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Collectively Dreaming New Worlds: Walidah Imarisha on “Octavia’s Brood“

Co-editor Walidah Imarisha discusses what inspired the sci-fi anthology “Octavia’s Brood” and what it is intended to inspire.

Walidah Imarisha, coeditor of Octavia's Brood. (Photo: AK Press)

Part of the Series

What do activists and organizers have in common with science fiction writers? The remarkable anthology Octavia’s Brood starts from the premise that both are engaged in the process of imagining a better world. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have collected short pieces of “visionary fiction” that include fantasy and sci-fi, comedy and horror, united by a desire to explore new ways of understanding ourselves and our world. Click here to order the book from Truthout today!

There are so many powerful stories in Octavia’s Brood that summarizing a few of them, in the interest of giving a taste of what the book has to offer, feels like an unfair task. For starters, you can read “Kafka’s Last Laugh” in its entirety here at Truthout – but to say that Vagabond’s satire of capitalist prison state repression is representation of the book is only true up to a point. Other pieces are as different as Dawolu Jabari Anderson’s “Sanford and Sun,” in which a certain cosmic jazz composer and bandleader makes an appearance in a certain 1970s sitcom, or Jelani Wilson’s “22XX: One-Shot,” a kind of teen adventure romp set in a military school on a moon of Mars.

What many of the stories do have in common, however, is that they imagine not just the ugly futures that await us if current trends of rampant capitalism, global inequality and climate disruption continue (the kind of science fiction Robert Heinlein said was driven by the thought “If this goes on,” as Tananarive Due cites in one of Octavia’s Brood’s non-fiction essays). They also imagine the forms that resistance to those oppressive futures might take.

“When we talk about a world without borders, without capitalism, without prisons, without war, that’s science fiction.”

Bao Phi reimagines how a racist, militaristic society would actually “solve” the threat of zombies in “Revolution Shuffle,” but also what resistance to that solution might look like. In “Hollow” by Mia Mingus, people with disabilities have been rounded up and shipped off to an off-world colony, where they have subsequently overthrown their guards and built a new society – but fearfully await the day the “Perfects” on Earth realize what’s gone wrong and send reinforcements. Other stories, like Kalamu ya Salaam’s “Manhunters,” have so many ideas crammed into one short story that I don’t even know what to say other than read it, read it, read it.

Perhaps my personal favorite piece in Octavia’s Brood remains “the river,” a perfect piece of weird city-magic-infused uncanniness reminiscent of the best of China Miéville’s recent work. One half of the book’s editorial team, adrienne maree brown, conjures a tale in which the very waters of Detroit resist gentrification in a way that is both terrifying and undeniably just. While brown was busy at the 2015 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, I spoke with her coeditor Walidah Imarisha about what inspired Octavia’s Brood and what it is intended to inspire.

Joe Macaré: Let’s suppose that a reader is completely unfamiliar with Octavia Butler (or even, like me, has only read a little of her work). Can you talk about Butler’s importance and her role in inspiring this collection?

Walidah Imarisha: Octavia Butler was a phenomenal Black feminist science fiction writer, intellectual and visionary. For many of the writers in Octavia’s Brood, Butler was the first science fiction they read that featured characters like them, not as marginalized tokens, but as central characters.

Before we began working on Octavia’s Brood, adrienne [maree brown] was doing Octavia Butler emergent strategy sessions (you can read the very early strategic reader she and our Octavia’s Brood contributor Alexis Pauline Gumbs created here). The idea behind the sessions was to collectively read one of Butler’s books and then pull lessons that can help current movements for social change. At the same time, I was doing work around visionary fiction – the idea of fantastical fiction that can help us challenge existing power dynamics, and build new just worlds (I edited a special issue of Left Turn Magazine).

When adrienne and I got together, we realized that the principles of visionary fiction – centering those who have been marginalized; operating and imagining within a history of resistance; seeing identity and especially intersecting identities; highlighting change from the bottom up not the top down; exploring change that is collective, decentralized – were embodied so powerfully in Butler’s books, and is in fact the first place in science fiction many of us saw these principles in practice. So we named the collection in honor of her, as we feel by having an anthology of sci-fi and speculative fiction written by organizers, activists and change-makers, we are continuing the lineage of visionary change of which Octavia is very much a part.

Can you explain a little about the mix of established authors and first-time writing activists in Octavia’s Brood – why you believed this mix was necessary, the challenges it raised and the collaborative editorial process you used?

While there are several established science fiction writers who are also engaged in social change in the collection (like LeVar Burton, Tananarive Due, Terry Bisson), the overwhelming majority of contributors to Octavia’s Brood never wrote fiction, let alone science fiction, before the anthology. In fact, when we reached out to writers, many of them were unsure whether or not they would be capable of doing so. And yet, when we checked back in with them in a few weeks, many of them had not only come up with fantastical visionary story outlines, they had written 10, 20, in one case 70 pages!

“All people on this planet who come from oppressed communities are walking science fiction. Someone dreamed us up.”

My coeditor adrienne and I were not surprised by this. We firmly believe that all organizing is science fiction, and that organizers and activists are sci-fi creators. When we talk about a world without borders, without capitalism, without prisons, without war, that’s science fiction; those worlds don’t exist. But by being able to collectively dream of those worlds, we can begin building a path to manifesting them in reality. So we knew these organizers and activists we respected so much would create incredible stories once they were given the slightest permission to unleash that futuristic visionary energy they carried inside of them.

We chose the people we did to reach out to both because of their incredible social change work, and because we knew they were quality writers. But because most of the writers had never written science fiction, the editing process was a highly collaborative one. The writers were so generous and giving of their time, brilliance and imagination to this project, some of them working diligently on these stories for years to ensure that these are compelling quality narratives that help us build new worlds.

Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown with Octavia's Brood contributor Kalamu ya Salaam, author of the story Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown with Octavia’s Brood contributor Kalamu ya Salaam, author of the story “Manhunters.” (Photo: AK Press)

The genres in the book – science fiction, superheroes, fantasy, horror – have often been accused of presenting stories in which heroic individualism, reactionary politics and the centering of one kind of hero (cis, straight, white men) are even more rampant than other kinds of fiction or entertainment. What is it that gives these genres potential to also be the vehicle for imagining collective action and transformative justice, and for centering the marginalized?

Science fiction/speculative fiction is the only genre of writing that allows us not only to discard the limits of reality, but demands it of us. Octavia Butler in fact said of the genre, “It’s a freedom, a way of doing anything you want. There are all sorts of laws around other genres – romances, mysteries, Westerns. There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.”

“We believe there are no true dystopias, as long as there is one human alive who can hope and can imagine a new world.”

Science fiction allows for a stepping out of the rules people think they know, and an opening up to infinite possibilities and different viewpoints. When I was a young Black girl, I loved science fiction, I realize now, because it was one of the only places in the books I was reading where I got to hear from the “other,” the “alien” – which is often how I felt in a white supremacist society. Even though I wasn’t able to articulate the idea of aliens/robots/monsters/mutants/etc. being coded ways to talk about the oppressed position of people of color, even as a child I inherently understood that I often had more in common with a blue-skinned, tentacled alien than I did with the straight, cisgender, white, middle-class, male soldier who was so often the protagonist.

So while most of the mainstream science fiction that has been released reinforces the dominant paradigms of power, science fiction doesn’t have to do so. Imagination is not the purview of the powerful. In fact, it is often the thing that has allowed oppressed people not only to survive, but to change their conditions, and the entire world. I think Ursula Le Guin summed up the power of sci-fi incredibly in her 2014 National Book Award speech, where she said that hard times were coming and we will need writers who can imagine alternative ways of living. “We will need writers who remember freedom,” she said.

That idea of remembering freedom, and remembering the dream of freedom, is especially poignant for adrienne and myself. As two Black women, we recognize that our ancestors, enslaved Black people, were phenomenal visionaries and sci-fi creators. They dared to dream of a world without chattel slavery, at a time when everything in society told them it was an impossibility, a fantasy. Then they bent reality, changed the whole world, to create us. We are their science fiction dream. All people on this planet who come from oppressed communities are walking science fiction. Someone dreamed us up. They claimed the right, the responsibility and the privilege of dreaming new realities into being for each of us.

As bleak as some of the futures imagined in the book are, all of them contain some measure of hope. Was that a requirement that you wanted every story to meet – is it an essential part of “visionary fiction”?

One of the principles of visionary fiction is that it is realistic and hard, but ultimately hopeful. Hopeful that change can happen – that new just worlds are possible – but recognizing it will not be easy getting there. Octavia Butler’s books are definitely a great example of that. In Parable of the Sower, she creates a devastating and terrifying near future for us full of brutality. But coming together collectively and with principle, groups of folks are able to build new societies within it. They are able to remember freedom.

On the other hand, several stories imagine a kind of utopian future (or a utopian alternate history/present!) or at the very least a society in which certain injustices and inequalities are undone. Today’s popular culture seems heavy on the dystopia … Can you talk about what you see as the importance of these more positive visions?

The terms “dystopia” and “utopia” are often not helpful, I think, in the conversations of visionary fiction, and the creation of new just worlds. The reality is, there will never be a true utopia (in the way it’s defined popularly as this perfect society) as long as there are humans there, because we are messy, we are complex and contradictory, and we will continually need to re-envision, recalibrate and re-center our ideas of what justice, what freedom, look like.

Conversely, we believe there are no true dystopias, as long as there is one human alive who can hope and can imagine a new world. Hope is resilient, like Tupac Shakur’s rose that grew in concrete.

In many ways, these are the same ideas behind good community organizing – that we never truly “win” because there is never truly an end to change. That instead we get to continue building and engaging in a process of imaginative community-building that stretches back millennia, and we get to add our visions to this collective dream.

Inevitably, climate disruption is a theme that hangs heavy over many of the stories here. The last two fiction pieces in the book, in particular (“Homing Instinct” and “children who fly”) seem to be set in futures that are only just around the corner and characterized by visions of an Oakland at risk of being swallowed by the rising Pacific. How intentional was the ordering of the book and what was behind pairing these pieces toward the end?

The process for ordering the stories was a very organic one. While the order of some of them shifted with advice from our incredible adviser Sheree Renee Thomas (who edited the seminal Dark Matter anthologies), the order of the last stories stayed the same from the very beginning. We felt the questions raised by “Homing Instinct” are essential ones for all of us: What and where is home? Who decides that? How do we build it? And we felt “children who fly” did such a beautifully poetic job of showing how when those who are marginalized are centered, it makes us all more safe and whole. In this story, it is mostly queer and trans survivors of color, survivors of trauma, especially sexual abuse, who are able to leave their bodies, come together collectively and heal this broken ravaged world. They are the only hope for the future.

Gabriel Teodros, author of the story Gabriel Teodros, author of the story “Lalibela,” brown, Imarisha and Morrigan Phillips, author of “The Long Memory.” (Photo: AK Press)

Why was it important to include non-fiction pieces in the book too, including Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essay on Star Wars?

We thought it incredibly important to include some essays – we had seen Sheree Renee Thomas do this in Dark Matter, and felt for ourselves how powerful it is to have some explicit analysis with these visionary stories. We were lucky and honored to get the piece from visionary Black horror writer Tananarive Due about Octavia Butler and social change. Tananarive is someone I have admired and read for a long time, and to have her brilliant examination, based in part on the personal relationship she had with Octavia, was such a gift.

And Mumia’s piece! We were so honored to have Mumia’s brilliance in this collection (and we were lucky enough to get an audio recording of him reading it, before his current health crisis, that we have played at all of our events). His analysis of Star Wars and US imperialism is so deep and on point. It’s important for us to imagine our own futures and dreams, but we also have to engage with and think critically about the mainstream sci-fi that is being put out, because all too often folks use sci-fi as escapism and don’t think about the political frameworks they are taking in as they watch or read it.

Some stories in the book seem entirely self-contained while others point toward a bigger story – to me it seems the stories from each of the editors are examples of these two kinds of short story and the different strengths they bring. “the river” seems perfectly self-encapsulated whereas your “Black Angel” seems to cry out to be green-lit as an ongoing series in some medium! Is that a fair assessment and are you aware of any contributors planning to continue these stories beyond Octavia’s Brood?

That is definitely a fair assessment. I am actually working on a Black Angel novel, and the very original idea for it was a comic book. adrienne’s short story is part of a collection of Detroit-based science fiction she is working on. Both of us editors felt that we needed to come out of this process having completed at least one story as well, even if it never made it in the book. But she and I have both written far more than one story over the five years we have been working on this anthology, and so many of the writers are also working on longer pieces. I hope to see many literary visionary offshoots of Octavia’s Brood populating the world as these writers finish their works and send them off into the multiverse!

Finally, can you talk about the writing workshops you’ve been doing and any other plans you have to continue fusing speculative fiction and organizing?

We just wrapped up a three-month national Octavia’s Brood tour, where we did 47 events in 22 cities. We didn’t just do readings – we did workshops, strategy sessions, interactive dialogues, futuristic dance parties, historic presentations, and more. Collectively, the Octavia’s Brood crew (adrienne dubbed us Brooders!) have developed numerous workshops that allow folks to engage with social change and science fiction. We want to not only share the stories in the collection; we want to create space for folks to practice visionary fiction themselves, to collectively ideate.

So we have done collective sci-fi visioning workshops, where groups pick a social issue and then create a world they can explore it in. We have a sci-fi and direct organizing workshop (originally created by another Brooder, Morrigan Phillips) where folks take existing sci-fi worlds (like Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Hunger Games, The Wizard of Oz, etc.), embody the oppressed people in the story and then develop tactics to achieve a goal.

Morrigan and I have also been working on a new project/workshop, People’s Encyclopedia 2070, where folks write encyclopedia entries as if it was the year 2070, and major social change has happened. We are dreaming new futures as historical fact, claiming the future and the right to shape it as ours. The idea started with an entry I wrote on Ferguson for the encyclopedia. We hope it will be a wiki page that folks can submit their entries to, and we can see these futures where we have made the change we dream of. Then all we have to do is go out and make it happen.