Regarding “Decolonizing the Imagination”

Dear friend,

Thanks for asking about the oblique statement I made on Facebook to quote…

I am terrified by the politics behind the phrase “decolonize the imagination”

in regards to this link.


To begin with let me state unequivocally that I loved Octavia Butler as an author and respect that fact that a generation of new authors have found her writing to be inspiring and her personal story heartwrenching. There is probably no better way to honor her than to put together a collection of SF writings by POC authors. I also respect the fact that Walidah Imarisha is doing good PR work for her project and finding whatever media sources available to get out the word of the project. As someone who works in publishing, I recognize the work that she is doing as uncomfortable but necessary in this early stage of the digital publishing transformation. It’ll probably work at selling many copies of the book.

Again, as a publisher of books in the conceptual neighborhood of this one, and as a life-long lover of SF I can’t help but be envious of AK Press for being associated with this project EXCEPT for the content of the book (or at least the PR) itself. Now, I have not read it so I can’t speak to the actual content, but I can speak to the political suppositions made in the boingboing article which, I assume, reflects the tenor of the introduction (ie the framing) of the book. Here is a quote that seems to get to the heart of the politics of Octavia’s Brood:

“Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always towards justice,” writes Imarisha. “We believe this space is vital for any process of decolonization, for the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is, for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

Here is where you see the difference between an Octavia Butler–who in her essay “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future” made it clear that the strong-throated assertions of politicians are to considered in the face of the unintended consequences of their solutions–and the topicality of Imarisha’s declarations around decolonization and justice. On the one hand you have an author who decries the simplicity of speaking in terms of solutions to frightful, terrifying problems and on the other hand we have a vague, programmatic. “Take this world, add decolonization to imagination, and the future is limitless.” As any lover of SF will tell you, if you assume imagination, full stop, the world is limitless. That’s the definition of the word!

The alternative, offered here, is an imagination that is colonized by some foreign, external force. If we accept Imarisha’s premise that our imagination is colonized then we are utterly without hope. Imagination, as far as I’m concerned, is the magic dust that makes every other thing possible whether it’s activism, the pursuit of knowledge, or the will to fight. To start the conversation, whether it’s about visionary fiction or changing the world, by shooting yourself in the leg vis a vis imagination is to end it pre-born, it’s a fight for voice rather than speaking with it, it’s a fight for the right to think rather than thinking.

This brings us to the topicality of the message of Octavia’s Brood. The primary coded term in use here is decolonization. It’s used three times in the quote up above and I’m left struggling to understand what it means. I understand its use in the sense of ejecting foreign occupation of one’s land. I also understand the Fanonian idea that foreign values have come to dominate here (eg North America). I do not, though, understand what the connection to those two uses of the term have to do something called decolonization and I think that this is an intentional mystification.

I think that the word decolonization, in this use and generally, is intended to evoke a militant attitude regarding existential and physical occupation without much thinking, or practicality, behind it. It seems to be used as a powerful way to say “good, but not in a white way” without, necessarily, specifically racializing the point. In the quote above the subtext is of a liberation movement that begins by an oppressed minority breaking the deep existential chains that bind without having to name that minority or the oppressor. It is, in other words, topical PR about a book, using for inspiration a woman who deserves something less crass and ham-handed than she is getting.