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Monday, 4 April 2016

Meet: 'The Last Pantheon' by Tade Thompson and Nick Wood

This week I have an extra, extra special 'meet' series with the authors of the recently published anthology AfroSFv2. It's always great to find out more about the stories I read from the writers who created them. I also always appreciate authors taking the time to answer my questions, so thank you! 

Image via StoryTime
Keeping in line with the sequence of the novellas in the anthology, first up is Tade Thompson and Nick Wood who give insights into their novella, The Last Pantheon, which follows two feuding brothers who came to our planet around 50,000 years ago. 

The focus really is all about the stories, but a little bit about the authors first. TadeThompson lives and works in the UK, though he is Yoruba. His debut novel, Making Wolfrecently won The Golden Tentacle Award for best debut novel at The Kitschies - and the story ‘Child, Funeral, Thief, Death’ in Apex Magazine. He is an occasional visual artist.

Image via StoryTime
Nick Wood is a Zambian born, South African naturalised clinical psychologist, with over a dozen short stories previously published in Interzone, Subterfuge, Infinity Plus, PostScripts, and Redstone Science Fiction, amongst others. Wood has also appeared in the first African anthology of science fiction, AfroSF. His debut adult novel, Azanian Bridges, explores a current but alternative South Africa, where apartheid survived. Wood has completed an MA in Creative Writing (SF & Fantasy) through Middlesex University, London and is currently training clinical psychologists and counsellors at the University of East London in England. 

Thompson and Wood also both have short stories in the fabulous anthology African Monsters. They can also be found on Twitter: @nick45wood and @tadethompson.

Amazing works, and I really hope to share my thoughts on them soon. 

First, I wanted to congratulate you both on your novels - Making Wolf and Azanian Bridges but would you be willing to talk about how the idea for The Last Pantheon came about?
Tade: Nick and I belonged to the now-defunct Facebook group The Afro-Punk Collective. In February 2013 there was a rather detailed discussion about superheroes in general and African superheroes in particular. Prior to this, Nick had written a well-received article about African comics. I approached Nick with the idea of a collaboration. The initial motive was deconstruction of the African superhero, a topic it was obvious we both cared about. It was also a love-letter to a medium that the literary establishment often dismisses as kids’ stuff. At this time we did not really know each other except by our work in the first AfroSF anthology.

Nick: Tade messaged me about my article on 'Mighty Man' on the South African Comics blog, still to be read hereWe entered into a discussion around super-heroes and then African super-heroes in particular and Tade mentioned how generally politically conservative their usage had been. He raised the idea about doing a collaboration with an implicit critical exploration of this - I thought it was a great idea, a tribute to the comics of our youth and their fun but sometime uneasy relationship both to (and within) Africa.


So what was it like working together on The Last Pantheon?
Tade: You hear horror stories about collaborations. You hear about ego clashes and deadline problems and decisions to discontinue.This, however, was painless. It was like we both had the same background in comics, the same narrative priorities, the same socio-cultural rage at the depiction of Africa in mass-media.

I do not recall a single disagreement. If anything, the collaboration led to us meeting each other’s families and becoming friends.

Nick: It was my first collaboration and I was a bit worried initially as I tend to be a private and reclusive writer, but also one who likes to exercise authoritarian control - over just that one part of my life at least! But from the outset when I read Tade's opening gambit I thought. 'That's good, that's smart, I can riff off this ... but can we keep it going though?' (What can I say, I'm a natural worrier!).

Needless to say we did keep it going, right until what felt like a proper ending - and with an ease and enjoyment that made me question the whole solitary writer bit. Even better, when I was stuck, Tade had several great ideas that loosened up the process for me - for example,  one idea was to  parse Lumumba's final letter across the text as appropriate, making the call for Africa to write its own history an implicit spine throughout the novella.

And yes, friendship and meeting family was another unexpected and wonderful spin-off.
   
(This is a 2-part question) I found The Last Pantheon’s approach to Africa’s political history through superheroes very interesting.

Why that focus for the story?
Tade: Because 'The Last Pantheon' is not really a superhero story. It’s really a commentary on how African history is neglected. In mainstream stories what you find is the Western version of the 'History of the World' is revised and rehashed again and again. I always wonder why any flashbacks to 'world' history always highlights Hitler as the ultimate evil, but says nothing about Leopold II.

Obviously we could not revise all of the history of the continent, but we wanted some touchstones relevant to our respective cultures.We wanted the African reader to feel important, and we wanted the Western reader to become curious if the names and events were unfamiliar.

Nick: As Tade says, 'TLP' was written partly as a way to reinstate Africa back into the centre of the human narrative, given that's where human evolution began. The historical narrative has been hijacked by the West and then rewritten as if the colonial invasion was to occupy a 'dark' place without history. A place without history is a place without 'real' people, as history adds contextual substance and a past to people, making them more tangible, enabling their voices to resonate with their ancestors, deep into the past. So it's an exercise in reclaiming the historical centre ground - and having fun 'appropriating' super-hero tropes to bounce around these critical events, playing with the idea that the original super-heroes were actually the African gods.

Re Tade's point about Leopold II, watch out for Nisi Shawl's upcoming novel 'Everfair'.

A historical fantasy/steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo.
Do you think BlackPower and Pan-African could have also played a more crucial role in our history if i) they weren’t so caught up in their own feud; and ii) one wasn’t so neutral?
Tade: Possibly. But the nature of the superhero narrative is flawed and perhaps rooted in adolescent power fantasies. You can’t solve your problems by punching them (or someone). One of the themes of the novella is the futility of using violence to solve your problems. Each time our heroes tried to intervene they either did not intervene early enough, or they failed outright. The Cold War in the late 60s and 70s played out in black Africa with wars, extra-judicial assassinations and coups that were thinly-veiled CIA plots. There was no easily-identifiable supervillain to incapacitate with energy bolts. 

Nick: Tade's pretty much hit the nail on the head here. There comes a time when you realise the limitations of super-heroics and that the real heroes are the ones without super-powers, getting on with their lives and making small but incremental changes on the ground. So it is, that two women of Africa take over  the (rainbow!) mantle at the end.

(This is also a 2-part question) The Last Pantheon also clearly pays homage to comic book series, some of which you mention in the story – Mighty Man and PowerMan.

Was there something particular about those two comics? And did they influence the creation of BlackPower and Pan-African?
Tade: The comics had a similar genesis, and a similar hold on our respective imaginations. I read Powerman (also known as Powerbolt) as a child in Lagos. What I later found out is that while the funds were Nigerian, the creative team was British (Comics legend Dave Gibbons actually asked the moneymen why they did not use local talent, but received no satisfactory answer). That aside, I read American comics mostly. We would buy them from Kingsway Stores, but they did not appear with any regularity. Powerman did. It was not the only comic. There was ‘Super 8’ and ‘Benbella’ (which was created locally).

Powerman/Powerbolt recovering from a snake bite. 

I should point out that both Powerman and Mightyman were anthology comics, and they both had several backup comics in common. For example, Jake ‘Wonderboy’ Masala was a boxing strip. There was also a cowboy strip called ‘Django’ I think.

These comics told stories that were relevant to our day-to-day lives. They spiritually influenced Black Power and Pan-African.

Nick: I've written about the history of Mighty Man in the linked article referred to earlier, and yes, local comics influenced the development of this as a local African super-hero story. African comics are NOT a 'new' thing!

Also, were there any other influences (comic books or otherwise)?
Tade: Heh, how much time do you have? Pantheon is the condensed effect of possibly hundreds of influences. I mean, one has to start with the late Jack Kirby; The works of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison; Morak Oguntade and Tayo Fatunla are two Nigerian cartoonists whose work I consumed every day in my teenage years; the writer D.O Fagunwa for the novel ‘Forest of a Thousand Daemons’; the writer Kola Onadipe; Flora Nwapa; Dambuzo Marechera etc.

Morak Oguntade, Vanguard, 1990

Nick: Marvel comics - I have FF52, the first appearance of the Black Panther! Zakes Mda, Lauren Beukes and Nnedi Okorafor (books), Will Eisner (comics), PAX (Pre-Azanian Comics - South African underground comics in the late 80's, during the State of Emergency); Johnny Wakelin (music - 'in Zay, in Zaire...' :-), Lavie Tidhar (World SF)...



(I love nothing more than learning new things, and clearly I could have gone on as Thompson and Wood have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to multiple things - comics, African super-heroes and African history to name a few; but I tried to stick with my five question challenge - which I also definitely exceeded.)

Final question (which I am asking everyone) what’s next?
Tade: My science fiction novel 'Rosewater' set in a futuristic Nigeria comes out in September 2016 from Apex Books. I also have a novella and two short stories scheduled for publication this year. I’m writing a follow-up to 'Making Wolf' as well as an urban fantasy novel set in London. Busy year!

Nick: My alternative history novel 'Azanian Bridges' is out in April, set in a current South Africa where apartheid endures. Thereafter I've been invited by the editor of the South African Journal of Psychology to write up a workshop I'll be running soon on 'Decolonising White Psychology'. One step at a time is all I can do.


I'm hoping two African women writers might pick up 'The Last Pantheon' and show Thembeka and Elizabeth driving forward an even more subversive and alternative super-hero story. Someone like Chinelo Onwualu, Chikodili Emelumadu or Zukiswa Wanner perhaps?

Like I said, I could have gone on, but it's really great to find out the historical and comic book origins of The Last Pantheon. Also Everfair is on my list - it sounds fantastic! Thanks again to Nick and Tade for taking the time to answer my questions. Join me tomorrow for the next novella in the anthology Hell Freezes Over.

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