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Comic books like Elfquest were an inspiration to Canadian Indigenous author Daniel Heath Justice, who writes about ‘wonderworks.’ Warp Graphics/Elfquest

How stories about alternate worlds can help us imagine a better future: Don’t Call Me Resilient EP 7 transcript

Episode 7: How stories about alternate worlds can help us imagine a better future.

Episode Description: Stories are a powerful tool to resist oppressive situations. They give writers from marginalized communities a way to imagine alternate realities, and to critique the one we live in. In this episode, Vinita speaks to two storytellers who offer up wonderous “otherworlds” for Indigenous and Black people. Selwyn Seyfu Hinds is an L.A-based screenwriter who wrote for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone and is currently writing the screenplay for Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. Daniel Heath Justice is professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous literature and expressive culture at the University of British Columbia.

Transcript

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Daniel Heath Justice: I don’t see the world as a trash fire. I see the world as relatives who are under incredible strain and who are in a lot of danger. And I think thinking about the world as a trash fire, does an injustice to our relatives as well as to ourselves.

Vinita Srivastava: I know we’ve all been stressed and anxious. Being in the middle of a global pandemic this past year has felt almost apocalyptic, reminding me of themes I’ve read about in dystopian novels. There are two Americas, one where people are taking to the streets, risking their lives to protest racism and police brutality, and the other, where citizens are storming their own capital. Here in Canada, we continue to find unmarked graves of Indigenous schoolchildren. All this against the backdrop of a series of life-threatening and raging forest fires.

How are we supposed to deal with all of this? How do we find the strength to get out of bed every day? How do we find the joy in these times?

Today, I’m talking to two fiction writers who have given these questions a lot of thought. They say stories about alternate worlds can help us deal with and critique our own world.

Daniel Heath Justice is a Colorado-born member of the Cherokee Nation and the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous literature at UBC. He is the author of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, as well as the epic trilogy, The Kynship Chronicles.

Also joining us is Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. Selwyn is an L.A.-based screenwriter and producer. He has been writing comic books and screenplays for a decade, including episodes for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone. Selwyn is currently adapting the award-winning fantasy novel, Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2018. Welcome to both of you.

Selwyn Hinds: Good morning.

VS: So, Daniel, it’s been a heavy few months - or a heavy a few years - in the real world, or our wounded world, as you’ve called it. What does it mean to create a different world in these times?

DHJ: I think we need anything that will give us strength and hope. And that helps us see the world through a lens of wonder and not despair. A lot of people say, oh, the world is a trash fire. And, you know, there’s that meme that goes along with the little dog drinking coffee at the table and everything’s on fire and the little dog saying “this is fine.” I think about that image a lot. But I think for me, I don’t see the world as a trash fire. I see the world as relatives who are under incredible strain and who are in a lot of danger. And I think thinking about the world is a trash fire does an injustice to our relatives as well as to ourselves. So I think thinking about other worlds and other possibilities aren’t just about kind of fantasy possibilities, but actual other worlds that exist alongside us now. And that can hopefully help make what we’re doing mean more and maybe make a difference in the lives of those around us and not just the human lives.

VS: Oh, you’re not talking about other worlds like parallel universes, or are you talking about other worlds like other possibilities?

DHJ: I think both. I think part of it is we’re imaginative and creative people and it’s not just about the world that we’ve inherited, and it’s a really cruel and painful world that we’ve inherited. But there are so many other inheritances that we have and that we have not only the right to hold on to, but the obligation to. And whether those are worlds in a galaxy far away or otherwise histories of the past or potential futures, I think, focusing only on the here and now often focuses on a very narrow abusive here and now. But we are more than that.

VS: And Selwyn. What about you? The same question. It’s been such an intense year. What does creating these other worlds mean for you?

SH: You know, I think the artist’s job, the writer’s job, as I’ve always seen it for myself, has been about wrestling with and speaking to the state of the world conditions this last year. I would say for me it’s meant - I think Daniel used both of these words, hope and optimism. Finding those things, finding those things in the work. I have been lucky enough to be writing a show in Washington Black whose just sort of philosophical tenet is is optimism, is hope, because it’s a story of a young boy whose story whose narrative begins in a plantation in Barbados in the 19th century and goes to heights of magic realism and steampunk magic as he journeys around the world and finds his agency and finds his manhood and finds himself. And when I was pitching that show to networks, one of the phrases that I used was there’s a universality in this because there’s universality in the idea that the sun eventually rises. That night becomes dawn, and that we all identify with the journey from despair to optimism. So I think that’s been an essential part of my own work for decades. But particularly this last year, it’s been much more tangible.

VS: Daniel, a lot of people use the labels futurism or speculative fiction, but I know that you don’t love using those terms. You call these kinds of stories wonderworks. Can you explain why?

DHJ: It’s not that I don’t like them. I think they’re really important terms. But I think when we’re talking about Indigenous imaginings, they’re really limited. There’s actually really some amazing work happening in Indigenous futurism and that’s a different kind of thing. But it’s definitely looking to see Indigenous Peoples in the future and not just relegated to the past. Wonderworks for me takes up our worldviews. In so much of Western culture, the idea of animals speaking is seen as fantastical or trees having teachings to share is seen as fantastical. But in our traditions, these aren’t fantasy. These aren’t speculative. These are realities. And all peoples have language. Not all peoples are human.

VS: Wonderworks is also just a beautiful way of putting it.

DHJ: Thank you. I have to say, it originally comes from an old PBS series where they would show dramatizations of classic literature when I was a kid and it was called PBS WonderWorks and that always stuck with me. So I did something a little bit different with it. But I can’t say that I coined that. I just repurposed it.

SH: That’s super cool.

VS: If I can ask what’s your origin — what got you interested in wonderworks, Daniel, what got you started?

DHJ: I’ve always loved fantasy. I’ve always loved the world beyond the world of now. I grew up in a little mining town in Colorado and it was a hard place to hold on to dreams, and I was a very, very dreamy kid. And I was really fortunate that I had parents who indulged that. My dad was native and my mom was white and we were one of the very few mixed-race families, but very similar to other people in that working-class town. And so there were some things that were different about my family and some things that weren’t. And so there were always other worlds at play and other experiences. And I think from the very beginning, I loved telling stories. I loved thinking about other possibilities. I longed for worlds where my weirdness wasn’t seen as a deficiency and where nerdy kids like me could be heroes and not relegated to villains or sidekicks or the slaughtered ones. So, from the very beginning, I’ve always loved these things.

VS: Selwyn, I see that you’re nodding and saying, yes, can you relate to this? What got you started exploring the alternate realities?

SH: Daniel’s story resonates because I think so much of who we are is rooted in where we’re from. And for me, I was a kid who grew up in the nation of Guyana in the ‘70s. This is an environment where there’s no television, where you’re reading for your information and you’re also reading the things that are both local to the country and that come from the great external sources which for us, were the U.S., the U.K. and India. So I read a very particular mix of fantastical work as a kid. And I remember being eight years old in a school playground reading Giant X-Men Number One from Chris Claremont. That was my introduction to comic books. I was also reading a line of comics whose title I don’t remember, but they were from India and they essentially were narrative re-tellings of bits of the Hindu pantheon. So all the gods of the in the Hindu pantheon of these Homeric style stories. I think they were called ASK comics. I can’t remember, but they were extraordinarily influential to me as a kid. And I was that kid who I prefer to stay in during lunch hour in the corner of the cafeteria reading a book. And so, adapting to some of the social mores of American culture vis a vis the kids who look like us, who read, was its own sort of adventure, if you will.

VS: But you both use superhero elements in your writing. So, Daniel, I know that you created a character with rage so powerful that they can uproot trees and Selwyn, in one of yours, in the Twilight Zone episode, can see the future. What did those superpower elements allow you to do or say that you couldn’t otherwise?

SH: Some of it - a lot of it tracks back to, from my case, probably for Daniel too, that childlike imagination that we have to retain to write the things we write today. You know, I was always a kid who was running around arms spread akimbo believing I could fly. And what I’ve been able to do professionally is find the ways, spiritually and metaphorically to fly. So I think that ability to create worlds and create characters where you stretch the limits of the imagination just harkens back to those sort of childhood ambitions that I think we’ve been fortunate enough to manifest as professionals.

DHJ: Yeah, absolutely. You know what I was thinking, Selwyn, when you were talking about some of those early comic books, there was one that I was just completely enchanted by, and it was called Elfquest. And it’s these elves. There’s one group of elves who ride around on wolves. And then they encountered these elves who live in the desert and they’ve got brown skin.

SH: Mm hmm.

DHJ: And I was totally floored. I could imagine so many things, but I couldn’t really imagine elves who looked like my dad, right. And then all of a sudden, here they were. And so I think for me, like, there are all kinds of powers that make a difference. But I think there was also just the idea that there were different kinds of heroes. But also, just to be able to inhabit bodies that were not the so-called norm, but were inhabited without anxiety. As an embryonic queer kid, as a mixed-race kid who looks white. That, you know, the body was always really complicated to me, and so it wasn’t even just the big powers, like I really wanted to shoot lightning out of my fingers, like the emperor that was my kind of go-to power. But it was really the inhabiting of a body that wasn’t pathologized for its difference, that really fascinated me. And then to see it in comics and to see it in books. Tolkien, also a huge love of mine but the hobbits are described as brown-skinned. You wouldn’t know that from representations, but they are clearly little brown people and there are so many aspects of these stories that other people didn’t, they missed. I didn’t care about Aragorn. He was not interesting to me. It was the weirdos that interested me.

SH: I totally get it. I tell you, I was always a Gimli fan as a kid. Yeah, that’s a good one.

VS: Selwyn, do you have one of those superpowers, like Daniel’s shoot lightning out of his fingers?

SH: Oh, I always wanted to be a Jedi. I think that’s probably true for most near 50-year-olds. We also had Star Wars in 1977 and I always wanted to be able to use The Force. I distinctly remember staring at rocks in my backyard at eight years old, just willing them to move.

DHJ: See, I wanted the flashy powers. I wanted stuff that is very dramatic.

SH: I love it. I love it. I love it.

VS: I want to talk about The Twilight Zone, Selwyn, because first of all I love it, but you created this episode on The Twilight Zone where a mother can foresee the future and she’s able to save her Black son from being shot by the police. I saw the episode is very hopeful. And I’m wondering, was that your intention? What was your intention with this episode?

SH: Well, it was the intention of the show as a whole. The writers’ room was a whole, which was to take and the sort of larger systemic sociopolitical issues that were, and still are, rending the country and figure out how we can tell them dramatically. And really, at the core of that question, figuring out what does a Twilight Zone episode mean today. In our writers’ room, we had these boards up, just all these big topics, the gun violence or police brutality, opioid addiction, transgender. And that’s not the usual way a TV show gets written. But for us, we had to locate it in the psychology of the real issues. And I knew that I was going to write the police brutality one as soon as I walked in the room. That just was something that was personally very important to me. And then it just became a matter of, well, how do I tell the story? And people always assume that the central device in the episode, the idea of rewinding time, came from The Twilight Zone, sort of sci-fi and general paradigms. And I always tell people no it actually came from real tragic life, because the way I cracked the story was I was sitting down in front of YouTube and I think I played one video of a bad police encounter. And you know the way YouTube works. So it was one video and then another and then another and then another and then another. And then an hour later and it hits me. I was like, oh, this is just like time rewinding itself and nothing changing. And once I articulated that, I knew what the episode was from a creative conceit.

VS: It was a beautiful episode. I have to say. It’s there’s kind of a hopeful element to it, but there’s also this kind of warning in it that’s still there.

SH: On the ending there’s a deliberate ambivalence there. And it was funny, the ending was one of the most difficult parts to land. How exactly do we get out of the story? What is the right emotion? What is the right look on the actor’s face? What is the right story? I went back and forth for days on that, trying to figure that out with Jordan Peele. And I think the one we landed on was just the right note. There’s a sense of — there’s the story of branching left or right. It wasn’t realistic to sort of present an episode where the sci-fi or the magic gets this family out cleanly, but that the possibility was always there. You know, the monster still lurks within the maze both for them and for the rest of us.

VS: Daniel, you write about how wonderworks can be an antidote to despair. How important is it for you to bring a sense of hope to these types of stories?

DHJ: Hope is an interesting concept because I think hope doesn’t mean freedom from struggle. When Selwyn was talking about that ending not really resolving everything for that episode, I really feel that. I really appreciate that because I think the hope for Indigenous people, certainly for me, isn’t a presumption that things are going to be hunky-dory in the future and that all things are fine. I think it’s an idea that there is still a possibility that we are able to keep fighting. That the magic doesn’t fix everything because there are too many of us who haven’t made it here. And there are too many of us today who are not making it. But the possibilities of hope mean that there will be a time when more of us will make it and more of our lands will be restored and more of the health of our communities will be maintained. So I think when some people talk about hope, they see it as a really naive thing. But when I think of hope and the teachings I’ve gotten on hope, it’s a really practical thing. And it’s a really — sometimes it’s a really modest thing. It’s not necessarily the big transformative “everything is changed,” but it’s what gets us out of bed, it’s what gets us into those tasks that we have to do. So I think hope is vital. That hope is not naive. We brought up Tolkien already, but Tolkien talks about, in one of his early essays, some of the critiques of his work as escapist. And he said, you know, there’s a difference between — I’m paraphrasing really roughly here — but he said there’s a difference between the flight of the traitor and the flight of the captive. And that escapism isn’t a retreat from the world, it’s a movement into a place of sanctuary so you can re-engage the world stronger. And that’s how I see hope. It’s not about naive expectation that everything is going to turn out right, but it’s it’s what gives us strength to keep fighting.

SH: Mm hmm. Love that.

VS: Is it hard to do sometimes? To create this sense of hope given what is happening in our world?

SH: Writing is hard, period. And I’m not going speak for Daniel - we all have a different process. I don’t necessarily go into the story saying I’m finding hope. I may have that amongst the macro-thematic thoughts that I always ask myself before I do anything, which is what is the story about? What am I trying to do? What does it mean to me? What will it mean to the world? So there’s a box of those kinds of questions that I lay out first. And then from that we then eventually get to the hard work of building a world and then the people who populate that world. But hopefully, as you’re doing those things, your thematic goal happens organically. But then there’s a point where you do give control of the story to your characters and they’re like your kids. They grow up and they walk the path that they’re going to walk. And hopefully, in the end, when the narrative is done, it reflects the intentions that you had at the outset.

DHJ: I like that. For me, the first thing is story. And what is the story that you want to tell? And I’ve written some really dark stories that aren’t very hopeful, but it was the story that needed to be what it was. Because I get tired when I see people who are trying to drive home a particular lesson and forget the story. I can be preached at on Twitter all day long. I want to hear a story. And the story that carries lessons, I’m totally down with that. But story first. And then, after that, also those questions, whether it’s the toolbox that someone was talking about or just what the questions are that you ask. For me, I don’t ever want people who’ve experienced violence to feel hurt by my work, that’s really important for me. I don’t want any Indigenous person to step away from my work and say this did violence to us. There’s a relationship that you have not just with the work, but also with the readers and of course, you can’t write to please every reader and you don’t even try to do that. But at the end of the day, I want to do less violence with my work. And I want to make space for different kinds of readers to see themselves and their dignity in these works. I’m not particularly concerned about colonizer feelings, I’m not particularly concerned about people who make a point of causing harm. Whether they feel included, that’s not my interest. But I think the story has to carry all of that. And if it does that, well, then I think I’ve succeeded.

VS: Selwyn, you’re in L.A. working on writing the screenplay for Washington Black by award-winning novelist Esi Edugyan, a book I love, and when we talk about speculative fiction, we often talk about looking into the future. But the story re-imagines the past. And it’s about a Black boy who escaped slavery, as you talked about at the beginning, in a hot air balloon in the 1800s. So why is it important to re-imagine the past?

SH: Because that’s where we’re anchored. When you think of time and the infinite loop version of it, what’s future, what’s past, what’s present, especially as people of colour, our POV of the past, our emotional relationship with the past is so fraught. Looking backwards for us as a people is hard. And if I can write a narrative that lets us look back at the past with the same sort of wide-eyed what if magic that we do when we look at futuristic things or things that imagine a different future? I think that is some of the emotional and psychological work that I want to be able to do as a writer. So that’s a big part of my reasoning.

VS: I’m so looking forward to the series. Daniel, in your book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, you close with an inspiring quote by author Gary Hobson who wrote Keep a Fire. What does that mean? How would you like to see people keep a fire?

DHJ: I think part of it is just to bring generosity to one another. And to bring a lot of courage and hold up those stories and those storytellers whose voices maybe haven’t been given a centred space and encourage them. We have to hold up our own and help our own creatives keep those fires. And really really encourage and support and expand and train. And for allies to be reaching out and providing resources to help folks get in the door. We have a lot of allies who want to help us tell our stories when what they really need to do is help open the door so that we can tell our own stories. So I think keeping a fire is about kind of not just keeping our own fire, but helping others do that as well and centring different voices, centring different people, not having the same limited range of stories being told. And I think we’re seeing much more of that. But we need to buy those books from Black writers and from Indigenous writers and from trans writers and a whole range of writers. If we really believe in a range of representation, we need to bring our support to that and not just ask for more inclusion in Harry Potter or whatever.

VS: Selwyn, how about you? How do you keep a fire?

DHJ: Well, I think it’s unfortunately relatively easy to keep a fire because there’s so much in the world that sort of jags at my consciousness as a writer. There’s so many things that you want to engage with and even if it’s not the sort of direct on the nose engagement I’m writing about X thing in X manner you’re still influenced, motivated, inspired by and moved by real world events that you didn’t want to explore in your art. And it’s not just the negative. It’s not just the world is burning and therefore it inspires me to figure out how to become a fireman in my art. It’s also there are beautiful things. There’s a project that I’m setting up to write with because I promised my daughter when she was very young that one day I’d write a movie for her and I’m going to do that next year. Finally, after what you know, it’s been 12 years since I made that promise. So that’s as big a motivator for me as any sort of huge, systemic, pathological thing that’s motivating me to fight against it.

VS: For me, having the three of us here together was really special. And I really appreciate your time and space for this. This idea of having both of you here, two people I really admire a lot. Both of your work is really special to me. So thank you very much for agreeing to take the time out of your lives for it.

DHJ: It was wonderful. Thank you so much.

SH: You’re so welcome.

VS: That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient. Lots of hopeful and important ideas from Selwyn Hinds and Daniel Justice to think about. We’d love to hear what you’re thinking after our conversation. I’m on Twitter @WriteVinita. And don’t forget to tag our producers @ConversationCA. Use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient. If you’d like to read more about Indigenous and Black writers building other worlds, go to theconversation.com/ca. We have all kinds of information in our show notes with links to stories and research. Finally, if you liked what you heard today, please help spread the love, tell a friend about us or leave a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. It was made possible by a grant for journalism innovation from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our producer is Susana Feirrera. Our associate producer is Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our incredibly patient sound producer and our fabulous consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Lisa Varano leads audience development for The Conversation Canada and Scott White is our CEO. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water. Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until then, I’m Vinita. And please, don’t call me resilient.

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