I recently finished Nisi Shawl's intriguing steampunk sci-fi novel 'Everfair', about a Congo that might have been.
Shawl's fiction was especially intriguing after the nonfiction I read before writing a magazine article on Ota Benga, the young Congolese man brought to the United States and displayed next to the ape house at the Bronx Zoo at the start of the 20th century.
Pamela Newkirk in "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga" shares the results of research into history, politics, racism and the psychology of trauma. Congolese scholar Ngimbi Kalumvueziko offers Benga a countryman's empathy in "Le pygmee congolais expose dans un zoo americaine: sur les traces d'Ota Benga". Carrie Allen McCray's brother knew Benga as a mentor and friend during the sojourner's last years in the United States, before he committed suicide in despair over his inability to return to Congo. McCrary's book length poem "Ota Benga Under My Mother's Roof" is a moving essay on home and grief. Phillips Verner Bradford, whose grandfather Samuel Verner was the adventurer who brought Benga to the zoo, wrote "Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo" with Harvey Blum to try to understand a shameful chapter n his family's and his country's story.
Reading Shawl was a chance to contemplate a different fate for Benga. One of the characters she created, Loyiki, is orphaned when King Leopold's Force Publique slaughtered his family along with the rest of his village. Benga's life was shattered in similar circumstances before Verner brought him to the United States.
Loyiki becomes a counselor to a Congolese court and never meets a Verner to treat him like an exotic specimen, not a fellow human being. Shawl does create a man with Verner's showmanship and love of fable, but her Matty, a playwright, turns his talents to telling the world of the humanity of the Congolese and sensitizing those who will listen to the perils they face.
Shawl's Thomas Jefferson Wilson is an African-American missionary and military officer who discovers the legacy he shares with people he meets for the first time in Congo. The character owes much to real-life Rev. William Henry Sheppard. Sheppard, a Kentucky-born black Presbyterian minister (whose name also evokes a US president, in this case William Henry Harrison) went to Congo as a missionary and was among the first to denounce Leopold and wage an international campaign against the savagery of colonial rule.
In Shawl's book, Leopold is defeated in 1904 by the Congolese king Mwenda, who is aided by Loyiki and by a ragtag band of black and white American missionaries and European freethinkers and feminists (Matty among them). Plus a Chinese refugee. A reference to Eatonville, Florida and an echo of Countee Cullen drive home the idea of black agency in "Everfair".
In Shawl's multicultural world, heroes devise weapons and machines of rare-earth minerals, rubber, Kuba cloth and ancient wisdom. Plus a touch of magic. Mwenda's kingdom is a rich fusion of Africa and Europe, evidenced by elegant architecture and fashion. That doesn't make Shawl's world free of racism, tragedy and arrogance. Despite the magic, this is no fairy tale.
World War I breaks out after Leopold's defeat. Mwenda and his comrades are caught in the global conflagration -- and end up on the losing side. Still, as the novel ends, we find hope for unity founded on respect and compassion despite the divisions among black, white and Asian characters; foreigners and Africans; Christians, atheists and African philosophers; democrats and monarchists.
In a forward to 'Everfair', Shawl writes that "the steampunk genre often works as a form of alternate history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences ...."
Shawl conjures clockwork robotic arms to replace limbs ripped away by soldiers of the Force Publique. Mighty dirigibles that help win an anti-colonial war. Those trappings aside, her world is recognizable, allowing readers to imagine how different choices could have transformed personal and larger histories.