In one of my photography courses this past semester we talked about the idea of ‘darkest Africa’ and how images of the continent intentionally excluded the evidence of the cultures that already existed in order to present a view of Africa as an empty place for Europeans to come in and illuminate through industrial development. It was an intentional framing to create a vision of Africa that kept the achievements of its extremely diverse people just out of sight – a tradition that continues in the way that creators of colour are often left out of the conversation. Marlon James’s Black Leopard Red Wolf offers an opportunity to think about how fantasy books also created a vision of ‘darkest Africa’ that was empty and therefore unsuitable as a setting for fantasy epics in comparison to feudal Europe which is the perennial source of inspiration. Black Leopard Red Wolf is undoubtedly a fantasy book – filled with magic, shapeshifters and spirits – but it turns its back on the familiar atmosphere of medieval Europe in favour of the unfamiliar but equally deep history of a continent cast into shadow by colonialism.
Black Leopard Red Wolf starts where most readers would unconsciously expect a book inspired by Africa to begin – in a village of hunter-gatherers in the desert. But it becomes clear very quickly that this is just a small part of a society that encompasses villages, cities, and towns filled with incredibly diverse people. The popular imagination of the history of Africa often leaves the urban centres of the continent’s history out of view but Marlon James draws attention to the presence of these more metropolitan centres. Not only does James draw on the wide variety of cultures that existed (and continue to exist) in Africa, the novel also resists coding either the villages or the cities as inherently good or evil.
The tendency towards rigid moral coding of people, places, and things is one of the great pitfalls of fantasy writing and these good/evil divisions often fall along very predictable lines that places immaculate cities (usually inhabited by elves or equivalent beings) at the top of a hierarchy that descends toward war hungry hordes in loose settlements. Moving away from these rigid presentations of good and evil enables a more complex consideration of the places that the characters encounter and has the effect of turning the focus onto the moral judgements made by the protagonists which is more closely tied to the fate of individuals. Evil is combated by standing up for those you care about rather than setting out to destroy the entire source of evil in the world. There are layers of nuance and motivation that go beyond what is possible when using the more typical codings of traditional fantasy.
There is also a sense that there is a connection to a wider world, beyond the places that are explored in the novel. Characters enter from kingdoms far away and reference cultures or faiths adapted from Chrisitian Europe. They are not present as conquerors or even explorers, but are instead a part of a cosmopolitan network that extends beyond the parts of the world directly displayed by the plot. World building in this manner is an important part of making any fantasy world feel complex and gives a sense of context to the experiences of the characters in the primary setting of the novel. Even though the plot is more concerned with saving a few individuals they inhabit a larger world with its own goings on that are potentially affected by the meddling of the protagonists. The world of Black Leopard Red Wolf is not a dark place waiting for discovery, it is reaching out and building connections on its own.
Marlon James’s world building doesn’t enable readers to take any of the mental shortcuts that we develop reading speculative fiction that falls back on a few Eurocentric models as the setting for magic. The unfamiliarity of the elements discussed above raises questions not just about the representation of diverse histories in imagined worlds but also the presence of diverse histories in our real world which continue to leave so many people intentionally out of view. As a white reader, Black Leopard Red Wolf challenged me to think about my own willingness to tacitly accept a framing of darkest Africa both inside and outside of fiction. It was a stark reminder that while medieval Europe is the expected setting for fantasy stories this follows along from a practice in the real world that leaves the history of Africa and other colonized places out of sight. Just like Game of Thrones cannot actually replace studying the Wars of the Roses, Marlon James’s book is not a textbook about the history of African nations; but it does point a reader towards what has been left out of frame, suggesting the majesty of ancient cities like Benin and whispers about stories that are not often heard.