At this year’s NOMMO Awards for African Speculative Fiction, there were at least two pioneering entries in the longlist for the ‘Best Graphic Novel’ category.
Only the former went on to make the awards’ shortlist; but the Moongirls – created and produced by Pan-African and feminist NGO, Drama Queens Ghana– are moving on with their mission to “save Africa from a diverse range of forces.”
Drama Queens have, in the last three years, been one of the most active outfits in Ghana engaged in the struggle to alter sociocultural conditions that are oppressive towards women, queer people and other marginalised identities in-between.
In October 2019, they hosted the Queer University Film Festival where, among other films, feminist filmmaker Selasie Djameh’s short, Baby Girl – about an intersex Ghanaian teenager – premiered. The film was partly funded by the Queer University enterprise, with Djameh’s idea for the short having been incubated at the inaugural edition of Drama Queens’ film workshop initiative, titled Queer Universities.
Moongirls, their latest project, was launched in Accra in December last year. The graphic novel series follows “four African Supersheroes” – three of who identify as lesbian, queer and pansexual, respectively – each with varying superpowers, who’re up against a fascistic heteropatriarchal order named The Seti.
The Kemetic philosophy of Ma’at, which exhorts justice, balance and harmony as ways of being, doubles as the concept that undergirds both Drama Queens’ and the Moongirls’ ethos. Working towards that ideal, the series uses environmental degradation, gender and sexuality as the prime themes for exploration, which makes the storylines topical across board, and particularly in Ghana – with the society’s ever-increasing queerantagonisms and the existing threat to the invaluable Atewa forest.
Corresponding via WhatsApp and email, myelf and Nana Akosua Hanson, founder of Drama Queens and creator of Moongirls, attempted a dive into this vital creative intervention.
The Moongirls series is co-authored by four people, including yourself. How do the inputs from each of you come together to achieve coherence?
Season One was co-authored by writers Suhaidatu Dramani, George Hanson, who is my brother, and Tsiddi Can-Tamakloe. We sort of organically formed a system of creating. We had regular intense brainstorming sessions throughout 2019, where we made ourselves play with a universe of ideas and imagined all possibilities for where the story could go. These could be half a day long or even all-day sessions. We generally moved from an incoherence of great ideas to a coherent sequence of ideas and events. I’m then tasked with writing this out in a script format that illustrators would understand. This is also in order to maintain a coherence in narrative, style and tone of the literature. The team then does another round of editing before the final scripts are sent for illustration.
As creator of the series, how easily identifiable were your characters to you after they had been rendered visually?
Once the script has left my hands, I let go of any ownership of the images I had created in my head as I wrote. The illustrator’s interpretation of the words is also a very important part of the collaborative art-making process.
I really like the sound of that…
I only focused on writing the scripts to such rich detail, as detailed as giving the reader the ‘feel’ of each Moongirl – such as, what colour represents her energy, even who she must be a spiritual reincarnation of. And then I trust on this ‘feel’ to inspire the illustration, and more often than not, it worked! The illustrators themselves really fell deep into the story of the script and were inspired to create with verve. So even if it’s different from how I imagined it in my head, I was shown places other imaginations could go and this was always a humbling and awesome experience for me; seeing the art called forth by my words.
So, there weren’t any frustrating things that happened in that process?
Not really. There were just two things we did not compromise on. At all. Firstly, we definitely wanted to make sure our characters looked and felt African. This may start a debate on what is the ‘African’ look? Impossible to answer, so what we focused on, again, was the ‘feel’. As an African reader does it feel familiar to you? Do you see yourself in the girls? Are they talking in ways that you can relate? Are they moving in spaces you also frequent? This is what we hope to achieve seamlessly as we continue production.
And secondly, we were bent on making sure the diversity of women’s bodies was represented as well and as much as we could through this medium; since we were doing the work of visually representing women, a space that has been heavily political in pop culture. My strategy, basically, was to work on detailed scripts, have conversations with the illustrators, work with them into being in a kind of Moongirl state of mind, and then watch them play. I was always excited with the results.
How did the Moongirl quartet come together? Was it a naturally occurring grouping, or a deliberately utilitarian one that they embody the identities that they do – perhaps to serve certain sociopolitical purposes such as affirming those identities, or maybe even just to have those identities represented in the African superhuman canon for the first time ever?
I definitely wanted Queer girls as Moongirls. Moongirls is an extension of Drama Queens’ artistic activism and since 2018, we have been dedicated to employing the power of art and its power to capture culture, in our activism against Ghanaian homophobia and for African LGBTQIA+ rights and freedoms. So, in creating the next Drama Queens project, which was a graphic novel series, queer representation, particularly queer representation in the African superhuman canon was imperative. You don’t see that – African queer supersheroes. You just don’t see that.
Fatima being a sex worker was also deliberate. Through her, we hope to create an avenue to share the reality of violence within sex work on the continent. Like in chapter 1 where we are introduced to one form of police violence in sex work.
Apart from these, let’s just say the spirits of these four girls had been hovering somewhere in the universe of my mind for years, waiting to be born. I’d started trying to bring them to life about 5 to 7 years ago when I was working as an editor for Citi FM’s newspaper, even before I knew they were going to be the Moongirls. They’d share with me their experiences, bits and pieces of their stories, their pasts and even sometimes, it was almost other-worldly when I experienced their emotions – and sometimes intensely. In Wadjet’s case, she shared her future. The character Wadjet was the hardest to discover at first. She seemed the most shy. Then as I was writing her chapter, I realized she had been the first to speak to me among all the Moongirls. I’d written about a specific traumatic, yet defining, incident in her past, some 7 to 8 years ago without even knowing that Moongirls will be born some years later. I wrote it as a short story, and at the time, I had wondered where this story had come from, because I couldn’t trace any connecting experience to my own life. I really do believe the Moongirls, their souls really, have existed, for centuries and this was the time they chose to introduce themselves.
The Moongirls are constantly referred to as supersheroes. Many feminists reject this specific kind of gendering, one of the main arguments being that it reinforces the patriarchal notion of the male being default – in a very sacrosanct way. Being feminists yourselves, I’m curious as to your thoughts on this, and why supershero is your marker of choice.
First time I’ve ever heard of this school of thought. Thank you for teaching me! I guess it makes sense where pop culture’s attempts to create a nuanced superheroine or supershero to counter the supermasculine superhero trope, largely falls short of really challenging stereotypical gender roles and beliefs.
The pushback I’ve also experienced with the term ‘Supershero’ has been in pop culture’s perpetuation of the ‘strong black woman’ trope and our capacity to take all sorts of bullshit often at the expense of our humanity.
The concept of a Super Being in itself is such a fascinating one. It can be deeply problematic, as well as deeply escapist. Humans across cultures have always had illusions or delusions of the Superhuman. It is quite the obsession. In a time of World War, the invention of the Superman was a patriarchal escapist way to deal with the reality of our mortality and the evil that human hands can be capable of in bringing mass destruction and death.
And though western culture, mythology, philosophy and spirituality may centre the superhuman in the Übermensch, in African spiritual Thought, this can be centred from a vastly different source. For example, God is gendered as masculine under Christian patriarchy. Meanwhile, in my ethnic group, the Ga, God is androgynous and therefore referred to as ‘Ataa Naa’, referencing both Masculine and Feminine aspects of the Supreme Being. It is profound African philosophy like this that really excites me. Sure as hell an androgynous Supreme Being will possess the Truth of human gender and sexual queerness where a white male god cannot even begin to start to make sense or compassion of! Pre-colonial African LGBT+ history points to the truth that many African cultures had a more profound knowledge of human queerness than we have in the hyper-Christian society that Ghana is today.
Moongirls is heavy in traditional African spirituality and thought. It has been extremely fun using pop culture as a medium to mainstream this, and the exciting spaceship of African futurism to re-define and re-imagine.
However, the questions and conversations aroused by Moongirls are extremely important. For us, they are the point of its existence: to create a cultural product that sparks rich reflection. Does ‘Supersheroing’ add or take away from the cause? Do we really need Supersheroes? Does ‘Supersheroing’ improve egalitarian views on gender roles? By all means, if Moongirls causes you to ask these questions, ask the questions, and let it lead you to reflection, and let reflection lead you to inspiration.
And, of course, if ‘Supersheroes’ provides too much resistance for you, by all means feel safe in the futuristic and magical ambiguity of the term ‘Moongirls’, where you can re-imagine what you will.
Moongirls was longlisted for the Nommo Awards. What does that mean to the crew, and what achievement of Moongirls would mean more to you than this nomination?
We were very surprised, but ecstatic. The greatest achievement of Moongirls for me will be for it to become such a part of the fabric of the culture that when people are naming identifiers of living in Africa in the 2020s, Moongirls will be a part of that list. Just like the way my brother and I talk about Captain Planet when we are reminiscing our glorious childhood days.
That’s dope. Another thing I find quite dope are Chapter Afterthoughts. What were the motivations for creating and including that?
Apart from the art of it, this is also activist work. Therefore, the Chapter Afterthoughts are our way of encouraging individual and communal reflection after reading each chapter. It is also how we get a sense of how Moongirls may have influenced a person’s behaviour and thoughts. When I was a kid, I remember reading African comics, and they always had questions at the end that I’d like to answer. As an adult, I now realize how this must have greatly influenced me to remember that tool and to bring it to my own creative work.
Any plans to adapt this to other mediums – like film, audiobooks etc.?
If there is funding, yes!
In 1992, the Dissent journal published an Ama Ata Aidoo essay titled The African Woman Today, in which she basically mused on the collective position of African women at the time. If you were to be commissioned to do an essay in the same vein, on, say, the gender and sexually queer African today, what would your thesis statement be, based on your experiences of doing activist work in these fields?
This is such a hard question, but if I was to write an essay on the gender and sexually queer African today, it would definitely be an essay that tries to capture the cauldrons of queer revolution this time feels like for me, within the trajectory of African LGBTQIA+ activism and visibility. There are so many young queer Ghanaians that are not only demanding, but creating space for themselves today. And I like inspirational stories, so I will definitely be interested in capturing this.
The Moongirls novel is serialised here …
All images courtesy of Nana Akosua Hanson
Illustrations by several artises at AnimaxFYB Studios