Can Speculative Fiction Create a Better Future?

Narrative therapist and community organizer Tiffany Sostar, on moving beyond the impossible by reading and writing science fiction

Tiffany Sostar, photo by Brianna Sharpe

Tiffany Sostar looks perfectly at home in Calgary’s Central Library; classic and edgy, they both seem to have one foot in a magical antiquity that never was, and the other in a future we can barely imagine. This is fitting considering Tiffany’s currently enrolling participants in An Unexpected Light, a 6-month, speculative fiction course that explores “possible stories at impossible times.”

A non-binary narrative therapist, community organizer, editor, and writer, Tiffany is redefining how we care for one another and create change. In honour of the second round of An Unexpected Light starting on April 2nd, I had the chance to interview this delightful chaos pixie while surrounded by millions of pages of possible futures and aspirant communities.

Me: What power do stories have? Where does that power come from?

Tiffany: Stories tell us who we are and who we can be. They tell us how we are with one another, the world, and ourselves. Their power comes from being told and retold, and taken up by different communities in different ways. They give power to an idea or a community — or even to someone who wouldn’t have had access to that power without the story.

We’re in a very individualizing and individualized time. Culturally, at least within settler cultures, we’ve become distant from how we tell stories across time. And when we do, it can be hard to tell intergenerational stories that are about anything other than intergenerational trauma.

The stories we tell can have roots that are generations back, and can help us feel less alone. Stories help us figure out what’s possible.

Photo by Brianna Sharpe

Me: How did you select the readings in your course, An Unexpected Light?

Tiffany: I really wanted to focus on speculative fiction created by people in oppressed and targeted communities. I prioritize Indigenous futures, Black futures, Queer and Trans futures, Disabled and Crip futures.

Science fiction — particularly popular science fiction — has been dominated by straight white men, so they are not very well represented in this course.

I was also looking for stories that offer possibility and hope. There’s not a huge focus on dystopias; it’s more about how we get through it, what’s possible, and what we can hold on to.

I did my best to source the textbooks directly from publishers, rather than ordering them from Amazon. When that wasn’t possible, I ordered through Shelf Life, an independent Calgary bookstore.

Me: Why is it so important that courses like An Unexpected Light are radically accessible?

Tiffany: I think the biggest thing with accessibility is thinking about who could be negatively affected by the content — and doing something to change that, or acknowledge it at the very least. I put content notes on every reading, and transcriptions on the audio and video content. The course is self-paced, with space for doing all the assignments or just what feels possible.

I’m operating under capitalism, but I want my course to be accessible to folks who are struggling. Sliding scale and scholarships are available with no questions asked.

Me: How do you harness the power of story in this course?

Tiffany: The course brings together narrative therapy practices and speculative fiction. Narrative therapy is about how we tell the story of our lives, and how we respond to problems. In narrative therapy, the person is not the problem; the problem is the problem — and the solution is rarely individual.

“All organizing is science fiction”. This quote by adrienne marie brown suggests that every time we organize for justice, we’re imagining a future that doesn’t exist yet. What if it was possible to live without prisons, racism, or white supremacy? Without ableism, patriarchy, or capitalism? That is science fiction.

Walidah Imarisha defines visionary fiction as speculative writing in any genre that helps make power structures visible while imagining new pathways towards more just futures. We need a new way to talk to (and about) each other. We need more than just little islands of people responding to these big environmental and economic and political crises. Narrative therapy lets us talk about these problems in a way that makes the future possible.

I think what we’re doing here is new and exciting; I haven’t seen narrative therapy and speculative fiction brought together like this before. But this work is not new — people have been talking about how we maintain hope and how we organize for a more just future for generations.

Photo by Joseph Goethals

Me: What does that future look like for you?

Tiffany: More justice. More liberation. More care for each other, and for our non-human relations. More care for how we make our own futures possible, and for who is hurt down the line from our “advancement.”

More joy, play, and love. More community and connection. I don’t think it’s possible to have justice or liberation without playfulness and friendship.

I saw G. Willow Wilson speak in Calgary a few years ago, and she said, “there is not always a way out, but there is always a way forward.” She was talking about how we can’t always find a way out of injustice, oppression, and hardship, and I think it’s true for climate change, patriarchy, and white supremacy, too.

When I’m despairing and overwhelmed, I hold onto that. I don’t know the answer that will lead to the end of the tunnel, but I do know there’s always a way forward.

I created this course as much for myself as for my participants. And in creating it, I did find ways forward. In one of our readings, Avery Alder writes, “There is another path forward, and reaching back through lifetimes you remember its way.” That’s been my experience in this course.

An Unexpected Light has roots in marginalized and oppressed communities responding to injustice for generations, responding to apocalyptic contexts. Colonization is an apocalypse. The transatlantic slave trade was and is an ongoing apocalypse. Ableism has created ongoing apocalypse conditions for disabled folks.

There is always an apocalypse somewhere, and that means there has always been response somewhere. We’re joining a legacy of action, and we’re also creating a legacy. We are bringing a little more light to a time that can feel pretty dark.

A small disclaimer: Tiffany has graciously given me a partial scholarship on this course, and I’ll be blogging away as we go. Tune in to my Medium profile to see what emerges! There are still some spots left — sign up RIGHT HERE.

Freelance writer, educator, community organizer, chronically caffeinated parent. She/her. @sharpe_bri

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