Resistance Writers: An Interview with Morrigan Phillips
Words By Thomas Chisholm and Morrigan Phillips
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?
Morrigan Phillips (MP)
Walidah and I had worked together as editors at Left Turn Magazine. That’s how we first met. It was on an issue about visionary fiction and its role in social movements. Walidah was at the time a guest editor (she later joined as a permanent editor). That issue meant so much to me. I had always been making connections between politics and the science fiction and fantasy stories I read, watched, listened to and created. But until then I didn’t have many people to talk to about it. That issue really cracked it open. It was the only issue of Left Turn to sell out completely, a testament to how deeply the discussion resonated with people. After that Walidah and I did some workshops together at the US Social Forum in Detroit on visionary fiction writing and storytelling and social change work.
I like to say that adrienne and I have a friendship that transcends space and time because I’m not sure when or even how we met. But we did and it feels ageless. Was it at a US Social Forum? At a training? An Allied Media Conference? Who knows! But we’ve known each other a while and experienced many overlaps in our work and enjoy many friends in common. As it is in this world we just comfortably got nested together in the same networks.
One evening I got an email from Walidah and adrienne about this new project, Octavia’s Brood. It was already in the works but they were feeling a lack of more fantasy-based stories. Knowing that fantasy is my preferred realm of thought and existence Walidah reached out and that was that.
What was your inspiration for “The Long Memory?” Was it pieces you were already developing or did it come about once you were asked to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology?
At the time Walidah and adrienne reached out to me the largest hunger strike by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay was underway. As I read in excruciating detail how they were force-feeding the prisoners on strike I was struck by how little the practice of force-feeding people on hunger strike has changed over the centuries. The descriptions were almost the same in all details to that of suffragettes who were force-fed during hunger strikes. In my own history, coming from an Irish family I knew the story of how the suffragettes’ hunger strikes were modeled after an Irish practice of refusing to eat until the person who wronged you agreed to eat with you to discuss restoration. That was the tradition that Bobby Sands and the other Hunger Strikers invoked when they gave their lives to the cause of Irish freedom.
All of this memory was mixing in my head. Blending the present and past. Bobby Sands, the suffragettes, the prisoners in Guantanamo, their action pulled on the same threads from the past and that had power in each case. I had started to think of the ability to hold onto memory as a superpower—feared by some and revered by others. And the Long Memory is feared most of all.
The Long Memory is an idea my father taught me through his work as a storyteller and folk singer. The past never goes anywhere, he would say. It has a power that only grows with time, so long as we remember. Memory is always traveling through our actions, tying our past and present and future together. It is not just our memories but also the memories of the world that come to us in the form of stories, songs, images, poems and so on. These are our present guides as we tie the past and future together. I had started to place the news of Guantanamo Bay into a larger fantasy tale of the power of memory and the tragedy felt by all when the Long Memory is lost.
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?
Making connections between sci-fi and fantasy and the politics of the time is not new. Writers and creators have been at it for ages. But one of the things I saw OB do was help spread those conversations about visionary fiction in social change work to more and more spaces. Especially organizing spaces but also in political writing and reporting. I think that Walidah and adrienne were there with others in recognizing a moment to capture a burst of energy around these ideas and gave them a place to congregate so they could expand.
Which is really important at this moment because, not to sound dramatic, but the world is kind of ending. Many works of visionary fiction can act as guides for survival in dramatically bad times. Sadly I don’t think we’ll see a rise of dragons to speak the language of creation that will restore balance or find an all-powerful magical spell book to undo all the damage. But we will need to form more fellowships and go on more quests and tap into the magic of nature and relationships more. Whether overtly political or not, fiction of the fantastical and visionary kind can be instructive. It can also be a sandbox to play around in, expanding ideas and building plans.
I think now is a wonderful time to be moving discourse into the world of visionary fiction. Its instructive but also flexes our imaginations, getting them working and in good shape. We are not going to weather these hard times without our imaginations. We’re going to have to imagine our way out of this and into the future we desire. We have to imagine new ways of being in the world together. Imagine new constructs, new methods, new configurations. Our imaginations are going to need to be busy building the new world and that often starts in stories. And to be most useful we can’t make those stories devoid of politics. After all, for many of us, our bodies and lives are political.
You’re a “direct action trainer,” how do you define that role? What does it take for a person to commit their self to direct action?
Yeah, I’ve been doing direct action trainings for a long time through multiple movements. I came up in the Anti-globalization movement and have moved through the years on the ebbs and flows of movements responding to social injustice. I wasn’t always a trainer but I was trained by incredible people early in my engagement in movement work. As I grew in the work I recognized that this training was invaluable to me. I began to see a way that we make movements sustainable is to make training more available and meaningful. I’d also gone through some rough actions that left me on the edge of burnout. Shifting my energies to training I think also saved me from that fate.
Something I feel strongly about is that Direct Action is a part of movement work. People take spontaneous action to address wrongs and call out bullshit. But Direct Action is something specific that if you look into its depths encompasses a myriad of tactics and processes build upon over ages. When we commit to Direct Action we commit to learning these histories, the names of people and failings and triumphs of Direct Action over time. It is once again the idea of the Long Memory. We commit to making a ruckus but we also commit to being grounded in the past, present in the current moment and taking action as if each action is building our future because it is.
In the current climate the United States is in, 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?
adrienne often talks about the idea that the process we are in is like pulling back layers of a veil exposing the deepness of the pain and harm. The process hurts. We’re hurting. In our hurt, it is often a challenge to find ways to take action that feel satisfying. I rarely fault anyone for speaking but not taking action. What action looks like and how to take it has gotten… complicated. I’m not sure of the right phrasing, but I feel it all the time.
In the early 2000s, in the midst of the Anti-Globalization movement, taking action felt exciting and inevitable. Avenues for engaging in action felt so accessible to go down. There were these marches and rallies and trainings and big coordinated actions. We were even winning sometimes. The optimism was palpable. But that optimism feels depleted and turning fear, hurt and anger into action feels like a heavier lift than before. So we realign and dig in. For me, that has been working closely with my nearest and dearest to be ready to respond and be prepared.
In movement work, I’ve felt myself shift from a hand in many pots to having both my hands in just one or two pots. Seeking emersion. I’ve been going back to The Long Haul, the autobiography of Myles Horton, one of the founders of the Highlander School. I’ve been reminding myself that now more than ever we’re in it for the duration and I need to be pulling forward the memories of those who did this before and under other circumstances, to help me imagine what I’ll do now.
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?
Ursula K. LeGuin is dear to me. In particular the Wizard of Earthsea books. The ideas in those books about how stories, memories, and words hold power have intensely impacted me. I probably think about The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind twice a week, at least. I know I drew on the ideas those stories fostered within me when writing “The Long Memory.” I took the idea of a central group of people holding onto a precious resource to protect it. But in doing so actually causing great harm. In my story it was memory. In Earthsea it was language, names, and even death. In both cases, it is the story of the far-reaching consequences of taking from the world those things that are shared and hoarding them among just a few.
Most of my stories start with a character. That character often becomes the person who struggles with an idea or concept that’s on my mind. As that evolves and I find a place for the character to be and others to be around and a world they all live in. I don’t think I come to writing with a political goal. More an ambition to write stories that create opportunities to see characters navigate political and social movements that help us reflect on our own movement through the world. For example, right now I’m working on a short story that takes place in a world long engaged in struggle. The characters have for generations been engaged in resistance work and at the time of my story, some of them are starting to feel doubts born of exhaustion while others are feeling a reckless frustration, also born from exhaustion. I’m interested in playing out a story that figures out how people realign their work after so many years of fighting in one specific way. For me, that resonates with the times as we are struggling with how to respond to and understand the rise of fascism while also contending with a climate crisis. We’ve got a lot to contend with and it’s going to take a mighty shift in how we do things.
What are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively?
One of the ways I’ve shifted my alignment is to figure out how my day-to-day paid work is movement work. For ages those were separate. Go to work all day, hit up meetings at night. But that kind of separation isn’t going to serve the long haul. I’m a social worker at a community center that serves people living with HIV/AIDS. The work I do with the community I serve is at the interchange of so many issues—incarceration, housing, mental health, substance use, food access, health care, and even transportation. The work I do is interconnected to movement work and that needs to be reflected in my conversations with people, co-workers, management, and community partners. It needs to be reflected in our programming, our groups, and our public messaging.
Creatively, I am a cosplayer. I do a lot of costumes from cartoons and books. But currently, I’m deep into creating complicated costumes from Star Wars. When you get into the study of Star Wars costuming you find that there is an immense amount of storytelling happening in the costumes. From textures and fabrics to types of stitches and patterns, colors and materials, there are things that tie together stories and characters across the franchise. It’s a wonderful process of figuring out each piece and uncovering details. There are so many details! Plus the world needs some more rebel pilots, troopers, and Jedi.