Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Right now the nation and the world are living the kind of experience we expect to find only in science fiction and dystopian novels.
news clip: (00:23)
"New models just released by the White House show as many as 240,000 people could die in the U.S. from Coronavirus."
news clip: (00:31)
"We underestimated this virus, get a staffing plan ready now for the battle at the top of the mountain."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:41)
We all need the hope that comes from two things. First, envisioning our way out of this pandemic; and second, seeing ourselves emerge with the collective resolve and communal spirit to create a better society than the one we had when COVID-19 hit. A society that rejects fear, divisiveness, and the perverse idea that greed will save us. A society in which we all stand together and take care of one another. This isn't daydreaming, it's radical imagination.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:16)
Today we explore a concept and literary genre that's tailor made for this moment It's called visionary fiction. It takes science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy writing into a whole new realm. It reimagines our world without prisons, poverty, and inequality. I find it especially exciting because it's more than a style of writing, it's a movement. The leading authors are also activists and organizers working for the change they described so compellingly on the page. Today, we're joined by Walidah Imarisha. She is a writer, a spoken word artist, educator, and organizer. In 2014 she co-edited "Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements," and she joins us to talk about the concept of visionary fiction and about "Octavia's Brood," and anthology of original science fiction stories written by organizers, activists, and visionaries eager for change. Walidah Imarisha welcome to Radical Imagination.
Walidah Imarisha: (02:20)
Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:24)
You've edited two anthologies. You're also an award winning nonfiction author for "Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption." How did you first start to fall in love with writing and organizing?
Walidah Imarisha: (02:38)
Well, I've always been in love with, with writing and even more with storytelling. Ever since I was a little kid. I would tell people stories whether or not they wanted to hear them. I just always saw it as such a powerful medium and when I was in high school, I began to really explore writing for a social purpose much more and also as a way to process my own feelings of pain and rage at the histories that I was exploring of oppression, of exploitation, a way of putting those feelings somewhere outside of my body so that they couldn't hurt me. You know, even before I had the terminology for it, I was just drawn to fantastical stories. I was drawn to stories where anything was possible and where the boundaries were really just my imagination and the imagination of the writer as a young Black child and then a young Black woman, it was one of the few places where folks who were the other, their voices were centered.
news clip: (03:41)
"Space. The final frontier... I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I objected to power without constructive purpose."
Walidah Imarisha: (03:55)
I may not be finding books that were centering young Black women, but I could see Spock on Star Trek as the alien and see the ways that his voice was centered, his experience, his identity.
news clip: (04:09)
"Oh, mr Spock, you do have one saving grace after all, you're ill mannered."
Walidah Imarisha: (04:15)
Looking back, I realized I often had much more in common with the alien or with the other, with the monster than I did with the mainstream characters that were presented in science fiction and speculative fiction.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (04:28)
For those who aren't familiar with the world of science and speculative fiction, could you talk about these two terms and how they apply to literature?
Walidah Imarisha: (04:36)
Sure. So science fiction is a term sort of focused on science-based imaginative, fantastical writings that often focus on the future but don't have to. Speculative fiction was created as more of a bucket term to talk about imaginative writings that maybe don't have such a scientific basis. So speculative fiction is a broad term. It encompasses magical realism, fantasy, horror, alternative timelines. It's a much broader genre bucket than science fiction.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (05:27)
In the 1990s we started to hear the term Afrofuturism or Black speculative fiction, which centers the future around Black identity and African traditions, but the work of Octavia Butler, who is known as the matriarch of Afrofuturism had already been out there with her imagining radically different worlds for at least a couple of decades prior to that. How is it, that Octavia Butler's work inspired so many people 14 years after her death?
Speaker 4: (05:56)
I think it's important note that Black folks have been doing this, as you said, for a long time, well before the term Afrofuturism was coined, you know, there's an amazing anthology by Sheree Renée Thomas called "Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora," and she includes writers like W.E.B. Du Bois.
news clip: (06:19)
"I was criticized as being bitter, as seeking out simply political, but social equality for Negroes and for joining the socialist pocket. These accusations were true."
Walidah Imarisha: (06:30)
The Black intellectual and thinker and political leader from the early 20th century, who in addition to helping to found the NAACP also wrote science fiction and speculative fiction as a way of exploring racial analysis. And so it's important to note that blackness has always been rooted in futurism. If we look at, you know, ancient Black cultures, we see that these innovations, these ideas that at the time were just speculative fiction were imagination, were fantasy, people dreamed them up and then made them into lived reality. So I always try to root in the ancient Black future and recognize that I am part of a very long tradition of dreaming impossible dreams and then building them into existence.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:30)
Could you give us a sense of writers of color like N. K. Jemisin and others who have begun to claim a significant space in the science fiction literature genre?
Walidah Imarisha: (07:40)
Sure. I mean, I think N. K. Jemisin especially is one of the most incredible world builders out there in literature. Her worlds are so complex and multilayered and multifaceted and yet she roots them so deeply in an understanding and a critique of the ways that racialized power work in this world. It's incredible to see how she is able to build entirely different worlds out of this world while still using them to create commentary and critique about this world. And I think, you know, that is something that authors of color have done consistently. Again, writing in a variety of fantastical genres and I think we're seeing a resurgence in the mainstream of this, but I think it's important to note that you know, Black writers and writers of color have been doing this forever. Whether or not it got categorized as science fiction or speculative fiction.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:57)
You've coined the term visionary fiction. Could you talk about what it means and what makes it so radical? It seems particularly pertinent given what you just said, that what writers of color, African-American writers perhaps in particular, have been doing is trying to comment on what is by pushing it out to the future and giving people a different vision. Visionary fiction seems particularly relevant in that regard.
Walidah Imarisha: (09:24)
Absolutely. Yeah. I started using the term visionary fiction specifically because I wanted a way to talk about the radical science fiction or the radical speculative fiction that would enable us to build new just worlds, as someone who has been deeply rooted in radical organizing and community organizing. And so I wanted to start using the term visionary fiction to differentiate between mainstream science fiction. Really just replicated the status quo.
Walidah Imarisha: (10:03)
And so the two main parts of visionary fiction is about identity and power. So the identity is whose eyes are we seeing through, whose story is being told. When we root in the stories of the most marginalized and the most effected, it not only adds to the story, it completely changes the story. It changes who we see as a villain, who we see as a hero. It changes what the quote unquote happy ending looks like. So to me it's important to use the term like visionary fiction to allow us to talk about stories that center marginalized folks.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:43)
Having just finished reading "Octavia's Brood," hearing you talk about the principles, I see how they were played out in the contributions to that book. In 2015, it's when you co-edited "Octavia's Brood," an anthology of science fiction stories written by writers and activists involved in movements for social change. How did this come about?
Walidah Imarisha: (11:06)
Sure. So my co-editor, Adrienne Maree Brown, we had overlapped because the radical Black nerd community is a small but vibrant one. And so Adrienne said we should do a book project. And that was really the genesis of "Octavia's Brood," and it really just made perfect sense to us that we would reach out to organizers, activists, and change makers who we knew and respected to write science fiction, speculative fiction stories for the book because they were the people who were holding the imaginative visions of the future that inspired us.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:46)
I think that it was also you, Walidah, who coined the phrase "all organizing is science fiction." Could you unpack that, that's a powerful notion.
Walidah Imarisha: (11:54)
And that really is the foundation of "Octavia's Brood," that all organizing is science fiction. That every time we imagine a world without poverty, a world without wars, without borders, without prisons, that is science fiction because we have not seen a world like that. But we strongly believe that you can't build what you can't imagine. And so we absolutely need imaginative spaces like science fiction that allow us to throw out everything we're told is possible, and to root instead in our ideas of what we want for a new world rather than what we're told we can realistically win. We very much believe that the boundaries of reform are the limits of social control. Reform is offered by the system to stop us from entirely changing the system.
Walidah Imarisha: (12:53)
It's important to note that all real substantive social change was considered to be utterly unrealistic at the time, people who are trying to make it, we're told again and again, this is a fantasy, this will never happen. The best you can hope for is some piecemeal reform. And folks rejected that, again and again and said, we will dream impossible dreams and we will change this entire world if necessary to make them reality. And that's what they did.
Walidah Imarisha: (13:30)
And so I believe we absolutely need imaginative spaces like science fiction, and as many others as possible that allow us to dream beyond the boundaries of the real, and to root in what we actually want for the future.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:52)
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation about visionary fiction with writer, poet, and educator Walidah Imarisha. Stay with us; more than we come back.
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Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:09)
And we're back with writer, poet, educator, Walidah Imarisha. You also wrote one of the short stories in the book and it's titled "Black Angel," which is about a fallen angel and reluctant superhero who questions God. The angel ends up being ejected from heaven for doing so and landing in Harlem in New York City. Could you talk more about this story and what you wanted readers to get out of it?
Walidah Imarisha: (15:34)
Sure. This was a character that had been with me for a while. Creating Black woman superhero who's grumpy and has big hair was always a dream of mine, and I think it was in that creation process that I also really began to think about the idea of superheroes, and so I really grappled with what this superhero I had created should do that would be in alignment with visionary fiction. So in the story, she doesn't really do that much. What she does is follow the leadership of oppressed people and try to use her unique talents to fight beside them, but she's not deciding how that struggle will happen. She's really trying to find her place in how to support them.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:26)
And in many ways, this hyper empathy that she has is almost like a superpower, in that it allows her to understand that her place is to fight with those because she understands so deeply what it is that they're going through and feeling. When I was reading that, I was reminded of Octavia Butler of course, "Parable of the Sower," that was the first place I ever became aware of this notion of this hyper empathy and what it must feel like to have it. Could you talk about bringing back this radical idea into "Black Angel?"
Walidah Imarisha: (16:59)
Yeah, so in "Black Angel," you know, as an angel, she feels deeply when she was an angel in heaven, the pain of humans and loses heaven because she could no longer stand by and once she gets to earth, because so much brutality has been done to her from being ejected from heaven, she hides that empathy in cynicism and says, you know, I'm no longer going to do anything for humans. I lost heaven and I don't care. And just sort of repeats that as a mantra until it builds up an armor.
Walidah Imarisha: (17:40)
And I think many of us struggle with that. We struggle with the cynicism of telling ourselves that we don't care, there's nothing we can do or you know, it's, the problem is too big because we feel overwhelmed and we feel scared and maybe we've been hurt before. And so, for me, part of that was about the necessity of renewing "Black Angel's" connection to humans and to saying it may hurt and it may be scary and terrifying, but it's the only way to move forward. And so, absolutely the connection you're making to Octavia E. Butler's work is very much a foundation of that. Octavia E. Butler, really in an all of her work -- It's clearest in "Parable of the Sower," as you said, where there's an actual syndrome, there's hyper empathy that's forced upon people. You are forced to feel what other humans and beings are feeling, even if you don't want to. You know, I believe it's Octavia's way of saying we have to realize our impact on one another, even if we don't want to. We have to have an understanding that hurting others is literally hurting ourselves.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:55)
There's so many good stories in the book, I was really captured by the work of award-winning journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who contributed the essay, "Star Wars, U.S. Imperialism and Militarism." He also did an audio version of it. Let's take a listen.
news clip: (19:14)
"When Star Wars premiered in 1977, it swept the nation like a fever. America, the empire, didn't like its role, at least among the young. It wanted to reimagine itself as the ragtag band, fighting against great odds, against an evil empire. It shaped itself as oppressed, fighting for freedom."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:36)
What is Mumia exploring in this essay?
Walidah Imarisha: (19:40)
Mumia is such a brilliant writer and thinker and also is very much rooted in an appreciation of science fiction and so he is exploring Star Wars.
Walidah Imarisha: (19:56)
But this notion of Star Wars and the narrative, it is telling about America and sort of the narrative that America tells itself around imperialism and how can we challenge that narrative while also seeing the story that we've grown up in...He brings in historical examples of Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers to talk about the ways America has told stories historically and currently, that frame it as the rebels, as the good guys, not the empire, and instead says we actually would have to do deep fundamental work to transform ourselves and to transform society and it's possible, but are we committed to doing that?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:51)
Yeah. I took away the need to do that deep fundamental work, that it really came through. What are some of the other stories in the book that you would like to highlight?
Walidah Imarisha: (21:01)
Oh, I wish I could highlight everyone, they're all favorite. Yeah. I mean, I think to me "Hollow," is so beautiful by Mia Mingus. It's rooted in an intersectional understanding that looks at the fact that when we center people who have been marginalized to exist at the intersections of identity, in this case queer and trans, folks of color with disability, that we see what true liberation looks like. And so in this future, there was an attempted genocide against folks with disabilities, who in that society were called unperfects and normatively abled people who called themselves perfects, tried to commit genocide. Basically the perfects exile the unperfects to a new planet where the perfects assume the unperfects would die. And instead the unperfects not only did not die, they flourished and built an incredible, beautiful society that was adaptive, that centered everyone's needs, that allowed access and entry in a multiplicity of ways for people and physically as well as emotionally and intellectually. It was all about centering those folks who had been most marginalized and realizing that when that happens, we actually create a society that includes and encompasses everyone's needs.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:37)
Walidah, I often find that people who are doing visionary work, whether they are writing or acting, are supporting, are those who have really found their superpower. As you think about it Walidah, what's your superpower?
Walidah Imarisha: (22:55)
Um, well as a kid I decided very early what I would want my superpower to be, which I would have been called the living library and I would be able to access anything that had ever been written down in history. So, not just in books, but if people wrote in journals, like I would be able to access any of that. And I think that that is very much rooted in my way of seeing the world, which is to work to connect the past with the future, and to see that they're not only connected, they overlap to really defy linear time and to say the past is with us, the future is with us, we just have to engage with them. And so I hope, maybe that's part of my superpower.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (23:43)
Walidah, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Walidah Imarisha: (23:46)
Thank you so much.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (23:54)
Walidah Imarisha is a writer, spoken word artist, educator, and organizer. She's also the co-editor of "Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (24:12)
My conversation today reminds me that the solutions we need to create a fair and just world are within each of us. Visionary fiction is a great way to spend time while you're sheltering in place. Check it out, and let it inspire you to dig into your deepest self. Imagine the future you want to see and bring that vision into the world.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (24:49)
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Lita Hollowell, and Sam Burnett. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, you can find us online at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (25:38)
Next time on Radical Imagination...
news clip: (25:41)
"It's about saying these little boxes that you put me in because of my gender or what my body looks like doesn't work. It's about being able to define yourself, re-imagining gender."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (25:52)
That's next time on Radical Imagination.