assassinating infinity: an interview with metropolarity
throughout his gothic futurism treatise the future-casting grand magus of wild style, rammellzee, calls for an assassination of infinity as it is conventionally comprehended. “All formations of word knowledge are constructed under the symbolic thoughts of the infinity sign… The present infinity sign and the symbol x: this symbol must be separated from the present infinity sign by Ikonoklast panzerism. The only way is to go into the structure on paper or space or dimensions of art of paper. wild stylism: ‘A so-called’ element of graffiti is base-derived from Gothic text subconsciously. The futurism is Panzerism design a subconscious development.” my interpretation of this idea is an urge to voices that have not been included in the narrative of speculative fiction to subvert time in ways where they can create their own (hi)stories. the lack of a space where these voices could be heard catapulted afrofuturism into existence.
the term afrofuturism appeared in the seminal essay by mark dery back to the future: interviews with samuel r. delany, greg tate and, tricia rose. in the introductory text to the interviews dery compares the african american experience to the one lived by an alien abductee: “they inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done; and technology is too often brought to bear on black bodies (branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and tasers come readily to mind).” the writers he interviews are pioneers of african american speculative fiction. they have provided subsequent generations of writers a blueprint from which to continue the navigation of speculative fiction. the genre keeps morphing into relevant narratives exploring cultural and personal experiences connected to different social and racial contexts.
metropolarity clearly illustrates the many ways one can meaningfully move forward this crucial conversation right now. the philadelphia-based afrofuturist collective is formed by four poc and queer individuals that came together through shared interests and points of view. all of them have prolific writing practices while consecutively managing to be deeply committed and active members of their community.while researching their work I have been tremendously inspired by the ways they integrate their social, professional and creative lives. two of them have jobs directly connected with serving the community. ras mashramani does social work with system-involved youth. rasheedah phillips is the managing attorney for the landlord-tenant housing unit of community legal services of philadelphia. she is also the founder of afrofuturist affair; with her partner camae ayewa she runs black quantum futurism, which is the 2016 fellow for socially engaged art at a blade of grass.
alex smith founded the queer-empowered laser life sci-fi reading series. he frequently publishes zines and has recently contributed a short story to a tribute anthology celebrating samuel r. delany. eighteen performs and writes all that’s left, “an episodic post-binary dystopian cyborg anime type jawn” and is the leeway 2015 transformation award grantee. later this month eighteen, along with ras, has some work in the procyon press 2016 sci-fi anthology.
a couple of years ago i found their herald (below) on the internet and signed up for their newsletter, which i am always thrilled to find in my inbox. it always arrives full of great reads and information from the thirdspaceplaces they create. earlier this spring i found myself in philly so i asked them if they would meet me for an interview. as would be expected, given their prolific lives, it was impossible to meet with all of them. but i did manage to get ras and eighteen together, after their work day, in their neighborhood for a conversation. we covered a lot of territory including how the collective came together, what experiences brought them to write sci-fi and their lives in philly.faustini: i understand all members of metropolarity are writers. are any of you visual artists as well?
RAS MASHRAMANI: No. Alex, Eighteen, Rasheedah, and Camae (who’s Rasheedah’s partner and is often involved in a lot of the work Metropolarity does) and Alex’s partner, all do sound work around science fiction themes. But we’re mostly science fiction writers.
faustini: it seems like there’s a big afrofuturist community here in philly. has it been happening for a while?
RAS MASHRAMANI: Philadelphia has a long history of Afrofuturists, like Samuel Delany has been teaching, or had been teaching here. I don’t know if he still lives here. I know he also lived in New York, or at least has a daughter in New York and just retired from Temple.
faustini: and sun ra?
RAS MASHRAMANI: Sun Ra had been here for a while, and we also have King Britt whom is from here and still performs here.
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faustini: how did you guys come together to form the collective?
EIGHTEEN: In 2012 was when we bought our domain for our URL and were officially formed.
RAS MASHRAMANI: We met during Occupy Philly, I met a bunch of people downtown, and also just all around Philadelphia, who were working on similar economic and racial justice issues in Philadelphia. And through a friend who I had met at Occupy. I had been telling them about my interest in science fiction and stuff like that. And they introduced me to Eighteen.
We marched in a parade together in West Philadelphia. That was cute. We started talking, and then Eighteen and Alex, the other member, had been curating, or putting on, a queer science fiction reading night called Laser Life. And Eighteen had read there.
EIGHTEEN: I was on this anarchist bookstore listserv and there was a call, “Do you write science fiction? Are you queer? Sign up. Like, holler at me.” It was Alex. I was like, I guess I fit under that thing. So we met separately.
RAS MASHRAMANI: And I had met Rasheedah Phillips a while before that, just in the DIY music scene.
faustini: what kind of music do you guys make?
RAS MASHRAMANI: I don’t make any music, but Moor Mother, or Camae, Rasheedah’s partner, had been curating another— and still is curating, this DIY weirdo music night called ROCKERS, that kind of brought a lot of people in Philadelphia together from different backgrounds. ROCKERS is an autonomous community space. It had been at another place called the Tritone for years and years and years. And that’s where me and Rasheedah met and we became friends. We started talking about the kind of books we like and how we were both writers and we were both interested in the same musicians. I had been feeling kind of alienated, because I couldn’t find a place to get my work— I couldn’t find a community of people who were working class and/or of color, and who also wrote. I feel like I was writing stuff and submitting it to places that were not people I related to. They were young people who had gone to college for writing, and now were exploring this genre, like internet literature. It was very ironic and very dry.
EIGHTEEN: And very like teen nostalgia…
RAS MASHRAMANI: It was just vacuous. I like that stuff, too. I like pop culture, but…
They’re called the Alt Lit movement or whatever. I had submitted to some of those blogs and to some of those websites. Me and one of the writers had created an erotic Tumblr together. It’s called Down. It was cool because it kind of introduced me to kind of a DIY vibe, in a way. These people felt like their work was too cutting, too irreverent for the traditional literary magazines. I think I felt all of that before it came out and I was just like, “I’m going to write about sexual violence, I’m going to write about living in America, and I’m going to write about things that are making all these men, specifically, uncomfortable.” So I went to a reading and— I got invited to a couple readings through this group and I went to one in Brooklyn and I read. I just read some graphic stuff. And they didn’t really know how to take it. I mean, because I’m a really good writer. [laughter]
At first, they were just talking and trying to keep it light and ironic. And I was just like, “No, you’re not. You’re going to listen.” And they did. But it just wasn’t a good fit. I wanted to write science fiction. I wanted to write more that reflected the working class life that I was living. Especially because working in social work, I see a lot of dystopian stuff in real life that’s not like a genre. It’s like my life and the life of the people that I work with. So coming out of Occupy, when I was just feeling very politicized, “This is what I want to write.” So we decided to come together.
EIGHTEEN: Also there were a few groups. There was Apiary Magazine. We brought together people from it.
We had like this initial meeting at this comic book store, that’s now defunct. And we said, “We’re going to make an anthology, because we all have these shared interests.” Because you (Mashramani), said “We all are here.” You brought us all together to this thing and we all do like-minded stuff. We should make an anthology of Philly, working class, pure dystopian, black, POC, queer—
RAS MASHRAMANI: Before all those words were even a thing. I think similarly, I mean, I was born in the US, but my family wasn’t. Growing up in my family I came out a little weird, because I didn’t have all of the cultural elements.
faustini: where is your family from?
RAS MASHRAMANI: Guyana.
faustini: the french guyana?
RAS MASHRAMANI: No, British. Well, it’s not British Guyana anymore, but Guyana. I just, had all these interests that were not supposed to be accessible to me; but I didn’t know that, because I’m not from here— or my family’s not from here. So no one told me I couldn’t like Star Trek or I couldn’t like these things. But that made me feel like the only people who were into these things were all these white men.
EIGHTEEN: The interesting thing to me about being like a sci-fi nerd, or us being like, “Oh, we’re sci-fi” or “Oh, I came up on anime and I haven’t read all the sci-fi classics.” Philly is my nerd community. It was always a black nerd community. I moved away from Philly in this horrible situation and was in the Boston area. And everybody there was a white nerd. It’s just a really different, weird, experience to be, “Oh, I’ve not seen this type of nerdom…” There’s silly, misogynist nerd culture everywhere, I guess.
The other thing is that in Philly, if Rasheedah was here she might talk more about it, there’s this thing called Philcon, which is the oldest science fiction convention in the world. I guess it used to take place here, but it takes places across the river in Jersey now. But it’s this old head, old guard, white male dominated science fiction institution. I don’t know anything about it. We’ve thought about tabling there a few years. There’s a guy who will come to our events that’s always like, “You guys should really come to Philcon.” And we never really do. I never knew anything about it.
But then we had this panel. The Free Library had a panel, with this organization called Geekadelphia, about the future of Philly science fiction and fantasy. And there are all these black nerd groups.
RAS MASHRAMANI: It was just this group of older white people who knew each other really well. And most of them were men, and they had two token women, who were white. I don’t even know that they knew those women that well.
I guess somebody from our family of fans or whatever — not fans, but people in our community.
EIGHTEEN: The neighbors.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Oh, yeah, neighbors. They said “how the fuck are you going to have a Philadelphia science fiction thing and not include Afrofuturist Affair or the Black Tribbles? You should have invited these people.” So Rasheedah got on the panel and we went that night, and it was just — first of all, they had her there to be talking about diversity, instead of talking about her— She has quantum theories of narrative and physics and things. She’s actually a science fiction nerd, not just a black girl who likes to say she writes science fiction. So they were trying to make her talk about diversity, and talking about it as though it was a trend.
We didn’t finish talking about like how we started, though. We intended to come together to do an anthology of Philadelphia science fiction of people’s submissions.
We wanted people who worked. Regular workers, like moms and dads and social workers and kids. We just wanted random people from Philadelphia, who live in Philadelphia, not people who went to MFAs and got a creative writing degree. Regular people who wrote, who had stories. We ended up widening the scope and moving away from that, and we ended up making zines instead.
EIGHTEEN: We got really abysmal submissions. We went and tried to promote. We had fliers and all this stuff and we went and tried to promote, and people just had the wrong idea of what we were looking for. People were sending us misogynist vampire prostitute stories.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Colonial space opera bullshit. By the same people who were looking to be published writers. So we decided to stop and rethink. And we wanted to be more of a platform for weird people. Or not even for, but just the weirdos who don’t get to write science fiction and expose them to the idea that they could, even if they weren’t already. Then finding people who were already doing it anyways. It doesn’t have to be a science fiction story; it could be a fake advertisement, it could be a poem, or it could be just an idea— I don’t know, we just wanted anything. And we got really cool submissions. Like Eighteen’s friend’s mom from high school submitted a beautiful story. And now she’s getting published.
faustini: can I still get the zine?
EIGHTEEN: Our zines are free for download on our website.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Eighteen has a really cool zine collection that they were already working on before Metropolarity. Alex has a zine called ARKDUST, which is a really cool, kind of magical realist super hero, gay super hero stuff. And Rasheedah has three books now. And a whole bunch of poetry with Camae (Moor Mother Goddess). With visuals and performance.
The biggest project we’re working on since we started, is doing zine workshops, teaching people how to make their own zines and their own stories, and we’ve organized things for conferences. Or we helped to do that. At the Allied Media Conference, we helped organize a science fiction community track that people submitted workshops to. It was a full series of workshops at this conference to learn about social justice in science fiction. We have done so many things that are more about building a community around this.
We don’t submit stuff, we just do our own thing. We didn’t have the time, we didn’t have the money. We don’t know anybody. You have to know people to get published.
EIGHTEEN: We don’t have credentials to have things published. When we started, we were like, “Oh, let’s make an anthology. Oh, we’re getting crappy. Oh, well, we have some good things and our own writing; let’s just make a zine, because it’s what we can do.” And then along that whole time, we kept having readings and people from multiple scenes or social circles, and everybody started—
RAS MASHRAMANI: Started converging… in a really beautiful way. Plus people in Philadelphia were already doing really cool, magical science-fictiony stuff. I don’t know if everyone was already calling it that. But because we had these readings and these events and things like that…
faustini: you centralized things in a way.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Partly. We also got invited to things. We got support from the community and kind of gave the community an actual space to do things under that heading.
EIGHTEEN: I know that a lot of people came onto us through our Tumblr, because we knew Tumblr is an interesting incubation space. We started doing photoshoots and things like that. We had to promote ourselves.
RAS MASHRAMANI: We had to go viral. But since then, we’ve been doing more events and being asked to do things and trying to just write material so we can get it published, or working on different projects.
EIGHTEEN: And all of our lives kind of got busier since we started, too, so…
RAS MASHRAMANI: I graduated from undergrad and I work—we’re all working a lot. We go through economic stuff and get promoted or demoted or fired or go back to school and all this stuff. Rasheedah has a kid. But I was going to say that, now, I think we’re getting back into producing stuff. And we’ve produced a lot of work last year, even though we were all really busy.
EIGHTEEN: Every time we’re like, “Oh, let’s take this season off,” people are like, “Do you want to do this thing with us?” And we’re like, “Yes.”
RAS MASHRAMANI: So the big thing that we’re doing now is collaborating with Apiary Magazine, which is a community literary magazine. It’s free. It gets posted all around the city. They’re doing their first science fiction themed magazine and we’re the guest editors for it. It’s coming out in June. We’re just finishing up the editing process.
faustini: do you guys do any of the book fairs in new york or la?
EIGHTEEN: We have a zine fair.
faustini: you should do the la book fair.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Someone invited us. We didn’t have any money. Or we just needed to plan ahead a little bit better. Maybe next year. Because I am from there, so I would love to figure out a way to get out there. But I just need to plan a little bit better, because I’m going to the AMC this year and we’re going to the Rhode Island Independent Publishing Expo.
faustini: what was the extent of your interest in sci-fi growing up?
RAS MASHRAMANI: I was always really interested in horror and horror movies, like Stephen King. But also a little bit of fantasy. [laughter] I really liked— Is it called urban fantasy when it’s based in the real world. I just really liked dark things that explored psychology, dystopian kind of narratives, partly because of where I was and stuff my family went through. There’s a lot of mental illness in my family and a lot of trauma and a lot of creepy, dark things. So I think that colored what I wanted to write. I also felt strongly that I wanted to make girl-centered horror, because I felt there’s a lot of horror that was using rape as a plot point or the girl gets killed and men don’t. It was just very tired to me, after growing up watching all these movies that I loved in a lot of ways. But I thought I could write something that would scare the shit out of people, because being a girl is scary. I don’t even think a man would be able to handle the stuff that women go through just day to day. Or that a young girl goes through day to day.
EIGHTEEN: I actually got into fantasy really hard. My stepdad was always home with me, while my mom was at work. So we would just watch a lot of science TV and blockbuster movies that were dystopian. Arnold Schwarzenegger movies that are based off of Philip K. Dick books and stuff like that. And anime and not so much literature.
faustini: when you say fantasy, what books are you thinking of?
EIGHTEEN: Do you know the Dragonlance series? It’s like a super-duper ubiquitous series. This long saga of multiple books and multiple trilogies that multiple authors wrote, based off of their Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that they used to play. It’s really classic.
faustini: did you play dungeons & dragons?
EIGHTEEN: Not until I was older, and I didn’t really like it because I was like, “oh, rolling dice and fighting is so boring to me.”
RAS MASHRAMANI: But the other shit that stemmed out of. I didn’t play Dungeons & Dragons, but with AOL chatrooms you have a lot of internet fantasy. Sci-fi dystopias were interesting because in real life, I was, as a ten- or eleven-, twelve-year-old, the one setting up my computer, the one replacing my CD-ROMs and playing video games and on the internet, and making sure we had internet, even though we didn’t have no money. I was just heavily into the technology and the social world of this new idea… of the internet. And also the video games. All these things that are now here, like reality TV, cell phones, texting…
EIGHTEEN: A lot of console games, too.
RAS MASHRAMANI: These are the things that are my favorites. And I have a story about that because it affected me so much. Part of the reason why this is the lens that I choose is because I feel like it’s part of my life. I should just document the fact that as a child, I was stealing computer parts and installing them and putting them into my computer. Or my brother, during the Rodney King riots, stole a lot of video games and brought them home… and that’s how we played them, because we would’ve never been able to get them otherwise. It’s how history and technology interact.
I think that the history of technology is often told through people who were able to buy it and just have it and have supervision or not or whatever. But poor people were on the internet, too. Before Myspace there was BlackPlanet. That was one of the first social media sites in the US. And Myspace said, “We took the model from BlackPlanet, and that’s how Myspace began.” Because Myspace was often cited as one of the first social media sites. But BlackPlanet, I was on it when I was eleven, with my friends.
EIGHTEEN: And there was Xanga and shit and like Live Journal.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Black Planet had a very specific profile. But still, there were other things that were similar, before that.
faustini: for a while people were racially divided between myspace and facebook.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Divided by class, too.
EIGHTEEN: I know, I didn’t use Facebook because I didn’t have a college ID. Then when I went to college, I was like, “Oh, I get to use Facebook now.” Something that I think flavors most media and experience is the static white suburban middle class narrative of technology and having leisure to be like a fuck-up kid or all kinds of things. Everybody that I was hanging out with in the Dragon Ball Z chatroom, we were all actually unsupervised-ass blue collar kids and whatever.
faustini: you grew up in the suburbs?
EIGHTEEN: No, I grew up in the part of Philly — people call it the suburbs, who aren’t from here. But it’s the city.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Olney? Who calls Olney the suburbs?
EIGHTEEN: New people that move here. They’re like, “Oh, it’s like the suburbs out here.” And I’m like, “It’s not, but I see how you think that.”
RAS MASHRAMANI: A lot of Philadelphia is residential. We’re not going to have hipster bars everywhere.
faustini: are you seeing steady gentrification happening around here, too?
RAS MASHRAMANI: It has a weird tone, because Philadelphia is a primarily black city. It’s a working class city. I think it has a specific tone and people have a specific reaction to it.
faustini: was there some sort of recent economic boom?
RAS MASHRAMANI: I don’t know. I only know part of the politics of it, because in my other life, I do social work and I work around homelessness issues and family poverty stuff. But I think a lot of it is centered around the universities, in a lot of ways, that are pushing to develop the rest of the neighborhoods around it, so they’re not just surrounded by what they feel like is unattractive people, and it’s more like a safe community for the students and faculty.
A lot of the developers will buy housing from poor families or elders, because they know that they’re struggling with the rising taxes that they’re paying for the houses. I think West Philly has gone through a big change. Since I’ve— I’ve been here nine, ten years now. No, eleven years now.
EIGHTEEN: In Philly, a lot of the gentrifying is occurring around the universities. They go through all this land-buying and development for student housing.
RAS MASHRAMANI: And lots of policing.
faustini: are there upcoming metropolarity zine projects and workshops?
RAS MASHRAMANI: I’m thinking about a new zine, because we haven’t put out a zine in like a year. We did the zine for the New Museum. But a zine that’s open to Philadelphians, because all of the work that we take for the zines are from people in Philadelphia for the most part, who are not authors or like published authors. I want to do a call for submissions, at the end of the summer.
(metropolarity’s presentation starts at 1:07:40)
EIGHTEEN: We all have our own projects, and then we came together for Metropolarity. I think all of us were like, okay, shit, I really want to work on my own thing for a second, because I’ve been doing all this other stuff. So we’ve just sort of been working on our own things. I suspect that in a year or two, we’d be really back. Or not back, but just continuing.
RAS MASHRAMANI: So we did some zine-making workshops earlier on. We did the one at Wooden Shoe. Afrofuturist Affair does a lot of community-building work and workshops ongoing. But we just started doing Metropolarity-branded workshops in the past year.
EIGHTEEN: Our first workshops were DIY at the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore. Somebody else was doing zine making and wanted us to come along. They knew us for our zines.
RAS MASHRAMANI: Wooden Shoe, I fuck with. I mean, that’s where I get really cool science fiction. That’s where I found Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin…
faustini: who are your favorite authors and movies?
RAS MASHRAMANI: Mine? I like Ted Chiang. He does short stories, mostly. He did my favorite science fiction story, Story of Your Life, which is my favorite. I like Ursula Le Guin a lot.
EIGHTEEN: I really like Samuel Delany’s short stories. I really like a lot of anime by Katsuhiro Otomo, who did Akira. I really like the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Mostly the movie by Mamoru Oshii. I like a lot of Japanese stuff because there’s a lot of cyborg, and what does it mean to be human… And James Tiptree, who’s actually a woman.
RAS MASHRAMANI: The last thing I watched— ooh, I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Oh. Cloverfield Lane. It is the sequel to Cloverfield. And it’s about kind of the end of the world situation. And The VVitch. Have you seen that?
faustini: i did. what did you think?
RAS MASHRAMANI: I love that movie. It was so creepy. I saw a lot of female viciousness that I felt was pretty fun. She’s a teenager, right? The whole thing that goes on when you’re a teenager, I feel like it was true. When you’re a girl, you’re always under suspicion. As soon as you start growing titties, it’s like, you’re the villain, automatically. I don’t empathize that much with colonialists but it was like, “Yo, I came from Europe in a family with fifty people, settled in the wilderness and then I got cast out of my community, into the wilderness? That’s terrifying. That’s a horror story. I thought that was really good. I thought this is very realistic. I never thought about the Puritans very much. I would also say growing up Christian and just having the Bible and reading Revelations made me obsessed with the apocalypse. I used to save it for like when I was feeling brave.
EIGHTEEN: True. I did get into that. I was like, “Oh, we have a Bible. I’m going to read that thing and think ‘Holy shit, Revelations.’”
RAS MASHRAMANI: I like Alan Moore’s Promethea series.
EIGHTEEN: I love Alan Moore!
RAS MASHRAMANI: I have a Promethea tattoo right now.
promethea, by alan moore and j.h. williams III
Really great post here. I can see the effort and time you put into this… and I love the approach you took to lay it all out.