Feel Like Everything Is Crumbling? This Oral History of the Future Offers Hope.

In 2018, Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes called for a “radical reimagining” in how we respond to harm, writing, “It’s time for a jailbreak of the imagination in order to make the impossible possible.” A new book of speculative fiction, Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072, by M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi, is one such jailbreak.

O’Brien and Abdelhadi imagine themselves as researchers in the future. Their future selves interview 12 fictitious people who played different revolutionary roles in recreating the world, including sex workers, scientists, student organizers and freedom fighters. In this future world, money, nation-states, prisons, militaries, police, borders and families as we know them are no more. Instead, people organize themselves through communes, councils and free assemblies. And it is beautiful.

It’s not that there are no problems in this future — characters talk about long-term effects of trauma, an incident of physical violence toward a child, tough ethical questions resolved in ways not everyone agrees with, and the ongoing disaster of climate change. But people are now free to respond to those challenges in ways that are creative, collaborative, interdependent and caring, rather than desperate, isolated, greedy or punitive. People flourish through building with each other in the absence of capitalism and colonialism.

But if you come to Everything for Everyone for the politics, stay for the writing. Barring Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire, I can’t think of another author who uses an academic form to achieve a literary result so successfully. Each of the interviewees and interviewers has an entirely unique and authentic voice. The book is utterly plausible as the archival project it claims to be, while also telling gripping stories and slipping in details to delight sci-fi fans (a space elevator in Quito! Sentient algae-based AI! Augmented reality implants for dance parties!).

I have worked with both O’Brien and Abdelhadi in the context of different political projects over the years, so I was delighted to get the chance to put together this exclusive Truthout interview with them about why they wrote the book, what influences helped to shape Everything for Everyone, and what they are working on next.

Gabriel Arkles: You offer this incredibly hopeful vision for our future in Everything for Everyone. I mean, things get even worse before they get better, and a lot of people get killed. But then this new world emerges as people all over the globe defeat police, military, fascists and the ultra-wealthy. They redistribute resources, and create ways of doing things that are infinitely more consensual, collaborative and compassionate, rather than hierarchical, alienated and exploitative. Why did you want to offer a utopian, not dystopian, vision?

Eman Abdelhadi: One of the great violences of the moment in history we are living is that it has extinguished hope. It truly feels like we are living at the end of the world, and that has left many of us unable to imagine a better world. Many are even debating whether reproducing a next generation of human beings is ethical. Our book reclaims hope as both a right and a political imperative. The fictional and speculative form allows that in unique ways. We let our imaginations do the work of conjuring a better world and therefore giving us, and hopefully our readers, hope. We imagine what it would be like to live and love without the rat race, without nuclear family forms, without the constraints of gender as we know them, without material scarcity. Without these constraints we thrive as both individuals and communities!

M.E. O’Brien: So many people are dealing with consuming despair and a sense of resignation and powerlessness. To forge the kinds of collective emancipatory movements we desperately need, at some point, everyone has to discover in ourselves the sense that the world really could be better. This sense of positive aspiration, of revolutionary possibility, is something we need to find both in ourselves and in the relationships between us. I’ve found that sense in moments of mass insurrection that I’ve been a part of in my own life. Everything for Everyone is intended to encourage people to explore revolutionary vision throughout our lives. I hope people read the book and are inspired to write their own!

I hadn’t read many radical works set in a hopeful future that comes after further breakdown in our current world order. But when I think of other examples, I’m mostly thinking of books by Indigenous authors from Turtle Island/North America, like Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, or various authors in Joshua Whitehead’s Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. I’m curious whether and how Indigenous work informed your thinking in Everything for Everyone? And to make that more general, what other authors or thinkers contributed to your creation of this book?

O’Brien: That sounds like great work, I would love to check it out. I read and appreciated Hope Nicholson’s anthology of LGBT Indigenous science fiction, entitled Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time. In terms of Indigenous theorists, I have gotten a great deal from the works of Kim TallBear, Daniel Heath Justice and from my co-editor at Pinko, Lou Cornum. Indigenous theorists have been very helpful in shaping my thinking about settler-colonialism and the white family form. That research was in the back of my mind as I was writing my sections of Everything for Everyone. Broadly, I think I would have a hard time detailing all my influences. There is a range of current work engaged with questions of trans liberation, social reproduction, communization and racial capitalism that help motivate my current thinking. A few contemporary theorists of family abolition, or critiques of the normative family form, particularly stand out: Hortense Spillers, Sophie Lewis, Tiffany Lethabo King, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Jules Gill-Peterson.

Abdelhadi: The Indigenous struggle that most influenced my writing is the Palestinian one. Palestinians imagine liberation every day and locate ourselves in both the lineage and future of struggle. For those of us who are critical of capitalism and the nation state, a common saying is, “The Palestinian flag is the only one I would ever raise. And the day Palestine is free, I will stop raising it.” That is, we understand nationalism as a temporary necessity forced upon us by the system in which we currently live. At the end of the second chapter of Everything for Everyone, in which we liberate Palestine, you can drive or take the train from Beirut to Jerusalem for a day trip. That is, we are imagining Palestinian liberation as intrinsically tied to liberation from the nation state and from capitalism as well.

Are there any political projects happening now you want to talk about, especially if they somehow prefigure the future of Everything for Everyone?

O’Brien: In Everything for Everyone, we depict a new social institution as the basis of day-to-day life: the commune. People live in collective communes of several hundred people spread out across several buildings. They eat together as a commune, make decisions in big meetings, and get most of their day-to-day care through the commune. People can still form families — or “family together,” as one character puts it — but these families are not an economic unit and not the sole close social relationships. If a family chooses to separate, it doesn’t have as massive an impact as it might in our world.

Importantly, I do not think what we call communes today could prefigure this society. Communes today largely depend on property ownership and wealth for their stability, like normative families do. Without it, it can be difficult to maintain collective living. Treating each other well is extraordinarily difficult to maintain in a capitalist society. The basic features of racial capitalism — like racist state violence, or the pressures of reproducing ourselves through paid work — all create contradictions and conflicts within households, even within the most radical communities.

What I would instead point to are the examples of insurgent social reproduction: moments where people in the middle of mass rebellions collectively address issues of sleeping, food, safety, education, in radically new ways. I am thinking here of protest camps like Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, rare brief moments in the urban camps of Occupy Wall Street, and mass urban uprisings like the Oaxaca Commune of 2006. These are necessarily temporary and precarious, because they are in direct confrontation with the state and capital. I imagine these being the beginnings of new practices of social reproduction.

The interview with Connor Stephens on the fall of Colorado Springs was in some ways my favorite, even though (or maybe because) it was uncomfortable to read. One thing I’ve come to understand in my work as a lawyer is that I have a professional and cultural expectation that people will relate their stories in a linear, chronological way. But that’s not really the way most people tell their stories. You showed Stephens resisting the chronological framework O’Brien wanted, and some tension between them. I’d love to hear some about why you chose to include those moments of tension, refusal or critique of the approach your future selves took to the interviewing process? And then conversely, why you chose to include moments of connection and alignment, like in the interview between Abdelhadi and Kawkab Hassan on liberating the Levant?

Abdelhadi: I am a Muslim American who mostly does oral histories with Muslim Americans for my academic research. This experience has stripped me of the fantasy of the neutral interviewer. In social sciences, we like to believe that everyone would be able to access the same data using the same methods. That’s simply not true for this method. People tell me things they would not be willing to tell someone who wasn’t also Muslim or Brown or a woman. Who I am matters to the people I interview. I tried to write these fictional oral histories with that in mind, thinking about the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee — about the moments when the interviewer would be drawn into the story and when they would be more of a receiver of it.

O’Brien: I tried to write Connor Stephens’s interview closely based on both my reading of Indigenous oral histories, and from research into how trauma shapes narrative. These each have slightly different influences on the text, but what came out reflects them both. Overall, I think oral history is an especially rich form in allowing for contradiction, misremembering and agency by the narrator. In my three years coordinating the NYC Trans Oral History Project, I found that the best oral histories were not packaged and clean, stripped of contradictions. The richest interviews were when people were discovering something new and unexpected in themselves as they talked, and that always meant a certain shaking up of our assumptions of what narrative and truth looks like.

I read After the Revolution by Robert Evans shortly before I read your book. I found it interesting that both included a white character assigned female at birth who at one point really believed in and advocated for a Christo-fascist state (Sasha in Evans’s novel and S. in yours). And in both, that person finally violently rose up against that society, partly because of the violence they witnessed toward other white people assigned female at birth and partly because outsiders helped them question their beliefs. I wonder if you can reflect on S.’s role in your book, and why other authors might also find these sorts of narratives interesting to explore in this moment? I should also acknowledge that these narratives probably interest me partly because I am a white person assigned female at birth who held some conservative beliefs when I was younger that I no longer support.

O’Brien: S. is a white nonbinary character. They grew up in a fascist Christian cult that took over Staten Island, and S. was eventually involved in a massacre of the cult’s patriarchs. For them, this rebellion was made possible by an ongoing online communication with a Black revolutionary who later becomes their spouse. In the interview, S. is still struggling with trauma shaping their sexuality and their relationship to love. We are currently living in a moment of rising fascist threat. Sexual violence, attacks on reproductive freedom, and the imposition of narrow family and gender norms [are some of the ways] fascist social relations organize power and authority. Throughout the book, we were trying to explore the diverse paths that may lead our narrators to become revolutionaries. In S.’s case, this was based on facing the violent gendered contradictions immediately around them.

I’m interested in how you made choices about what to make explicit and what to leave implicit at various points. For example, in the first interview with Miss Kelly on the insurrection at Hunts Point, you had pretty detailed discussion of how she and others transformed sex work and the distribution, production and consumption of food, as well as how she and others navigated some of the tensions with other organizations that initially had a problem with them as trans women. And while race seemed very present in that interview — Miss Kelly refers to uprisings against police murders, for example — you chose not to explicitly name and explain in that interview ways Miss Kelly dealt with anti-Black racism or how racial dynamics shifted with communization. And in other interviews, while there was careful attention to the impact of emotional trauma and the type of support people give and get around that, there wasn’t as much discussion about how people in the post-revolutionary world support each other around physical disabilities, including those acquired through traumatic injury. Could you say a little about how you decided what to make explicit, what to leave implicit, and what to cut?

O’Brien: Eman and I are each the primary authors of those interviews where we present ourselves as the interviewer. What I hear you pointing to is the limitations of my own thinking and experience. This is an inherent part of oral history interviewing outside of these fictional interviews. My identities and experiences as an interviewer shape what people are comfortable sharing, and shape where the conversation goes. In my experience interviewing BIPOC people as a white interviewer, racial violence and racial capitalism was always in the background shaping their story, but rarely explored directly and explicitly. No doubt this was tied up with me being white, and in how I listened, asked questions and held space. Similarly, in my years working with people dealing with a variety of disabilities in the AIDS movement, a lot of my attention was more focused on mental health and trauma, and I likely wasn’t listening as deeply around other kinds of disabilities. These experiences of listening — as a therapist, and as an oral historian — then shaped my writing, in both good and problematic ways.

Abdelhadi: Gabriel, thank you for pointing this out! The question of physical disabilities is definitely a limitation of the book. One of the difficulties of writing a polyphonic novel is that we have to inhabit multiple characters’ psyches. There is always the question of how to do that given the limitations of our own positionalities. Of course, as M.E. points out, being oral historians helps. We have had to listen to and empathize with people of multiple identifications that do not overlap with our own, and I think we both draw on that. But these experiences, too, are inherently limited. I think it’s important to acknowledge limitations such as this one and own up to them. We hope this book inspires a lot more hopeful speculative fiction, and I hope others wiser than us and more well-versed will fill in the gaps!

I have to ask: The book refers several times to how there is a much larger oral history project that will be available in various ways, but not in print. Do you have additional interviews that will be available online? I can also imagine fans wanting to create and contribute their own interviews.

Abdelhadi: The allusion to more interviews was mostly a stylistic choice, to help convey the world of an actual oral history project. I would imagine that such a project would have many more interviews than could be printed. But I love the idea of fan fiction generating more interviews or even a second volume later down the line! We’ll see!

O’Brien: I hope this book inspires many, many more efforts at revolutionary speculative fiction. We never imagined this as a plan or a definitive guide; it is an effort at imagining and thinking that is meant to be collaborative, shared and transformed by others. I have many more interviews I could easily imagine writing in this same world, and hope to have the support and opportunity to do so someday.

I was thinking about sending this book to some collaborators in prison, and then realized that with all the discussion of liberating jails, this book will probably get seriously censored. Do you have any thoughts on how best to share some of the ideas in the book if we’re prevented from sharing the book itself with our comrades on the inside?

O’Brien: I would love to hear your thoughts on this! I imagine through your legal advocacy you know a great deal more than I do through my occasional correspondence with political prisoners.

It’s tough — that’s part of the whole point of prisons, right? To suppress dissent and keep communities separated? I would still try to send the book — it might get through in at least some systems. Another option I’ve seen used is reprinting excerpts in newsletters that go to people in prison, being a bit selective about what is excerpted to avoid censorship of the whole thing. And people can talk about other parts in video, in person or phone visits. But because all of those conversations are recorded, it’s important to make it obvious you’re talking about ideas in a work of fiction, you’re not actually planning a prison break or armed uprising (especially if you might like to).

You wrote your publisher and yourselves seamlessly into the story — you each play the role of interviewers documenting an oral history 50 years from now. I’m curious what it was like to write your future selves?

Abdelhadi: We have been close friends and comrades for 10 years now! We used to always joke that we were just waiting to be little old ladies. It was fun for me — and maybe even a little selfish — to write a future I could plausibly live to see. There was grief in the temporal placement as well — knowing I likely wouldn’t be the hero of these events. But in such desperate times, it was wonderful to imagine getting to the other side. As people have been reading the book, the reaction we are getting most frequently is that it filled folks with hope, and I think maybe placing ourselves so close to the events is part of that. That if we can be close, our readers can be, too.

O’Brien: Overall, writing with Eman was an immense pleasure. The book was a joy to write, in both its content and form. I am not really a beach person, but being queer in NYC I’ve ended up at Riis many times, a well-loved queer beach spot easily accessible from Brooklyn and Queens. Walking through the immense decayed parking lot at Riis, I’ve always had a grim image that it would be a perfect place for the military to detain people. So I wrote that into the book as my own unfortunate trauma. But even horrible details like that are held by the book overall as a testament of joy and possibility.

What are you working on next?

O’Brien: I just finished a draft of my next book. It is a nonfiction exploration of revolutionary efforts to rethink the family, entitled Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care. It will come out from Pluto in Spring of 2023. It is a close companion text to Everything for Everyone, trying to outline some of the underlying theoretical principles about what social reproduction may look like in a more free, post-capitalist society.

Abdelhadi: I have to try and get tenure at my day job! This book was primarily a pandemic weekend project for me. My academic research has been ongoing, and I am deep into writing a book manuscript for an academic press. The working title is Impossible Futures: Why Women Leave American Muslim Communities while Men Stay. Stay tuned!