S1E22 – Walidah Imarisha on Envisioning the Future

Episode Notes

The guest Walidah Imarisha can be found online at walidah.com. Her books referenced in this episode are Angels With Dirty Faces and Octavia’s Brood, both published by AK Press.

The host Margaret Killjoy can be found on twitter @magpiekilljoy and on instagram @margaretkilljoy. You can support her and this podcast through her patreon.


LLWD – 22 – Walidah on Envisioning the Future
Margaret, Walidah Imarisha

Margaret 00:14
Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the end times. I’m your host, Margaret Killjoy, and this week I’ll be talking to an author and activist and poet and just a historian—I’ll be talking to will Walidah Imarisha who is, just, I think is absolutely wonderful. And that’ll probably come across way too much in this episode. But I’m talking to her because I’m interested in talking about—well, this week is a little bit of a departure from usual, instead of just talking about the end of all things, right, we’ll be talking about envisioning better things. And we’ll be talking about how important—how necessary it is—to be able to imagine better things in order to make those better things real. And so we’ll be talking about the importance of fiction, but we’ll also be talking about what it means to envision a world, say for example, without police and prisons and how we can move towards that. And, yeah, I’m just really excited for y’all to hear this episode. This podcast is a proud member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchist podcasts. And here’s a jingle from another show on the network. Duh da duh daaa…

Jingle Speaker 1 01:28
Kite Line is a weekly 30 minute radio program focusing on issues in the prison system. You’ll hear news along with stories from prisoners and former prisoners as well as their loved ones. You’ll learn what prison is, how it functions, and how it impacts all of us.

Jingle Speaker 2 01:39
Behind the prison walls a message is called a kite—whispered words, a note passed hand to hand, a request submitted to the guards for medical care. Illicit or not, sending a cadence trusting that other people will bear it farther along until it reaches its destination. Here on Kite Line we hope to share these words across the prison walls.

Jingle Speaker 1 01:55
You can hear us on the Channel Zero Network and find out more at kitelineradio.noblogs.org

Margaret 02:06
Okay, so if you could introduce yourself with your name, your pronouns, and then like political or organizational affiliations that kind of concern what you’re going to be talking about, or maybe like the books that you’ve written that are about what we’re going to be talking about.

Walidah 02:22
My name is Walidah Imarisha, she and her pronouns. I am a writer and an educator. I have done a lot of work on science fiction and social change, culminating in co-editing Octavius Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. I’ve also written the creative nonfiction book Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption.

Margaret 02:46
Oh, the fact—I’ve been telling people for years that my favorite book against prison is Angels with Dirty Faces. And I actually have a really hard time reading nonfiction, which is kind of embarrassing because I’m an author. And the fact that you describe it as creative nonfiction really helps explain part of why. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet Angels with Dirty Faces is like, um… it’s talking about prisons, but it’s talking about prisons from the point of view of, like, several specific people who are in prison and, well, your interactions with them. So the reason I have you on this, like, community and individual preparation podcast is—the important—I kind of want to talk to you about the importance of actually, like, envisioning something better. And because it’s this kind of cliché that, like, we know what we’re against, but do we know what we’re for? And sometimes I kind of hate when people ask—I actually almost always hate when people ask that—because my argument is that if you’re being hit with a baseball bat, you don’t actually have to articulate what you would like society to be like without someone hitting you with a baseball bat before you can get someone to stop hitting you with a baseball bat. But yet at the same time I do personally want a much better society and I know that you’ve done this work also, yeah, with Octavius Brood, which is just labeled visionary fiction. Is that right?

Walidah 04:13

Margaret 04:14
Um, could you talk about visionary fiction? And could you talk about what draws you to that? And what draws you to painting better worlds and resistance?

Walidah 04:24
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I feel—I agree with you. And I think it’s a, you know, it’s yes/and. And so, I also think it’s really important who’s asking these questions, right? Are we asking these questions of each other or people from outside being like, “Well, what do you want then?” Like, I don’t really owe you anything if you’re coming with that tone. Um, you know, for me, “visionary fiction,” I started using that term to refer to the intersection of science fiction or imaginative fiction, fantastical art, and social change. It’s deeply steeped in, you know, radical organizing, in thinking and building liberated futures. It’s not a utopian project, it’s really more about how can we imagine the futures we want to figure out new ways to build them into existence. So we’re never going to get to those perfect futures because as science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler said, we’re not going to have a utopia until we have a few perfect humans and that seems unlikely. So we won’t reach utopia. But I think the practice of utopia is the useful one. And really, I mean, that is what organizing is, is thinking about this world around us and how we actually want it to be and, you know, that’s the foundation of Octavia’s Brood, which I co edited with Adrienne Maree Brown. The premise is all organizing is science fiction. And we believe that anytime you imagine a world without the ills we fight against, without borders, without prisons without police, that is science fiction because we haven’t seen that world. But we can’t build what we can’t imagine. And so Octavia’s Brood is fantastical writing, visionary fiction, specifically written by organizers, activists, and change-makers, the folks who are, you know, in the world trying to make it a better place. And I think that intersection of imaginative spaces and social change is not just useful, but it’s absolutely imperative for us to build something other than this world around us.

Margaret 06:50
No, that makes sense. I really like the quote that you just had of, we can’t build what we can imagine. That—I don’t know. I like that a lot. It ties into a lot of what I what I think about with my own writing. And so this is a weird tangent, but okay, so like, so you’re saying it’s not a utopian project, right, even though it’s sort of in some ways about envisioning utopia. And utopia has this like really mixed reputation, right? And I think some of your work, you’ve talked about how Oregon was developed as a white utopia, for example. And, you know, I remember doing a talk—I think I’ve even said this on the podcast before, I’m not sure—I was doing a talk about A Country of Ghosts, an anarchist utopian novel that I wrote. And I was doing it at Tel hougen, an Indigenous info shop. And someone who was there was like, “Yeah, you know, that white people with utopian ideas destroyed everything, right?” And I was like, “Yeah, no, you’re just right. I don’t have a counter argument. Like, you’re just correct.” And so I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, about like the idea—maybe the difference between like utopia as a thing that you’re specifically trying to create versus utopia as like a direction to walk or something like that? I don’t know. I don’t know how to phrase this.

Walidah 08:21
No, I think that’s I think that’s a really useful differentiation. I think the idea—the sort of arrogance and audacity to think that we could create a perfect society, I think is rooted in, you know, everything that is against what we are wanting to build. It’s, you know, it does result in, you know, in these projects, I mean, you know, Adrienne often quotes Terry Marshall talking about, you know, that we are in an imagination battle, that we are living in someone else’s—specifically as black people—living in other people’s imaginations. And this is the result of that— of us, you know, the world being manifested through this white supremacist imagination. And I do think it’s important to talk about utopias because, I mean, so much of the goal of white supremacist hetero patriarchal, you know, capitalism has been to create their vision of utopia and to, you know, impress upon it, and press it upon the rest of the world. And so I think it’s important to talk about that as utopia because it complicates the notion of utopias you’re talking about, but I do think the sort of thought exercise of utopia is useful. I often quote, Eduardo Galeano and his quote of saying, “What is the purpose of utopia then, it is to cause us to advance.”

Margaret 10:03

Walidah 10:05
Yeah, I think if we frame it in that way it becomes incredibly useful. Because as a thought experiment, to me, it roots very much in, you know, in Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, the subtitle of which is “An Ambiguous Utopia.” The foundation of that ideas is these folks think they have built the perfect, you know, anarchist society and then realize, you know, the liberation we want is not a destination. And if we ever think we have reached perfection, that is the very moment that we begin to replicate the very systems of dystopian domination that we fought and give our lives for. And so I think it’s important to continually think of this as, you know, as a process and a practice rather than a destination. And to continually get to ask the question, “What is our ideal world?” knowing that we won’t reach it, but we will continually not only better ourselves and society, but we will create space to reimagine what we consider to be utopia. I mean, we’re all growing. I’m growing. We’re all messing up every day. We’re all learning how to do better every day, hopefully. And, you know, so to imagine that the destination that we set at some fixed point in the past is the destination we want to go to today is—it actually does a disservice to ourselves, because it stops us from being able to grow and to continue to imagine beyond what we’re told as possible.

Margaret 11:52
Wait, I thought we were just following the blueprints that Bakunin laid out. Is that not? Like? Yeah, no, I really like that. I really like this idea of that—I mean, for me, it’s one of the reasons why, you know, personally, I’m an anarchist but I’m—just in general anti authoritarianism appeals to me is because to me it’s this, it’s a little bit clear to say like, no, no, no, no, there’s not a “perfect.” There’s not a like, a system that you create, and then enforce on everyone, you know? It’s a—instead it’s always gonna be messy, it’s always gonna be this process.

Walidah 12:31
Yeah. I mean, it’s rebelling against the tyranny even of our past selves really. Right? Like, the plan that I laid out for myself when I was 20, you know, is certainly not the plan, you know—And even if the destination of this—even if I’m heading the same way on the horizon, certainly the lessons that I’ve learned along the way have deeply impacted, shifted, and changed. And if I don’t allow myself the space to do that, then I’ve locked myself into a moment that has then become just my life.

Margaret 13:06

Walidah 13:07
But we do that with our movements every day.

Margaret 13:11
I like this idea. So—because it’s like, we need the plans. We just—to even think of it like in terms of the individual, like you were saying, like the plan of what you were going to do when you were 20. It’s like, we always need to have these plans so that we can do anything, right, otherwise—like, if I didn’t have an idea of like, what I want it to be and what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t make any progress. But yeah, no, that makes sense to be able to, like completely readdress it at any point.

Walidah 13:39
Well and just recognize that, you know, I mean, that the world is so much larger than we imagined, that the sky seems vast. And one point on the horizon that seems like the end point, when we reach it we recognize, oh, there is a whole infinity of sky beyond that. So why would we just stop when we’ve reached that point if our goal was to just continue exploring and seeing and experiencing and doing as much as possible.

Margaret 14:10
That’s so good. I like, I love all that shit so much. Okay, so why then fiction? Why choosing to express that specifically through fiction, as you all did with Octavius Brood?

Walidah 14:31
Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, I think again, for me, visionary fiction is about creating possibilities and as many entry points. So, you know, I think fiction is one way to do it. I think you can do it in any genre and whatever messy intersections between genres, the infinite intersections of