Interview: Walidah Imarisha on Octavia’s Brood

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Walidah Imarisha is proud to be a nerd. The Portland-based writer, organizer, educator and performance poet is obsessed with sci-fi, and she’s equally passionate about social change. Those two interests collide in Walidah’s newest project with adrienne maree brown, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, an anthology of visionary science fiction and speculative fiction written by organizers and activists, inspired by prominent science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Octavia’s Brood reached its funding original goal on Indiegogo earlier this month, and is currently seeking contributions for stretch goals. You can read more about the project and contribute here.

We interviewed Walidah last week about Octavia’s Brood, her relationship with Butler’s work, and why it might be time for Uhura to give Captain Kirk a piece of her mind.

Matt Lurie: How has Octavia Butler influenced you?

Walidah Imarisha: I’ve been a science fiction nerd my entire life. My earliest memory is watching Star Trek at the age of 2, I tried to learn Klingon when I was in middle school, and used to try to do Princess Leia buns every Halloween… Afros and Princess Leia buns do not go together, unfortunately. [laughs]

So I’m biased, but I think everyone should read Octavia Butler. It’s been amazing working on this project and seeing everyone’s different entry points into radical science fiction—or what we like to call visionary fiction. The difference is that visionary fiction is aware of power dynamics, and may show a dystopian future, but focuses on ability of people, especially those that are marginalized, to make change and to become aware of power structures. We can explore these dystopian futures—that are very much based on the inequalities and oppressions that happen here, in the present—while empowering and showing folks that they have the potential to make change. Octavia Butler is a cornerstone for that type of story.

And it’s been interesting talking to many of our writers, who said things like, “I never liked science fiction because I never saw any reflection of me. I can’t make it to the future, so why would I wanna read that future?” For many folks it was really Octavia’s writing that was the first time that they saw themselves and their issues written into the future, in a way that felt hopeful—instead of the message we’re used to hearing. You know: “Sorry y’all got massacred, sucks to be you.” Uh, wow, really?

Octavia Brood is part of a legacy of visionary ancestors who, especially for marginalized and oppressed groups historically, are the ones who dreamed of us. For adrienne and me, as two black women, it’s important for us to remember that for our enslaved ancestors, dreaming of us without chains was science fiction. They had no conception or frame to understand that future, and yet being able to envision it made them able to work towards it. They literally bent reality to create us, and to create this world. That’s the importance and the power of science fiction. It’s the only genre that allows us to do that—to completely re-envision the future, to dream, and then to move towards making those dreams possible.

ML: That term, “visionary fiction,” is interesting, because it’s the opposite of what we’re used to seeing. I think, for a lot of people, modern science fiction is about all the terrible things that could happen, the dangerous, dystopian future we could find ourselves in if we’re not careful. Visionary fiction sounds like it’s more about making the future better than the present.

Our ancestors literally bent reality to create us, and to create this world. That’s the importance and the power of science fiction. It’s the only genre that allows us to do that—to completely re-envision the future, to dream, and then to move towards making those dreams possible..

Yeah, Octavia is hard. There’s no sugar with that medicine. She doesn’t give you what you want; she gives you what you need, and she doesn’t mess around when she gives it to you. For example, stories like Parable of the Sower. In their interviews, probably ninety percent said how hard it was to read that book because it is so close to where we are now—it is just a half step away—and it is so terrifying that it’s so close. So many people said things like, “I had to start it five or six times,” but when they got into it, there was this overwhelming feeling that, yes, this future is horrific and frightening, but even within this devastated landscape, if we are ready, if we are prepared, we can build. We can build a community, and out of this kernel, this “Earth Seed”—as Octavia calls it—something beautiful and huge can sprout.

ML: Even within this dark future, there’s a kernel of hope.

ML: She’s a space secretary.

WI: “How may I direct your call, please?” [laughs] You know. And that said, it was incredibly important for me to even see her make it to the future, and she was an officer, and she could—in theory—take over the bridge if everyone else was wiped out. But I definitely feel like visionary fiction is about re-centering those folks who are on the margins, saying what would Star Trek look like through Uhura’s eyes? It would certainly not look like the idyllic landscape that Kirk sees. She’s like, “If I could just— I gotta think about my galactic pension. If I get it, I’d have some things to say to you, sir.” [laughs]

So I think that reality is important too. It’s really saying that, for so many people, the world has never been ideal. For oppressed and marginalized communities, it’s never been a hopeful time to have children. It’s never been a good time to have dreams for the future, because they’re so fragile and they could be crushed in an instant. And yet it’s only because folks triumph, and hold onto those dreams, and hold onto that hope that any of us are here for us today.

ML: Where do you see Octavia’s influence?

WI: I think she’s everywhere. She’s inspired an entire generation of people to dream and to remember to dream. Every radical person I know either loves Octavia Butler, and they were sci-fi nerds before they read her, or Octavia was was got them into science fiction. That reality can’t be denied, that she wrote so many complex stories that don’t have easy answers, and that appeals to people who live complicated lives. There’s no easy answer to creating transformative social change; there’s just the process. One of the things that Octavia says is that, from Earth Seed, “All that you touch you change. All you change changes you.”

God is change. Whether you believe in God or not, change is the only constant force, and it’s going to come, and you can be ready for it or not. You can get bulldozed, but it’s coming. For folks who organize, for people whose lives are institutionally unstable anyway, that’s comforting in some way, to know that it’s not just my life, it’s the constant force of the universe, and I can get ready for it. I can’t stop it, but I can be ready, so when that comes—like Lauren Olamina [from Parable of the Sower]—I can grab my survival bag, and run out while people are coming over the wall and destroying my little space of community that was my protective bubble. And now it’s gone, and that’s scary, but I prepared for it, and I’m ready for the lessons I’m going to learn along the way.

ML: What do you hope to accomplish with Octavia’s Brood?

WI: I’m just so happy that there’s been a resurgence in reclaiming, and holding and lifting up Octavia Butler. The Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network is an organization that was just recently started by Ayanna Jamieson. It started because Ayanna took a trip to Octavia’s grave and it was overgrown, neglected. People didn’t really know where she was buried and, especially for black women, this is a story that happens again and again. It makes me think of Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote these foundational stories that completely changed American literature, that shifted the black experience indelibly. She died penniless and alone, and people couldn’t even find her grave. So even if this larger society isn’t going to honor our visionaries, we’re going to honor our visionaries. That process is so powerful because it’s holding up Octavia as well as all those folks that Octavia acknowledged freely and happily and constantly that she was holding up.

To us, all organizing is science fiction. I mean, what does a world without prisons look like? What is a world without hunger? What is a world where there is justice and people have enough to eat and decent education… We don’t know! It’s science fiction.

So by holding up Octavia, there are all these layers. We’re holding up this lineage, and we’re also holding up the future. Alexis Pauline Gumbs quotes an interview Octavia did in the eighties, when someone asked “What does it feel like to be THE black female science fiction writer?” And Octavia said something like, “I never wanted that, I didn’t want it. I want there to be hundreds of black female science fiction writers, I want thousands of people writing themselves into the future. That’s why I started writing, because I wasn’t present in any of the futures, in any of the literature I’ve been seeing, and I want everyone to write themselves into the future.” This is the responsibility Octavia has placed on us, to continue this work. She has laid down the challenge to say, “Can you dream?” And it’s all our responsibility to echo back to the universe all of our complex, beautiful, challenging, complicated, contradictory, beautiful, ugly truths. And then work to make the future.

That’s why we wanted specifically to reach out to organizers and people who are creating social change. Many of the folks we reached out to at first we like, “You want me to write what now?” And I would say at least half of the initial response was, “No, I can’t do that.” So we said, “Okay, just sit with it, think about it, and we’ll get back to you.” And by and large, when we got back to folks, they said, “Oh my God, so I had this amazing idea, and I’ve written fifteen pages already! And I’m going to keep going, and how long of a submission can I submit?” I think it’s because to us, all organizing is science fiction. I mean, what does a world without prisons look like? What is a world without hunger? What is a world where there is justice and people have enough to eat and decent education… We don’t know! It’s science fiction.

ML: Mission statements are science fiction premises.

WI: Yeah, vision statements, mission statements, “We believe in a world where…” Once you start that, you are writing science fiction. All organizing is science fiction. Organizers should have the space to claim that.
A lot of times, we’re so focused on the strategic plan, and the next six months, and “what are our action steps?” And those are incredibly important to making change, but we rarely have the space to step back and take a minute to collectively dream. We found that when we offer these visionary organizers that chance, it’s mind-blowing what they come up with.

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