This month I have for you an interview with Tory Stephens, the New England Network Weaver for Grist’s solutions lab, Fix, and the Director of Imagine 2200, Fix’s exciting new writing contest that’s currently seeking submissions.
The contest seek stories inspired by Afrofuturism, solarpunk, and futuristic writing styles that embrace Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, disabled, feminist, and queer identities and communities. Judges are looking for stories that center climate solutions and the experiences of communities impacted first and hardest by climate change, with the aim of imagining a more just and sustainable future.
The winning writer will be awarded $3,000, with the second and third-place writers receiving $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. Imagine 2200’s judge line-up is super impressive: Adrienne Maree Brown, Morgan Jerkins, and Kiese Laymon will be choosing the winning stories.
I spoke with Tory about why Grist launched this contest, the kinds of writers he hopes will submit work, and the role that climate storytelling plays in the wider discourse on climate change.
Tell us about Grist’s solutions lab, Fix. What are its goals? What’s your role there?
Fix is a relatively new program at Grist. It grew in part out of the Grist 50, our annual list of “Fixers” – up-and-coming changemakers working toward a better world for all. A few years into producing the Grist 50 list, the team (led largely by Grist’s founder, Chip Giller) started convening each new cohort of Fixers, and making more of an effort to seed connections and stay in touch with the folks who had been featured. That gave rise to a new program called Fix, which combines solutions-focused storytelling with community building and events. Our goal is to accelerate equitable climate solutions, and lead the conversation on what’s possible in addressing the climate crisis.
My job at Fix is a fun one – I’m the network weaver for New England, where Fix is piloting a regional approach to community building. And now I’m acting as the creative director for Imagine 2200, which was actually born in New England.
Imagine 2200 is Fix’s new climate-fiction contest. What inspired this contest, and what do you hope it will motivate readers to do or think?
The first idea for a work of fiction set in the year 2200, modeling a just and sustainable future, came out of an event Fix hosted in the summer of 2019. That was just before I joined the team – I was actually at the event as a participant. But we were all really excited about the idea, and it seemed like something that wasn’t yet in Grist’s or Fix’s wheelhouse, but could be. In the spring of 2020, I helped plan and produce a second community event in New England (or rather, on Zoom) that centered around a visioning exercise to workshop the idea of 2200 – what would define a “clean, green, and just future” in a time that feels so far away, and how we might get there. The ideas generated by the folks from that event laid the foundation for Imagine 2200: Climate fiction for future ancestors.
The year 2200 is so far away that it almost feels like a blank slate. (Note: Stories don’t have to be set in 2200 for our contest – they can be anywhere between now and then. But part of the idea is to remove the confines of our current predicament and let folks create a world they’d want their grandkids, or their great-great-great-grandkids to live in.) We’re hoping Imagine 2200 will inspire visions of the future that haven’t even been dreamt up yet – but that could inspire real action in the present day. And our goal with the final collection of stories is to show readers different views of the world we could have if we take decisive action against the climate crisis, again in a variety of ways. That’s part of our mission at Grist and especially at Fix: to make the story of a better world so irresistible, you want it right now.
How do you see genres like Afrofuturism and Solarpunk relating to climate fiction? What do you hope that the submissions draw from these genres?
Afrofuturism (as well as Indigenous, Latinx, disabled, feminist, and queer futures, and others) speaks to the kind of hopeful, equitable fiction we’re going for. These genres – or really, these movements – depict a future where the world isn’t set up to oppress and exclude folks from marginalized communities, but instead places them at the center, as the heroes, the creators, the leaders. The technologically advanced and ecologically sustainable society of Wakanda is a famous example.
We know that climate change doesn’t impact all people equally. The fossil fuel industry that we know today would not exist if it weren’t for society’s willingness to make some communities sacrifice zones. It’s widely accepted now that we can’t divorce the climate crisis from systemic racism – and so any serious, comprehensive solutions to climate change have to put equity at the center, and have to be informed and led by communities on the frontlines. With Imagine 2200, our goal is to show that in action, to show what happens when we value lived experience and put people first. And we’re adding a dash of hopepunk – compassion and perseverance, even in the face of what may seem like insurmountable challenges.
What role do you believe climate fiction in general, whether as part of this contest or elsewhere, can play in either the wider discourse on climate change or among “solutions” to the crisis? In other words, what power do you see as inherent in climate fiction?
I think art can be incredibly motivating. It’s society’s mirror. In some cases, that mirror is unflattering – think, like, a Black Mirror episode. Or an investigative journalism piece by Grist. That kind of work can push society or specific institutions to self-correct, or at least to question the direction we’re headed. And then in some cases, the mirror is aspirational, or creatively distorted. It inspires and changes our view of what the world could be. With climate change, there are so many variables and so much uncertainty about the future we’re going to have, and the world we’re going to leave our children’s children. That’s why I think it’s an especially rich area for fiction – both the scary kind and the hopeful kind. At Fix, obviously, we’re focusing on the latter. And the hope is that it leads to real behavior change in the present, real conversations about the way out of this crisis and the way to build a world that works for everyone.
Whose voices, either in climate fiction or the climate movement more generally, are still underrepresented? Who would you like to hear more from?
We want stories that are by and for the communities we come from, are adjacent to, and care about. Representation matters, but surface representation ain’t it. Me, my friends, family, and my community have richly layered identities, and in many instances, it’s our social and political experiences that are the drivers of our story and actions. We want climate fiction that builds deeply intersectional systems, worlds and solutions, because what’s happening right now is erasure. This is why we’re asking folk to disrupt the genre. And this is why we’re creating a platform for all the voices. We’re loudly saying that we are the authors of our own future. And we will not be erased. We need and want everyone to see themselves in this hopeful vision so we can co-create the abundance we deserve, and so we and our home can heal from the violence and extraction. That’s what it means to be a future ancestor.
What’s next for you and Fix?
Honest answer: everything! We’re a fast-growing team with a lot of big ideas. When the pandemic is fully behind us, we’re looking forward to resuming our in-person gatherings and continuously finding new ways to engage our community, and the public. We’re always experimenting on the storytelling side as well, and aiming to expand our content offerings with multimedia, interactives, fiction, and beyond. There are a million things we haven’t done – but just you wait!
(Top image by Carolina Rodríguez Fuenmayor)
This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.
2 thoughts on “An Interview with Tory Stephens”
There’s also a newer African speculative fiction genre, defined by Nnedi Okorafor. On her blog, she wrote:
“Africanfuturism is similar to Afrofuturism in the way that blacks on the continent and in the Black Diaspora are all connected by blood, spirit, history and future. The difference is that Africanfuturism is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view as it then branches into the Black Diaspora, and it does not privilege or center the West…
Africanfuturism does not HAVE to extend beyond the continent of Africa, though often it does. Its default is non-western; its default/center is African. This is distinctly different from “Afrofuturism” (The word itself was coined by Mark Dery and his definition positioned African American themes and concerns at the definition’s center. Note that in this case, I am defining “African Americans” as those who are direct descendants of the stolen and enslaved Africans of the transatlantic slave trade).”
I have since distinguished these genres over at dragonfly.eco, because I thought her definitions were important.