real world issues. It blew my mind that my grandparents were AfroSurrealists long before Amiri Baraka coined the term. I thought AfroSurrealism was a shiny new genre, but it’s as old as Blackness itself.

Every genre has its own conventions, structural and narrative elements. Each Ngano my gogo told usually contained five narrative elements:

  1. The Sarungano: Storyteller/ Omniscient Narrator/ Narrative Voice

Ngano are traditionally told orally. I often introduce myself as a Sarungano. The Shona word Sarungano means both the storyteller, or “owner of the story,” and the story told. Ngano are traditionally told in third-person point of view. When a Sarungano speaks a story into existence, they embody the voice of an omniscient narrator. The voice in which the story is told is outside of the story and knows everything about the characters and events of the story. Sarunganos are usually gogos and sekurus because they have vast life experiences as well as deep cultural knowledge of cosmologies, spirituality, and how to care for the natural environment. The Sarungano is a memory bank, a repository of history, culture, proverbs, figures of speech, and imagery that orients the audience to this cultural knowledge. In my story, “Ugly Hamsters: A Triptych,” I employ an omniscient narrator to guide the reader through the triptych structure that paints a picture of the corrupt gods in charge of a capitalist system designed to bar Black people from accumulating generational wealth, and the struggling Black college student whose life is shaped by an omnipotent force and system she cannot see.

2. Shamiso: AfroSurrealism

In Ngano, the surrealist or fantastical element is often grounded in reality. Similar to the magical realism literary genre founded by Latin American authors, fantastical elements in Ngano are placed into an everyday, mundane setting. Usually only one thing is strange. In my collection, the story “Home Became a Thing with Thorns” is about an American immigration system that is set up so that immigrants have to give up something they love to the state, whether it’s their eyes, their tongues and language, or their loved ones in magical family separations, etc. The surreal becomes a pathway to explore the uncanny that can be found in the everyday systems of our world. The golden nugget of Ngano is the bizarre, and the Sarungano leans into this weirdness and absurdity as a tool for examining the horrors of the real world.

3. Hunhu/Ubuntu: The Humanist Moral

I took my first creative writing workshop in undergrad at Cornell University. Not only was I the only Zimbabwean student in that workshop, I was the only Black student. I came into the class anxious about my writing, but my nerves were dispelled when I watched, week after week, my white classmates say very smart things about everyone’s pieces. When it came to my piece, the major critique that both my professor and classmates agreed upon was that my story was “too didatic” and “too on the nose.” From then onwards, I saw that as a flaw in my work and strived to edit out the “didatic” from future stories. I later had to unlearn this as I was drafting stories, because the didactic, or as I call it now, the Hunhu/Ubuntu, is a genre convention of Ngano. Hunhu/Ubuntu is an African humanist philosophy that attaches value to community. Often translated as “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am,” Ngano are traditionally used to impart humanist belief systems to children and so contain a humanist moral which my workshop mates read as “too didactic.” My favorite traditional Ngano of my childhood is that of Simbimbino. In Simbimbino, a farmer digs a big hole in his field to trap his wife. When his wife falls in, she is transformed into a pig and the farmer intends on eating the pig for dinner. When the farmer’s son, Simbimbino, realizes that his mother was forcibly shapeshifted into an animal, he reports his father to the Chief, and the Chief and community apprehend the father for his crimes. In this Ngano about the attempted cannibalizing of a spouse, we can find a moral about gender-based violence and breaking the cycle of violence through community action. I’ve come to learn that the Hunhu/Ubuntu in my stories are not a flaw but a deliberate craft choice that pays homage to the Sarunganos that came before me.

4. Nziyo: Song and Call and Response

A key narrative element of Ngano is audience participation through the use of call-and-response and song. Every story starts with the Sarungano chanting:

Paivapo (Once upon a time/ There once was . . . )

To which the audience responds:

Dzepfunde (continue, we are listening)

This call-and-response is repeated at least three times before the Sarungano continues with the story. I’ve always been fascinated by the word dzepfunde, which many Zimbabweans find hard to translate into English. Dzepfunde functions like an utterance, much like amen at the end of a prayer. While “continue, we are listening” is how it’s commonly translated, there is also an unsaid sentiment in dzepfunde: Continue, we are listening to your weird story. The response is not only an acknowledgment that the audience is listening, it is an acknowledgement of the story’s surrealism, and that the audience has entered a contract with the Sarungano to suspend their disbelief.

Nziyo, song, is an integral part of the structure of a ngano. The audience actively participates in singing along with the Sarungano. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You at Home” incorporates both call-and-response and song. The story is set in a world where women can make children from materials of their own choosing and follows a working-class character struggling to make the perfect baby. The story contains three songs that are sung by the characters in call-and-response format. The first song is a blessing that brings the baby to life, and the second song is a remix of the first song. In the second song, a corrupt character that siphons joy as payment adds her own verse and corrupts a blessing song that is supposed to be given freely. The song reinforces the events of the story through rhyme, repetition, and additional symbolism.

5. Tsuro naGudo: Anthropomorphism

Growing up in Zimbabwe, tsuro naGudo is a staple of fireside Ngano. The hare and the baboon live in an alternate world as humans do—going to work, living in houses, etc. Anthropomorphism is an allegorical device of ascribing human qualities and behavior to nonhumans like animals and objects. Sarunganos use anthropomorphism to satirize those in power. Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker Prize nominated novel Glory is set in a nation of animals called Jidada and is narrated by a chorus of animal voices that bear witness to the brutality of dictatorship. The novel is an allegorical depiction of the coup in 2017 that ousted Robert G. Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly four decades. Often described by reviewers as an “African Animal Farm,” NoViolet Bulawayo credits her own gogo’s tales of talking animals and alternate worlds for the inspiration of this allegorical novel. While tsuro naGudo are often viewed as a less serious form of children’s literature, one that doesn’t warrant serious consideration, I view these tales as soft secondary world fantasies that can impart Hunhu/Ubuntu and explore serious topics such as unchecked power, military coups, and dictatorships.

My own writing process involves curating details from the real world that are bizarre and examining this strangeness in a setting that is our world but different. In my work, I play with traditional African genre conventions to explore the magical and impossible lives of African women. While the Ngano is traditionally an oral storytelling form, Sarunganos like Ignatius Mabasa are doing the work of translating these stories onto the page. I am a Sarungano of the page. Lately, I’ve been thinking of books as a technology that allows me to teleport into my readers’ heads, and together we remotely create surreal worlds, calling and responding across oceans. Ndipo pakazoperera Sarungano.

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu. A Zimbabwean woman in a red dress with a traditional multicolor tribal necklace standing in front of a waterfall.

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean sarungano (storyteller). Her debut short story collection, Drinking from Graveyard Wells (University Press of Kentucky, Spring 2023), was selected for the 2021 UPK New Poetry & Prose Series. Her novel manuscript in progress was selected by George RR Martin’s team for the Worldbuilder Scholarship to attend Clarion West in 2022. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst where she teaches in the writing program. She has taught at Clarion West Writers Workshop online and earned her BA at Cornell University. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the Tin House Workshop, Bread Loaf Writers Workshop, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She received the 2017 Cornell University George Harmon Coxe Award for Poetry selected by Sally Wen Mao, and was the 2020 fiction winner of Columbia Journal’s Womxn History Month Special Issue and the 2021 Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest winner selected by K-Ming Chang. She is the co-founder of the Voodoonauts Summer Workshop for Black SFF writers. Her work has been anthologized in African Risen (Tordotcom Publishing, 2022) and has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, Tor.com, Fantasy Magazine, Columbia Journal, Fiyah Literary Magazine, Mermaids Monthly, and Kweli Journal. She is currently at work on a novel.