Resistance Writers Interview Series: Bao Phi

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As societies around the world dip their toes in authoritarianism, we’d like to elevate authors of speculative fiction who imagine alternatives or help us demand the impossible futures of our dreams. In the Resistance Writers interview series, we’ll hear from a handful of writers from the 2015 anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Each writer elaborates on sources of inspiration and how activism informs their work. Our hope is to provide a source of guidance for aspiring writers of visionary fiction.

How did you get involved with the Octavia’s Brood project? How did the editors, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, discover your work?

I have been a spoken word artist for a couple of decades, and Walidah and I had crossed paths in that community. She’s a very accomplished spoken word poet; she’s part of a duo along with Turiya Autry called Good Sista/Bad Sista. I had heard many good things about adrienne maree brown but we had not worked together before Octavia’s Brood.

What was your inspiration for “Revolution Shuffle?” Was it a piece you were already developing or did it come about once you were asked to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology?

It was something that I was turning around in the back of my head. Just an idea, you know? I had been reading a lot of zombie and other post-apocalyptic fiction and wondered for a while what a story would be like coming from a Vietnamese American, or Asian American, experience. But it was just an idea. I probably would never have written it down or worked on it if not for Octavia’s Brood. I’m thankful to Walidah and adrienne for the opportunity.

“Revolution Shuffle” was one of my favorite stories from Octavia’s Brood. It’s ending was so powerful and made for an excellent introduction to the anthology. You’re primarily a poet and have put out little prose. Can we expect more fiction from you in the future?

That’s very kind of you! Especially since, coming into it as a poet with very little prose experience, I initially turned down the offer because I felt like I didn’t have the chops. I tried to extend this short story into a full-length novel, and it was a disaster. From time to time, I think about going back to those pages and doing a huge overhaul of it to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. No pun intended.

What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you think politically motivated fiction can play in today’s climate?

I’ve loved sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, legends, and comic books since I was an adolescent refugee growing up in an economically poor neighborhood in Minneapolis. I think there’s potential in such things to help people understand the present, as well as imagine what a future could look like, for better or worse. In simple terms, fiction can be a place where you can work out ideas, examine humanity and imagine collective movements. You can be critical and creative. I don’t know what impact OB has had, but I know I’m honored to be included.

In the current climate the United States is in, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists?

No one is born a perfect activist or artist. It all takes work. All of it is a process. As a young person I was a knucklehead, I was egotistical, and not willing to do a deep dive into my own contradictions and complicity in systems of harm. I was fortunate to encounter at least some people with the patience and wisdom to nudge me, to be invested in my development.

In my opinion, I think it’s important to find your people. To find the people who will support you and who you can support. Who will push back when you’re being stupid and who you can challenge, who you can disagree with respectfully, and who you can grow with. I think the best thing we can do is resist both the idea of a perfect activist and also move away from “hero” activism — where it’s about putting a couple of people up on a pedestal or something. As others smarter than me have pointed out, we need to get away from the idea of scarcity — where we’re fighting each other over scraps, where we’re stuck in rigid ideas of hierarchy regarding struggle and oppression, where we commodify “wokeness” and allyship.

What kinds of fiction or what particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind?

I really admire Octavia Butler, Victor LaValle, Gene Yang, Jose Saramago, Stephen King, Gloria Naylor, and Emily St. John Mandel. As well as comic series’ like Saga and The Walking Dead. The list goes on and on. I read a wide variety of different authors for different reasons. Regarding my own attempts, usually it’s a combination of scenario and character. For example, with “Revolution Shuffle,” it was both the world that popped into my head and these two specific characters inhabiting it. Who are they? What made them? How do they react, and why?

What are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively?

Honestly, I’m doing my best as a single co-parent with a full-time job, while managing my writing career to stay alive and be a good dad. As I get older and my life changes, I’m continually wondering if there are different ways I can contribute meaningfully to the various movements I believe in. I might not be able to make every single meeting or every protest. But that’s not the only way to make a difference. And of course, others before me and along with me are asking these same questions.

A two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, Bao Phi has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry, featured in the live performances and taping of the blockbuster diasporic Vietnamese variety show Paris By Night 114: Tôi Là Người Việt Nam, and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology. His poems and essays are widely published in numerous publications including Screaming Monkeys and Spoken Word Revolution Redux. He has also released several CDs of his poetry, such as Refugeography and The Nguyens EP. A short story of his, Revolution Shuffle, appeared in the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Stories from Social Justice Movements, AK Press, 2015, and an essay of his was included in the anthology A Good Time for the Truth, edited by Sun Yung Shin, Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Originally published at FrictionLit

Associate Editor, F(r)iction —

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