Reckoning Interviews: Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire

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Ladies and gentlepeople of all those other sixty-two genders you hear tell about, my latest interview is, I think, just the right thing for the Tuesday before US Thanksgiving, zero plus two weeks into orangemageddon. These have not been an easy two weeks for many of us. Talking to Djibril al-Ayad, editor and publisher of The Future Fire, was an energizing and uplifting experience when I needed it most; it reminded me there are still people in the world struggling to encourage deep thinking and new ideas about positive change, that those people aren’t going anywhere, and that every one of them is something to be thankful for. I hope reading this helps you in the same way.

If you’re new here, the object of these interviews has been to help me learn how to be a good and conscientious editor, to practice what I preach, to understand whether and how and to what extent fiction can inspire and encourage people to change the world for the better, and hopefully to encourage others to do the same.

Michael: The Future Fire has been open since 2004, which is a pretty amazing thing. Surely that must put it among the longest-running fiction markets online. What was it like starting out? Did you have trouble finding the kinds of stories you wanted to publish? What kind of work did you have to do to get people (both writers and readers) interested? Did you do anything specific to encourage contributions from queer writers, indigenous writers, writers of color?

Djibril: Yeah, we’re also delighted and a little surprised that we’ve kept going so long—although that’s as much to do with low expectations as any successful formula: for example, we don’t aspire to make any money, so there’s literally no financial failure that could knock us out of existence. To start with, yes, it was very hard to get going: partly we didn’t have the experience or sites like Duotrope and the Submissions Grinder, and until we had a few issues behind us hardly anyone had heard of us. Rather than compromise on quality we published very slim issues: one story a quarter to start with, then two or three, until the slushpile built up. Experience and exposure both helped.

As for encouraging contributions from diverse/minority authors, that was something we struggled with for a while. Our first breakthrough was when we did a count of women vs. men authors, and the ratio was pitiful (this was part of one of the repeated soul-searching discussions on this topic in the genre as a whole, around 2009, I think). We didn’t want to just say, “We want more stories by women,” which felt weak; we also didn’t want to be less selective of women’s stories—that wasn’t the issue, it was rather that fewer women were submitting to our open call (perhaps dissuaded by the sausage-fests that were many of our first dozen issues). What we decided instead was to run two themed issues (#19 and #20 respectively) of Feminist SF and Queer SF, which had the result that: (1) the best stories were overwhelmingly “own voices” works; (2) we were able to show diversity in theme and in authors simultaneously; (3) we demonstrated that we had an interest in these themes and these authors, which made our slushpiles going forward much more healthy. You could say that a similar effect was discernible after each of our print anthologies: body issues, postcolonialism, disability matters—raising our profile and showing that queer, colonised, disabled, etc. authors are welcome here.

Michael: How have things changed since then? Do you think political SF writing has gotten more sophisticated? Do you still see new approaches to expressing political ideas in fiction, techniques or story structures you haven’t seen before?

Djibril: I can’t speak for the world of political science fiction generally, which I think has always been very strong and I’m only aware of a very small part of it. We do continue to be surprised by new approaches, techniques, angles and modes of storytelling that we haven’t seen before (sometimes because of our own naivety, no doubt!); recently we’ve been particularly impressed by people’s ability to tell an important political story in a poem or piece of microfiction. We’d love to see people experiment with language, e.g. untranslated dialogue in a story, or by mixing prose, verse, drama, nonfiction, tense and voice, etc., creating a collage of words that combine to tell a story greater than its parts. A few pieces have started in that direction, but I’m not sure it’s something we can influence as editors. Better to continue to be surprised.

Michael: What kind of influence do you think The Future Fire has had on the field? Are there any writers you published early in their careers who have gone on to do work in this vein you particularly admire? I’ve noticed editors tend to hesitate about picking favorites… but are there any stories you’ve featured you would point to as having had a significant influence on other writers and editors?

Djibril: I’m not sure TFF has had influence on the field, or if so I’m not the one to be able to detect it. On the contrary, I feel venues like Crossed Genres and Strange Horizons are blazing trails that we can’t hope to keep up with, partly due to the fact that we’re not a pro market. But I can speak with some pride of a few authors who we published early in their careers, such as James Bennett, Jennifer Marie Brissett, or Benjanun Sriduangkaew, who have gone on to greater things and are all very talented writers. I don’t claim we “made” or “discovered” them, but it’s still nice to have been a part of their journey.

Michael: How have you felt about the recent series of socially progressive themed issues in Lightspeed and elsewhere, “Queers Destroy”, “POC Destroy” etc.?

Djibril: I think they’re useful exercises, much as I said of our themed issues and anthologies above, and although I haven’t read them all I’ve heard that some of them were of mixed quality. We (as a genre) do of course wish that we didn’t need to publish queer-themed issues to get queer authors visibility, and that instead progressive ideas could be told in “own voices” in all sorts of venues. But I suppose we’re still in a place where queer (etc.) themed issues are needed as well.

Michael: Would you do anything differently if you were starting a magazine today? Do you have any advice for me?

Djibril: I honestly can’t imagine starting a magazine now without the Twitter and other SFF communities around us to keep us going. It’s an incredibly lonely business, working on your own. My main advice (to you, or to the 12-years-ago me) would be to make sure there are other people working with you, preferably as equals, and that the whole enterprise doesn’t rely on you alone. Collaborate with other publications (joint themed issue some time, maybe?), get in guest editors and guest edit on other projects. The more flexible you can be the better… I’ve never been able to get to the place where we accept more excellent stories that we can use (in pro-paying anthologies yes, but not in the $20-a-story magazine), so our release schedule depends on when we have enough content, not vice versa. I can also honestly say that without the writing and publishing communities full of lovely people around us, I would have quit years ago. They don’t just make life easier, they make it fun!

Michael: What’s your next project?

Djibril: I’m glad you asked me that, Michael! We’re actually about to start fundraising and calling for stories for a new anthology, to be co-edited by Nicolette Barischoff and Rivqa Rafael. Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. We’re looking for beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, with a specific focus on the lives and experiences of women of colour, QUILTBAG women, disabled women, sex workers, and any intersection of these. We want it to be a pro-paying, multi-mode anthology including fiction, art, poetry, nonfiction, and experimental content. I’m really looking forward to starting work on it!

Michael: Thank you so much. Honestly, I needed something like this, you have made my day better.

And I take these recommendations to heart. At the moment I am doing this nearly all by myself, but I’ve had a lot of advice and in fact have just been composing an email soliciting more substantial help from a very few people. And I’ve been thinking about guest editors. And you are not the first person to suggest a co-issue. I still need to wrap my head around that concept. But thank you very much for suggesting that, and for all of this.

Your new marginalised feminism project sounds great. And timely. Though I guess there has never been a time when it was not timely.

(If you missed any previous interviews in this series, and would like to catch up, so far I’ve talked to T.X. Watson and Faith Gregory of Solarpunk Press, Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine of Urban Green Man, and Phoebe Wagner of Sunvault. Up next, I’ll talk to Gavin J. Grant of Small Beer Press.)

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