Tamara: You write sci-fi or, as I have seen you describe it, speculative fiction. Can you explain to me the difference between the two?
Eighteen: Yes. So I spent a long time rambling about this the other day. There’s a documentary maker named M Asli Dukan and they are making this documentary called “Invisible Universe” about the history of Black speculative fiction and they define speculative as including horror and fantasy and science fiction. So “speculating” the word is to think about, and wonder about, try to anticipate something, and so I think speculative fiction is fiction that’s not about a past experience or something that happens in the real world as we all know it. Science fiction has a lot tied up in science technology, western science tradition, space rockets, and hard factual things that occur and can be measured, and so a lot of people hear science fiction and they’re like, “oh outer space, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica“ because there’s ships and robots and shit like that. I say science fiction a lot, but I really mean it as an expansive definition of whatever the fuck science even is. I notice that speculative fiction is a lot more inclusive in general of being not just science, but anything that’s possible.
T: And you are part of a speculative fiction collective – METROPOLARITY.
Eighteen: Yeah. We are a Philly corner store sci-fi and action collective. We write speculative fiction for our survival. We have all these slogans like “quality futures 4 cheap” and “DIY sci-fi.” All of us come from positions where in science fiction, where in movies that show astronauts and space exploration and just the general future—we don’t exist. There’s not gay people, there’s not Black people, there’s not poor people, there’s not trans people, there’s not women in positions of power, there’s no brown people, no Asian people, feminine men, or masculine women. So the four of us were just writing sci- fi and we ended up linking up all by chance. It was like, oh shit, there’s four of us? There must be more of us in the city—we could put together an anthology and call it METROPOLARITY! Have it be Philadalphia-informed science fiction from regular joes like us who didn’t have writing degrees and weren’t writing professionals, and just had jobs and were marginalized people coming from complicated backgrounds that are not represented in mass media or mainstream sci-fi. So we sent out a call for submissions and what happened is that we got a lot of weird bad stuff, like exactly what we didn’t want.
T: So people who totally missed the point of what it was you were trying to curate?
E: On the basis of us saying sci-fi and having our own meaning and them hearing sci-fi and having a whole other meaning.
T: So do you feel like you are establishing a complete alternative definition of sci-fi?
E: Not necessarily on purpose, and not to be like “fuck your old sci-fi.” We were just like man, this is how we do it. If you wanna do it how we do it here—submit, we are gonna make a zine.
T: Did you feel like you discovered an even greater distance or rift from mainstream sci-fi, or mainstream definitions of sci-fi than you imagined there was to begin with?
E: I don’t know if that happened. What did happen was that we made our zine and we talked about sci-fi being political for us. We deliberately didn’t take stories that were typical sci-fi stories that you could see in the movies or on a tv show. The four of us—me, Alex Smith, Rasheedah Phillips, and Ras Mashramani—coming from all different social circles across the city, when we started to do readings, it was like the DIY punks showed up, the afrofuturists showed up, the anarchist prison abolitionists showed up, the trans nerds showed up, everybody who had a relationship to us showed up and some of them didn’t give a fuck about sci-fi and some of them really liked sci-fi and were coming from a tradition of knowing all the classics. A lot of people would hear us read and come to us after like “whoa …I didn’t think science fiction could do that. I didn’t think it could make me think this way or feel this way.” It blew our minds. We were just writing our stories and putting them out there and—this is brand new? That’s frustrating and sort of immediately put us at odds with the sci-fi establishment, yet connected us to previous narratives of resistance that have always existed.
T: How do you see politics figuring in specifically in your writing? Do you have a particular political agenda that you’re writing from? Or is it more a matter of telling your own story and that being inherently political because of who you are and what you represent?
E: I have definitely written some pieces that were angry criticisms. One of them is in the in the Style of Attack Report of ours that we just put out called “Gentry.” That is a loose speculative future rant about the city getting erased. I originally wrote it for our second zine about space invaders—about the force of gentrification and what community means. I was really mad at the time. So I’m white passing and mixed race from a working class family, and I found myself surrounded by lots of people in who I found intellectual peers or queer community. Almost all of them were transplants and I started to realize that a lot of them were from upper class backgrounds, or they were very invested in whiteness and they were very ignorant to art and culture and action scenes in Philadelphia, because those things were Black and they had no connection to Black culture in Philadelphia, which is a majority Black city. So the Gentry piece is like, “Fuck you motherfucker, you don’t pay attention to shit. You come here and you act like you know shit but you don’t know shit.” There’s other work that I write that’s I guess less overt. The thing that I’m working on right now is essentially a cyberpunk anime series from the context of being a poor kid in the city and not having resources. So they are cyborgs but they are not hot military badasses—they’re kind of broken and they have chronic pain and they are just doing these jobs, otherwise they’d be super sick in a very sick, chemically toxic environment because they are poor and that’s their condition. Which I guess aren’t themes in current science fiction.
T: I think you often don’t realize the scope of how different something you’re doing is or how underrepresented it is until you start doing it, and have created a point of comparison or something tangible to measure it against. Tell me a little bit about language, because I know that’s something you are very conscious of. Being from Philadelphia, trying to use certain colloquialisms or speech patterns to represent particular populations.
E: I really am a fan of writing like how I talk and how I hear people. I also have a bone to pick with literature or the academic establishment, or simply class and society that privileges a very particular type of English and particular type of grammar and conduct. Which I find to be psychically violent and in ways physically violent. If you walk up into a group of college educated people who are all about theory and stuff like that and you’re not coming from that background, but you have your own personal experiences to speak from and you try to talk to these people…they don’t listen to you because you aren’t using the same words and you can’t even fucking understand them because…what is “fascism”? What is “kleptocracy”?
T: It’s a language barrier used to silence people’s voices.
E: I think it’s classist, I think it’s elitist…I just have a lot of experience watching so-called “ignorant” people have their knowledge get passed over for “legitimized” knowledge because somebody’s got a degree and somebody doesn’t. Meek Mill, who is a Philly rapper, said on his Instagram one time how he doesn’t care about writing or speaking “American English” cause America was never meant to be for him anyway. It’s similar to how I feel. The language I use in my stories—the dialogue and the narration—it’s happened a couple times that I read at an art gallery and someone asked me after like, what did I base the scenarios and the accents from. Like a white person who, to me, comes off as well-educated and suburban and middle/upper class, and it makes me be like, fuck, I gotta be so deliberate contextualizing my shit in these places as a white-passing person—like did you just think I made this up out of nowhere for “art” or something? No, this is how I fucking talk—it’s how the people who raised me talk and it’s from where I’m from. And it’s a very deliberate decision to put that into my narrative style and story telling, because I love how Philly sounds and I’m not ready to see it disappear yet.
T: How does your wealth of knowledge of science fiction and your eye towards writing speculative fiction influence your perspective of media and of contemporary politics? I guess I’m referencing how people love to talk about Orwell, for example. Like to credit George Orwell with predicting our society today with 1984. Do you see science fiction and speculative fiction as being more prescient than other types of fiction or having a predictive nature?
E: Science fiction is definitely predictive. I also believe that what you put into words and put out there—when you write something down, you fix a moment into time for another person to see. So to me it’s like spells, it’s like real witchcraft, it’s real sorcery when you put something down as a volume or a story and pass it on. So for a lot of sci-fi that’s out there like Orwell or William Gibson’s Neuromancer, there’s a lot of cyberpunk that’s written by straight white men specifically that people are like “oh my god, its coming true…” Phillip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, all these guys people are really hung up on. But the other thing is that tech companies and the military are hung up on them, too. It’s not like these authors predicted stuff and it magically came true. They wrote what they saw might be possible. They were speculating from their perspectives. They wrote down their perspectives and put it out there at a time when all these things were just possibilities. Those stories didn’t just get into the hands of like, upstart kids in the ‘burbs or wherever the fuck you may be. They also got into the hands of the Pentagon, military intelligence, people who grew up to be social media data analysts and city planners, people that believe in the might of the United States empire and the right to violence and all these types of things. My critique lately is that there is a big sort of re-focus on science fiction to look for answers, especially now after Trump. All these big-money industries have been holding round-ups and panels to look for the next big hell to make real.
T: Well, I guess really in a way science fiction just takes things that are already in place or are in their inception and just follows them through to their logical conclusion. So it’s not surprising that it seems to be predictive.
E: And the additional issue and the concern of that technique is that as marginalized people writing science fiction, our narratives—and this is across the board, with all media—is that media by people who aren’t ideal citizens of a white supremacist society, our stories are not considered important or relatable. Our stories are even considered upsetting and dangerous. There’s a wealth of knowledge that people are kept from and that’s pretty tragic to me. What if we had popular stories by poor women available? What if more gay Black women’s work was considered as great as those fucking misogynist gonzo writers? What if trans women of color didn’t have to organize on their own to be published at all? Would the current state of things still be going the way it is?
T: How do you feel about the Trump election and what’s happening politically in the U.S. in the context of science fiction? Do you feel like we have arrived in this sort of dystopian terror state?
E: Yeah, the thing that concerned me several years ago was that, when I got on tumblr for example and started looking up cyberpunk, it was still 80’s ideas of the future. Green text on a black screen, white girls with cyberfall dreads. All this imagery and it's 2009, 2010. Why is this still there and coming into now? People are just sort of celebrating the dystopian aesthetic. It normalizes it in a way, and makes people apathetic. Meanwhile there’s groups organizing against what will no doubt be like a fascist police state. I find it in my interest to try to conjure up stories that see past this dystopia, that make something else out of the world.
T: You mentioned earlier working on writing something that you had started after the election results.
E: The All That’s Left zine that some of my fans might know I’m turning into a book, which has been a long long long process. It’s about these four marginalized people who have cyberized themselves because they don’t have any choice, living in a dystopian world where the state is dissolved and corporate gated community type places exist for the people who have the resources to stay in them. And mostly the environment is really fucked by fracking and there is no regard for nature and wild life, which draws from current events like the Dakota Access Pipeline. My writing All That’s Left is to process feeling distraught and despondent about this dystopia now. Speculative fiction can be a technique to make one’s current situation understandable to people who aren’t in it. It’s a complex longform method of communication I don’t think you can have just by talking normally or reading the news. So I’ve been writing this thing where it’s really about intimacy between people in these bad dismal oppressive situations, and I’ve been questioning myself lately because in my stories there’s no outs. Still it’s sort of the long hard years after the fall of the empire. It’s hard to figure out what I could write that could be hopeful even just for myself.
T: Do you have anything upcoming that you’re going to be putting out?
E: Well there’s the METROPOLARITY book, Style of Attack Report and you can get it at metropolarity.net. I’m out in the Procyon Science Fiction Anthology 2016—this is a sleeper hit—I got a story in there called “About a Woman and A Kid”. My colleague of METROPOLARITY Ras Mashramani is in it, too, so the whole crew is officially published as of this year. In the spring I think I’m going to be in another anthology of trans and gender nonconforming/nonbinary science fiction as well. And the crew just released a free counter propaganda poster in three sizes for classroom use and home decorating, here.
Find Eighteen online everywhere at @cyborgmemoirs
You can find/buy Shedding zine and Stickers for Cyborgs at https://cyborgmemoirs.bigcartel.com/