December 14, 2016
An Interview with Chana Porter, text witch, co-founder of The Octavia Project, and actual, real-life nerd
by Simon Reichley
Last week we did a quick write up of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s generous gift to The Octavia Project, a Brooklyn-based arts and technology mentoring program that uses science fiction, storytelling, and game design to teach girls from underserved communities valuable skills in technology and design. This week, we’ve got a fascinating Q&A with Chana Porter, who co-founded The Octavia Project with fellow nerd Meghan McNamara. Enjoy!
Melville House: How did it all begin? How did you meet each other and how did you strike upon this unique hybrid of technical, narrative, and imaginative mentoring?
Chana Porter: Meghan and I are actual real-life nerds and good friends. We’ve been playing board games together for years. Meghan read my science fiction novel when it was still riddled with typos. We also campaign together in the queer dystopian tabletop Role-Playing Game Apocalypse World. So that’s the personal aspect.
In our professional lives, Meghan used to be the program director at Girls Write Now, and through her friendship I got involved as a writing mentor (I’m a NYC playwright and burgeoning science fiction author.) I started teaching world-building workshops at Girls Write Now and was amazed by the imaginative, compelling, and deep stories coming out of these girls. Meghan at that point had moved on from Girls Write Now to teach science and tech classes all over the city. We realized we had this potential, through the powerful imaginative lens of science fiction and fantasy, to encourage girls from underserved communities to think about how they wanted the world to change, then give them the tools to make change. Through our interdisciplinary summer workshops, we give them the skills, the space, and the confidence to imagine better futures for all of us.
MH: What are the specific conditions or community needs that you are trying to address through The Octavia Project?
CP: Our participants are girls of color living in low-income areas in Brooklyn. Immigrant girls, first generation girls, LGBTQ youth. We actively encourage folks who identify as trans, genderqueer, and questioning to apply. (Or, grown-ups, to contact us for volunteering or guest teaching! We are always looking for amazing role models.)
I think in these communities in particular we come face to face with the idea of the American dream, with all its baggage. Who is allowed to feel safe? To follow their dreams and passions? What essential things about our world would need to change to allow all people to be protected and encouraged?
Then the girls are given the driving seat, so to speak. They get to imagine and design different worlds, thinking about culture, economics, environment, clothing, technology, ritual and religion — everything. It’s my hope that through the lens of science fiction and fantasy, it’s a natural way for them to develop critical thinking about our world, our times.
MH: We are living in the aftermath of a truly disastrous election. In addition to threatening our ecological future, constitutional democracy as such, and world peace, Donald Trump presents a particularly severe threat to the girls and people of color, folks the Octavia Project is dedicated to serving and empowering. In what ways do you think that the methods of the Octavia Project (speculation, play, the democratization of the future) are suited to addressing this challenge?
CP: This is a project about futurity. The Octavia Project exists because our country, at this moment and certainly with this new administration, is not constructed to support (life) health, (liberty) freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. We create a space that asks: What would a world look like without prisons? Without money? With radically different education models? With environmental protection valued above profit?
So the conversations about how we want the world to be and how life is now weave together, informing each other, then feeding back into the work. For example, last summer, one teen designed a futuristic bracelet in our wearable electronics unit. In her story the bracelet made it so the wearer was impervious to bullets, like Luke Cage. Another girl’s story had a world in which all guns were nonlethal and could only tranquilize, and everyone signed magically binding contracts about being humane to each other. This was followed by a real conversation about their own experiences feeling threatened at school, and we talked about the different ways we seek safety when we do feel threatened. This method of interdisciplinary imagination allows us to flow seamlessly between the real world, our invented realities, and our future hopes. The worlds inform each other.
MH: Is The Octavia Project a utopian endeavor? How do you feel that the Utopian/Dystopian divide, which is so integral to the tradition of science fiction, informs your work?
CP: Some girls write stories that are set in a more utopian world, which is a great way to teach about writing conflict. (Because you still need conflict in your story, even in a utopian setting!) But other girls write dystopian fiction, which is a valuable lens to look through too.
We talk a lot about future cities and different modes of living together. Urban planning and architecture are core components of our curriculum, so we literally build their imagined worlds using 3D modeling techniques. That brings up discussions around how architecture and city planning have impacted life in NYC today: Robert Moses, redlining, public spaces designed around keeping homeless people unsafe and uncomfortable.
The most dangerous thing possible is to look at the world, throw up our hands, and say “This is the way things have always been.” Choices were made, policies were implemented, and voices were given to protect the interests of the wealthy and largely white populations. So the Octavia Project aims first to look at how these structures came into being, and then imagine new possibilities for the future. And they’re not my possibilities, they are the unique brainchildren of a group of extraordinary young women, who, systematically, are given the short end of the stick in our current society. This past summer, for example, here are some things the girls said they wanted in a future NYC: free medical care, free bikes for teens, more trees, affordable housing, and no smoking!
MH: One of the pillars of the Octavia Project is the importance of play. Several of the young women from last summer’s program wrote and designed interactive story games using a software tool called Twine, and you host (or hosted) a RPG club where you played Fiasco, a collaborative storytelling game. Can you talk a little about the role that creative play and storytelling have in the program?
CP: Science fiction and fantasy are such great platforms to explore difficult and often intimidating subjects like computer programming because of the proven success of interest-based learning. So instead of learning to code simply to learn to code, our girls learn to code to make interactive games from their own stories. Which is more interesting and relatable from the start. We love Twine because of the low bar of entry — really anyone can start programming their own interactive story, using actual programming language, with no formal training. So that’s empowering from the get-go, that a girl can sit down at a computer and within ten minutes, be coding in HTML. And it’s completely open source.
We love using RPGs as a teaching tool. It’s an amazing way to develop nuanced, active characters and high stakes, and to think about cause and effect — great for writing. The interactive component makes it fun, active, like a theater game — great for building community and confidence, while exploring group problem-solving and improvisation.
Also, joy is important. Fun is important. Finding community and pleasure while imagining radical new approaches to the future is a huge part of the Octavia Project’s mission. The uniqueness of our space is that, at the end of the day, it’s also a summer camp, with lots of games, running around, silly made-up chants, and even some group choreographed dances. Girls write “Best friends forever” on each others hands in sharpie. This past summer there was so much hugging and crying at our final day celebration. It’s a space to embrace your weirdo fan girl self, where it’s cool to be super interested in things, to try hard, to be silly. That’s special.
MH: Could you talk a little about Octavia Butler, and the impact that her work had on you?
CP: Octavia Butler is the reason I’m writing a series of science fiction novels, so she’s made a huge impact on my life. But we developed this program in honor of Octavia Butler because of her commitment to social and environmental justice through her powerful writing. She never stopped using genre to examine power relationships and to explore myriad possibilities for the future. Octavia gave our world a great gift with her writing, and that gift was taken away too soon. It’s our hope that we can provide the space and support for girls like Octavia to share their stories with the world.
Chana Porter is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is currently writing a series of science fiction novels, Post Human Classics, utopian eco-horror that explores possibilities for our planet beyond degradation and destruction.
Along with Meghan McNamara she is the co-founder of the Octavia Project, a free summer program that encourages Brooklyn teenage girls to use science fiction to imagine a better world.
Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.