Resistance Writers: An Interview with Jelani Wilson
Words By Thomas Chisholm and Jelani Wilson
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)
How did you get involved with the Octavia’s Brood project? How did the editors, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, discover your work?
Jelani Wilson (JW)
I’ve known Walidah for many years. In something of a past life I was an MC in an underground hip-hop group that was sci-fi themed and politically driven, so we’d long been conversing about sci-fi and sociopolitical change. I’d been writing speculative fiction for a long time and I spent much of my teenage years reading Octavia Butler’s novels, so when Walidah told me about the idea for Octavia’s Brood and asked me I would contribute something, I was all the way in.
What was your inspiration for “22XX: One Shot”? Was it a piece you were already developing or did it come about once you were asked to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology?
I wrote “22XX: One Shot” specifically for Octavia’s Brood. At the time I hadn’t written straight-ahead science fiction in a while. It was summer and I was teaching pre-college kids in the Bronx through a CUNY opportunity program that was particularly impactful for black and brown youth. I loved that class and the students were really special to me so I wanted to write something for them. I wanted them to see themselves in the future and to understand that even what seem like smallish acts of rebellion in the face of tyranny and injustice are important.
What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you think politically motivated fiction can play in today’s climate?
Walidah and adrienne can probably answer that first part better than I can, but I think it contributes to a very necessary change in the literary landscape, and by extension the culture. In my experience doing Octavia’s Brood readings and workshops with adrienne, Walidah, and Vagabond, it’s the way it empowers people to imagine possibilities for social change. Vagabond talks a lot about the need for radicals to demand the impossible, which advances Frederick Douglass’ assertion that power concedes nothing without demand, and that our demands ought to be rooted in the best kind of world and society we can imagine.
In the conversations I’ve had with activists and radicals both during and after our readings and workshops, I get a lot of feedback about how Octavia’s Brood helps people to re-approach and re-imagine what they do. The visionary fiction workshop that Walidah and Morrigan Phillips developed is a big part of that. I think all of us have used it when we do Brood events and it leaves folks fired up and inspired to go back out there and do the kind of grassroots work that builds movements and makes things happen. It also helps those who may not necessarily see themselves as radical activists to realize that by imagining new ways of being that they actually are.
In general, I think politically motivated fiction can be galvanizing, especially when hopelessness seems to be around every corner. Forward-thinking literary movements like Afrofuturism and solar punk also provide visions and a language for future possibilities that don’t predispose us to doom and that remind us of the kinds of futures we’re fighting to create in the present.
In the current climate of the United States, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little 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?
I’m a firm believer that you find your voice by speaking up when you’re afraid to and that the way to find your place is simply to fight where you stand. It’s also important to realize it’s not on our individual shoulders to save the world once and for all. It’s okay to work small-scale, even if we don’t live long enough to complete the work, just so long as we don’t abandon it. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that big, disruptive actions require increasing degrees of risk, and increasing risk requires strong, close networks of people to pull off. So, that’s where to start if folks don’t feel like they’re doing enough.
Personally, I don’t know if I’ve ever found my place, except for in myself. But that’s probably because I don’t think I’ve ever totally fit in anywhere in any part of my life. That’s just how I am—a nerdy little misfit. I just try to do what I can where I can and provide support—material or otherwise—to those doing what I can’t where I’m not.
It’s a bit tricky to say how my activist experiences have shaped my writing because my fiction is a messy stew of the personal, the political, and the cultural (just like me!). Even as a teenager, my stories always involved contending with oppressive forces and injustice, as they were a way to help me process my experiences of racism growing up, but I don’t think of any of my stories as particularly polemic.
If I could say anything to artists and activists, I’d say to both: do what you can with what you have, and, per Soundgarden, only settle for a little bit more than everything.
What kinds of fiction or what 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 grew up reading sci-fi and comic books in the 80s and 90s. I’ve always been an Octavia Butler superfan—I even got to meet her in my college days and managed to maintain consciousness the whole time! I’m also deeply influenced by the work of Steven Barnes, particularly his Aubrey Knight books. Same with Sam Delany, who I got to meet and eat paella with in grad school a couple years after meeting Octavia Butler.
Also, Koushun Takami’s pulp novel Battle Royale is never far from my mind. That novel is an especially potent tale of survival and youthful rebellion against brutal, fascist tyranny. And over the last several years, Nnedi Okorafor, Deji Bryce Olukotun, N.K. Jemisin, China Mieville, and Tochi Onyebuchi have been setting my mind on fire.
In my own work, I start with a core concept, usually stripped down to a fundamental conceit, and then very quickly I devise a group of characters to work through it. I generally don’t write with a political goal in mind, but I always write from a political place. It’s impossible not to.
Your creative work is often set in outer space. What inspires you most about the cosmos?
The irony to me is that for close to a decade, I purposely stayed away from overt sci-fi settings. Particularly during the early 2000s, I felt like it moved things too far away from present reality, so I focused a lot on writing slipstream stories in more “realistic” urban settings and lighter paranormal touches. Writing “22XX” showed me how wrong I was about that. Setting stories in space didn’t have to detach from the present. And the fact is that I feel most at home writing stories about outer space, so I had to re-embrace it.
I’ve been enthralled by space since I was a child. I come from a family of Star Wars and Star Trek fans, so I’m very conditioned to think in gritty rebellions and aspire to utopian ideals. Also we live in an absolutely wondrous solar system—which is why I decided to set “22XX” in our own cosmic neighborhood. The infiniteness of space is quite compelling to me: it’s a place of possibility and hope and wonder, but it’s also daunting, bleak, and unforgiving.
What are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively?
Since I recently moved to a new city, I’m trying to get connected to grassroots community organizations and get involved where I can be useful. I also want to get more involved in direct anti-fascist actions, ’cause fuck those creeps.
Creatively, I’m working on a novel titled Space Wizards! that is about a band of traumatized social justice warriors in space who’ve got one last shot at toppling a tyrannical technocracy—but only if they can shift their focus from changing power at the top to realizing a possibility that fundamentally changes everything. There are also lasers, cyborgs, giant monsters, cool aliens, and an interstellar jazz ensemble.