Interview: Octavia’s Brood

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“We believe it is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future.” This is the powerful mission statement of Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown, the co-editors of a forthcoming anthology of radical speculative fiction written by social justice activists.

Social justice and science fiction initially seem to have little common ground. There is no overt relation between radicalism and a genre perceived as the preserve of overweight white men in Cheeto-stained slacks. Women are objectified in wallpaper roles, while colonial parallels emerge in narratives of space exploration.  The editors recognise that science fiction has reacted to minority writers “through a lens of hetero-normative white male supremacy, even when there has been curiosity or good intention.”

The anthology, entitled Octavia’s Brood, exists in part to redress a historical bias toward white male writers. In the 1960s, a poll to find the greatest science fiction novel of all time featured not a single female author.  The editors position themselves “among a community of writers and editors uplifting new voices which don’t fit the mainstream sci-fi demographic.” 

Since the sixties, the situation has improved. Science fiction “has responded to minority writers as society has responded- slowly.” This is thanks in no small part to the female African-American science fiction pioneer Octavia E. Butler who is commemorated in the title of the anthology. Specifically, the editors name-check the “Octavia Butler scholarship, an Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, and all the work the Carl Brandon Society has been doing since 1997” as examples of science fiction’s slow progress toward equality across barriers of gender, race and sexuality, of which Octavia’s Brood forms a part.

However, this anthology is more than an exercise in equality. The co-editors feel that “speculative or science fiction [is] really speaking about the present in the context of… future generations.” Science fiction is here understood as the ideal literary platform for social activism, as both are concerned with the future of the human race. “All social justice is an act of speculative fiction, as we work to envision and create and organise for worlds we have never seen,” Brown tells me.

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“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction. Organizers and activists struggle tirelessly to create and envision another world, or many other worlds, just as science fiction does… so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than through writing original science fiction stories?”

Imarisha and Brown “met through the internet”, and are crowd-sourcing the funding they need to publish and promote their anthology online: support their campaign here. Our transatlantic interview is conducted via email. Given that this forward-looking project was born online, it seems surprising they are publishing a traditional, physical anthology rather than exploring new media.  However, the editors make it clear that whilst “the media is instant… the issues are not.” 

“[Questions of social justice] have deep roots in history and they are our responsibility to figure out with more focused attention than a sensationalised 24 hour news cycle allows. We chose to collect short stories that could be read quickly but ask important questions that stick with our readers. Where is home? What is justice? What makes life worth living and fighting for?” Speculative fiction interrogates current societal values through its portrayal of alternative paradigms and social structures, and the editors feel that traditional narratives allow for these complex parallels to be developed to their fullest.

There are parallels to be drawn between the field of science fiction writing and the University of Oxford. Both were historically dominated by hetero-normative white males and have some way to travel toward a condition of equality, despite recent advances. However, just as science fiction’s forward-looking stance makes it the ideal platform for literary activists, so Oxford graduates are granted a unique platform from which to shape the future.

I therefore finish by asking what advice the editors would give to student activists in Oxford. They quote from the dystopian novel Parable of the Sower by the eponymous Octavia Butler, with a simple and encouraging message. “Write about the world you all want to see and share it. Trust yourselves to work together and stay in the work through the hard conversations. Remember, as Octavia taught us, ‘everything you touch you change’.”