We Need the Alternate Realities Living Inside Girls of Color from Brooklyn

Jeff VanderMeer & Chana Porter discuss the Octavia Project

One of the highlights of my summer was getting to visit the Octavia Project in Brooklyn, New York, and getting a chance to meet the students and talk to the founders of this unique program for 13–18 year-old girls from Brooklyn. Named after Octavia Butler, the Octavia Project uses girls’ passion in science fiction, fantasy, fan-fiction, and gaming to teach them skills in science, technology, art, and writing, equipping them with skills to dream and build new futures for themselves and their communities.

Their mission statement notes that “Workshops tap into emotional connection and personal expression while building 21st century skills. Art and writing workshops integrate science and tech, focusing on creativity, innovation, communication, and critical thinking, while exploring programming, engineering, and digital and media literacy.”

I had time to catch up with Chana Porter, co-founder of the Octavia Project, during this summer’s session, and asked her some questions about the program. Porter is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. Her plays and performance pieces have been developed or produced at Cloud City, 3LD, Rattlestick Playwright’s Theatre, Cherry Lane, The Invisible Dog, Primary Stages, Movement Research, PS122, and The White Bear in London. She is currently writing a series of science fiction novels, Post Human Classics. Up Next: Phantasmagoria, Let Us Seek Death! at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club October 20th-November 6th.

Jeff VanderMeer: How are science and science fiction related, in your opinion?

Chana Porter: At every point in history, we collectively agree to the rules of our world, both social and scientific. Science fiction gives the writer permission to think outside of the assumptions of our given reality. “What If?” conjures another possibility into being, like the creation of a parallel universe. What if the world were different? What if our essential agreements around “This is the way things have always been” were shifted, corroded, exploded, remade?

Science fiction can also be a beautiful way to get people interested in science. Octavia Butler says that her writing brought with it an interest in astronomy. Additionally, her Xenogenesis trilogy is enriched by principles of genetics and biology. The rules of wizardry in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea are developed around physical principles of matter and energy. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti takes the ancient astronomical tool the astrolabe and turns it into a powerful device connected to mind and body. Compelling science fiction stories start with science we are familiar with, and then extend into science that is alien, unfamiliar, or not yet possible. For some people, especially young people, these stories can be gateways into fields of scientific/sociological study they didn’t know existed.

VanderMeer: How do you use science fiction as part of the Octavia Project?

Porter: Meghan McNamara, a science teacher and dear friend, saw the opportunity to teach science and tech skills through SF/F writing workshops I was leading with teen girls. Over the course of the month at the Octavia Project, teen girls from Brooklyn write SF/F stories that are enriched by interdisciplinary projects. A SF story is transformed into a text-based computer game. The girls learn simple coding while building the game based around their story. The computer game is a branching narrative, and this changes the way the author has been thinking about her story. So she keeps writing, incorporating the new ideas she gleaned from the computer game project.

The next day, a professional woman architect comes to teach the basics of 3-D modeling. The girl builds a cityscape from her imaginary world. Then we take it back to the page. Building her city has changed the way she thinks about her story. Every project is connected back to storytelling at the Octavia Project. The girl designs clothes and tools from her world, then uses basic circuitry and principles of electrical engineering to create wearable electronics based on her design. This causes her to think about how tools function in her story. She takes it back to the page.

This summer our theme at the Octavia Project is “200 Years in the Future” — we chose this theme for a few reasons. First, it pushes our participants to think about what they want their futures and the futures of their communities to look like. We’re asking them a question “What do you want the future to be like?” and then we’re helping them build the skills to create the answer. While most people agree that scientific discoveries can make the world a better place to live in, we created the Octavia Project to help address the imbalance around who gets to benefit from current and future technologies.

While most people agree that scientific discoveries can make the world a better place to live in, we created the Octavia Project to help address the imbalance around who gets to benefit from current and future technologies.

Along with our theme, this summer we’re learning about the evolution of life on Earth. We are looking at how plants and animals have evolved to where they are today, and then we’re imagining what these plants and animals might be like hundreds of years from now. We’re asking how has life on Earth changed and what conditions or events have made it change.

Courtesy of Octavia Project

VanderMeer: What draws you personally to science fiction and what are some of your favorite stories or novels?

Porter: I was 19 years old when I discovered Octavia Butler in a library. I had already read most of the major guys, Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein. I picked up Dawn because I liked the sound of her name. Dawn exploded my assumptions. It asked, what if the essential things about our human identities were changed: how we meet, mate, breed, and co-habitat? Octavia’s exploration of intimacy and human sexuality through human-alien symbiotic relationships gave me permission to think about the malleable nature of identity. I got older and found Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Rachel Pollack, China Miéville, Marge Piercy, Dorothy Byrant. Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Victor Lavalle, Ann Leckie, Monica Byrne. Their “What ifs” allow me to think more expansively, critically, and creatively about our current moment.

VanderMeer: How does storytelling in the fictional realm help in conveying nonfictional information or weaving a narrative related to nonfiction?

Porter: Last summer, we showed a video of Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag. The touchstone of the conversation that followed was Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. The cultural phenomenon of this series had given us a way to talk about media representation, protest, and the power of symbols that we could connect to Bree Newsome’s bold direct action. It was an amazing tool to talk about a charged current event.

We use SF/F at the Octavia Project as a means to question the assumptions of our current reality. We ask, what if your world didn’t have prisons? How would people solve their problems and keep each other safe? How are children raised in your imaginary society? How does the community rally around its most vulnerable citizens? Through SF/F, we are able to talk about disability, about race, about queerness, about gender roles and expectations, all the while growing complex and divergent possibilities for our future on this planet.

We ask, what if your world didn’t have prisons? How would people solve their problems and keep each other safe? How are children raised in your imaginary society? How does the community rally around its most vulnerable citizens?

VanderMeer: Is there anything you’d like to add about the Octavia Project that’s relevant to the future of science fiction?

Porter: I’ve been a playwright for a dozen years. Three years ago, I started writing a SF novel and was struck by how much personal discipline it takes to see that process all the way through. I’m privileged to have a wide, supportive network rooting for my success and loads of education. And it’s still so hard.

Until young women are given the space and support to commit their words to the page, their would-be novels will permanently languish in the purgatory of good ideas. And our world will be poorer for it.

If we truly believe in the radical, transformational power of science fiction, we need to make sure that people from underserved communities, often bearing the brunt of the disparity in our country, are given the space and support to unleash their visions and their voices on our world.

Because we desperately need their visions of alternative futures if the world is going to change for the better. We need the alternate realities living inside girls of color from Brooklyn.

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