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Exploring the Unseen: Interview with M. Asli Dukan (Director of "Invisible Universe")

Shadow and Act By Stephanie | Shadow and Act April 20, 2011 at 8:25AM

African American science fiction, fantasy, and horror—all of which fall under speculative fiction—has been developing for over a century now. Its tradition has its roots throughout the African Diaspora, but for Americans the voyage into a fantastical world has held a special appeal. Rising out of a need to escape from the lasting essence of slavery, the emergence of Jim Crow, and second class citizenry, utopian fiction provided hope for a better future.
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African American science fiction, fantasy, and horror—all of which fall under speculative fiction—has been developing for over a century now. Its tradition has its roots throughout the African Diaspora, but for Americans the voyage into a fantastical world has held a special appeal. Rising out of a need to escape from the lasting essence of slavery, the emergence of Jim Crow, and second class citizenry, utopian fiction provided hope for a better future.

Over the years the genre has expanded, maintaining social consciousness but also expanding beyond the conventions of our reality. The products of this ever-expanding universe, a hidden universe, have been documented in M. Asli Dukan’s Invisible Universe: A History of Blackness in Speculative Fiction. As we’ve talked about in prior posts (HERE and HERE), the filmmaker is still in the process of finishing this important film, but we wanted to have a chat with her to find out who and what lives in the Invisible Universe.

African American science fiction, fantasy, and horror—all of which fall under speculative fiction—has been developing for over a century now. Its tradition has its roots throughout the African Diaspora, but for Americans the voyage into a fantastical world has held a special appeal. Rising out of a need to escape from the lasting essence of slavery, the emergence of Jim Crow, and second class citizenry, utopian fiction provided hope for a better future.

Over the years the genre has expanded, maintaining social consciousness but also expanding beyond the conventions of our reality. The products of this ever-expanding universe, a hidden universe, have been documented in M. Asli Dukan’s Invisible Universe: A History of Blackness in Speculative Fiction. As we’ve talked about in prior posts (HERE and HERE), the filmmaker is still in the process of finishing this important film, but we wanted to have a chat with her to find out who and what lives in the Invisible Universe.

Newark, New Jersey native M. Alsi Dukan started production on Invisible Universe by happenstance when she attended a Howard University black speculative fiction conference in 2003. In attendance were the likes of Tananarive Due, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, and Nalo Hopkinson. Before heading down to the conference Asli contacted the organizer of the event and asked if she could film it. Of course the answer was “yes”, and she became the documentarian for the weekend conference. Seemingly unintamidated by their status, Asli approached several of the authors for interviews.

I guess the excitement and the importance of [the documentary] kind of took over any fear I had. I went up to everybody, and you know, people didn’t know me—they didn’t know me at the time. And, you know, they were like “yes, yes, I’ll give you my agent’s email,” and that kind of thing. But I was persistent. I just kept pushing along and the project kept me going, it’s like the first time it’s being done. It kind of didn’t really occur to me until, well, in hind-sight.

Her persistence paid off, and with interviews booked, she began rigorous work on her project, which she considers a thesis of sorts.

As I started to research the writers and their work, I did a little more research in general about black representation in science fiction in literature. I was more of a movie fan when I was younger than a literature fan, and a whole new world started to open up to me. Things that I didn’t know existed before. And I thought it would be a more interesting project to cover film and literature. And basically that’s how it started.

Over time, as she began delving into research and tracking down both established and new authors, Asli found a welcoming support in the late prolific author Octavia E. Butler.

Octavia was our treasure, for sure. And a true indeed science fiction fan. She said when she was a child she used to go to the library and read every [science fiction] book out there–as a child. Before Octavia passed away, I had become a friend of hers. I had followed her around to conferences and interviewed her. And she knew me by my first name, if she saw me she knew me. I talked to her on the phone a couple times, we emailed each other. Octavia was a very interesting woman. She used to say that she was not anti-social, but asocial; she was just naturally a person who was to herself. I don’t know if you’ve seen her in talks, where she seemed maybe not open and warm, but she really was she was just very shy. Once she got to know you she was very warm and loving, and open, and a teacher—a great person to know, and to listen to you talk.

Answering a Question

For those of us who love speculative fiction, and all that it encompasses, the question of how black people fit into the paradigm of the genre is often posed. Invisible Universe seeks to provide an answer, pulling from a rich timeline that goes back more than a century. Asli recalls such works as Martin Delaney’s slave rebellion novel Blake or the Huts of America, as an example of utopian fiction, then moves forward in time to the present.

The title [Invisible Universe] in my mind kind of explains what the theme is. People just in general ask about science fiction, fantasy, horror, and how black representation has been associated with it. In my research I found that there are a lot of contributions by black creators in the genre of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And [this documentary] is to say that we are a major part of the genres. So while we are invisible to maybe the popular culture, we are a universe nonetheless, we’re there.

Asli found that black authors used the genres as not only a natural way to express their hopes and desires of a better world for themselves and their people, but also as a way to include themselves into an emerging genre that had overlooked them.

While the genres were going through a process of being created and growing, and excluding representations of blackness in general, there were black folk who recognized that omission and used maybe, for instance, the techniques of utopian fiction to include themselves, to include us. Utopian fiction at the turn of the century, the early 1900s, was very popular type of fiction that looked to the future, to utopian societies that were better than the one we were living in. And maybe they didn’t call their work “utopian fiction”, but they wrote about futures where black folks were treated equally, or they were free. It’s been a conscious inclusion of black people by black writers.
The timeline for Invisible Universe is divided into six sections, following the evolution and forms speculative fiction genre. Asli starts with utopian fiction, then moves on to zombie fiction (esp. films), science fiction, blaxploitation and mythology, superheroes in comic books, and modern fiction.

Looking at our history in this country, coming out of slavery and being forced into illiteracy for so long, when black people got into the position to do more writing, it was around the time when science fiction started to burgeon a little bit more. All cultures have mythical stories, black Americans had mythology too, we told stories about cosmology, shape-shifting, magic, and alien abduction.Through Invisible Universe Asli hopes to inform wide audiences, but she has a special interest in educating black youth on the history and promise of the genre for themselves. Not short on big ideas and the moxie to see them through Asli recalls that, even so, reaffirmation through fictionwithout boundaries, might have shaped her life differently.

When I was a young person I loved science fiction movies, but I always saw that I wasn’t represented. And it was hard, it was a hard kind of balance between loving something so much—[something] that looked to the future, that saw different societies, different things that could be for human beings—and not really seeing yourself in those images reflected back at you. I think that if this documentary was out when I was young, it would’ve given me not just pride or hope for the future, but it might have changed my life, about what I thought I could do as an African American. I could see myself as an astronaut, or I could see myself as a captain of a space station. It wouldn’t have been so weird for me to say “I want to do that”. I might have changed my life, giving me some hope that anything is possible.

The Home Stretch

M. Asli Dukan has primarily worked on this film by herself, bringing along temporary players here and there. She’s drawn from a number of financial sources, including fiscal sponsorship, fundraisers, merchandise sales, and applying for a number of grants. This labor of love has meant many sacrifices in time and money, but I get the feeling that Ms. Dukan wouldn’t have it any other way. In this last phase of production, she’s looking to add the essential finishing touches.

While I am an editor, and I have equipment to edit, post-production is a large undertaking to get something polished, it takes a lot of time and money. It’s just getting all the material gathered up, good sound, good music, good images, color correction, and all that stuff that needs to be done by people outside of myself [laughs]. And also there are going to be clips in the movies in the project, and just dealing with the legal aspects [of that].

Asli’s currently working on another campaign through Fractured Atlas (for fiscal sponsorship) and IndieGoGo (which is partnered with Fractured Atlas) to raise finishing funds for her documentary. You can find that campaign HERE. Visit the Invisible Universe documentary site HERE.

For all of you speculative fiction fans that have been waiting for a compelling documentary that explores the history (and the future) in this expansive genre, be sure to follow and lend support to this wonderful project.


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