In A Spy in Time, South African writer Imraan Coovadia delves into the under-explored premise of “time traveling while Black.” A crime thriller with an Afrofuturist twist, the narrative zooms from 23rd-century Johannesburg to 1950s Marrakesh within the first ten pages. The inexperienced Enver Eleven, a junior case officer for a mysterious organization known only as the Agency, serves as the primary lens through which the reader acclimates to a seemingly utopian future where white supremacy has been eradicated. Yet even then, it remains a precarious status quo. As Enver’s mentor Shunami Six reminds him: “You must remember, Agent Eleven, that this world, our world with its philosophy of humanity, with its attempt to care about every man, woman, and child, every last black-skinner fellow—and even the tragic albinos amongst us—is a recent construction. It is not so long ago that simply being born in a skin like ours would have been considered a crime.” With his elegant prose, Coovadia folds in to the absorbing spy novel a nuanced interrogation concerning race, identity, and humanity.
Mimi Wong: What was the initial inspiration for writing something like this?
Imraan Coovadia: It was more of a solution to a whole bunch of stuff I’ve been thinking about. First of all, I admired my friends who write detective novels or thrillers or whatever it was because I thought there’s something really pure about writing a story simply for the desire to hold someone’s attention. I’d always wanted to do that as a writer, so I thought I’d better get around to doing it. So that was part of it. And the time travel—I guess, you know, all novels are kind of time travel novels—around memories and time periods. Time travel gives you a way to carry out that kind of movement. And then I was interested in the political questions our country is in turmoil around—race, colonialism, and what it meant to be black and white. But I also knew there was nothing new I could say about it in a direct way that would be useful. So I thought, sometimes you look at things through the angle of fiction, and it allows you a more interesting point of view.
MW: I like this line near the beginning where you say, “The past is a foreign country and it is a country of the imagination.” I saw the use of time travel as a way to raise questions about what do we do with our history. In particular, what do we do with atrocities like slavery and genocide that have occurred in our past? How do we go about moving on from that? What was almost radical, sadly, was that the novel acknowledges that these things happen because so often in our national histories certain traumas get erased.
IC: America is a stronger country than South Africa, and so it can have a much more optimistic version of the past. Whereas—I think it’s true of Africa as a whole—we have a huge number of catastrophes and disasters that make up our past, and make us who we are. In a way, there isn’t a very positive way that we can use the past without acknowledging that it’s full of all those kinds of terrors. And not just for some people but for almost everybody. And I think it means that time traveling while Black is a fundamentally different experience than if you were on Star Trek or whatever. The past is a really different place depending on who you are. Time travel writers, I’m not sure that they really exploited or looked into that problem as much as they could have.
“YOU ALSO DON’T HAVE TO WRITE THE NOVELS OF THE EUROPEAN 1950S OR 1920S IN THE AFRICAN 21ST CENTURY. …AFROFUTURISM LETS YOU SHORT CIRCUIT A BUNCH OF THOSE FIXED WAYS OF THINKING AND TO IMAGINE SOMETHING DIFFERENT.”