Published by Black Ocean
When Center for Afrofuturist Studies founding curator Anaïs Duplan first launched that initiative in Iowa City in 2016, he told Little Village, “It’s about making it safe to feel uncomfortable and then trying to make it better.”
That philosophy echoes throughout the twists and turns of his latest work, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture. As he explores the language and logic, ethics and esthetics of an Afrofuturist ideal, the idea of sitting with discomfort at the junctures of antithetical ideas keeps coming back into focus.
However, “trying to make it better” may be something that Duplan has consciously left behind. He gestures toward the idea in the introductory essay, “Paradigms for Liberation,” which argues art is the attempt to return to a sense of union after exploring chaos. But the following pages seemingly reject that need, and Duplan ultimately lands on a definition of freedom that involves accepting, rather than easing, disunity.
One of the ways that the challenge of sitting with contradictory truths is explored is through the use of polyvocality. There’s the polyvocality of many speaking at once, but there’s also the polyvocality of one speaking as many. These twin concepts both inform and are embodied in the text. Duplan speaks in many voices, with essays that run the gamut of tone—more poetic in his interviews with poets; arch and academic when those suit best—but the voices of myriad subjects also run throughout.
Duplan has no qualms about extensive direct quotations, both from conversations and from source material, opting to bring the voices of his inspirations to the verge of dialogue with one another. The result is a polyrhythmic volume where the chapters, though requiring a pause of digestion between them, still seem to exist almost simultaneously. This sleight of hand is reinforced by the slimness of the physical book, collapsing a vastness of thought into almost nothing—its lightness in the hand playing almost farcically against its heaviness in the mind.
As the book unfolds, the question of liberation is recontextualized as a question of becoming.
“In front of my screen,” Duplan writes in “My Virtual Pussy, My Artificial Lungs,” “I gain the ability, as an alchemist does, to transform one substance (myself) into another, more ostensibly valuable substance.”
He is talking, at that moment, about the alchemy of online interaction and social media. But the invocation of the screen is a reminder, too, of the writing process itself — of how Duplan has worked that same transformative magic in crafting and compiling this book.
In the sections of the book where he is conversing with other artists, it’s striking to me, too — as someone who conducts a lot of interviews — that Duplan (seemingly) effortlessly does that thing when asking questions where the questions reveal as much about him as they hope to about the other person. It’s a vulnerability that leads to deeper connection.
Blackspace ends with “Blackspace,” an afterthought of an essay not just included but entirely written in response to an interview subject requesting at the last minute that her piece not be included. It is deeply personal, exploring Duplan’s trans* identity, childhood experiences and relationship to wholeness and change. But what is remarkable is that it is not distinctly more revelatory than the rest of the book. Duplan shares as much of himself when asking questions as when exploring potential answers.
Fans of Duplan’s poetry should know that there’s only a smattering of it included here. He makes up for it, though, by carrying his careful, precise use of language throughout this exploration of its use. There are myriad threads woven through Blackspace, and language is certainly one you can trace if that’s what brings you to Duplan. But ultimately, you’ll want to read it again, and then again, following each thread of meaning as it resurfaces in each different voice. And it will demand the insertion of your own voice, existing less as something to be read than as something to be conversed with, querying your own definitions of freedom, foundation and futurity.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 288.