How does speculative fiction provide us models for more queer, just, and creative futures? How are Black women novelists helping us reimagine what (dis)ability and embodiment mean? What is missing from our conversations in popular representation, disability studies, and Black studies?

Episode 66 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast is the first in a three part miniseries that was recorded live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a recent gathering of interdisciplinary cultural studies scholars. The three authors featured in this miniseries—Sami Schalk, Aimi Hamraie, and Heath Fogg Davis—have recently published cultural studies books that have made big splashes beyond the academy in the areas of speculative fiction, fan cultures, urban planning and design, law, and public policy. These authors’ books show how the intersections of disability, race, gender, and sexuality have shaped everything from sci-fi/fantasy novels to police violence, curb cut activism, urban architecture, and the design of public restrooms.

In this episode, host Cathy Hannabach and scholar Anastasia Kārkliņa talk with Sami Schalk about Sami’s new book Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction.

Guest: Sami Schalk

Sami Schalk is an assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses on the role of disability, race, and gender in contemporary American literature and culture, especially African American literature, speculative fiction, and women’s literature. Her scholarship appears in the African American Review, the Journal of Popular Culture, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, Disability Studies Quarterly, Approaches to Teaching Octavia E. Butler, and the Routledge Companion to Disability and Media.

Sami is the author of Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, which was published in 2018 by Duke University Press. In the book, Sami explores how black women writers of speculative fiction reimagine the possibilities and limits of bodyminds, changing and challenging the way we interpret and understand the categories of (dis)ability, race, and gender in the process.

Respondent: Anastasia Kārkliņa

Anastasia Kārkliņa is a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Literature at Duke University, with certificates in African-American studies and feminist theory.

She holds a B.A. in African and African-American Studies and Political Science, also from Duke University.

Anastasia’s work broadly focuses on the study of race in U.S. culture, and her research and pedagogical interests include twentieth-century Black literature and cultural theory.

We chatted about

  • Sami’s new book Bodyminds Reimagined (04:12)
  • How doing justice to Black women’s speculative fiction requires new methods of inquiry (07:16)
  • Why it’s important to explicitly represent Black, queer, and disabled bodyminds in representations of the future (7:32)
  • Bodyminds in Octavia Butler’s Parable series (08:40)
  • The importance of public scholarship (11:49)
  • How antiblackness and ableism buttress one another (14:52)
  • Bodyminds demonstrating the relationship between corporeal oppression and psychological trauma (15:58)
  • Black speculative fiction in recent popular culture like Black Panther (17:21)

Blue and purple bokeh background. Text reads "Black women's speculative fiction alters the meanings and possibilities of bodyminds in ways that require us to grapple with the mutually constitutive relationships of disability, race, and gender, and the influence of context on these categories as well. Sami Schalk on episode 66 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast"Takeaways

Sami on the foundation of Bodyminds Reimagined

By explicitly representing Black, female, and disabled bodyminds, Black women’s speculative fiction requires us to rethink these categories, their relationships to one another, and how the contexts of these new nonrealistic worlds impact what blackness, disability, and womanhood mean and how they are experienced.

Sami on reaching multiple audiences

First, my hope is that the book reaches and influences not only my main audience of disability studies and Black feminist scholars, but also cultural studies scholars like those here, Black studies and gender studies scholars in general, as well as literature scholars and science fiction scholars. This hope for a very wide interdisciplinary academic audience is reflected in the way that I weave a lot of different kinds of scholarship together and provide a lot of footnotes to help folks who were unfamiliar with certain conversations in my main fields to understand key concepts with references to follow up on later….The second hope is reflected in the book and the style of writing and the content of each chapter’s conclusion….As a disability studies scholar and someone who has learned a lot from fan communities in researching the book, I value accessibility and application beyond my academic colleagues alone.

Sami on the importance of representing disabled bodyminds in speculative fiction

By representing new or different bodyminds, such as werewolf bodyminds or human bodyminds that can time travel, Black women’s speculative fiction forces readers to release some of their assumptions and norms about how bodyminds function, thus changing the rules of interpretation. While this happens in a lot—if not most—speculative fiction, what’s unique about the texts I analyze is that they explicitly engage issues of disability, race, and gender, rather than using general concepts of otherness or creating new categories of otherness through robots, aliens, or artificial intelligence. Those sorts of things are common tropes in speculative media. In his book on race in American science fiction, Isaiah Lavender talks about how science fiction often uses new others like aliens as a way of talking about race without talking about race, as a way of representing racial others without actually representing racial others. By explicitly representing Black, female, and disabled bodyminds, Black women’s speculative fiction requires us to rethink these categories, their relationships to one another, and how the contexts of these new nonrealistic worlds impact what blackness, disability, and womanhood mean and how they are experienced.

Anastasia on Bodyminds Reimagined

First and foremost, Bodyminds Reimagined challenges and interrogates the relationship between blackness and disability as well as gender and sexuality. It makes a critical intervention in the field of disability studies by putting it in conversation with critical race studies and vice versa. In Bodyminds Reimagined, Dr. Schalk prompts us to think about how narratives, ideas, and norms ascribed to disability and ablemindedness in fact intersect with normative beliefs within which blackness is confined. In other words, in considering representation of disability in Black women’s speculative fiction, Bodyminds Reimagined challenges readers to understand how both ableism and anti-blackness rely on a shared set of ideological assumptions.

Anastasia on Bodyminds Reimagined’s role in understanding popular culture

In many ways, Black speculative cultures are increasingly animating contemporary US cultural production in ways that are gradually more familiar to the general public. Representations of disability in popular culture, however, are still largely absent and as Dr. Schalk notes in the book, when people with disabilities are portrayed in literary and visual culture, their portrayals are largely shaped by commonly held assumptions about disability, resulting in representations of people with disabilities as inferior, deficient, juvenile, and often desexualized. In this regard, Dr. Schalk’s book is especially important precisely because it asks a set of important questions about what is missing—specifically in regard to disability in academic scholarship but also in popular representation, our own imaginations, social movements, and, broadly, the public discourse around racial and gender oppression and disability as another axis within intersecting systems of oppression against which we struggle.

More from Sami

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]  Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:22]: Hi Imagine Otherwise fans, glad to have you here. This is episode 66 and is the first episode in a three-part miniseries that was recorded live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at a recent gathering of interdisciplinary cultural studies scholars. Now, this marks the first time I’ve ever done a live show for this podcast, and it was a really great experience. It was a ton of fun to take the podcast on the road. So the three authors featured in this miniseries, Sami Schalk, Ami Hamraie, and Heath Fogg Davis, have all recently published cultural studies books that have made big splashes beyond the academy in the areas of speculative fiction, fan cultures, urban planning and design, law, and public policy. These authors’ books show how the intersections of disability, race, gender, and sexuality have shaped everything from sci-fi/fantasy novels to police violence, curb cut activism, urban architecture, and the design of public restrooms.

[01:20] So first up in this miniseries is Sami Schalk, who’s an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work focuses on the role of disability, race and gender in contemporary American literature and culture, especially African-American literature, speculative fiction, and women’s literature. Her scholarship appears in the African American Review, the Journal of Popular Culture, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, Disability Studies Quarterly, Approaches to Teaching Octavia Butler, and the Routledge Companion to Disability and Media. Sami is the author of the book that we’re here to talk about today, Bodyminds Reimagined: Disability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. That book was published this year by Duke University Press. In the book, Sami explores how Black women writers of speculative fiction reimagine the possibilities as well as the limitations of bodyminds, changing and challenging the way we interpret and understand the categories of disability, race, and gender in the process.

So the way this episode is going to work is that first you’ll hear from Sami about her book and then you’ll hear from Anastasia Kārkliņa, another speculative fiction and African-American studies scholar, who’s going to offer a response to the text as well as some broader provocations about the role of Black women speculative fiction in the current media, political, and economic landscape. So here’s Sami Schalk.

Sami Schalk [02:43]: Okay. Alright. Well, thank you all for coming today and Cathy for inviting me. Thank you Anastasia for being willing to provide commentary.

I have an access version of my remarks on my website, so for folks listening on a podcast, if you go to Samischalk.com, there’s an electronic access version where you can read along with what I’m talking about today.

So as, as Cathy said, I’m a professor of gender women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. My research mostly focuses on race, gender, and disability in American literature and culture, most often African-American literature, speculative fiction, um, but sometimes children’s literature, film, and material culture. I came to speculative fiction through the work of Octavia Butler. So if there are any Octavia Butler fans, I’d be happy to talk more about her. Specific to our discussion later, I spent a month in her archive at the Huntington Library and have published two articles with archival material that didn’t make it into the book. I’m so I’m happy to geek out on Butler too. Even though I became a fan of speculative fiction late in life, I have now totally bought in in terms of my intellectual and pedagogical investments.

[4:00] So in addition to talking about the book, I’m also happy to talk about pedagogical strategies for using texts like which I analyzed in the book in the classroom.

So the book, Bodyminds Reimagined: Disability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, explorers, how Black women writers of speculative fiction reimagine the possibilities and limits of bodyminds, thereby changing the way we understand and interpret social categories like race, gender, and disability. I’d like to start off by talking a bit about the key terms in the book and then I’ll discuss the main argument and provide an example.

So first I used the titular term bodymind after disability studies scholar Margaret Price. It refers to the inextricable relationship between the mind and the body, the way that we are actually singular beings whose physical and mental experiences and processes impact one another and disability studies. This is a useful concept because something like chronic pain can impact one’s ability to focus and something like depression can cause exhaustion and fatigue. Bodyminds in disability studies allows us to better recognize the holistic way impairments influence people.

For my work and speculative fiction, which I use in the book to mean any nonrealist writing, bodyminds is especially important because of what bodyminds—bodies and minds—can do. The way physical and mental processes work and impact each other and the world can be very different in speculative fiction than in our reality, like having psychic powers.

[05:29] So for many of the texts I examine, bodyminds is a better way to talk about disability in nonreal settings.

Second, I used the term (dis)ability with the dis in parentheses throughout the book. Sometimes people use this term or put a slash between dis/ability to indicate that disabled people have abilities too. I want to make clear that my use of (dis)ability is based in the need for a term for the way we use, for example, gender to refer to a number of gender identities and categories. I use (dis)ability, therefore, as a parallel to race, gender, sexuality, and class, which are all social systems. And I use disability and ability without the parentheses to indicate the specific categories within this larger social system which differentiates between and values or devalues certain bodyminds based on ability, appearance, and behavioral norms.

[06:29] While the (dis)ability designation is not great for verbal talks or podcasts, it serves an important function in my writing and theorizing. Bodyminds Reimagined primarily intervenes in the whiteness of disability studies and in the lack of engagement with disability in Black feminist theory by closely analyzing how Black women writers represent and reimagine disability and its relationship to categories of race, gender, and sexuality. The main argument of the book is that the reimagining of bodyminds performed in Black women’s speculative fiction changes the rules of interpretation, requiring modes of analysis which take into account both the relationships between disability, race, and gender, and the context in which these categories exist.

[7:32] So let me break that down a little bit first. By representing new or different bodyminds, such as werewolf bodyminds or human bodyminds that can time travel, Black women’s speculative fiction forces readers to release some of their assumptions and norms about how bodyminds function, thus changing the rules of interpretation. While this happens in a lot—if not most—speculative fiction, what’s unique about the texts I analyze is that they explicitly engage issues of disability, race, and gender, rather than using general concepts of otherness or creating new categories of otherness through robots, aliens, or artificial intelligence. Those sorts of things are common tropes in speculative media. In his book on race in American science fiction, Isaiah Lavender talks about how science fiction often uses new others like aliens as a way of talking about race without talking about race, as a way of representing racial others without actually representing racial others. By explicitly representing Black, female, and disabled bodyminds, Black women’s speculative fiction requires us to rethink these categories, their relationships to one another, and how the contexts of these new nonrealistic worlds impact what blackness, disability, and womanhood mean and how they are experienced.

[08:38] So I’ll do a concrete example of this from the third chapter of the book. I analyze Octavia Butler’s Parable series. Um, if you’re not familiar with the two-book series, which Butler unfortunately never completed before her death, it is set in California in the 2020s for book one and then between 2032 and 2090 for book two. In this near-future world, the US is in a dystopian state of affairs due to failed public infrastructure and climate change. The books focus on the life of Lauren Oya Olamina, a Black woman with a disability called hyperempathy, which causes her to literally experience the pain and pleasure she sees people around her experiencing. So here we already see how Lauren’s bodymind has been reimagined to function differently than any bodymind in our current reality, yet she is still marked as disabled. Throughout the series we see Lauren’s reimagined bodymind is also influenced by her race and gender.

[09:35] She passes as a man to keep herself safe from violence because if she has to fight, she experiences the pain of her opponent or, in one particularly traumatic scene, the pleasure of her rapist. So this is an example of how categories influence one another. If Lauren wasn’t particularly vulnerable due to her disability and gender, she might not need to pass as a man while traveling. Then there’s also a more cumulative effect because Lauren has to work harder to gain the trust of those around her. As a young Black, disabled woman who seeks to become a leader in the midst of nationwide decline into chaos, in addition to Lauren’s identities impacting one another, the series also shows how context matters in terms of how we interpret social categories like race, gender, and disability in speculative fiction. So in a dystopian society where violence is common, being a woman traveling is extremely dangerous and thus we have to make sure not to interpret Lauren passing as a man as an indication of trans or queer identity, but as a pragmatic choice for safety in this context.

[10:42] Similarly, Lauren’s disability is strongly impacted by context as well. In a different world, a utopian world, feeling people’s pain and pleasure could be a mostly positive experience. In fact, several scholars interpret hyperempathy as a power, but in the world of the Parable series, Lauren’s hyperempathy can be very dangerous to both her and her travel companions because if they have to fight, especially with guns, Lauren can easily be knocked out or severely hurt. In the full book chapter, I address how other scholars have discussed Lauren’s hyperempathy very differently than I do, and I also engage issues of diversity and technology in the future, especially disability preventing and curing technologies—which is kind of an obsession in western culture. For the sake of time though, I hope that this example illustrates the main argument of Bodyminds Reimagined: that Black women’s speculative fiction alters the meanings and possibilities of bodyminds in ways that require us to grapple with the mutually constitutive relationships of disability, race, and gender, and the influence of context on these categories as well.

[11:49] To close, I want to say a little bit about my hopes for the book and how these hopes shaped the way it was written. First, my hope is that the book reaches and influences not only my main audience of disability studies and Black feminist scholars, but also cultural studies scholars like those here, Black studies and gender studies scholars in general, um, as well as literature scholars and science fiction scholars. This hope for a very wide interdisciplinary academic audience is reflected in the way that I weave a lot of different kinds of scholarship together and provide a lot of footnotes to help folks who were unfamiliar with certain conversations in my main fields to understand key concepts with references to follow up on later.

Second, my hope is that the book is interesting and useful to non-academics—mainly fans of feminist, Black, and disability-related speculative fiction, as well as undergraduate students and speculative fiction writers themselves.

[12:46] The second hope is reflected in the book and the style of writing and the content of each chapter’s conclusion. In terms of style, I work hard to write in plain, clear language that is accessible to a wide audience. As a disability studies scholar and someone who has learned a lot from fan communities in researching the book, I value accessibility and application beyond my academic colleagues alone. I also take care in each chapter to end with how the topic of the chapter relates to issues in the wider world. For example, in chapter two, I discussed how constructions of ablemindedness are embedded in current issues with police brutality against Black people and in the conclusion to the book I discuss the importance of pleasure.

I’m lucky enough to already begin seeing my hopes for the book come to fruition with this session here today and with a similar panel on the book last week at WisCon, an annual feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin. And in August, I’ll be talking about some themes and arguments from the book at WakandaCon, which will be a Black Panther convention happening in Chicago and I’m very excited about that.

So to wrap up, if you are interested in purchasing the book and you are physically here, Big Idea Books, a local independent bookstore here in Pittsburgh, has it available. Otherwise, the book is available on Amazon and directly from Duke University Press.

I look forward to hearing comments and questions. Thank you.

Cathy Hannabach [14:10]: So next up we have a respondent, Anastasia Kārkliņa, who’s a doctoral candidate in the graduate program of literature at Duke University with certificates in African American studies and feminist theory. She holds a BA in African and African American studies and political science also from Duke University. Her work broadly focuses on the study of race in US culture, and her research and pedagogical interests include twentieth-century Black literature and cultural theory. So here’s Anastasia.

Anastasia Kārkliņa [14:52]: Great, thank you so much for having me here. It is a great pleasure to respond to the book and I’m excited to hear Dr. Schalk’s talk because I think some of my remarks today will kind of speak to some of the nonacademic and academic applications of the book, something that excited me about this publication.

So I want to begin by saying that it is a special time to read and to have an opportunity to discuss Dr. Sami Schalk’s new book, Bodyminds Reimagined: Disability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. So first and foremost, then, Bodyminds Reimagined challenges and interrogates the relationship between blackness and disability as well as gender and sexuality. It makes a critical intervention in the field of disability studies by putting it in conversation with critical race studies and vice versa. In Bodyminds Reimagined, Dr. Schalk prompts us to think about how narratives, ideas, and norms ascribed to disability and ablemindedness in fact intersect with normative beliefs within which blackness is confined. In other words, in considering representation of disability in Black women’s speculative fiction, Bodyminds Reimagined challenges readers to understand how both ableism and anti -blackness rely on a shared set of ideological assumptions.

[15:58] This intervention is significant not only because it offers a critical intervention in these fields, but also because the critical work performed in this book resonates widely to social issues facing us all today. For instance, the concept of bodymind, which is central to this book, is worth discussing precisely because of the way in which it disrupts the binary separation between the body and the mind, instead offering a different kind of epistemology that sees body and mind as inherently interconnected and resisting this body/mind binary. The term itself open opens up a space for considering the relationship between material oppression enacted on marginalized bodies and the subsequent psychological and emotional stress. One material example is, for instance, emotional trauma and psychological violence experienced by people of color who are living in these United States, something that Dr. Schalk expands on in the book.

[16:56] To further explain what I refer to here, um, I should say that what I found fascinating and especially useful in terms of thinking about the book in the context of contemporary culture and politics is Dr. Schalk’s discussion of Phyllis Alesia Perry’s novel Stigmata in the second chapter. In this chapter, Dr. Schalk addresses the ways in which discourses of ablemindedness and mental disability are employed to justify continued violence against Black people.

Over the last several years and certainly recently, we have observed a widespread and one may argue even a renewed interest in the speculative—both as a genre and a critical perspective, a way of negotiating our lived realities in a world that is characterized by instabilities, persistent injustices, and speculations about the imminent future. This is evident in the way that speculative cultures more broadly have introduced symbols and signs that have come to acquire a set of meanings in the collective common sense in popular culture as well as in social movements.

[17:54] So for instance, one way to think about the circulation of these signs is to recall the popular adaptation of the handmaid’s costume from the recent TV show A Handmaid’s Tale as a symbol of feminist resistance. Or the recent circulation of the Wakanda salute from the Black Panther film as a sign of racial belonging and celebratory pride. So I’m also here thinking about the production of films such as Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, and Get Out! or television series like Luke Cage, the HBO production of Nnedi Okorafor’s futuristic novel Who Fears Death, and Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn.

In many ways, Black speculative cultures are increasingly animating contemporary US cultural production in ways that are gradually more familiar to the general public. Representations of disability in popular culture, however, are still largely absent and as Dr. Schalk notes in the book, when people with disabilities are portrayed in literary and visual culture, their portrayals are largely shaped by commonly held assumptions about disability, resulting in representations of people with disabilities as inferior, deficient, juvenile, and often desexualized. In this regard, Dr. Schalk’s book is especially important precisely because it asks a set of important questions about what is missing—specifically in regard to disability in academic scholarship but also in popular representation, our own imaginations, social movements, and, broadly, the public discourse around racial and gender oppression and disability as another axis within intersecting systems of oppression against which we struggle.

Cathy Hannabach [19:35]: So this concludes episode 66 with Sami Schalk. Keep an ear out for the next two episodes in this miniseries featuring two more scholars whose recent books bring together disability studies, transgender studies, cultural studies, and feminist theory: Aimi Hamraie and Heath Fogg Davis.

[upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]