Resistance Writers: An Interview with Autumn Brown
Words By Autumn Brown and Thomas Chisholm
As societies around the world dip their toes in authoritarianism, we’d like to elevate authors of speculative fiction who imagine alternatives or help us demand the impossible futures of our dreams. In the Resistance Writers interview series, we’ll hear from a handful of writers from the 2015 anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Each writer elaborates on sources of inspiration and how activism informs their work. Our hope is to provide a source of guidance for aspiring writers of visionary fiction.
Thomas Chisholm (TC)
What was your inspiration for “Small and Bright?” I believe it’s the first chapter in a novel you’re developing—how far along is that project? Was the novel in development before you agreed to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology or did that work inspire the novel?
Autumn Brown (AB)
I never set out to write science fiction. This story first came to me in 2010, and it really inhabited me. I felt that the story was insisting on being written, particularly my protagonist Orion. I never felt like she was a character I created, more like she is a real person, whose story needs to be told, and she chose me as the channel. To be honest, when the story first came to me, I tried to ignore it and resist it for several months, but it wouldn’t let me go. She wouldn’t let me go. So, I began writing, and truly I did not know what I was doing. I had never written anything with this kind of narrative scope.
It was months later that I was invited to submit a short story to Octavia’s Brood, and I decided to submit the first chapter of my novel. I had to adjust the chapter significantly in order for it to work as a short story, and it was still several years between when I submitted the chapter as a story and when the anthology was ultimately published in 2015. But I feel, especially now (ten years since I began writing “Small and Bright” and five years since Octavia’s Brood was published), that the publication of Octavia’s Brood, and the reception of the anthology, helped me believe more deeply in myself as a writer. I always believed in the story, but I think the way it was received and continues to be received by readers helped me believe in my ability to write it.
And I’m still writing it. I finished a draft manuscript in 2019, and then I went through a major life transition that required me to set the work aside and really protect it from the chaos and pain and trauma of my actual life. So, I only just picked it back up recently, and I am revising it. As a working mom, it’s really tough to find time to work on a long, complex project like this, so I really have to carve it out for myself. It’s like stealing time, in a way. But right now, I am feeling confident that the final manuscript will be ready by the end of 2020. And hopefully, I’ll find a publisher willing to take a risk on what is, honestly, a pretty experimental narrative, even for a work of science fiction.
What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you see visionary fiction playing in today’s political climate?
I still receive messages from readers at least once a month expressing the impact of this anthology on their lives and political work. It seems that the influence of Brood’s vision has only grown as global political circumstances have become decidedly more apocalyptic. This makes sense to me; the anthology was published while Obama was president, and only a year later we had the election of Trump. And with it the revelation that the insidious white supremacist underbelly of our political and economic systems had never actually gone anywhere.
Even as a student and teacher of the history of white supremacy, I was shocked and numbed by the 2016 election. But looking back I think we can all see that the signs were there, at every step of the way, pointing to this as the bleak outcome, the culmination of a hundred-years-long political project underpinned by the ideology of violence and subjugation. That’s why visionary fiction is so important. As we Brooders say in our visionary fiction writing workshops, we are in an imagination battle. In that battle, we must both examine the underlying assumptions and beliefs of our current landscape, and we must be vigilant in producing and reproducing a different vision, a different set of assumptions and values, that culminate in a different outcome. I think the cultural work of visionary fiction is more critical now than ever because the current conditions are grim and terrifying. There’s no question about that and we have to be pragmatic about that. But it is from within that pragmatism that we must acknowledge this truth: it has always been through art and cultural work that societies transmit themselves, claim or reclaim traditions, and express a yearning for something that cannot yet be seen. And it is when it is darkest that we most need to believe in that which we cannot see.
In the current climate in the United States, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little or no direct action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists?
Armchair activism arises in a climate where people lack a sense of agency over the conditions of their lives. I think it’s really important to remember that the political system we have, which is rooted in white supremacy, rooted in subjugation, is designed to elicit those exact feelings in us. When you don’t believe in your own power to change the world, it is much easier to have opinions about what is happening than to take responsibility for what is happening. Easier to distance yourself from the ultimate impact of what is happening. And oh how delicious it is to feel like a victim of our circumstances instead of a driver of our lives. I don’t think we are honest with ourselves, sometimes, about how much more we would prefer to be powerless than to take responsibility for changing these conditions. That’s why activism is really a rigorous practice. It’s a spiritual practice and requires spiritual rigor, and a willingness to, as Mary Hooks says, “be transformed in the service of the work.” That change is an embodied change and it really ain’t a game.
Maybe some of us would rather point fingers at how everyone else is doing it wrong, and that’s a place. That is a place, for sure, and I’ve been there. But only because I wasn’t willing to look at myself, and my own individualism. The ways I had internalized the values of white supremacy, in order to survive it. We’ve all done that, and we all have to undo it, from within, to be of use, and to be of service.
And we have to be unafraid of making mistakes because that’s how we learn. I always tell folks that there’s absolutely no shame in admitting that you are wrong and that you don’t know. It’s only after being socialized and, really, ground down inside of white supremacy, that we believe we can only succeed by constantly projecting our rightness. But you look historically at our most important political leaders and thought leaders, the ones who were able to advance the most visionary goals, and you pretty consistently see humility and an orientation to service, a willingness to be moved, a willingness to take risks, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.
And you see an orientation to the collective. I was lucky to have been introduced to activism through collective and consensus-based work from my earliest experiences as a student organizer; that meant I was required to confront my desire to individuate head on. And I still want to be a star most of the time, and I think a lot of us do. It’s natural to want to be the center of your own life, the hero of your own story. The difference is that now I am honest with myself and others about it, and then I can work with it, see where it’s healthy and where it’s not. I can look at my own patterns and say, okay, how is this actually about me, and then how am I trying to make it about me? There’s a difference. And it takes rigor to know the difference.
What kinds of fiction and which particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind?
I am a hardcore science fiction reader. I absolutely love the presence of science in the work, I’m a real sucker for that, so I love books like Neuromancer and Idoru by William Gibson. And also, I love work that drops you into the middle of the world and forces you to find your way via context and character, without a ton of exposition. Writers like Sofia Samatar, Kim Stanley Robinson, and China Miéville . . . I can just disappear for days inside their work. And then there are the visionaries who are intentionally working with power and oppression in their work, but who know how to do it without skirting on the heartbreak and heroism that is at the heart of what the reader is longing for. I want to be taken on a journey! So that’s where writers like N. K. Jemisin and Octavia E. Butler, and their masterpieces of world-building and imagination and real character work, inspire me and thrill me and I mourn the end of the story.
In my own work, as I shared regarding “Small and Bright,” I often feel more like I am channeling than creating. I do a lot of archetype work with my characters and I actually interview them when I am writing; and more often than not, I do know the entire arc of the narrative before I put pen to paper, and I am trusting the characters in the story to teach me how to tell their story. Phrasing is important to me, and experimentation with phrasing and the way the text itself sits on the page to be read is something I am exploring more and more. I prefer to drop the reader in the world and let them find their way and signpost without a ton of exposition, but I’m relatively early in my career as a fiction writer, so I’m still learning how to do that well.
My politics show up in my writing where I challenge myself about ideology in the writing process itself, both in the way I am writing my characters and in the way I understand what it is they actually want, what motivates them. For instance, in “Small and Bright,” as Orion’s character has unfolded over time, it’s been important to me to steer clear of typical tropes for heroines. Often, and especially in science fiction, the heroine doesn’t know her true power or purpose until another character or group of characters, usually men, help her to see it. Usually, her journey is about learning to believe in herself; in a way, it’s about her self-actualization, vis-à-vis the gaze of others. That pattern is satisfying for the reader and it makes a good story, and certainly, I love to read those kinds of stories, but it’s not a pattern I wanted to reproduce in my book. I am asking the question: can the reader fall in love with a character whose arc is not about self-actualization, and where the gaze through which the reader sees and understands her is her own? What if the story is actually about her grief? What if the most important action is internal? I still want the reader to root for her, but for different reasons.
From your facilitation work, I can tell consensus building is important to you. How did that organizational method come to resonate so deeply with you?
I was lucky to be introduced to consensus and trained in consensus while I was studying abroad as a twenty-year-old. It fundamentally changed me and changed how I understand my role in political work. In a way, my discovery of consensus and my discovery that I am an especially gifted facilitator gave me a role and a purpose in social justice and movement work. I believe I am of best use in supporting organizers and social movements through this skill set because the work of consensus is about helping people find the most visionary path forward together; it’s a path that they can only find together, and not separately. Consensus makes more possible, in part because it requires us to be rigorous about our ideas, and it requires us to orient collectively towards the best idea, rather than the smartest person.
Consensus is how we survive; I really believe that. It forces us to acknowledge our inherent interdependence.
You and your sister adrienne maree brown have hosted a podcast, How to Survive the End of the World since 2017. The first half of season four premiered earlier this year. Was the “Apocalypse Survival” miniseries inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic? How did it differ from previous end of the world themes? What’s in the store for the rest of season four?
The apocalypse survival miniseries had been in the works for months prior to the pandemic. It was something that we had wanted to do from pretty early in the life of the podcast; and when adrienne went on sabbatical in 2020, it felt like the perfect timing, in part because this subject area is of special interest to me.
So we had put a lot of thought and planning into the way the series would unfold, and we were about to launch it when the pandemic hit the US. So, while the series wasn’t inspired by the pandemic, the pandemic shaped the series in every way. Every conversation I had with every guest was happening in the context of a live, global crisis that touched everyone and every aspect of human life, so it wasn’t theoretical at all. We were, for instance, talking about the skill of squatting and creating livable homes out of abandoned spaces, in a context where people were losing jobs and getting evicted from their homes, and in a context where safety inside the pandemic requires safe, livable, private spaces.
My producer Zak and I felt a high level of responsibility for the content, and the speed of production given how urgent the conditions were, so we also released the miniseries weekly, which isn’t the typical speed for our show. It was one of the most grueling projects I have ever worked on, and I feel so deeply proud of what we accomplished.
We are on break now but we are about to head into the second half of season four. adrienne is back from her sabbatical, and we are going to spend the rest of the season in deep conversation with one another, with just a few interviews uplifting some of the most important ideas we believe can lead us through the difficulty that is coming. So it’s really going to feel like a return to the intimacy and magic of our very first season.
What else are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively?
Staying alive! Haha.
In addition to my science fiction writing, I am working on a memoir and an album.
In my political work, I am trying to translate the work on whiteness and white supremacy that I’ve done over the last decade plus, into a body of work that can be transmitted to a new generation of facilitators. I’m trying to be the best partner and lover I can be to my beloved. And I’m preparing for another season of distance learning with my three brilliant, resilient children, so I’m trying to be an excellent mom. Which is really just about staying present and paying attention.
I’m trying not to plan too far ahead, and just stay nimble. I think we all need to be preparing for the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead and preparing ourselves to shape that chaos into the future we want.