radical reimaginings: books to read when you need to get shaken up

As Adrienne Maree Brown says in her recent book, Emergent Strategy, the battle for justice is a battle of the imagination. People who are striving to create or wishing for a better world need to have more expansive, and fun, and weird imaginations than those who would keep the world small and fearful. I really think imagination is like a muscle; it can be strengthened through use. Reading is one way to use your imagination, and these are a few books that showed me the world in a new way. Some of what I read clarified my beliefs and some muddied them, but all of these books made me feel intensely (sometimes even physically) estranged from the world around me in a way that stretched the limits of my imagination a little bit further. They refocused, or stretched, or distorted my vision. Hopefully, they can do the same for you.

1. Lilith’s Brood and Parable series| Octavia Butler

For the rest of my life, I think I will recommend Octavia Butler first to anyone looking for a book. All of her works are invaluable, but the combination of Lilith’s Brood  and her Parable series helped me zoom way out to see a much longer view of the future than I ever had before. Lilith’s Brood is about nuclear apocalypse, and the aliens that helps humanity survive. It’s also about the central contradiction of humanity as a species: we are both intelligent and hierarchical. With just one of those traits, we could have successfully propagated as a species. But with both, one way or another, the aliens in the book argue, we would have killed ourselves. It was inevitable.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents is also about a dystopian future wrought by climate change and capitalism, and Butler, through her main character, Lauren, puts forth a new philosophy called Earthseed. Earthseed deals with the destiny of humans as a species, and posits that humans, collectively, are still in their adolescence. The followers of Earthseed believe that the destiny of humans is “to take root among the stars;” to mature and leave Earth for the heavens.

Octavia Butler’s generations-long view of humanity was not one I had before reading these books. It can be easy to focus only on the present moment, which is, I think, characteristic of a largely capitalist and colonial sense of urgency and selfishness. In the United States, cultural hegemony encourages individualism, to look out for ourselves first; we are not encouraged to nurture our connections to our ancestors or to people who are not yet born. Butler’s approach to looking at human destiny in the long run disturbs American notions of time. It is similar in spirit to the seven generations principle/seven generations stewardship, a concept that is attributed to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples. The idea is that it is the responsibility of people today to make decisions that will result in a good world seven generations into the future.

In addition to a shifted understanding of time, her Earthseed philosophy/religion proposes a new relationship with change. In her most famous Earthseed verse, she says, “All that you touch you change / All that you change changes you / The only everlasting truth is change / God is change.” I’ve always struggled with accepting change; Octavia is helping me do it better. Earthseed also helps me undo some of the mythology that I have picked up over the years of consuming social justice media (these ideas are echoed in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which helped me connect Earthseed to real-world activism). The world is a dynamic place. Our goal, as people who want a better world, shouldn’t be to work for a utopia. It should be to guide entropy in the right direction.

(Also– Adrienne Marie Brown’s Emergent Strategy is a wonderful contemporary nonfiction companion to Butler’s fiction.)

2. The Underground Railroad | Colson Whitehead

This novel made a white man write,

The author takes to teaching and preaching. He is the social-studies teacher, with one didactic paragraph after another. The evil that Americans did to the Red Man, for example. (In point of fact, some evil ran both ways.) Can’t Whitehead assume that people know this?…This book has a point of view, maybe even an agenda: America the misbegotten and irredeemable. The country was built by slaves, with no one else contributing a lick.”

And then he goes on to say that he likes the book! To be fair, that was in the National Review. But still, if seeing a white dude’s head spin like that doesn’t make you want to read this book, well, I don’t know what will!

In all seriousness, this novel was beautifully written. The premise is a slight rewrite of history; in Whitehead’s novel, the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad that runs underneath the earth. I thought it would be a dramatic and sweeping fantasy epic that used this reimagining as its primary teaching tool, but in reality, the physical railroad itself was not as important as the horror that lived in the blunt, curt tone of the book. Colson Whitehead communicates the extreme violence and unimaginable horrors that white people inflicted on black people without gratuitous, drawn out descriptions. He makes readers understand that, to many people living with slavery as a major, public institution, slavery wasn’t extreme violence and unimaginable horror. It just was. And it pushes readers to think about what they take for granted; what institutions feel okay to us that should be unimaginably horrifying (and hopefully will be in the future)? It is a painful question to face, but it’s a question we are responsible for answering.

3. Her Body and Other Parties | Carmen Maria Machado

Unlike the other books on this list, I wasn’t hit with the full weight of an epiphany while reading Her Body and Other Parties. Instead, each story in this collection was creepy and reality-bending, and they were also all, somehow, true. At a live reading (according to a friend teehee), Machado described her work as “finding and pressing into the soft spots of reality to reveal the dark and twisted other side.” She does not disappoint. So much of this collection is about the physicality of humanness, particularly when it is made grotesque by the demands or expectations of others around us. It is a book, like The Power, full of visceral emotion. It’s hard to say too much about the actual stories without lessening their intensity, so I will just say that the dual real/not real nature of her stories is much more haunting than the ghosts that populate the pages of the book.

4. The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future | Edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

This book, the work of many feminists, is one I will return to when I feel hopeless or stuck. I know I just said that utopia isn’t possible, but this isn’t a roadmap to a better future; it is a collection of fifty-seven sparks of inspiration about what small parts of a better world might look like. I am reminded of a recent article in The New Inquiry, “Not this. More that!” by Keguro Macharia, which quotes Elizabeth Povinelli, who famously said, “‘Not this’ makes a difference even if it does not immediately produce a propositional otherwise.” Macharia connects this to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s comment during a panel at Barnard: “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, in experiments and possibilities.” This concept feels deeply important to me, particularly as a young person, in a world in which leftism + youth is frequently chalked up to naivete. And this book embodies the spirit of “not this, more that.”  It uses the word “utopia” in the loosest possible way. In the worlds conjured up by the authors of this anthology, humans still hurt each other. But they all reject something about the real world, and ask for a little bit more compassion, imagination, kindness, justice. We don’t have to have all the answers to know that our values are right and important. We just have to know that this world at large isn’t good enough. And we have to amplify the small parts of it that are.

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