Octavia Butler’s Message to the Grassroots

A group of progressive organizers want to take Octavia Butler's lessons from the page and into the streets.

By Jamilah King Sep 11, 2013

Adrienne Maree Brown was accustomed to bringing folks together. As a co-founder of the League of Young Voters and the Ruckus Society, Brown had led direct actions in San Francisco, organized protests in New York City, and delivered petitions to some of the country’s most powerful lawmakers. But it’s not until she got to Detroit that she embraced who she really was: a sci-fi nerd.

So with an organizer’s acumen and a deep love for science fiction, Brown began to co-host workshops on Octavia Butler at the Allied Media Conference, an annual gathering of technology and media activists in Detroit. The late writer’s work often centers on black women who must navigate the politics of apocalypse. What began as a love fest soon morphed into a strategy session as activists bonded around the idea that before they could build a better world, they first had to imagine it.

This summer, Brown and her allies wrapped up a remarkably successful crowd sourcing campaign and raised more than $17,000 to take their work on the road. The finished product will be "Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements," an anthology of speculative fiction written by activists. The project is also the work of Walidah Imarisha, a writer and activist based in Portland. Along with the book, the editors and authors will also host writing workshops across the country.

"There have been great anthologies of explicitly political or identity-based sci-fi, but to our knowledge there hasn’t been a collection of original sci-fi from people who do social justice work," Brown says. "And our work needs us to be so visionary so it’s an exercise and experiment."

Using fiction as source material isn’t new. For decades, conservative activists have cited the influence of Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged," the 1958 novel about a dystopian United States bereft of its most economically productive citizens. But "Octavia’s Brood" is not only drawing its own lessons from Butler’s work, but using that work to encourage people to create their own. "Her books present situations that we’re actually dealing with or may be called upon to deal with in an allegorical way," says Kat Aaron, a journalist who writes about poverty and has co-hosted to workshops with Brown. "From gentrification to a failing economy, I think people are dealing with really hard choices in their current reality and her books allow you to think through those experiences."

While thinking through those experiences, "Octavia’s Brood" also asks people to reimagine ways to address them. Brown has co-hosted writing workshops using Octavia Butler’s work for the past three years, and says that they’ve become important spaces think critically about organizing in the United States.

"A lot of our movements are shaped defensively, necessarily," Brown says. "It can be easy to set our dreams only on the horizon of what seems possible in circumstances largely controlled by oppressive systems. It feels like radical work to actually stretch our imaginations and recenter ourselves in the long arc of what we need to survive."

Now, the focus is on the thousands of dollars raised for the anthology and writing workshops. "Octavia did this, gave us a blueprint of a right-wing America, an alien colonization, and more," says Brown. "What are the scenarios we need to familiarize our minds with before they happen? It feels like a way we take explicit responsibility for the future."

On a brass tacks level, that means collecting submissions from organizers and activists across the country and then using those to develop workshops in local communities. Brown admits that the organizing hasn’t led to direct campaigns yet, but the process of getting there is just as important. "I will say a lot of people have surprised themselves with the worlds they hold inside themselves."