INTERVIEW: Some Thoughts on Post-Colonialism and Politics in SF with Djibril al-Ayad, Editor of “The Future Fire” Magazine

Djibril al-Ayad is general editor of The Future Fire, an online magazine of social-political speculative fiction. In the past, TFF published themed issues on Feminist SF and Queer SF, and two guest-edited, themed anthologies are currently in development: Outlaw Bodies, themed around trans, queer and disability issues with a cyberpunk flavor, edited by Lori Selke; and We See a Different Frontier, which will publish colonialism-themed stories from outside of the white, anglo, first-world perspective, edited by this interviewer (which was missing from this site in the past few months mostly due to this project).

The story of We See a Different Frontier is already too long to be told in an introduction to an interview. To learn more about it, I strongly recommend you read:

I decided to interview Djibril not just because of the project, but for all the great job The Future Fire has been doing tackling *ticklish subjects*, in the words of Slavoj Zizek: the outsider, the perceived minorities, the voiceless. That was the reason I approached him in the first place to propose the abovementioned anthology. Because he cares. With you, Djibril al-Ayad:


Fabio Fernandes: First of all, Djibril al-Ayad is not your birth name. I’m not going to ask you your former name, but I’m curious to know why you chose this particular name, and what meaning (linguistic, social, political) it has in your life?

Djibril al-Ayad: Yes, “Djibril” is the nom de guerre I use in speculative fiction publishing and campaigning. I use another pseudonym as a horror/cyberpunk writer and a third (almost my original name) as an active academic historian. I use three names primarily to keep my web presence distinct, for convenience, rather than trying to hide my identity or anything. (Having said that, I do prefer not to cross the streams!)

In fact “Djibril” is pretty close to being my own name; it’s a regional variant of my given name, and Ayad was the family name of my Algerian grandfather. My (French) grandmother died when my father was a small child, and her relatives took him away to be raised in a vile orphanage run by sadistic nuns rather than let his poor and foreign father keep him, so my family has no real Algerian roots, we never learned Arabic, etc., and my grandfather is long dead. In a way my reclaiming the name is a reaction against the injustice of that story, which has always made me angry, although no one else on either side of the family seems to see it that way.

FF: How the idea of creating The Future Fire came to you? And, speaking of names, how did the magazine get its name?

DA: I’ve always liked the idea of running a science fiction magazine. I grew up with this romantic image of the pulps and of xeroxed fanzines produced at home, and the idea of putting something out there full of weird fiction, surreal art, political agendas and baffling juxtapositions appealed to my love of collage and recycled scrap art. It wasn’t until I was working in digital publication myself that I realised I could actually do this, and so in 2004 I got together with a bunch of friends in Scotland, Switzerland and the USA, bought some webspace, and started writing a “manifesto” (really a call for subs).

The name was the hardest thing. Twenty years ago when I thought about putting out a 12-page xeroxed pamphlet, I was going to call it “Ya God, it’s a…” The idea was for each month’s theme to add a different word to the end of that phrase—but the juvenile humour was in the fact that yagoditsa is apparently the Russian word for “buttock”. (So clever. So glad we didn’t have the internet then.) I think The Future Fire name was more or less random, or the result of a brainstorm between the five original editors or something. It worked because of the alliteration, the dystopian connotations, and the environmental postapocalypse feel of it too. I think we all thought this was mostly going to be an Eco-SF magazine in those days.

FF: What is the spirit of the magazine? Or, if you will, its mission? What can TFF offer that other SF magazines can’t?

DA: The mission of TFF is to publish speculative fiction with strong social-political themes. As I say, we were thinking of ecological science fiction in the early days, and we were all also heavily influenced by cyberpunk, but today we explicitly invite submissions in the areas of Feminist SF, Queer/Quiltbag SF, Multicultural/Postcolonial SF, as well as any story, be it science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, surreal, absurdist or whatever, that highlights social issues of whatever kind. We still have a certain aesthetic, and we have our priorities with regard to “social-political” issues; while we emphatically don’t hold to any partisan political view in the fiction we publish, we do tend to be progressive and inclusive in our social positions. Stories that directly or indirectly address sexism and patriarchy, racism or whitewashing, homophobia or heteronormativity, transphobia, ableism, colonialism, the wealth divide, religious bigotry and/or übercapitalist exploitation, while they won’t automatically be our cup of tea, have taken a very good first step in the right direction.

There are other speculative magazines out there that encourage (or even demand) diversity, and there are other publishers with some of the same agendas and aesthetics, but I think TFF has created a niche in the particular combination of materials and genre-inclusiveness with the overtly political approach.

FF: You are going to do two guest-edited issues this year. One edited by Lori Selke (Outlaw Bodies, which has closed for submissions and is will probably be published in the middle of the second semester), and the other is We See a Different Frontier, edited by me (which hasn’t opened for subs yet). This is your first time with guest editors? Why did you decided to work with special issues edited by other people?

DA: Yes, this is the first time we’ve had guest co-editors for TFF issues, and it’s also the first time we’ve taken on anthology projects of this scale, although we’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for a while (and I have a few ideas in the back of my mind). We have run two themed issues in the past: the Feminist SF theme in TFF #19, and the Queer SF theme (with a guest preface by The Outer Alliance‘s Natania Barron) in TFF #20. I find it helps to focus the mind, to some degree, as well as focussing the stories we receive in sometimes interesting ways.

We decided to advertise for guest editors after we’d been on hiatus for almost a year in 2011, partly because new ideas for themes are always good, and it would help to have someone who had clear ideas about the issue they were proposing, helping to put the line-up together in a coherent way. The other reason was that we had an almost 100% turnaround in editorial staff (I was already the only remaining member of the original founders before the hiatus; by the end of it I was also the only remaining member of pre-hiatus staff) so it was a way to bring new blood on board. People with drive and ideas, but perhaps different backgrounds and agendas to us. We had many proposals for themes, more than I expected, and if we’d had the courage to accept more than two we could have had several excellent anthologies in the pipeline. I have no doubt we’ll do this sort of thing again in the future, just as I have no doubt that the two themes and the two guest editors (Lori Selke is editing the Outlaw Bodies issue) are subtly changing the shape and direction of the magazine.

If nothing else, they’re changing the shape of my mind. Outlaw Bodies (for which we’re just finalising the reading now after having closed to submissions at the beginning of the month) is focussing on stories about trans* and queer issues, disability and health issues, gender, technology and a cyberpunk approach to the body. This includes questions and ways of looking at fiction that are new to me, and even if we weren’t going to have a wonderful collection of fiction at the end of it (which we are) I would be so grateful to Lori for having helped me to see and to think in this way. The same is true of We See a Different Frontier—the conversations we’ve had about colonialism have opened my mind. Several people have written eye-opening guest blog posts for us in this area, almost enough for an anthology of non-fiction, to be honest: Michelle Kendall, Joyce Chng, Fábio, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Ernest Hogan among them. Perhaps my favourite lightbulb moment was when Rochita tweeted: “I think it is impossible to discuss non-western SF without considering the effects of colonialism.” This is an area which intersects with just about every other important question about speculative fiction you could ask today. (I’m also grateful to Fábio for recommending the Algerian author Mohammed Dib, who I’m ashamed to say I had never read. I am rectifying this as we speak.)

FF: Do you see different frontiers taking shape in SF today and in the near future? Do you believe we can have a real diversity happening in the field instead of a small niche composed mainly of foreign authors who live in the US and in the UK?

DA: I think there are many SFs, which is not only to say that Speculative Fiction is made up of many subgenres, and many works that transcend these genres, tick multiple boxes, or fail the eligibility criteria set up by fans or critics, but that the literature of the imaginary (I like Roz Kaveney’s catch-all term “weird shit”) is actually several literatures. There are mythical, imaginary, speculative, magical, unreal, fantastic, futuristic or frightening fiction traditions in almost every culture on earth, and when we say Speculative Fiction or “Genre” as a single tradition, we’re really talking about Anglo-American speculative fiction(s). Frontiers occur when two traditions meet, usually coming into conflict and setting up borders to keep out the Other. This is something that has happened in publishing for a long time; stories and books in speculative traditions other than the Asimovian/Gernsbackian American genre are often rejected by mainstream publishers or fans (and let’s face it, American publishing dominates the world right now). Conversely, fiction which belongs to the mainstream of literature in its culture of origin is sometimes consumed as “weird shit” of one kind or another in the West, which on the one hand is patronizing and appropriating, but on the other achieves some of what we’re looking for here: extending and diversifying Genre. We should try to avoid imposing our own (already artificial) genre boundaries on other literatures, but we should also expand our horizons by exposing ourselves to other literatures, in as many languages as we can read, or in translation.

Do I believe the sort of diversity we’re hoping to achieve with We See a Different Frontier will ever be commonplace? I don’t know. It’s hard to see the monolithic and monolingual state of the genre publishing hegemony changing very quickly, but the one thing that might change it is the breakdown of traditional publishing that is being threatened by the ease of self-publishing, especially in e-book and print-on-demand form. If the gatekeepers fall, one major barrier to the circulation of more diverse fiction falls with it, and anybody who can put their work where it can be found can enter the mainstream. As the naysayers have been crying for years, there will be problems with filtering and quality control in this area, but I believe that new and exciting models for discovering, reviewing and rewarding creativity will appear, and maybe, just maybe, what we are left with in a few years will be a very different frontier.

FF: Do you want to say anything else to our readers?

DA: First of all I’d like to reiterate what you said in the introduction, and say that we’re incredibly excited at the positive response we’ve had to the fundraiser for We See a Different Frontier, which reached its target in 2/3 of the allotted time. To me this is a clear sign that people think this anthology is necessary, and the idea that it should be professional paying is also important. That said, there’s still a couple of weeks to go before the Peerbacker closes, and we’d love to receive even more pledges in the intervening time. While we’re already in a position where we can pay pro rates for fiction and artwork, when we came up with our target of $3000 we were still thinking in terms of a magazine issue; with even more support we can extend this to a full book-length anthology, and maybe even up the pay rate. What is for sure is that all money we make from this fundraiser—and any profits from sales—will go in payment to authors and artists; we’re not going to take a penny in personal profits.

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