Close your eyes and imagine a world without poverty, homelessness, prison, police brutality, oppression, or war. Now open your eyes and write about it. That was the challenge presented by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, the editors of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. The anthology, set to come out in June of 2014 and consists of 20 stories and 3 essays including a piece by imprisoned activist Mumia Abu-Jamal about Star Wars and US Imperialism.
I had the great privilege to hear them speak at an evening with Octavia’s Brood held on February 28 at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum in Seattle, WA. Framed as a tribute to Octavia Butler and EMP’s first Black History Month celebration, the evening for me became so much more. It answered several long standing questions that haunt me every February. Once we know where we have been, how can we move forward? When and where do we enter a better Black Future?
Octavia Butler was the first published black female science fiction author. She passed away in 2006. Butler spent many years of her life living just north of Seattle in Lake Forest Park and was a prolific writer whose work, after breaking through the initial rejections, garnered various awards and accolades for its unique and deep ways of taking on controversial topics like critical race theory and environmental politics. She was a visionary and in 1995 became the first science fiction writer to receive a McArthur Fellowship.
It’s only fitting then that her self-proclaimed “Brood” would use sci-fi mixed with a laser focus on contemporary social justice issues to broker a new genre; visionary fiction.
The evening began with music by DJ Sassy Black, one of half of the group Thee Satisfaction followed by a tribute from soul songstress Felicia Loud who performed a song about one of Butler’s more notable characters, Doro, the parasitic Spirit that lived through decades and several books searching for genetic perfection.
Hip hop artist Gabriel Teodros was next to the stage and performed a song with a hook that really set the tone for the evening’s discussion: “They be tryna hide our history, but we know who we are. They try to hide our future too, but we are Octavia’s Brood.”
After an invocation of the ancestors by poet Christa Bell, event organizers Luzviminda Carpenter, founder, owner and director of Uzuri Productions and Jonathan Cunningham, Director of the EMP’s youth programs and community outreach gave a welcome and invited us to view rare interview footage of Octavia Butler.
Though I have read almost everything she published, I had never heard her voice. She was a tall woman, a person of size with a voice like a Spiritual, low and melodic and filled with power. In this footage that had never been screened at the EMP before, Butler spoke about her family, their pilgrimage from Louisiana to California, her father’s death, her grandmother’s death and how her grandmother became an inspiration for the character Anyanwu. She spoke of inspiration, of living in the desert and the feeling of isolation there that created within her the whole world of possibilities expressed in her writing.
Had the evening ended there, I would have considered it a gift to gain insight into such a beautiful mind, but that was just the beginning. After the film, Leslie Howle shared a slideshow with a Q&A moderated by Zola Mumford, curator of the Langston Hughes Film Festival. Howle was a good friend of Butler. They met in 1985 just out of college at a Writer’s workshop. The slide show consisted of candid snap shots of Butler in nature, with students, with friends, with Howle’s poodle, but mostly pictures of Butler by herself looking off into the distance at the gorgeous Washington state landscape or perhaps at things unseen, at the worlds that only existed in her rich imagination.
|Adrienne and Walidah|
Following in the slideshow, Jonathan Cunningham returned to the stage to introduce Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha to discuss the anthology.
“When we go to vision, people are looking backwards. How do we orient ourselves to moving forward?” Brown posed one of the central questions that framed the anthology. In response Brown and Imarisha came up with the idea to look to activists engaged in social change and to invite them to write science fiction stories or rather visionary fiction, a genre of their own creation built to explore current social issues and power disparities. The goal is change and being able to envision and capture ideas and stories that will push us away from what has been and into a yet unknown what could be. Simple, but genius. Fiction has always been a vehicle for imagination and pushing the envelope, why not use it to promote social change?
“All organizing is speculative fiction,” argued Imarisha. “We weren’t meant to survive.”
This thought resonated through me, the idea that my ancestors in chains would have dreamt of me, would have imagined a place for their progeny in a world where I could work and live in a place of my own choosing, where I could vote and have political influence. From that perspective I suppose Black present is a work of science fiction, but what else could be?
“We must write ourselves into the future. And we must write it now,” said Brown. The event culminated with readings of excerpts from stories written by Brown, Imarisha, and Gabriel Teodros.
Though jam packed, the event was not a one off but rather a package deal followed the next day by a writers’ workshop exclusively for people of color. Let me preface this by saying that nothing in Seattle is exclusively for people of color. If they could find a way to make the Black History Museum into a multicultural history museum they would. Such is the need for white people to be involved in everything.
I hurried up and rearranged my whole day to attend the morning workshop and the Emergent Strategies for social change discussion (which was open to all). Both events were held at Seattle University. The conversation was rich. The writing prompts have had me staying up late to work on my first attempt at Science Fiction. I only wished it could have lasted longer.
My time with Octavia’s Brood provided what has long been missing from my Black History Month experiences: hope, imagination, and direction. Make sure to like their Facebook page to hear when they might be headed to your city. This is one tour, you do not want to miss.
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, YA fiction aficionado, afro-punk, international educator, and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. To read more check out her column in the Seattle Globalist. You can also find her most Wednesday nights at the Rain City Poetry Slam.