Intersectional Communities: A Conversation with Tory Stephens
Tory Stephens lived in East Cambridge, Massachusetts until he was ten years old. It was an ideal place to live until the eighties crack epidemic happened. “My mother, brother, and I walked into our apartment one day and surprised some burglars. I remember seeing the microwave, TV, and AC all stacked on top of each other, and my mom saying we’re leaving.” They moved to Stephens’ great-grandmother’s house in Newton, Massachusetts, which required . . . adjusting. “East Cambridge had been a lower-income Portuguese community squished next to the projects, which mostly had Black residents. Newton is a white affluent suburb of Boston. After adjusting I ended up having a high school experience that very much resembled the movie Dazed and Confused.”
Stephens studied cultural anthropology, political science, and international relations at University of Massachusetts Boston, while working. Later he and his wife ran a streetwear clothing company called False Prophet, selling out six collections over three years. “The project was my wife and I’s creative outlet. The brand’s major draw was that the clothing was blvck fashion, which was the wave of the moment. Blvck fashion mixed dark mystical aesthetics, minimalism, gothic imagery, clever layers, and dark tones all into a streetwear look. We layered on a political identity or focus and took aim at people and ideas we believed were spreading misinformation for political gain, or for monetary reasons, or both.” After the arrival of their third child, they produced a final collection.
Tory Stephens once spent eleven months traveling through Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. He eventually bought a home and currently lives in Ayer, “a small railroad next to a closed down army base and a bunch of apple orchards.” It’s been another time of adjustments. “I lived in apartments my whole life, and I’ve always wanted to have a place to grow food, create meadows, and get dirty. I guess planting wildflowers, assisting pollinators, and trying to create meadows are now a hobby of mine. I’m legit proud of myself because I can now identify hundreds of native and non-native plants and flowers.” Stephens has over ten years of fundraising, event management, and leadership experience, and is the Climate Fiction Creative Manager and Network Weaver at Fix, the Grist Solutions Lab.
Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors was a short fiction contest calling for writers to “envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.” Three winning stories and nine finalists were published on the Grist site, and the project received the Industry Innovation Award from Covering Climate Now. Tory Stephens was project and creative lead for the contest. The stories are due to be anthologized in a book scheduled for October 2023 release and a second contest is under way.
On the Fix Solutions Lab site you talked a bit about your journey from first assembly to an exploration of climate fiction and much more. What were your reading experiences growing up?
I grew up as a nondenominational Christian evangelical and some of the first books I got into were these young adult stories from the Bible. I hated reading the Bible because of how it was written, but I loved the stories once images and modern dialects were added.
Around twelve, I started losing my religion, which was right at the time I started to read comic books, like X-Men, Spider-man, Silver Surfer, Spawn, and Batman. At this time in my life, I wasn’t into reading books, but I consumed so many comics. The Uncanny X-Men series had my favorite stories.
I loved how every character had a unique origin story, and how they themselves were unique individuals with their own personal styles, vernacular, and of course, special powers. In a way, I started to adopt some of the values the X-Men held. Teamwork, diversity, a sense of justice, and that misfits are alright. I really loved how imaginative each of these stories were and how expansive the universe was.
A few years later, I started reading Ralph Ellison and honed in on Black Boy, Invisible Man, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. As a Black man, parts of these books were painful, but they also helped me understand the world I was born into. After being introduced to these books by my first Black teacher (since I moved from Cambridge), I started to read books that weren’t just assigned to me at school.
One day, around the same time as all of this, I was raving about politics and the media to a librarian, and she recommended I read Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, and 1984 by George Orwell. These few books, along with all the comic books, rap, and Stanley Kubrick movies, created a genre of sorts for me. In ten years, I had moved from a worldview that said “trust god” to one that said “be critical of everything.”
You mentioned receiving one thousand and one hundred submissions for the first call for Imagine 2200, and from this you selected twelve pieces. Give us some insight into the overall process, and if possible, what made the winners stand out.
Reading one thousand and one hundred stories in an equitable way was a huge challenge. We were not ready for that many stories. We projected that three hundred stories would come in and were totally caught by surprise when over a thousand stories were submitted. We eliminated two hundred stories because they were not the right genre, were not close to the right format, or came in the form of an essay. We were left with nine hundred stories and split those between the three reviewers:Andrew Dana Hudson, Sarena Ulibarri, and Tobias Buckell.
In a few weeks’ time they read, scored, and culled the list down to one hundred and twenty. Galia Binder, who had more literary experience than I, facilitated the weekly discussions between the reviewers where we, the Fix staff and the reviewers, talked about the stories we had read. This was the fun part. In these discussions we’d advocate for a story, talk about why we thought a story was or wasn’t hopeful, and answer questions about if we thought something was just or unjust.
One thing that really stood out was how much thoughtful discussion and debate went into this—there were different perspectives and viewpoints and some passionate defense of stories that didn’t click for others—Tobias, for example, from the first time he read it, was a fierce advocate for “Canvas – Wax – Moon.”
It was such a treat being in these conversations. Like being in an amazing story club with all these brilliant people. After the discussions the reviewers had an opportunity to change their rankings for the week. We continued this process. Culling the list of one hundred and twenty down to forty, and then from there down to twenty that were handed off to the judges. The judges were then given a month to read those stories and then rank and submit them to us. We added the scores together and the story with the lowest score was the winner. One thing that happened that blew our collective mind, was what happened to the reviewers’ unanimous top choice: the judges didn’t select it for the top twelve, which was really fascinating.
Each story is accompanied by striking art. Give us some insight into the process for curating or pairing stories to illustrations.
Instead of doomscrolling on Twitter I switched over to Instagram and would peruse a handful of hashtags that originally inspired the initiative. Mainly, Afrofuturism and solarpunk, but also the general illustration hashtags. If Galia and I saw something that caught our eyes we’d catalog it in a spreadsheet.
After collecting a decent number of artists’ names and some of their images, Galia and I discussed the art. We were mainly concerned with finding artists that were flexible in their ability. Lots of artists lean in on a particular thing such as still life, characters, worldbuilding, and what have you. We were looking for artists that could illustrate characters well. Human faces and body movement bring a level of emotion we were looking for and we wanted scenes that showcased some of the climate solutions and worlds these characters would live in. It ended up working out.
The illustrators ended up being a mix of people we found through social media and some that Grist already had relationships with, like Amelia Bates, our senior designer. One aspect that helped pull the project together was a branding exercise, and then a package we created and handed to anyone who worked on the project. Very early in the project, way before we started looking for artists, we contracted with Grace Abeto design the Imagine 2200 logo, and to create a branding palette that would be given to anyone who worked on the project. In addition, we created a solarpunk and Afrofuturist mood board, because we knew the artists would most likely not know what solarpunk or Afrofuturism was. These two movements inspired Imagine 2200 conceptually and artistically.
After we landed on our artists, we formed an art committee and paired an art committee member with each of the artists, then assigned them three of the stories. The committee members would select a moment or two from a story and communicate that to an artist, and the artist would send in sketches. We’d sign off on them or send back the collective feedback of the committee and a few rounds of that would happen until we got the art to a place that we felt worked for a piece. It was pretty laborious on the communication front, and the timeline was tight, but the artists all hit their deadlines, and we were able to publish art that enticed folk to enter the worlds of Imagine 2200.
Are there pieces in this collection that surprised you in some way, or that challenged you?
There are a few. For this interview I’m going to focus on “Broken From the Colony” and “Canvas — Wax — Moon.” Both of these stories nail what it means to write an intersectional story.
“Broken” is about a trans girl who finds acceptance and security among the coral, as sole survivors of a storm that submerges their Caribbean island. “Canvas,” on the other hand, is about a young witch who receives unconditional support before and after an abortion. Life is intersectional. People are intersectional. And intersectionality isn’t a trendy academic word, as it has been written off by some. For me and many others it’s an important moment in linguistics.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black woman, coined the term and came to understand through studying civil rights law that American law was not built to handle multi-issue discrimination. The insight that people have many different and often intersecting identities that create different levels of discrimination or privilege is the lesson that many outside of the legal world have adopted as a lens. The groundbreaking piece Crenshaw published is called, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.”
The reason Imagine 2200 called for intersectional stories has to do with a part of our mission. We want stories that resonate with and are about marginalized people, and for many folks who are marginalized, this marginalization isn’t just because of one part of their identity.
In addition, folks who are marginalized are often on the front line, fighting for justice because they want to make their life better for themselves and their community; however, they are often discriminated against or outright oppressed by others on the front line because they have different cultural values than those of the dominant society.
“Broken” challenges us all to look at the world through a different lens. A trans lens. And what you see is a world, or even a father, that won’t accept someone for who they are. I love climate fiction with characters that you typically don’t see in genre. Trans folk are under assault by a society that deems them deviant and doesn’t see them as people who deserve love. I don’t believe we get to a clean, green, and just world if we don’t see trans folk as whole people and deserving of love.
The whole story challenges us all to understand what it’s like to be a trans woman in a world that is hyperaware of heteronormativity. Finally, this climate fiction story takes place in the Caribbean and has many references to the slave trade and colonization, which adds in more layers and intersecting identities for the character. If one didn’t understand or is struggling to understand what intersectionality is, “Broken From the Colony” is a master class on what it is and how a writer can craft a compelling intersectional climate fiction story.
“Canvas” surprised and delighted me because it’s a climate fiction lunar punk story with abortion at the center. I love it when genres bleed into and all over each other. This story does that, and then some. This one surprised me for a few reasons. Care and love are at the heart of what it means to be a climate solutionary. People who have been taught to exploit and oppress, they lack love, empathy, and care. It may sound simple, and almost lacking nuance, but to be just is to be caring. We must ask ourselves, How can we care for people?
The care with which this story is told and the image of a family that cares deeply for their members shows us a vision of what right relationships look like highlighting the level of honesty and love we should have for each other. Imagine 2200 is trying to create a platform for writers to express hope that we will make it out of this crisis and do so in a just way. “Canvas” is tender, loving, and it shows us what that looks like from a variety of angles, including how we care for and love ourselves.
The other important thing this story is doing is honoring/highlighting a moment most people have contemplated, and which many have undergone, which is abortion. How many climate fiction stories have you read where the character goes through an abortion? Yet this can be reality for someone who can become pregnant.
Writers and storytellers tell better and more true-to-life stories when we don’t omit important parts of peoples’ identities. When we lean into someone’s gender, race, sexual orientation, class, or physical ability, and what that means to the character, we tell better and truer-to-life stories, period. And we need true-to-life characters in climate fiction so we can reach the folk who orient their life and get their view of the world through fiction rather than the news. This is a classic “meet people where they are,” but we should also do this because it creates richer and more dynamic stories.
What stands out most to you about each of the three winning pieces?
The three winning stories are very different from each other in what they choose to focus on, but they are all very well written and effective stories from a craft perspective. You can tell the authors wrote many drafts, checked in with their communities, and used the three-month timeline wisely.
Starting with the winning story “Afterglow,” you have a climate fiction story that has some cyberpunk elements layered into the worldbuilding. A club scene, old warehouses, a vibrant and busy city life, and some biomorphic technology that showcases a solid mashup of cyberpunk and solarpunk to create a climate fiction story. And that’s just the worldbuilding aspect.
This story features what the author calls a “linguistic revolution,” and essentially layers in a narrative about how language can be exploitative and extractive. This type of narrative, which isn’t the only one in the story, could have landed on the academic side of things and ruined the piece, but the author fits it in deftly. I suggest folk go to the interview we did with the author. It details where their inspirations came from and what they were trying to achieve with “Afterglow.” It’s beyond fascinating.
“The Cloud Weaver’s Song,” which took the number two spot, is a fantastical folktale that gives off strong Pixar movie vibes. You have Semhar Ibrahim, the main character, donning a spider suit, a drought-stricken world, and young rebels who are willing to take big risks and challenge their elders to prove the end of the great dying is at hand. It’s truly epic for a short story. And again, the worldbuilding is total—I could feel how hot and dusty the world is. I really love how accessible this story is. Much of what we are trying to do with Imagine 2200 is to reach people who are tuned out from the climate crisis, or who want to engage with the climate crisis from media other than the news. “Cloud Weaver” is a solid example of how engaging and entertaining some of these stories are and can be while communicating what’s happening and could happen to our world.
The third-place winner, “Tidings,” was written by Emmy Award-winning writer Rich Larson. He won an Emmy for “Ice,” a short story adapted for the series LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.
In “Tidings,” Rich strings together five vignettes that take the reader from Niger to Australia and a few other places in between. What’s fun and unique is how a through line is created from the first vignette to the last and the variety of stories that are packed into a short space. Doing too much in a short story can be the death knell for many projects, but each entry in the series of vignettes stands on its own. Packed into this short story you get many glimpses of the way we could tackle climate change, and more importantly, how one innovation in one place could be helpful in another place on this planet, or how it could inspire others to build toward a green, clean, and just world!
Going back to the piece you wrote, describing the background of the contest, you mentioned an intention to amplify “voices that have been, and continue to be, affected by systems of oppression, including structural racism and white supremacy” among other things. What were some of the things you and your team did to make this happen?
Honestly, everything. I’m a network weaver at heart. I bring people together and love doing it. Between November of 2020 and mid-January of 2021, a whole three months before the launch of Imagine 2200’s submission portal, I reached out to one hundred and twenty people who are in communities with diverse writers in a variety of ways. Black and brown queer writing collectives, disabled artist communities like Sins Invalid, and so many others I hoped would be moved by the mission of Imagine 2200. I asked them if they would encourage their communities through social media or email to participate in this new initiative.
To my surprise many said yes. It was nerve-racking though. I was spending a lot of time emailing, video conferencing, and just meeting with people to pitch the idea of Imagine and attempting to bring them on as what I ended up calling founding community outreach partners. This approach ended up working, but what I wished existed and I never found, was a large platform that helps Black, brown, Indigenous, and other people of color find writing opportunities.
Through our research we found many small groups that served a particular community, but it took a lot of time and energy on our part to find these spaces, connect with them, and then have them sign on as a community outreach partner. If I had not done this, I would have found some of the stalwart writing communities that allow you to list your contest and would have gotten a lot of stories. But would we have gotten so many stories from marginalized communities? Most likely not.
Many of the organizations that serve writers serve a community that resembles the demographics of the United States. One other approach we layered on top of this community strategy was even more laborious, but it paid off in spades.
Galia Binder, my partner in crime in year one, and I collected US-based and international emails of what we thought were mission-aligned organizations. Instead of trying to connect with individuals at the organizations and set up a meeting, we collected emails of writers, heads of writing retreats, and university departments from all over the world, and once the initiative went live, we sent them a digital flyer and asked them to share it on social or email it to folks in their community.
The last piece of this puzzle was bringing on adrienne maree brown, Sheree Renée Thomas, Kiese Laymon, and Morgan Jerkins as judges. All of the judges are not only brilliant writers, but also public figures who discuss a variety of social justice issues like structural racism, white supremacy, discrimination, and other important issues that affect marginalized folk. This three-pronged approach, to our surprise and delight, netted us one thousand and one hundred people from eighty-five countries submitting stories. This was really validating, and also helped ease the anxiety that some within Grist had about moving into the literary field.
Going back to your exploration of genre and specifically climate fiction, did you feel that systems of oppression, racism, and similar were alive and well in the publishing industry? If so, are there any specific observations you’d like to share?
Systemic racism, anti-Blackness, and xenophobia is built into the fiber of this nation and the publishing industry is not immune to this. I don’t come from the publishing world, and I haven’t read all the climate fiction out there, but all industries in the United States are produced from our culture, which has not fully reckoned with its racist past. Our judges from the first year are all people whom I admire, read what they write, and follow on social media. They all talk about America’s relationship and investment in anti-Blackness and systemic racism.
So, when the “publishing paid me” moment swept the publishing industry many of them had specific examples in their publishing past that they referenced and attributed to racism and anti-Blackness in the industry. The pay discrepancies, the gatekeeping, and the watering down of their stories if they were too “radical” or critical of white America.
I believe Kiese has been the most outspoken about this, and has made his specific story public, and is very active about the injustice in the industry. In article after article and interview after interview over the last year and a half, he has been on a mission talking about these issues, as he outlines here in LitHub, “Why I Paid Tenfold to Buy Back the Rights for Two of My Books.” It’s a fascinating and important case about what happened to him and what’s been happening to Black and brown folk in the publishing space.
The other piece this touches on is around freedom of speech and revision. As I mentioned earlier “publishing paid me” at first was focused on the pay discrepancies between Black and white writers, but it also pulled in another major grievance Black and brown authors had, which was around what was being edited out of their stories. Kiese has been able to broaden the pushback to include the many faces of discrimination that played out between publishing houses and Black and brown authors.
With respect to the climate fiction genre, there’s work to be done everywhere. Climate fiction is not immune. It’s immensely important that the stories that are published are inclusive, highlight the plight of frontline communities, and feature characters who have been marginalized and oppressed.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you, your work, or Fix?
Fix is Grist’s solutions lab, dedicated to exploring creative ways to shift the climate narrative toward possibility.
We amplify bold, equitable solutions for our climate future, and the people working toward them. Through creative storytelling, network-building, and events, Fix explores the paths to a clean, green, just future, and brings together a growing community of climate visionaries—we call them Fixers—who are leading the way to a planet that works for everyone.
At Fix, we want to imagine the world that is still possible, and to introduce the people and solutions that are making it a reality. Won’t you join us?
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.