Demanding the Impossible: Walidah Imarisha Talks About Science Fiction and Social Change


Before she was a poet, journalist, documentary filmmaker, anti-prison activist, and college instructor, Walidah Imarisha was fascinated with Klingons and elves. She still is.

Octavia's Brood, a new anthology edited by Imarisha and sci-fi scholar, writer, and facilitator adrienne maree brown, collects fiction from 23 political activists and organizers. The writers use science fiction, fantasy, and horror to reflect on the experiences of oppression, the challenges of resistance, and the possibility of new just worlds. 

In early April, just before the book's official release, Imarisha and I sat down to talk about the connections between science fiction and activism. Imarisha also wrote about this topic in the article “Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction to Re-Envision Justice” in the Law & Order issue of Bitch.

octavia's brood

KRISTIAN WILLIAMS: Why science fiction?

WALIDAH IMARISHA: Science fiction is the only genre that not only allows you to disregard everything that we're taught is realistic and practical, but actually demands that you do. So it allows us to move beyond the bounds of what is realistic and what is real, into the realm of the imagination, That is actually something that organizers do every single day. All organizing is science fiction. When organizers imagine a world without poverty, without war, without borders or prisons—that's science fiction. They're moving beyond the boundaries of what is possible or realistic, into the realm of what we are told is impossible. Being able to collectively dream those new worlds means that we can begin to create those new worlds here.

It's interesting that you take that angle on it, because one thing that struck me reading the book is that the tone of nearly all the stories is much more dystopian than utopian.

Adrienne and I never really thought in the terms of dystopia or utopia, because the book is named in honor of sci-fi writer and visionary Octavia Butler. Octavia's books are not utopian, by any means. We believe that visionary fiction is not utopian; it's realistic and it's hard, because that's the world we live in, but ultimately it's hopeful. I think that Octavia's work is really an amazing example of that, because at the end of her stories—where these worlds are terrifying—there is hope. There's hope that we can build new worlds that embody justice, that embody new ideas of community, if we follow and keep to a certain set of principles and values and ideals.

I think the terms “utopia” and “dystopia” aren't really very useful because there is no true utopia if there are human beings there. We're flawed, messy, complicated, sometimes fucked-up.

And there are no true dystopias as long as there is hope. As long as there are people who can dream something else, it's not a true dystopia. So for us, our focus is really, “Is this work that can help us envision and imagine new ways to build those new futures? Not just a perfect society—but how do we get from here to there?” 

What can feminism tell us about science fiction? In particular about the genre conventions and the ways stories are told?

The vast majority of folks who were engaged in this process, those who liked science fiction before, always felt marginalized.

I mean, I grew up a nerd. I love me some Star Trek. I spent way too much time learning the names of planets and learning languages that don't actually exist in any useful context. And yet, those worlds weren't created by me, they didn't center me. I was definitely very clear about the limitations of mainstream science fiction and its ability to address the complexities of my identity or whether people like me even get to make it to the future.

I think that is why Octavia Butler is so important to people, and other science fiction writers who infuse a sense of racial justice and write from the viewpoint of people of color—because they do shift how we see ourselves. The first time I ever saw a black person at all in science fiction was Octavia Butler's Kindred. I'm standing in a used bookstore, back when I was in high school, and I'm staring at this cover that has two black women's faces crossing each other. It was the first time I saw people who looked like me on the cover of a science fiction book. I was like, I don't need to read the back; I'm getting this, obviously, and then I'm going to read everything else by this author!

Folks being empowered to write themselves into the story is what this is all about. Challenging the idea that only certain people are allowed to tell the narrative of the future is also about challenging the idea that only certain people have the ability to build the future, or to imagine how our lives should be structured. 

walidah imarisha in a red star trek dress

Walidah Imarisha, in uniform. 

It's interesting, because we also have stereotypes about what science fiction fans are like—white, male, socially inept, immature—in short, not you. Did that complicate your relationship to it?

It's been really interesting to engage with the different writers from Octavia's Brood and see how different folks came to this. One of our writers even said, “I didn't like science fiction. I never liked science fiction until I read Octavia Butler, and then that was the only science fiction I ever read. I didn't see myself in it, and I thought it was a waste of time.” This is the Star Trek thing, right? It's the “Wagon Train to the stars”—the colonial Old West in space. And she was like “I don't have time for that.”

I think it's fascinating to see the ways people have different relationships to science fiction and the ways that it's viewed. I mean, I felt like an alien the majority of my life. And science fiction was incredibly useful to me, in that context, to be able to explore that. I felt like I was in a terrain where I was the outsider, where I didn't fit in. I often didn't feel like I understood how to even begin to try to fit in. Science fiction was a place where there could be different ways of engaging with fitting in and that I might even hear stories from the point of view of the outsider sometimes. That really resonated with me. 

How does that visionary fiction help us understand feminism in particular?

One of the principles of visionary fiction is centering those folks who have been marginalized. You know that vast majority of Octavia Butler's characters are young women of color, mostly young black women. When we see through the eyes of people with intersecting identities—of race, or gender, of nationality, of ability—we not only shift how we see the world, we completely transform how we see the world. And we also transform what we believe to be liberation. I think the only true liberation can come from centering those folks who have been most marginalized.

One of our stories, “Hollow” by Mia Mingus, is an example of that. In it, folks who are dealing with a variety of ability issues, the quote-unquote UnPerfects, are sent away after a war with the quote-unquote Perfects. They're sent away, basically, to die. But instead what they do is they build an entire society that's suited to their needs, that fits everybody's needs because it's centered around the people who have been most marginalized.

For me, that's one of my basic beliefs as a feminist—it's about moving those folks who have been marginalized to the center, not so we can assimilate into an existing oppressive power structure, but so that we can look at liberation through new eyes. Leah Lakshni Piepzna-Samarasinha's story, “Children Who Fly,” is an amazing example of total liberation when it's viewed from the intersecting identities of those folks who have been marginalized. The idea being, these are survivors of trauma, most of them survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and they engage in the process of dissociation—which we're told is a problem, right? We're told that is something you should work to cure, and you go to therapy to cure. But in the story, instead of saying that these women of color, these trans folks, are broken, instead their ability to leave their bodies means that they can join their energy together and begin to heal this broken world. I think that's an incredibly powerful reframing.  What if everything we know is wrong? How do we begin to dream new worlds into the space we've cleared out? 

Questions of identity are really central to a lot of these stories. But the stories are also defamiliarizing and destabilizing for those same identities. They force the reader to really think about the ways that race and gender are constructed. So they draw attention to the idea of identity, but also put it into question. Do you think that's part of the project of visionary fiction or is it simply because of who you invited to write the stories?

I think this is part of what it means to get organizers, activists, change-makers to write these stories—people who root themselves in this idea of building new worlds. They see the complexities of everything, because they live those complexities. It's one thing to read about some issue in the newspaper and think you're going to write a story about police brutality. It's different to be on the ground, organizing, to go to protests, to face down the police, to hold the family members of people who have experienced police violence. That gives you a more nuanced, and complex, and real, and in terms of building a new world, a more useful frame. So I think many of the writers bring that complexity as organizers.

And many of the writers are folks who live in the intersections of identities—queer women of color, young folks who have disabilities, many multiple identities at once. So they recognize that the simplistic way we talk about identities—race or gender or sexuality—doesn't in any way apply. Those categories are dynamic, they're interactive, and there's an ability for them to be visionary.

I was surprised, at the end of the collection, to come across a few nonfiction pieces.

Yes, we have an amazing essay by horror writer Tananarive Due about Octavia Butler and social change, and then a phenomenal piece by award-winning writer and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal on, get this, Star Wars and imperialism! One of the things that we want to do with this collection is to envision new worlds, but we've also been working on this twin track of being able to critique and analyze the science fiction that we are being given, to create a sort of media literacy.

One workshop that was developed initially by one of our contributors, Morrigan Phillips, was “Science Fiction and Direct Action Organizing.” It takes existing science fiction worlds—like Hogwart's, like Oz, like Mordor —and has you pick the marginalized folks there and has you create an organizing goal, and has you develop direct action tactics to achieve that goal. It is the funnest workshop on the face of the planet or any other planet. You end up with flying monkeys in Oz demanding the right to return, because they've been taken from their homeland. And you end up with fighting Uruk-hai in Mordor rising up against their slave owners. You have the Elf Liberation Front, who starts creating political education courses magical creatures and squibs. What if storm troopers launched a work stoppage and shut down the Death Star?

I think part of the point of that is not to engage in pop culture purity, where we say—to use the term the left loves—“well, that's problematic,” and then toss everything out. The reality is, we've all spent significant time on these worlds that are problematic, but that spoke to us for some reason. So yes, Star Trek is about a military force that's colonizing the entire galaxy. It's incredibly problematic. And—I learned Klingonese for Christ's sake! Obviously, I've invested in this.

Our whole point with visionary fiction is for people to feel empowered to engage with these worlds and to re-envision them and reinterpret them and in some ways to talk back to them, to subvert them. And then, conversely, the other side of building these new worlds is to feel empowered about creating change. In radical movements we so often fight against something instead of building something else. We absolutely have to do it, but we don't want to spend all of our energy just challenging what is. We really have to cultivate our ability to dream what will be, and to make it reality. That's how all significant change has happened. 

Is it too soon to ask about next projects? 

With Octavia's Brood, our goal was never just to create an anthology, but to create quality visionary fiction that can be useful to our movements. So, as we're going out on tour, we aren't just doing readings. We're doing workshops and strategy sessions, as well as sci-fi dance parties, in order to see how we really can integrate this into our movements. I think adrienne and I would be ecstatic if every organization and collective had at every meeting visioning time, where they spend fifteen minutes envisioning what these issues will look like in a hundred years, envisioning what societies could look like with the issues that they're working on transformed.

For me, I'm working on a book of creative nonfiction, around issues of prison. It's called Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories on Crime, Prison, and Redemption. That will be coming out on AK Press next year.

Beyond that, I just want to keep creating fantastical worlds, and taking in other people's fantastical worlds, and making them a reality.

Related Listening: Walidah Imarisha talked about Octavia's Brood on our science fiction podcast. 

Kristian Williams is the author of Fire the Cops (Kersplebedeb, 2014) and sometimes writes about comics for The Hooded Utilitarian. He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde and anarchism.

by Kristian Williams
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In addition to Our Enemies in Blue, Kristian Williams is also the author of Fire the Cops! Essays, Lectures, and Journalism (Kersplebedeb, 2014), and one of the editors of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press, 2013).

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