(Called ‘Homegirl with a hand grenade’, Walidah Imarisha is an educator, writer, public scholar, and poet. She’s edited two anthologies, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements (AK Press/IAS, Spring 2015) and Another World is Possible (Subway Press, 2002); her most recent work is as author of the nonfiction book focused on criminal justice issues, Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption (AK Press/IAS, 2016) and the poetry collection Scars/Stars (Drapetomedia, 2013).
And she coined the phrase ‘visionary fiction’ to mean…well, you’ll see below. It’s a concept and a reality we are totally in favor of, too.)
What is ‘visionary fiction’?
Visionary fiction is a term I developed to help talk about fantastical writing that helps us imagine new just worlds. Visionary fiction encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, alternative timelines, and more. It is fantastical literature that helps us to understand existing power dynamics, and helps us imagine paths to creating more just futures.
Part of the reason I wanted to create this term was to be able to talk about science fiction (and the other genres mentioned) and be able to differentiate from mainstream science fiction which so often just replicated the power inequalities of this world and grafts them onto the future.
It’s pretty clear you’re not a believer in ‘art for art’s sake’. What do you think is the purpose and meaning of art?
My co-editor adrienne says that all art either advances or regresses justice. I think that is an incredibly useful frame. All art is political, and if the artist is not consciously aware of it, chances are they are simply replicating the dominate paradigms. I personally as an artist want to be aware and intentional about everything I do, and I absolutely want my art to advance justice.
The Black feminist visionary and science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (who our anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements is named in honor of), said in an interview, “Too often our intelligence as humans serves our hierarchical tendencies, and we tend to one-up ourselves to death.” We developed different principles of visionary fiction to ensure that our art and the stories in Octavia’s Brood focus on advancing justice and are aware and work to challenge those hierarchical tendencies. Some of these principles are: change comes from the bottom up not the top down; change is collective, communal, decentralized; change focuses on people and is relational; change centers the leadership of those who have been marginalized, and centers the leadership of those who live at the intersections of identities and oppressions.
How can a writer (and a reader) use fantasy to reimagine the world?
We started working on our anthology Octavia’s Brood, and having activsts, organizers and changemakers write fantastical short stories, because we believe that all organizing is science fiction. That every time we imagine a world without borders, without prisons, without capitalism, that’s science fiction. We have never seen that world. But we can’t build something we can’t see. As Ursula Le Guin said so poignantly in her 2014 National Book Award speech: “I think hard times are coming,” Le Guin continued, “when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now…”
So while all organizing is science fiction, and all organizers are sci fi creators, we absolutely need fantastical genres like science fiction, like fantasy, genres that not only allow us to step beyond the boundaries of what we are told is possible, but demand that we do, demand that we engage our imaginations. Because all real deep substantive social change has been considered to be utterly unrealistic when it happened. We need genres like these so we can learn to start not with the question “What is a realistic change or win?” but with the question “What is the world we want to build?”
I think an amazing example of using fantasy to explore power dynamics and imagine different ways towards more just worlds is Morrigan Phillip’s story in Octavia’s Brood “The Long Memory,” which was inspired by the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikes. Morrigan took this idea that there is memory and history that is being purposefully ignored and erased, and that people are literally starving themselves to death to stay connected to it, and explored this in a fantasy world setting.
What kind of world is possible?
There is not just one world that is possible. I think we often are told in a hierarchical society to find THE right answer. But quantum physics shows us that everything that can happen has and is happening. My co-editor adrienne facilitates Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Sessions, where participants pull organizing lessons from the work of Octavia. And adrienne says the goal of our work should be to grow more possibilities, always be expanding our options and our horizons. If the work we are doing is narrowing our choices and focusing in on the one right answer, then it is probably not visionary work.
In an infinitely vast and ever expanding universe, to think there is only one right vision of the future only cuts us off from our own visionary potential.
In what ways does imagination function as a force in the every day culture?
Especially in this time where so many mainstream movies and films that captivate people are science fiction and fantasy, we see that these are the methods through which we engage in imagination. Unfortunately they are often framed as “escape” from our real lives, as disconnected and separate. The reality is the worlds we imagine, the dreams we have, impact the futures we build. We want folks to be conscious of what they are dreaming of. We want folks to learn to dream collectively, to imagine our own futures rather than accepting the ones presented to us by mainstream corporate interests. This is part of the reason we developed workshops to go along with the anthology. From our collective sci fi visioning/writing workshops, to our science fiction and direct action trainings, to our People’s Encyclopedia 2070 workshops where we imagine just futures as historical fact, we want to create spaces for us to practice claiming our imaginations and claiming our futures.
There are those who fervently believe in ‘the Singularity’, which is the idea that we’ll ‘develop’ so much as beings that our brains will enter computers and we’ll become immortal. Are you in favor of that? Or do you think there’s an alternative, perhaps even (gasp) a better way?
I think this is a very white and western way of framing the future, one we see as a major strain in science fiction and the overall western narratives of progress. The notion that we advance in a linear ever progressing line from “savagery” to civilization, and that this happens through ever increasingly technological advances.
The reality is we recognize that time is not linear or constant. (There is a great anthology Black Quantum Futurisms that explores this in an African context, showing how different African cultures’ notions of time were in alignment with quantum principles of time, versus this western notion of linear time). That we have so much wisdom and guidance and insight that we carry with us from those who went before us, that we must claim and relearn those lessons if we are to be able to build futures where our humanity rests at the core, and all of our other creativity and brilliance especially around technology supports it, rather than the other way around.
What world are you imagining right now?
I am always dreaming of a multiplicity of worlds. I have just released a new nonfiction book about prisons called Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prisons, and Redemption. So much of my currently imaginings are focused on a world where people are kept safe and where harm is addressed without police and prisons. I believe prisons and police do more harm than they solve, especially to marginalized and oppressed communities. There are so many examples, currently and historically, of ways that communities have held people who do harm accountable, who have worked to address harm, and who have focused on healing individuals and the whole community outside of the oppressive criminal legal institution. I am dreaming of worlds where those ideas take root deeply and widely.
Who are your favorite authors to read (and reread)?
There are so many incredible authors, I hate answering this question because it feels like it is taken as the definitive answer, then I wake myself up at night thinking of all the people who should have been on it. So this is just a very partial list, focused on science fiction and fantasy since that’s what the interview is about, and should be taken as such!
Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Daniel Jose Older, NK Jemisin, Sheree Renee Thomas, Saladin Ahmad, Sofia Samatar, Jewelle Gomez, Olivia Cole, Nisi Shawl, Terry Bisson, Andrea Hairston, Steven Barnes…
I also have been really compelled by the ways folks explore futurism in music (lately have been listening almost non stop to Copperwire, Lupe Fiasco, Tunde Olaniran), film, visual art, and more. Though I focus on the written word as a writer, it inspires me and amazes me to see how people breath visionary futurism into all that they do and the infinite ways they create.
Thanks for the words!