From thrilling time travel by Octavia Butler to Andrew Lawlor’s gender exploration, artists and writers from the Barbican’s New Suns feminist literary festival pick the reads that inspire them
In 1984, a small feminist publisher called Sheba Press published Audre Lorde’s famous mythical biography Zami in the UK. The same year, they brought Lorde over for a talk at the first International Feminist Book Fair – a talk that London-based curator and publisher Sarah Shin found out about when she was publishing Lorde's collected prose and poetry under the title Your Silence Will Not Protect You back in 2017. Shin recognised that there was not an equivalent feminist literary event in the UK today, so decided to create one – with a specific focus on innovative feminist publishing and myth-making. 2017 being the year that Trump was sworn in and #metoo happened added another layer of urgency; Shin wanted to create a generative feminist space, rather than one that reacted to misogny.
New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival, in partnership with the Barbican, first took place in 2018. As a day of talks, film screenings and workshops, it invited us to ask how technofeminism, storytelling, sonic ritual, gender identity, reproductive justice and indigenous knowledge intertwine. This weekend it returns, with a focus on feminist approaches to technology and an incredible line up of events such as a Modern Tarot workshop with queer writer Michelle Tea, a panel featuring artists Victoria Sin and Sophia Al-Maria discussing post-patriarchal futures, a screening of Lynn Hershman Leeson's cult film Conceiving Ada starring Tilda Swinton and Karen Black, a Barbara Hammer tribute, and a bunch of feminist book stands.
To celebrate the return of the festival, we asked five of the people involved to choose their favourite feminist sci-fi reads.
SARAH SHIN, CURATOR: URSULA K. LE GUIN’S THE CARRIER BAG THEORY OF FICTION
“My inspiration for this year’s programme came from sci-fi luminary Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. The artists and writers Sophia Al-Maria and Victoria Sin have been thinking with The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction for a while now (see their work on this in Jefferson Hack's current exhibition Transformer: The Rebirth of Wonder), and will be at the festival discussing how Le Guin’s notion of the story as a device for telling strangely realistic fictions informs their own approaches to challenging dominant myths of linear progress and apocalypticism.
In the essay, Le Guin draws on Elizabeth Fisher’s Carrier Bag theory of human evolution to suggest that prior to sticks, swords and the hero’s killing tools, our ancestors’ greatest invention was the container: the basket of wild oats, the medicine bundle, the net made of your own hair, the home, the shrine, the place that contains whatever is sacred. The recipient, the holder, the story. The bag of stars. Le Guin’s redefinition of the story as cultural technology in this way goes against the grain of dominant, patriarchal narratives of technology. And we are in urgent need of new stories in this current moment of political confusion and ecological emergency, which finds itself in uncomfortable proximity to a point of self-destruction. As the screw turns, the urgency of the question posed by all of Le Guin’s work as identified by Margaret Atwood – ‘what sort of world do you want to live in?’ – resounds strongly.”
Sarah Shin is the founder of New Suns and among the co-founders of Silver Press and Ignota Books
ZADIE XA, ARTIST: OCTAVIA BUTLER’S KINDRED
“I love Kindred by Octavia Butler because it thrills and terrifies me. Perhaps more speculative fiction than sci fi, the novel includes elements of fantasy and time travel. The story is told from the perspective of Dana, an African American writer living in mid 70s California who is suddenly and forcibly pulled back into time, landing in the antebellum south. Dragged back and forth between her present day reality and the nightmares of a pre civil war plantation, Dana must adapt to her harsh environment and secure her return to her rightful place in time.
As a young girl growing up in Vancouver I reflected often on Canada’s colonial legacy. I imagined my life in early settler communities and fantasised about time travel, drawn initially into distorted romantic notions of the past along with a morbid and fearful curiosity for the repercussions awaiting someone like me. Kindred invites readers to seriously contemplate, how would one’s current understanding of colonial legacy, present day education and experience prepare oneself for such a journey? How would you cope if without warning your body was forcefully thrust through time. What kind of person would you choose to become in order to endure this new life? What would you do to protect yourself and if possible, others?”
Zadie Xa is a London-based artist who works across performance, video, painting and textiles, to explore the overlapping and conflation of cultures that inform self-conceptualized identities and notions of self. She will be screening her work at New Suns
SO MAYER, WRITER AND ACTIVIST: JEWELLE GOMEZ’S THE GILDA STORIES
“How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, asks NK Jemisin in the title of her recent short story collection. The brilliant Octavia Butler provided many profound answers, and keeping her company was Jewelle Gomez. Her diamantine novel The Gilda Stories traces Black lesbian community from the antebellum South to technodystopian 2050, via Gilda, who escapes slavery and becomes a vampire. Meeting other queer Black, Indigenous and Latinx 'sisters in the life', Gilda develops both her compelling ethics and her swoonsome butch style, determined to survive racism, sexism, homophobia and climate crisis by loving others. A forthcoming TV adaptation by director Cheryl Dunye means Gilda’s story is – as it has been since 1991 – our near-future.”
So Mayer is a writer, activist and film curator who has programmed Cyberfeminisms on Film as part of New Suns at the Barbican
SOPHIE LEWIS, AUTHOR: ANDREA LAWLOR’S PAUL TAKES THE FORM OF A MORTAL GIRL
“I shall nominate Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, although it's not usually considered sci-fi. Paul is about a deliciously promiscuous gender-mutant who can remodel his body at will, and in this respect Lawlor's novel is very similar to Orlando, which Virginia Woolf wrote ninety years prior, about a shape-shifter across the bounds of binary sex (Orlando also time-travels). Both texts qualify as science or speculative fiction in my view, because they disregard presumed anatomical constraints on human experience, and thereby defamilarise the world we think we live in. Hurray for the non-binary picaresque!”
Sophie Lewis is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019), and works as a writer and translator. Her essays can be found in The New Inquiry, Boston Review, and The New York Times. She'll be speaking on the panel Radical Kinship: Care, Identity and Reproduction with Reni Eddo-Lodge, Merve Emre, Sophie Lewis and Nat Raha
IRENOSEN ISEGHOHI-OKOJIE, AUTHOR: OCTAVIA BUTLER’S WILD SEED
“My most inspirational feminist sci-fi book is Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. It is the story of Doro and Anyanwu, two immortal beings whose journeys traverse Africa, Egypt and the new world. Doro inhabits and discards human bodies at will, creating seed colonies in West Africa to breed people with psychic abilities. Anyanwu is a gifted black female shape shifter. Their paths cross and a tumultuous relationship across the ages begins. Wild Seed is an exploration of a woman’s power, gender dynamics, race, Africa versus the west. The audaciousness of Butler’s vision to render black pasts and futures with such ingenuity, verve and imagination remains a tremendous achievement.”
Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian British author who has been featured in the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian and the BBC. Her short story collection, Nudibranch will be published by Little Brown’s Dialogue Books in November 2019. At New Suns, she'll be speaking with Victoria Sin, Sophia Al-Maria and Tai Shani on the panel The Bag of Stars: Storytelling and Technology
New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival takes place at the Barbican October 5, with a bookfair and day of talks, workshops, and screenings that explore contemporary feminism and technology