An Interview with Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan

Accessing the FutureDjibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan co-editors of the new anthology Accessing the Future, were kind enough to stop by today to chat about their work. I’ll start things off as I usually do by shamelessly cribbing from their bios…

Djibril al-Ayad is the nom de guerre of an academic historian and futurist who has been editing speculative fiction for a decade, reading it for two, and writing it for three. He is the editor of The Future Fire magazine, and the owner of Publishing.

Kathryn Allan is an Independent Scholar of science fiction and disability studies (specializing in cyberpunk, feminist SF, and SF TV & film), Editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013), and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. She writes for both academic and fan audiences and has been published in such places as The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 7: Shattering Ableist Narratives (Ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft) and Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Eds. David Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta Niu). She blogs and tweets as BleedingChrome.

ACW: Welcome! First off, let’s talk a bit about Accessing the Future. Where did the idea for the anthology originate, and how did the project come together?

Kathryn Allan: Thank you for having us! I first pitched the idea for a disability-themed anthology to Djibril because I was tired of seeing terrible, stereotypical depictions of disability in the SF I was reading and watching. Djibril had previously invited me to be a reader and associate editor for The Future Fire, so we already had an understanding of our general likes and politics when it comes to SF. Once I read the wonderful We See a Different Frontier (which Djibril co-edited with Fabio Fernandes), I knew that the timing was right to make my pitch. Happily, Djibril was on board and we both dove right into writing up our call for submissions and planning the crowdfunding campaign. It was amazing to see how our collaboration shaped the focus of Accessing the Future—I brought in my disability experience and scholarship to the table, and Djibril brought in his dedication to boosting intersectional stories from international authors. In the end, our Indiegogo campaign raised $8,300!

ACW: What was your process like for putting together the anthology? You had an open call for submissions, but were any of the stories solicited in advance? How did you go about selecting the stories and creating a balance in terms of theme, tone, etc.?

Djibril al-Ayad: We were very clear from the start that we didn’t want to commission or solicit any stories—partly because we wanted people to bring themselves forward as interested in the theme, and didn’t want to prejudge that; we wanted authors from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible, especially people whom we wouldn’t have known about in advance. And of course, we prefer not directly to solicit stories when we can’t make any promises about including them. Instead we made sure we got the word out as widely as possible, both in the usual SF circles, and in specifically activist, queer, feminist, international and disability-focused fora, to be sure of receiving stories from the full spectrum of backgrounds, themes, styles and areas. What made it possible to select as balanced and inclusive a table of contents as we did was the fact that when we had shortlisted all of the stories that we both absolutely loved, that we were willing to go to the wall for, we still had more than twice as many as we had room for in the volume. So we picked stories that included a good mix of physical disability, anxiety, chronic illness, deafness, autism; happy stories and sad stories; light hearted stories and fierce stories; adventures and dystopias. By the time we’d agonized over the last few pieces to include, I think we ended up with the best selection of stories and artworks we possibly could have.

ACW: I agree! On a somewhat related note, you both come from academic backgrounds, did that factor into the creation of the anthology at all? Kathryn, your academic work specifically is focused on disability in science fiction, so I’m sure you must have had some strong feelings about helpful narratives versus harmful ones, and the kinds of stories you wanted to see. Were there any particular gaps in the literature that’s out there that you hoped to fill with the stories in this anthology?

KA: My academic background—having completed a PhD (on the vulnerable body in feminist post-cyberpunk SF) while dealing with chronic illness—definitely factored into my desire to see an anthology like Accessing the Future come into being. I read and watched so many SF narratives where a person with a disability, if they are even in the story in any significant way, are simply cured by technology, or, even worse, disability is completely absent from the future (because of genetic engineering or other such technological interventions). I really wanted to see stories where people with disabilities get to be the hero as they are; where they get to be active participants in their medical care; where disability isn’t some sort of awful, tragic thing. I so wanted to see stories about the future that include people with disabilities in realistic and complex ways because we do exist and our experiences, hopes, fears, and dreams for the future matter.

DaA: My own scholarship hasn’t really fed into my editing directly (except through giving me the discipline and eye for detail to treat texts seriously). Perhaps surprisingly the movement has been in the other direction: involvement with socially conscious SFF and literary movements has enriched my understanding of postcolonial history, feminist informatics, disability and other access issues in conferences and classrooms. Academia is several years behind the SF convention on the subject of codes of conduct, for example.

ACW: Djibril, you co-edit The Future Fire, and you’ve also co-edited several other anthologies prior to this one. Is your process more or less the same across projects, or does it change each time? Was there anything different or surprising about working on this project you hadn’t encountered in your other editorial projects?

DaA: In a sense the process is very similar every time: we divide up stories to filter out the obvious non-fits, then rank favourites, and shortlist all the stories that we both love, as I said earlier. With the magazine it’s a little bit different, because individual editors can to an extent make decisions by fiat, although in practice 90% of stories we publish are seen and discussed by at least 2 or 3 people. But even with the anthologies, as I’ve had a different co-editor each time (now on the 4th), the actual process of making up our minds can vary quite a lot. In one case we had to discuss quite a lot what our criteria were, but when it came to discussions of quality, we were almost spookily in agreement; another editor was so passionate about shortlisting stories that that part was very easy, it was drawing up the final table of content that took a bit of strategic decision-making and sacrifice. With Kathryn, in contrast, we both had so many ideas and such different perspectives that we had some real fights!

KA: Friendly fights, I should add!

DaA: Absolutely, yes! We weren’t squabbling; we were both just so passionate about these stories. I think we both learned a lot from hearing about why the other loved a story that we were at first cool about, and I know I learned a lot about disability politics from talking over a few stories that were very good fiction otherwise, but not quite appropriate for this venue for that reason. I expect the experience with the next anthology to be different again…

ACW: To switch away from writing and editing a little bit, what pastimes do you turn to when you need to recharge your creative batteries?

KA: I really love gardening and just sitting outside watching the birds and bees. When I’m able to get out and garden, it creates a contemplative mental space—I’ve done some of my best thinking while pulling weeds! Otherwise, honestly, I’m usually just consuming more SF.

DaA: Heh, editing speculative fiction magazines and anthologies is actually my down-time… Reading and writing about SF is how I unwind and recharge from teaching and grading papers; but to some degree vice versa as well—I unwind from reading and editing hundred of stories by going to overseas conferences and teaching workshops on new media, digital publishing or archaeology.

ACW: Last, but not least, now that Accessing the Future is out in the world, what other projects do you have coming up, or that you’re currently working on, that you’d like people to know about?

DaA: From the TFF perspective we currently have an open call for stories for an anthology titled Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, which aims to bring together horror and wonder from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Near East—especially including authors from the region, and microfiction in languages other than English. This year we’re also celebrating the tenth anniversary of The Future Fire, and hope soon to announce details of a fundraiser and a celebratory anthology.

KA: I have an essay in Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein’s forthcoming Letters to Tiptree anthology (from Twelfth Planet Press) that I’m super excited about. Coming out of my Le Guin Feminist SF fellowship research, I’m working on an academic essay on disability in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. And my big on-going project is a writing a book on disability studies and science fiction.

ACW: Thanks for stopping by! I’ve been reading my way through Accessing the Future  this week, and I have to say, it’s a very strong anthology. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

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