Asking and answering a "what if" question is a time-tested springboard for science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. Where it isn't the impetus, it still comes up, inevitably: something in this fictional world differs from the world we know, and an honest story acknowledges what else those differences might alter, what gravity they might exert, what transformations they might wreak.
Walidah Imarisha, who co-edited the anthology of "visionary fiction" Octavia's Brood (named for Octavia Butler) speaks of the revolutionary potential of such what-ifs in articles and interviews with titles like "Rewriting the Future" and "Demanding the Impossible." In a much-shared comparison, she states that "all organizing is science fiction," and praises the ability of imaginative genres to "imagine possibilities outside of what exists today" and escape—at least in mind, and perhaps in action—the limits of the unjust familiar.
While Imarisha and co-editor adrienne maree brown resist "utopian" as a label for the stories they feature, this question of imagining the impossible into possibility brings us to The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future, which contains fiction, essays, poetry, interviews, and comics and other visual forms. Editors Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff come out swinging with that subtitle, and their introduction hints at why: "[C]aring for today and tomorrow are intertwined," they write. "To build this future"—one that would be better, in multiple ways, for women—"we must imagine it first" (p. 7). Explaining why many of the individual writings in this anthology have a narrow focus rather than providing "a blueprint for a single cohesive utopia", they add, "Reimagining society piece by piece is the only way we could grapple with the seismic shift necessary to usher in a full-bodied utopia" (p. 8).
This too is a familiar problem, for writers and activists alike: looking at the world, it may seem that you need to change everything, but "everything" is not something you can change: you have to change this thing, that thing, these things. Envisioned changes from the American present (the introduction refers to, and most of the entries are responsive to, U.S. politics, economics and sociality) that recur throughout the anthology include lives whose aspects of work, care, sustenance and pleasure, and indeed the present division of public and private, are more fluid and intertwined; a response to aggression or harm done that returns some measure of power to the harmed person or people, and is more communitarian than authoritarian or punitive; a celebratory recognition of human variation of body and mind, and a removal of the stigmas that currently attend many of those variations. Many entries feature a wide and deep socioeconomic safety net, often governmentally provided, which ranges from universal basic income (explained and extrapolated in a well-developed overview by Madeline Schwartz) to childcare subsidies for both relatives and neighbors (illustrated in a gentle fiction of community by Victoria Law) and free education for doctors (as part of a near-future proposal by William Schlesinger for making health care more accessible and more responsive to more people's realities and histories).
I'm not going to fuss about the mechanics of the paths to these visions, since the editors did not demand them, though I did wince when Katie J.M. Baker referred cheerily to a "revolution and subsequent purge" (p. 44) in a story whose idea (about young girls as language innovators and arbiters) was better and more radical than (as it were) its execution. I will say that looking at what an invented world keeps the same, or what a manifesto leaves unsaid, can be as revealing as what it offers that is new. And many of these visions are not all that wild: that is, their reimagining is not radical, does not go deep, to the root. Many of them retain for-profit business and hierarchical power structures; there's comparatively little reimagining of how people inhabit space and buildings, where and how they eat, what they drink and breathe. These topics are drastically, intimately feminist. The ability to raise a child at low risk of developing asthma or cancer is as important as the ability to choose whether or not to give birth to a child. Concepts of coercion and consent apply to who lives where, and to the foods and the poisons that enter their bodies there: "We don't access the fact that structural inequality runs so deep some communities cannot even consent to the quality of the air they breathe," Doreen St. Felix says, and in the same roundtable discussion on sexual violence Brenton Stokes adds, "We can see genocide as the rape of a culture or deforestation as the rape of the land." Visions of a world both more sustainable and more sustaining, a broader definition of who and what needs justice, a wider consideration of systems other than social ones, seem not only compatible with but essential to a project that emphasizes the thriving of women.
Having just complained about visions that weren't sweeping enough, I may seem petty for also demanding more detail, but especially in the fictions included here, I craved more particularity—or particularity as one path to full realization, to the imaginability of the world. Entries that shone in this regard were Hannah Giorgis's "Not on My Block: Envisioning a World Without Street Harassment", which evokes the texture of a neighborhood through which a woman moves warmly, freely, safely, and Justine Wu's "Reproductive Supporters," which places changes in applications of technology hand-in-hand with changes in social practice around sex and conception. Veronica Bayetti Flores's "Embroidering Revolution" seems small-scale but shows how much would have to change to make that smallness rich and real. This reflects a truth that the editors explicitly recognize, and that the best work in this anthology takes into account: "Answering any one of these questions requires major cultural upheavals" (p. 9).
Answering these questions in writing that satisfies, intrigues, and provides "food for your creative feminist imagination" (p. 6) is hard in its own way. s.e. smith's half-story, half-essay on gender, labor, ability and wellness, "An Unremarkable Bar on an Unremarkable Night," demonstrates well what was both exciting and frustrating about many of these authors' attempts to do so. Three friends leave their weekly anarchofeminist book club for a restaurant, where we see the ways their various practical and social needs are met, both in the scene and outside of it: "When she moved into her own apartment, an ample government grant helped Friend A," a woman who uses a power chair, respirator and communication board, "while she got settled and found work doing what she loves: mapmaking and sociological cartography" (p. 234). I wanted to know about the maps Friend A makes; I wanted to know more about Friend A, period. But because of the way smith has structured the piece (and possibly because of space constraints), we know her, Friend B and Friend C almost exclusively through their categories and fulfilled needs. They're like the Rich Man and the Poor Man in a parable. They have identity, but no being. This made "An Unremarkable Bar on an Unremarkable Night," and many other pieces in the anthology, frustrating to me even when—as with this story—I was drawn to what I did see of the worlds they depicted, and desire even now to see them in existence.
Part of the challenge for these writers, I think, is that any one of their topics or themes—even when they made a deliberate choice to spend time with a slice or facet of something larger and more complex—could sustain a novel, a series of articles, a book of poems, or a body of legal precedent. The text-only entries are short—between one and eleven pages—and, unfortunately, few of the visual contributions have comparable depth or nuance to the prose or poems (an exception is Yumi Sakagawa's precise and haunting "Seven Rituals from the Feminist Utopia: Prebirth to Postdeath"). A noticeable number of contributors, including Katie J.M. Baker, Maya Dusenbery, Jenny Trout, Jasmine Giuliani and Julie Zeilinger, have chosen forms that purport to be official documents (dispatches, classified files, journalism), creating formal wormholes to make the future into the past and the transformation of their chosen aspects world a done deal.
Maybe the greatest contrast to these are the interviews with people approached because of their work in the past and present to bring about change. In these, I was struck by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy's version of where utopia is: "It would be nice if this utopia would burst through and make itself known" (p. 225), she said, and again and more pointedly, "The utopia won't exist because you won't let it" (p. 229). To me, a vision of utopia as a state of being that wants to emerge, to flow forth—something to stop obstructing, rather than something that people must laboriously and collaboratively build—is tremendously unusual and radical, though in sober consideration I believe that both visions are true and indeed interdependent. The futures, the presents, I found myself most drawn to, most yearning for—even when they didn't meet those previously stated strictures of breadth and particularity, even when part of my mind was chiming, "But how?"—were the ones that prioritized a sense of full, expansive being. "An overwhelming sense of safety and communal support will be her default" Janet Mock writes in "A Free Girl is Everything" (p. 328). And Mia McKenzie, interviewed by one of the editors, said, "Getting free means accessing our full humanity" (p. 280)—a world in which pain and shame don't constantly renew themselves, so that we can "focus on the beauty of our stories, just the telling of them, just the sharing of them, just the healing and the joy and all the things that come with sharing stories" (p. 279). Whatever we have to do to get to there, that's what I want us to do.
- In this context, it's worth noting that Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Mia McKenzie and Janet Mock are all Black trans and/or queer women.[return]
Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry: The Soft Place, How We Saved the City, The Bounty: Four Addresses, and TOWN. Her 11th chapbook, Someone Is Here, just appeared with Projective Industries. She lives in Providence, RI, where she teaches writing, coruns the Publicly Complex Reading Series, and offers Climate Anxiety Counseling.