Telling stories: Psychoanalysis and alien invasion
In this episode Tade Thompson explores alien invasion as a metaphor for colonialism and discusses the importance of psychoanalysis and self-awareness in the building of personal and group identities.
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Chelsea Haith: How do the stories we tell shape how we think about the future, the present and the past. What is speculation for? And how might we construct better narratives for a better future?
Narrative Futures is a podcast coming to you from Futures Thinking, a research network housed in The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.
My name is Chelsea Haith, I’m a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of English, here at the University of Oxford. We’re extremely honoured to host Tade Thompson on this the final episode of Narrative Futures, and hope you enjoy our discussion of amongst other things, metaphors of alien invasion, the role of narrative in psychoanalysis and the Nommo Awards for African Speculative Fiction.
This podcast is interactive. Following the interview you’ll be treated to two writing prompts designed by novelist and creative writing tutor extraordinaire Louis Greenberg. We invite you to share your responses to these with us via email at email@example.com. We’ll share these on the blog, where you’ll also be able to find the full transcript of each episode with links to the books, writers and ideas that we discuss. As the world so radically changes we hope these conversations and ideas give you insight and inspiration to think about how else we might live and create collectively, going forward.
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Tade Thompson is the author of the award-winning Wormwood trilogy. He won the Arthur C Clarke award for the first novel in that trilogy, Rosewater. He also won a Kitschies Golden Tentacle award and the inaugural Nommo Ilube Prize for best novel. He also writes short fiction and novellas, one of which, The Murders of Molly Southbourne has been optioned for screen adaptation. In 2018 he wrote the important essay, Please stop talking about the rise of African Science Fiction, for Literary Hub. Tade is a psychiatrist and has a background in social anthropology and a voracious appetite for reading.
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Tade Thompson: What I do is I decide what I’m going to spend my time doing on a particular day at a particular time, and anything else that comes up I just don’t do. Because like everything you agree to do, when you agree to do something, you’re missing out on something else. So if I decided like I’m going to write a thousand words today, I’m going to write a thousand words in the next hour, if anything comes up for that hour, I have to say no. It’s the opportunity cost of writing those thousand words. Most of us I suppose are not… we’re not very deliberate about our time. So we kind of let things drift, and we… you know, you’d be surprised at how much time we waste allowing things to drift in that way. So, yeah, that’s… it’s time management, nothing else. And I take baby steps, but consistent baby steps. So I take… you know, so for example I’m currently writing a screenplay, which is probably going to go into a hundred and twenty, a hundred and thirty pages. I’m just doing it at three pages a day, and I’m consistently doing it at three pages a day, and at some point it will finish, but each day seems like a very little amount. It’s not stressful for me to do that, but it will get done. You know, and that’s what I do, I take lots of little steps every day.
CH: That’s really brilliant advice for any of the writers who will be listening to this. And I was wondering, as a psychiatrist by day, what role do you think narrative plays in how we think about the future. I mean, your sense of kind of incremental working towards. You know, it doesn’t feel like you’ve taken baby steps, given the huge output you’ve had in the last five years. But yeah, what do you think about in terms of narrative and kind of deciding and determining a future—both on the micro level and the individual level, and I suppose a slightly larger macro level.
TT: Well narrative is everything. I mean, I subscribe to the idea that we tell stories for the purpose of continuing a particular kind of knowledge, telling ourselves a particular kind of knowledge. I mean it’s diverting, so there’s that, but basically the very first thing we do about ourselves is we have our own personal history, and we tell our own stories, but even when we’re telling our own stories, we are already editing it. And if some… if you have an account of something, once you begin to edit it, it means that you’re foregrounding somethings and backgrounding other things, and that’s really what writing is, that’s what storytelling is.
You remove stuff that you think is extraneous to the message you want to be delivered. The stories that we tell ourselves—and this speaks to psychiatry as well—the stories that we tell ourselves are the most important. You know, the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. So, you know, as individuals we have our own personal myths, and part of my job is to see people—you could look at mental illness as personal myths gone awry. So in other words, a person who is depressed thinks, “I am worthless. Nothing I do will ever mean anything. There’s no point being alive. I am a waste of space.” You know, these are distortions of someone’s personal story, because those things aren’t really true of anybody. But they begin to believe those things, and they act accordingly. Sometimes they stop eating, sometimes they eat too much, sometimes they harm themselves, you know, sometimes they… you know, they undergo other destructive behaviour. But at the root of everything is a personal story that has become distorted, a personal history that has become distorted. It’s not to say that bad things haven’t happened to the person, and it’s not to say that there’s no possible neurochemical problem that is causing those thoughts, but primarily the way we find out about it is because of a distortion of a personal story. So the ability to narrate is extremely important to all of us.
It is one of the reasons why, you know, children are kind of natural storytellers. They’ll just tell you a story no matter what. They’ll tell you what happened at school, they’ll do all of that, and it might be unsophisticated, but they know instinctively that storytelling is how human beings pass knowledge from one generation to the next, and from one person to the next. Our ability to communicate is primary, it’s of the utmost important. And as a group, any grouping of human beings, they basically follow the same thing that the individual follows. They have a group myth: “We are X.” In other words, we say, for example, “We are doctors. So we are regulated by the General Medical Council. We belong to a Royal College, whatever our specialty is, and the Royal College kind of determines a bit our group identity.” Or, “I belong to a gang. This is our name. These are our gang signs. This is our sign that we will spray onto the wall. And this is how we identify ourselves. We operate on Tottenham Court Road. We live there, and therefore that’s our identity.” We tell ourselves these stories to bring about cohesion, and bring about a kind of unified personhood, and that’s what we do as a group. And we do the same thing as a country. We say, “This is our history. This is what defines us as a country.” And so on. And I believe if we had… if we had real extra-terrestrials, we would have an Earth identity, which we would try to promote to them. But it’s all stories, it’s all narratives. And the people with the best story—or rather, let me… I was about to say the people with the best story tend to predominate, but actually, the people who predominate tend to have the best story because they can force their story on everybody.
CH: Yeah, well it’s the story of the victor, isn’t it? The victor writes the narrative of the conquest. I’m really interested in all these ideas about personal myth and kind of national myth. I think the UK is currently suffering from a skewed view of a… [laughs] of a national myth. And I was thinking a little bit about some of the myths around Rosewater, and how that story came to you. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that, and kind of your road to investigating what a personal is and how that relates to a national myth, because Kaaro’s journey is very much kind of imbricated in both of those.
TT: Well yes, I mean the origin of all of it… I think the earliest origin of the Rosewater stories and the books and everything has to be declassified CIA documents. I’d spend a lot of time reading them, because it’s stranger than fiction, it’s fascinating, I just can’t get enough of the stupidity [laughs] of the twentieth century in particular. I just can’t get enough of the things that they did. What led me there in the first place was, you know, was the murder of Patrice Lumumba, you know, and I kind of got into a rabbit hole, and I really started investigating things to do with that particular murder. And then I just kind of went off on tangents, because that’s the kind of person I am, and I got to MK Ultra, which was a mind control experiments, MK Delta, which was the same thing, but on foreign soil. When it got to mind control, I started to wonder about that, and I looked at the test they did. They actually tested people like Uri Geller, and anybody claiming to be a psychic, they actually put them in experimental conditions and tested them to see if this actually existed. I have to say their methodology wasn’t great, but it was being done.
So I wanted to tell a story about this, but I didn’t know what it was. It was something to do with mind control or telepathy, something like that, and I started to ask myself how it would happen or how it would work. And I realised that… okay, the idea that there would be nothing in between a subject and a recipient, and vice versa, is ridiculous, and there has to be something in between them. And I kind of played around with entanglement—in the sense of quantum entanglement—but the idea is too experimental. And then I thought, okay, well what if there were something connecting them? And the idea of something connecting them came from a news report I read in 2011 about… there were these twins, there were conjoined twins, who were connected by the brain, and they could think each other’s thoughts, or they could hear each other’s thoughts. So I figured, okay, in between… if there were some connection between the brains of people, then they could hear each other’s thoughts, even if that connection were just one neuron thick, or in visible, in a sense. So I really thought… okay, how would that happen? And I realised that, for people to be connected, just the basic day-to-day stuff is going to rip the connections apart. So I needed something that would be able to torn apart and reform itself. And I thought and thought, and I thought about fungus.
You know, looking at a fungus, how the hyphae work, the fruiting bodies and the light, and I figured okay, if we had a microscopic fungus all around, everywhere in the world, that you’d be connected to, and it would disconnect occasionally, but then it would just branch out and connect again, that could work. Now, for reasons that I’m not going to go into, I was also at the time… I was interested in computer networking. Sometime in the distant past I’d actually… I’d done some… some Internet networking training and all of that, so I knew how that worked, and I used that to say, okay, fine, they would send messages to each other, like small packets to say, “This connection is open,” and all of that. But this was just ideas. I didn’t have characters and I didn’t have a setting yet. So I kind of just left the idea to, you know, to percolate a little bit more.
What then activated it was when I remembered a convicted criminal I met once, who was a thief, and he told me stories about his life, how he became a thief, how he went to prison, and all of that, and I realised that he would actually make a good character for this. You know, some modified version of him would make a good character for this, because once I thought of him in the kind of world where he would need to steal, and I realised that, okay, being telepathic would be a good skill for a person who was a thief, then the story started building from there. That’s really where it came from.
CH: It’s really beautiful. I love the characterisation in the Wormwood trilogy, because the, you know, old sci-fi is so built around the world building, and it’s so invested in, you know, explaining the science—which you do so beautifully, but without losing the characters. You know, Kaaro’s the thief, the sort of noir-esque, irreverent, irresponsible but ironically, fundamentally human protagonist. And you’ve said elsewhere that you’re more interested in characters than world building. Do you think that there’s an emerging shift towards thinking about the human element of, and sort of the human experience of narrative futures and sci-fi worlds, a shift away perhaps from the 1950s, 1960s style speculative fiction?
TT: Well, there had better be. I think, in some way, it’s held science fiction back, our… fashion with the nuts and bolts of the world, of the technology. And there’s space for all kinds of science fiction, I’d say. There are people who really love that technical, astrophysics, that mathematical, you know… there are people who really love that detail and stuff. That’s not me. I think stories are about characters. And I think science fiction is… the science-fictional world is a backdrop for characters interacting with each other. I don’t identify very well with science fiction, or even fantasy, that spends too much time on the minutiae of what’s going on in this world.
My perspective is this: if you were writing a non-science-fiction story, for example, if you were writing a story about, I don’t know, suburbia, or even, you know, people in an urban environment, you will not explaining how cars work. You wouldn’t be talking about how electricity works, because the characters don’t care. They care that when they get into the car in the morning, when they start the car, it works, and when they turn the light switch, it comes on. Nobody cares how it works, until it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t work, you get an expert. So I can’t imagine someone telling a story about the twenty-first century, like right now, and start to explain air travel. Like, “This is how air travel works.” Who cares? I don’t care. I just want to know who’s flying in the plane, you know, tell me about the people flying in the plane, and their anxieties about flying, and their… you know, their air sickness, their anxieties about legroom, the fact that the person next to them smells, or you know the fact that they can’t relax because someone is playing… someone’s you know earphones are too loud, things like that.
Those are the things I want to know. You know, I don’t want to know about lifts, I don’t want to know about drag—unless the particular story is about that, unless there’s about to be a crash, or something. But you know, I don’t like those kind of obsessions. I don’t enjoy those kind of obsessions. I enjoy people. I want to know about flawed people in interesting circumstances.
CH: Mm. I love that, the idea that it’s the circumstances that are interesting, but it’s the character’s responses to them that are the story. And I think the kinds of speculative fiction we’re seeing, nowadays, is—like, sort of since the 1980s—is richer and perhaps more popular for being engaged in the human element, and we’re 00:14:06 more engaged in the human element. I was thinking a little bit about your work having been kind of tied, or having been described as having, parallels to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Ted Chiang’s Arrival, and your own nods to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. And the title, Rosewater, and Roswell in New Mexico being like, you know, worlds apart. And I was thinking in relation to that, Oyin Da’s put downs of the British character Bellamy in the first book, and the analogies between alien invasion and colonialism, if you would speak a little bit more about that.
TT: Well, alien invasion is colonialism. I mean, there is no… to me, there is no better metaphor. That is what that metaphor is about—to me. The metaphor of alien invasion is people with evil intent and better technology arriving in your space, and trying to take over, or taking over. That’s what it is. There is no… there is no better experience of alien invasions than that of former colonies, there is no better description of abduction, of alien abduction, than that of former slaves who find themselves taken away and taken into nations where their language is despised and their very physical beings are used as markers to despise them.
You know, where their culture is erased as fast as possible. They try to make… they are made to assimilate one way or the other. I’m… I’m very… it’s very difficult for me to write about aliens and for things like colonialism or slavery not to come out, because that is what it’s a metaphor for. Otherwise, we’re just writing exciting space battles and the like, which generally leaves me cold anyway. I’m not a big fan of militaristic science fiction. I will read it, and I, you know, it’s not that I can’t watch a spectacle and enjoy the spectacle, but it doesn’t… because conquest has been a tool used against my people for centuries, because of what it has led to all of the time, I find it very difficult to enjoy militaristic science fiction.
CH: Yeah, the Robert Heinlein kind of genre of, you know, space fascism. [laughs] So when you’re talking about what you do enjoy, and kind of thinking about, you know, texts that engage with the real history of the world, when we’re in an era where we’re kind of negotiating, “Well, is colonialism actually over?”, and thinking about the kind of the proliferation of genres like indigenous futurisms, which is particularly booming in North America and in Australia, what kind of texts are you seeing, and what authors are you following and particularly excited to read?
TT: Okay, so I think I should talk a little bit about the idea of post-colonialism first. So one of things I don’t like, or though… or that I don’t enjoy, is the idea of indigenous art being seen as post-colonialism, as if it has to be seen in relation to something someone else has done. I would prefer to see it as something that is its own thing, and not a reaction to something else. It has to exist as, you know, as the thing itself, like Marcus Aurelius said, it has to be its own thing, not something that is in response to this.
As long as you remain in response to this, you might as well still be a colony, you might as well still be a slave, if you’re still responding to the things that have happened. So there is a place for the response, and there’s a place for, “Okay, look, now we’re just telling our own stories. We don’t actually care about you guys.” You know, yes, this happened, boo-hoo, but this is what we’re doing now.
CH: Mm. That’s the role of the art, right?
TT: Yes, exactly. And it still goes back to the thing I said about defining ourselves with stories, what stories do we tell about ourselves. It’s important to, one, to move beyond it, in other words to get back to a history that precedes colonialism—a lot of which was removed or erased—to me, it’s more important to get back to that, and it’s more important to start thinking actually about the future, like “Where are we going? What are we now? How do we want to define ourselves?”
Those kind of thoughts are the thoughts that I wish we had. You know, unfortunately, a lot of what we’re writing is still reactionary, and mimetic. You know, some of it is you know more like, “Okay, well is similar to what science fiction has already done, largely because this is how we think science fiction needs to be done.”
CH: Mm. And all writers respond to what they’ve read, right?
TT: But that is correct. You have to… you will respond to what you’ve read, and when you’re in a particular stage, there will be that anxiety of influence, because you think, “Okay, this is coming out just like blah. It’s just coming out just Stephen King’s work, or it’s coming out just like this.” You know, and what you’re supposed to do is write through that. You just keep writing until your own particular individuality emerges, you know, and then the stories that you care about then begin to come out. I mean, one of the books I enjoyed the most that I read recently was The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell. It’s extremely well written, it’s like a generational epic, you know—
CH: Yeah. So good for a debut, and I mean, it’s so good as a novel. Yeah, it’s genius, the Zambian space programme. Yeah.
TT: Yes. You know, it’s fantastic. You know, that is the kind of novel I enjoy reading. Well, you won’t be surprised to hear I’m a fan of Ursula Le Guin. Like I’m really a fan of that kind of writing that explores ideas, you know, to their extent, that pl—you know, that has beautiful language, at the same explores the depth of emotion. It’s just, you know, that’s the kind of book I enjoy. I believe we still have a way to go, but part of it is… it’s what—you know, the real aspect of colonialism that I try to address is the… is the mental colonialism, where we see success in Western worlds and we try to mimic it in the way we tell our stories, and the way we formulate our art.
We have inferiority feelings that make us think, “Okay, we have to ape what we see in order to be successful.” And that is true to an extent. You know, what you’re producing can’t be so esoteric that nobody can understand it. So it has to have some elements of… some, I don’t know, some anchors that an audience can pay attention to while they’re consuming the new or unique stuff you’re trying to say.
CH: I mean, I think Femi’s character is really interesting for that in the subsequent novels, because she’s just not having any of it! [laughs] Essentially! She’s like, “We are not going to do this the American way. Absolutely not!” [laughs]
TT: [laughs] Well exactly! I mean, Femi is great. I… you know, she’s great. She’s actually based on someone like… someone I know as well. You know, the way she navigates the world she’s in, which is largely sexist. You know, she’s got the president, who’s sexist to her. Even her subordinate, you know, Kaaro, her subordinate, is sexist. So she’s navigating a sexist world where women’s power is not… you know, it is not a settled thing. You know, it’s precarious. So she may have the position, and she may have… let’s say she has wealth, for example, because she does.
But she still is in a very precarious position, where she has to manage the emotions of the powerful men around her. You know, I deliberately wanted to show that. That it’s still… you know, the world in which they exist is still a world in which power is largely held by men and has to be negotiated, in a sense. Things like her having to say, “Okay, how are we going to do this?” You know, a certain degree of ruthlessness is required. And a certain degree of callousness, because of the end goal, and in the entire book, she is the only one who saw the end goal from the start and knew what she had to do.
CH: Yeah, she’s brilliant in that, kind of there is an obvious overriding narrative that she sees that Kaaro can’t imagine. What a compliment to the person that you’ve based her on! [laughs] I want to talk a little bit now about the Nommo Awards, and your involvement with them following your win of the inaugural Ilube Prize for best novel. And I was wondering what think is the significance of the Nommo Awards, and the African Speculative Fiction Society specifically.
TT: It’s… I mean, obviously it’s a massive honour. It’s the first speculative fiction award, you know, for Africans that there is. It’s the very first one. Now, I was there from the onset, from the beginning, when we started having casual conversations on Facebook about this. And we were like, part of the problem that African authors—continental African authors and the like—have is that sometimes the storytelling traditions are not really well understood by Western editors. You know, it still is a problem that I see now.
CH: It’s a problem that you had at the outset of your career.
TT: Yes, it is. You ask anybody from, you know, from any kind of minority or any kind of… anybody who is not in a position, so to speak, and their stories tend to be marginalised. One of the reasons their stories are marginalised is what you said before—in other words, the victors write the stories. In other words, the victors decide how stories are to be told. The other aspect is simply, audiences are trained to understand particular types of storytelling, alight. Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider, and sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away. You know, that is a storytelling tradition.
Now, if you are a child, and you’ve been told that kind of story all your life, when you grow up and you finish from secondary school, and you go into university, and you study literature, and you study creative writing, and you become and editor, in your… you still have an imprint. Regardless of what your training is, regardless of what kind of text you read in university, you will still have that imprint on your head of, “This is what a story is. A story is beginning, middle and end.” Which is different from if the same person grew up, for example, not in… you know, the person didn’t grow up in Welwyn Garden City, the person grew up in Tokyo, for example. Ideas of stories are different there.
If you grew up in Lagos, your ideas of stories will still incorporate the Western way, because of colonialism, but underneath all of that, we have our own storytelling traditions, and those are going to lead to different types of narratives when you begin to produce plays, and screenplays, and novels and short stories. They’re going to have different traditions, because audiences are trained differently.
CH: Absolutely. But I was thinking about, from what you’re saying now, and how we think about memory and narrative, right, and the sort of linearity of—well, the supposed linearity of memory, which is of course not how we remember things—and that connection with, you know, the linear narrative story, “Little Miss Muffet, and then, and then, and then”, and that kind of pushing against that, which I think is so important in our reading practices, and absolutely a kind of bias that we have to work against.
TT: That’s true.
CH: Yeah, and the sense that these narratives can kind of disrupt, but there is also an element of if this is what you’ve grown up with, and if your first stories are Little Miss Muffet stories, then you’ve got to… well, then there is going to be a somewhat—I want to say a reading blindspot?
TT: Yeah, yes. I think that’s one way of looking at it. There’s so many ways of telling the story, you know. Alright, you know, there are so many… there are ways of thinking of stories, there are ways of starting, you know, starting the story.
CH: Yeah. I love the idea of the kind of thinking about something, you know, a childhood narrative that… and kind of reshaping that to think about how narrative works for novels for older people, and how your formative reading can really shape and change who you become, and the kind of stories you can tell. And you’re a huge fan of Frankenstein.
TT: I am.
CH: You’ve also said that House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a comfort read. Different novels, really interestingly innovative ways. Yeah, I was wondering if you’d speak a little bit to that, because I think there’s… yeah, I think that there’s so much going on there.
TT: I like playing with form. I like stories that play with form. So Frankenstein, even for its time, you know, already had the intersecting stories. You know, it was a, you know, like a Russian doll’s nest of stories. There is the creature’s story, nested in Viktor Frankenstein’s story, nested in Walton’s story, nested in the narrative of them going to the North Pole. I love that structure. The basic unreliability of the narrators all the way through, you know, because really we only have Viktor’s word about certain things to do with the creature. We only have his word for those things. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s actually how it happened. And what did he omit so that he would look good?
I like that you can think about Frankenstein, for example, in infinite ways. You can sit down and start thinking, “Well, is it possible that Viktor was actually just some disturbed guy picked up, and he was delirious, and he was telling a complete fib, that the whole thing wasn’t even true anyway? Is it possible that Walton made the whole thing up to amuse his sister? Is it…” You know, there’s so many ways to think about the story, there’s just so many ways, if you sit down—and obviously, I have spent too much time reflecting on it! [laughs] But, you know, but I love it for that. I love it because it’s not linear, it’s not… it doesn’t lend itself to easy explanations. You know, I love it because of the emotional complexity of Viktor Frankenstein’s true love not being Elizabeth, but actually being, you know, his friend, and his dedication being something that’s actually quite macabre. It’s not actually a positive scientific story. You know, unlike in the films, in the book, you know, Viktor isn’t actually a doctor. There… often people say things, like, “Doctor Frankenstein,” but he’s not actually a doctor, he’s a medical student. So he didn’t… he hadn’t gone through all of the training, and presumably he didn’t go through the part that dealt with [laughs] ethics before he went ahead and did what, you know, he did, you know! And at heart, you know, it’s the story of an abandoned child, at heart.
CH: Which is Shelley’s story, as well.
TT: Yes, it’s Shelley—exactly. It’s Shelley’s story. Shelley’s story of, you know, having powerhouse intellectuals for parents, having activists for parents, and then not only being abandoned more or less by her parents—not true abandonment, but actual effective, de facto abandonment—but also being abandoned by her husband, you know, at the same time, you know, pretty much at the time of writing the book. So it’s reflected in her life, which is you know pretty much as interesting as the book is. You know, in her father’s life and her mother’s life, it’s so…it’s just a nexus of interesting intersections, all of it.
And in terms of Danielewski, you know, because again it has several layers of storytelling. You know, it’s the direct story, you know, affidavits 00:30:1 and documents of what’s going on in this particular house. Then there’s the story told in the footnotes about the discovery of the documents and the discovery of the book. And the experiments with texts, with structure, with everything, it just… it works so well for me, and I’m, you know…. You know, so, I like the uniqueness of it, and as much as nothing is ever completely unique, but I like the uniqueness of it. I like the inventiveness. And I like the fact that I can open any page and be interested in whatever I’m reading.
CH: Yeah. It beautifully disrupts what we think a book should be, right? What is inside the covers, and how we… yeah, how we engage with that. Have you read Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson?
TT: Yes, I have. And I really love that. I love that as well.
CH: It’s brilliant, isn’t it? I love the… yeah, just bringing those stories together, and the idea that, you know, Viktor walks among us.
TT: Yeah. Yes, exactly, and I actually love… you know, I love Jeanette Winterson anyway. and all that, so, yes.
[Narrative Futures music]
Louis Greenberg’s writing prompts:
1. Sci-fiing and detechnologising
In this interview, Tade Thompson says that alien invasion stories are a pure metaphor for colonialism – this is a powerful metaphor that invites an empathetic jump. Entire cultures are appropriated and erased; languages and appearances are disguised; people are stolen, their homes appropriated.
There are countless alien invasion stories available told from every angle – and often these centre on technological dominance. On a related note, Thompson also says he doesn’t identify with stories that spend too much time on technological and logistical minutiae at the expense of character.
I think we need to talk about colonialism, and I’m short on dialogue prompts in this series, and maybe getting characters to talk to one another rather than invade each other will be a good idea.
For this exercise, try to write a passage of pure dialogue – just speech and a minimum of associated description – between an invader and an invadee. It’s up to you who they are, where they are, what they talk about. There might be barked orders and protestations, or the conversation may become cathartic.
In addition, to honour Thompson’s feelings on technology, let’s detechnologise the scene – there should be no technology in this scene – no machines, no computers, no spacecraft; just people, or aliens as the case may be.
Please share your ideas, and consider how the restrictions have affected your vision, and how it compares with any other pieces posted.
2. Editing your own narrative timeline
Thompson’s psychoanalytical background and his interest in character above all recalls several strands in therapeutic creativity – Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, or Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead are just some examples of writing or creativity guides that take a therapeutic approach to creativity.
One of Julia Cameron’s key exercises is the ‘narrative timeline’ – telling your own personal history as if it’s a story. This helps us identify important themes and arcs in our own lives.
For your final prompt, write your narrative timeline – or just a brief segment of it.
Then edit it, retell it, reframe it in any way you like.
You might like to pause now and return when you’ve written the exercise.
Consider the following:
How have you retold your story?
Do things get better or worse in your new version?
In the new story, are you someone completely different or recognisably the same?
Do you live in a different place? Do you do different work, have different levels of influence?
Are the changes to the story small and subtle or sweeping?
Did you avoid the hard stare inside and actually describe someone else?
If you wrote the note in the opening prompt after Lauren Beukes’ interview, look back at it now.
Do you feel any more or less inspired to write?
Despite the isolation of writing itself, creativity is a communal act, so we hope we’ve helped you feel more connected and inspired.
[Narrative Futures music]
CH: And that concludes the final episode of the Narrative Futures podcast. Thanks to Tade Thompson for joining us on the episode, and to all of you listening in for engaging with these ideas and debates. If you have any comments or contributions, you can tweet us @ThinkFuturesNow. Your host on this podcast is Chelsea Haith, and you can tweet me @chelsea_haith, and Louis @LouisGreenberg. The transcripts of the podcast are available on the TORCH website under the Futures Thinking tab and include links to the authors, books and ideas we’ve mentioned in the course of the podcast.
Thank you to all of our listeners and guests for your careful thought and contributions.
With thanks to Tade Thompson for being our guest on this episode.
Music credit: The sounds used in this podcast are Technological Vibe and Cyber Technologies by Ricky Rombino, sourced from Premium Beats.
Production credit: This podcast was devised, recorded, and edited by Chelsea Haith. All writing prompts were designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.
Thanks also to Academic Audio Transcription for their brilliant work transcribing the interviews in Episodes 3 to 8.