Literature and Activism: Octavia Butler, farming and community

The inside of a polytunnel with crops growing at the end of the season.
The inside of a polytunnel with crops growing at the end of the season.
The polytunnel, Long Ashton Growers, October 2021

The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft are putting together their School of Activism programme for April 2022. More news on this to follow! In the meantime, it’s got me thinking about literature and activism.

When I say literature, I mean specifically fiction and activism. We can probably all think of non-fiction activist literature, Naomi Klein, Andreas Malm etc. But sometimes it’s less obvious that fiction can be activist too.

In fact, I think the power of fiction to engage the imagination can inspire more action than non-fiction. Non-fiction might inform us about stuff we may or may not be able to do something about. It might even attempt to tell us what to do about this stuff. (Bad fiction does this too, to be fair.) But to start acting differently we first need to start thinking differently. That means not just new thoughts but new ways of thinking. This is where fiction and now I’m thinking more specifically novels, by definition brand new material, come in.

We need an example here. So I’m going to tell you about direct action I took that had its genesis in a novel. That novel was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents.

Parable of the Talents

Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are set in the near future. Its inhabitants refer to this time as ‘the Pox’, short for apocalypse. This is a decades long period of societal and climate breakdown, and chaos.

“[I have] read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. […] I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.”

Parable of the Talents, p7

This all feels so current let’s take a moment here to remember Butler was writing 30 years ago. Wow.

The early chapters of Parable of the Talents cover a short time of relative stability during the Pox. Protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina is leading a community living largely self-sufficiently on land owned by her partner Bankole. We observe the community as they make decisions on how to provide for and protect each other.

Octavia’s Parables podcast

As I read the novel I was listening along with the Octavia’s Parables podcast. Hosts adrienne maree brown and Toshi Reagon dedicate an hour-long episode to each chapter of the Parables novels. (Since finishing these they have now moved onto Wild Seed.) In each episode brown poses questions prompted by the chapter. She and Reagon discuss what we might take from the text into our daily lives.

When discussing these early chapters of Talents, brown and Reagon focussed on the idea of community. How do we define community to make it something intentional, and useful? Who makes up your community, how many languages are spoken in your community? Do you have a medic in your community, what do you bring to your community?

In discussing Chapter 6, and the repurposing of Bankole’s family land into a communal resource, brown asked:

where is a place, or what is a resource in your life, where you could imagine moving from individual or familial ownership to a communal ownership, or a communal sense of it being an accessible resource?”

In her response, Reagon said: “I read the book Farming While Black, you know, even though I don’t think I’ll ever be a farmer, but I look at that as a way, there’s so much teaching in there about how to structure community, and localize.”

Farming and structuring community

There was so much in this for me that it has actually changed my life and lives of other people in my community so I’ll try to unpack it here.

Firstly, I thought it was a really fitting response to this book to look at moving from individualistic and family-centred perspectives towards community-based ways of thinking. Looking after number one is basically the root cause of the crises Butler observed already unfolding in the 90s. Reading the Parables novels in the 2020s is a fairly devastating experience. But rather than feeling hopeless, brown and Reagon were able to flip it and use it generatively. Their response is to thank Butler for this learning and do some rethinking to change and better deal with what we’re facing.

Secondly, I am already part of a growing co-operative and I initially thought ‘I’m already doing this’. Tick, well done me. But I quickly realised it was really only my family (and the families of other members) benefiting from the co-op. Within my community I knew there were people, including one very good friend, relying on food banks. At the same time, I had on several occasions observed surplus food from the plot going on the compost.

So my first foray into activism was taking extra from the plot and giving it to my friend. She was my community, and this food should be going in her belly not on the compost heap. I would do it for my sister, so I would do it for her.

Localising food supply

However, my covert efforts weren’t particularly effective. I was nervous and only took stuff that was obviously being wasted, which meant things were a bit past it before I took them. Stringy runner beans and dried out corn cobs anyone? No, didn’t think so. Plus I was only helping out one person, I wasn’t changing the problem of food going to waste.

So I got in touch with the local foodbank to see if they would be able to accept donations. I wasn’t sure as it would be sporadic and when it did come it would be heaps of one variety of veg. However, they were thrilled with the idea. I went back to the co-op and suggested that if there was a glut we give some to the foodbank. I volunteered to organise the donations. They thought it was a great idea too. And so, easy as that, the system was in place.

The growing co-op was set up as part of the Transition movement, i.e. transitioning away from fossil fuels. It means our veg is grown organically in the village instead trucked in from elsewhere. In this sense it is very effective. But we need to go beyond reducing our personal carbon emissions and think about climate justice and community. Sharing surplus with those most in need helps us move in this direction.

And remember, this new action all started with Parable of the Talents, Butler’s dystopian novel.

Earthseed Land Collective

While researching this post I found out about a growing co-op in the US set up in the name of Earthseed, the community in Butler’s Parables novels. More about them, their aims and practices here.

Stokes Croft Land Trust

I started this post by mentioning the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft. One of the ways PRSC is trying to resist the gentrification of Stokes Croft in Bristol (UK) is by crowdfunding to purchase the property it currently rents.

The aim is to keep it out of the hands of developers and give a secure home to PRSC, in order to benefit the community culturally and financially. If they succeed PRSC will be there forever more, making art and agitating, and they will also pay rent to their community investors. It is, as they say themselves, a “utopian vision”. Anyone can buy a share from £10 (if you live in a local postcode, £100 if not), but no-one can invest more than £35,000. They are looking to raise £272,000 and are about 70% of the way there at the time of writing.

For more information, see https://stokescroftlandtrust.org/.

Stokes Croft is the home of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective, which has always met at Café Kino.

Three utopian things bringing me joy this month

As I mentioned in my last post (the one before Rob Bryher’s article on car free cities and environmental justice), I haven’t been reading novels lately. Since admitting this, I’ve felt more able to focus on what I am currently enjoying in the world of utopia, and consciously taking pleasure from those things. This includes essays, online talks and events, and adding to my reading list for that future day when the book lust kicks in again. It’s a lesson in being led by what I enjoy. So here’s my round up of the utopian things bringing me joy this month.

1. Adding to my awesome utopian reading list

Loyal followers of the blog will know I have an awesome utopian reading list focusing on Afrofuturist, African Sci-Fi and Black Utopias. I featured it back in my inaugural blog post.

This week I’ve added the following:

Essays by Eugen Bacon

Bacon shared her essay ‘Black Lives Matter – The Rise Of Future Forms, Genres and Modes’ on twitter this week. The essay is something of a wormhole, leading to more of her own essays and a whole host of recommendations of work from other Black writers. Particularly high on my list are the New Suns and New Suns 2: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color anthologies edited by Nisi Shawl (more from Shawl below).

Octavia’s Parables

I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower in July 2019 during an extreme heatwave in Europe. I was in Prato, Italy for a conference on utopia and climate change and it was 39℃ (103℉). We were melting while we talked about climate catastrophe and apocalypse, the air conditioning failing around us. Trump was in power in America. It was all too real.

I really want to read Parable of the Talents but now we’re living through another dystopia (yes, the pandemic) I’m worried about finding it a bit much. This is where I see Octavia’s Parables stepping in.

This podcast (which I missed off my utopia and climate justice podcasts list), hosted by Toshi Reagon and adrienne maree brown, takes Parable of the Sower (season one) and Parable of the Talents (season two) one chapter at a time. I feel that in this supported way, chapter by chapter, I could read Parable of the Talents, at what is undoubtedly a pertinent time to do so. Based on brown’s key note discussion of Butler at the New Suns online literary festival, I know she has both a deep love of Octavia Butler and doula skills for guiding people through potentially traumatic experiences. So I’m going to trust in the podcast, is what I’m saying.

Prato. It was sooo hot.

2. Sitting in my PJs watching authors talk about utopia

Here’s a zero effort way to indulge in all things sci-fi and utopia. I treated myself by making time to catch up on this recorded event from February 2021, featuring Meg Elison, Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl, with Terry Bisson as moderator.

Highlights for me were:

  • Everyone being super relaxed and chatty
  • Nalo Hopkinson on the pandemic – “I didn’t want to be living in an Octavia Butler novel!” – and on the mainstream – “I’m not going to get normal anytime soon”
  • Nisi Shawl on Everfair as a utopia: “Although, Everfair, the people in it are trying to create a utopia, I think of it more as the process of utopia rather than as the goal that everyone gets to. It’s getting there that is the important thing, not having arrived”
  • Meg Elison on her upcoming utopian noir novel, The Snatch (does this mean the same in the US as in the UK?)
  • Meg, Nalo and Nisi putting Terry straight on contemporary publishing (deadlines aren’t elastic and no-one’s got an expense account)

3. Attending live online events and feeling part of something exciting

Back home in Bristol, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft have been running a three week School of Activism. One class, hosted by Invented Futures, was on ‘Speculation, Visionaries and Modern Mythologies‘. Invented Futures is a collective based at Spike Island in Bristol looking at new technology and the stories that drive the tech we invent. (That’s my interpretation of what they do anyway, I’d like to talk to them and find out more!) One of the speakers was Katie Stone of Utopian Acts, a collective I’ve collaborated with before. So I felt at home on several accounts and relished the discussion.

One text that Katie brought up was Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber. She spoke of how the book contrasts the technological knowledge of two different worlds, one hi-tech and the other seemingly primitive. Since watching the Stranger Than Fiction roundtable I was thinking I wanted to read something by Hopkinson. As usual though, I couldn’t pick which book to start with. But here was Katie talking about Midnight Robber… Is this a sign, I thought?

And do you know what, I think it was a sign. I think I’ve chosen my next book to read. I might be about to get back into reading, spending delicious quiet hours with a book, tea and quite possibly also chocolate. I’ll let you know how it goes.