Walidah Imarisha on why she uses storytelling as part of her political organizing practice, how narratives frame social ideas, and how shifting narratives might bring about social change. She speaks about how narrative frames self-conception, as the stories we have access to shape our understanding of ourselves, our culture and our world. Her collaborative writing workshops involve creating space for people to change these ideas, to unlock what they think might be possible for the future.
Melanie Crean: I wanted to start out with, In terms of your own practice, why do you work with narrative? It seems like not just something that you create, but that you also use as tool.
Walidah Imarisha: I think that stories are the only thing that can create cultural shifts. I think, like the writer Jeff Chang said, cultural shifts are the shifts from which all other change happens. He talks about how political change is the last manifestation of change. It takes the longest to change systems of oppression. But first, before any of that can happen, there has to be cultural change, cultural shift. And for that, people have to change how they are understanding their world, and understanding the possibilities for that world.
For my co-editor Adrienne and I, that was the founding question for our book Octavia’s Brood, how do we create spaces that support people to begin to shift how they think about the future? Doing that necessitates also changing how people think about the present.
In my own personal work, I’ve always been engaged in different forms of storytelling. My first book and my first writing life was as a spoken word artist and a poet. To me poetry is a fundamentally important way of shifting people’s frames, because it connects emotionally.
As an educator, I also include poetry and storytelling in what the students are studying. In a class I taught a class on race and the history of prisons, we read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, and Ruthie Gilmores The Golden Gulag. We also read The Prisoner's Wife by Asha Bendelle, and we talk about her with the same academic rigor as we talked about the more academic and scholarly pieces. What are the arguments that Asha is making though her narrative? Because she is being as thoughtful and as intellectual complex as these other pieces. So the difference is not the content or level of engagement, it’s also form.
MC: The stories that we tell ourselves, and the stories that we tell others are not just how we understand, but how we portray that understanding of the world. Do you try to shift the nature of creative forms, or do you try to come up with new ones? Or, do you work within traditional story structures to change how people think? I’m thinking about the types of heroes you might portray, and the conflicts they might encounter, like the Angel from your story in Octavia’s Brood. In some ways it’s a classical story, but in other ways it’s not at all. How are you working with traditional structure, and in other ways, how are you reconfiguring that structure?
WI: It depends on what the work is. My book Angels with Dirty Faces; Three Stories of Crime, Prison and Redemption, focuses on talking about both the prison industrial complex, and our ideas of what crime is, as well as what do we do when serious harm happens, through three people’s stories: myself, my adopted brother Kakameah, who is incarcerated in California, and James MacElroy, who was one of the leaders of the Westies, the Irish mob who ran Hell’s Kitchen from the 60’s to the 80’s.
I believe in prison abolition. I believe that prisons make use less safe as a society. I think prisons perpetuate everything that is awful about the carceral mentality. The focus on punishment and retribution, rather than focus on accountability, in a way that would promote healing of individuals as well as the collective community.
To speak to your earlier point, I realized before we can really talk about alternatives to incarceration, we have to challenge the embedded frames about who is incarcerated. And this concept that folks who are incarcerated are less than human. Like Angela Davis talks about: the idea that though prisons shape every aspect of our lives, we’re told not to think about them. That as long as we are good people and don’t do bad things, we don’t ever have to think about prison and we don’t ever have to think about people who are incarcerated there. They are people who have done bad things, and are therefore no longer worthy of consideration as human beings.
I am someone who, since I was 15 years old, has engaged in learning from people who are incarcerated. I think it’s really important to frame my process of education like that. Because I think there is a specific narrative told about people who are incarcerated by people on the outside who want to help, that often disempowers and infantilizes folks who are in prison, as being passive victims, as people who didn’t know any better. All of these very white liberal frames, that I think perpetuate this narrative of hero. In this white liberal framework, there is a hero, and it’s the white liberal, who is coming to save these disempowered incarcerated brown people who have no agency or power.
For me, it was incredibly important to disrupt that. Because I would not be the person I am, my politics would not be what they are, and I realize that the movements I am involved in for social justice would not be what they are without the leadership of people who are incarcerated. I wanted very much to show that framework, and to not come in as an expert, which was why it was important to tell stories. I included my own story. Originally that wasn’t my plan, but as I progressed, I felt like I needed to include my story to be honest about my subjectivity, because I believe objectivity is a fallacy. We can’t be objective, the best we can really hope for is to be honest and accountable.
MC: Why do you use narrative strategies in your organizing? And why do you use them in the workshops you do, like when you were creating Octavia’s Brood, editing an anthology of other people’s stories?
WI: The stories we have access to shape our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our culture, and again, what is possible for the future. I think those stories have been very tightly controlled and reined in for that reason, which I think is related to conversations happening around prisons. Some folks talk about prisons as an economic issue, that the reason we have this huge rise in prisons, is because there are private prisons and corporations that are profiting from incarceration.
Ruthie Gilmore and other brilliant people point out that for prisons, that can’t be the answer. There isn’t enough economic value being made to justify the prison industrial complex. She and Angela Davis and others say that it’s incredibly important to recognize that the primary function of prisons is social control; the control, containment and exploitation of potentially rebellious communities. That really the economic aspect is because we live in a white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, capitalist society where anything can and will be monetized. But that’s not the primary goal of prisons. Prisons would continue to function as they are even if they made no money, because of the necessity of controlling potentially rebellious communities in an incredibly unequal, oppressive, hierarchical society.
I think that controlling the scope and style and the content of the stories that are told is a method of social control, and is a method of maintaining the current hierarchical structure. So, telling and creating stories that disrupt or subvert that mainstream narrative is revolutionary and also absolutely necessary for liberation to happen.
Ursula Le Guin had a quote in her National Book Award speech in 2014 where she said something like, we live under capitalism, it’s power seems pervasive, but so did the divine right of kings. Any system created by humans can be changed by humans. She goes on to say that that’s why artists and writers are so important, because they’re the first ones to say, but what else is possible? And to question everything we’re told is unquestionable.
That was the foundation of Octavia’s Brood. Asking the question, how do we build a more just society? And realizing first that we have to de-colonize our imagination, to recognize that a new just society is even possible. Doing prison abolition work, I talk to people about abolition and they think it’s a complete fantasy. They say, there’s no way our society could ever exist without prison. Erasing the fact that prison is a pretty new development, and that there are societies that are moving toward existing without prisons. But, the facts don’t matter if we can’t imagine and conceptualize it.
There was a great scholarly article called Loot or Find, Fact or Frame about Hurricane Katrina that was about radically coded frames. They said that frame trumps fact, which is now an even more ironic phrase. That if we don’t address the built-in frame that society has given us around an issue that says, these are the parameters, this is how you look at this issue; people will distort facts to make them fit. Or, they will completely disregard and dismiss facts. We have to get to that frame, before people can say, let me consider this. I believe that if facts are not the thing that will shift the cultural frame, that stories are the thing that will shift the frame. That and the ability to have connection and emotional vulnerability with another human being is what will shift cultural frames. It is very difficult to think of a person as a monster when you hear about and feel the experiences of their childhood, when you hear about and see them grappling with remorse about what they’ve done, and what’s been done to them.
One of the ways that connection happens is through stories, where you get to see the entire character laid bare. In the best of stories, where you see their complexities, their mistakes, you see their human fallibilities, you see their desires, their intentions and their loves. And you connect emotionally with those complexities, because that’s what a human being is, that’s what a human being does. When we are able to actually tell real stories that show the humanity of people in all of its imperfections, sometimes in all of its atrocities, but also in all of its immense beauty, to me that’s what will change the world.