Utopian Q&A: Jan Fortune
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Jan Fortune blogs at Becoming a Different Story, where she also develops courses and resources for writers keen to change their own stories and that of the world. She is is the founding editor of Cinnamon Press, publishing poetry, literary fiction and selective non-fiction in areas such as utopia and creativity. You can find out more about Jan’s Casilda trilogy and her creative writing book Writing Down Deep.
Rowan Fortune: It has been over half a millennium since Thomas More wrote Utopia, coining the name of a genre that applied literary wit to the dream of a better world. This conversation of texts played a pivotal role in shaping the narratives of modernity, as well as the novel, modern prose fiction’s most distinctive medium. However, the utopian imagination has also been read back into the earliest human stories.
Humanity is at a crisis point, beset by systemic catastrophes of ecology, economy and political legitimacy, the basis of which can be found in the upheavals of More’s period—the land enclosures and earliest intimations of industrial revolution. Utopia is often said to be at a low point, relatively dormant since its flowering in the 1970s. And yet, even discounting other mediums, novelists continue to explore utopia; for example, in the work of Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alan Jaccobs, Robert Llewellyn, Ada Palmer, Nisi Shawl, and Cory Doctorow.
Even in dystopian times, this imaginative leap makes its simple demand on artists.
What is your earliest memory of utopia?
JF: This is hard to answer as I wouldn't have conceived this as utopia at the time, but I think an inner imaginary world as a child had a strong element of utopia in a dysfunctional home. It was fed by BBC children’s programming from the early 60s such as Stingray (more Cold War than Utopian in its attempt to construct a world government, but which gave me the character Marina who became my ever-present imaginary friend); Sara & Hoppity, which introduced a magical toy and Bizzy Lizzy, with the ability to make wishes that changed reality. My internal utopia was a lived with a small group: Marina, a bear called Goldy, a witch who was not evil and a crocodile and was a liminal space of escape.
More formally, as a teenager, I played Margaret in an interpretative production of More’s Utopia.
Are there facets of society you can imagine becoming utopian?
There are threads in so many places. We have just seen that the world can go on pause, giving the chance to reconsider how we interact with our environment, but the monolithic power of capital is unlikely to follow through. We’ve seen an autonomous zone arise but quickly end in chaos due to violence from outside and from within, perhaps because a utopia also attracts the desperate and those so damaged that they can only take. I can imagine families, groups, communities… establishing small, piecemeal utopias and I can see resonances of this in society, but I’m less optimistic of political will at a societal level. But the question is about imagination, so I also have to say: yes. We can imagine this. Utopian thinking is urgent and stories do change. Whole paradigms shift at points when previous myths have degenerated or no longer address the needs of culture. Which facets can I imagine? Most immediately those of human relationships or equality and respect including education, which is non-coercive and learner-centred. And of wider connections with the environment that we are part of and thrive with or die with. All of which fundamentally challenges the current economic bastions.
How is utopia most expressed in your life?
In my work with how we live and are the story and can change the story. Integral to this work is the view that becoming a different story is always urgent for individuals, communities and societies. And perhaps now more than ever. This is the work of supporting connections and of refusing to give in to despair.
If you had to live in a fictional utopia, which and why?
Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. The society that Connie receives in unceasingly real visions of the near and possible future is one that prioritises equality and includes strong feminist, anti-racist, anti-genderist and anti-classist threads, effective environmental ethics, complete re-imagination of parenthood and education, and of attitudes to mental health, decentralised local governance within a wider whole, food justice, and an end to consumerism and imperialism.
I’d choose it because I resonate with many of its values, including its critique of current power relationships and the treatment of anyone outside the ruling capitalist patriarchy (Connie is a struggling Mexican-American single mother juggling complex issues of mental health, poverty, child custody and sexual violence). I also like that it tackles issues of sexist or genderist language, takes children seriously as full human beings. Furthermore, whilst building a picture of a communal life, it also addresses how its members inner landscapes and sense of self within the whole can be developed for the healthy flourishing of both.
It imagines a different story, ultimately one in which resistance and mutiny are validated against oppression.
How has the idea of utopia influenced your writing?
Most comprehensively in a trilogy of novels, The Casilda Trilogy, which uses tropes from Don Quixote to envisage a complex relationship played out across centuries, but interacting with the politics of oppression across time, whether the religious divides of Moorish Spain and beyond, the economic and social upheaval of 1970s North of England or the repressive regime of Hungary at the point of the 1950s uprising. The title of each novel in the trilogy is a Don Quixote quote and what begins as an apparently coming of age stories of two young women in late 1970s Teesside gradually widens to examine how connection and relationship operate as a metaphor for re-imagining life. The arc is held together by a key quote:
When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. … — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be. — Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Most recently, my non-fiction writing on the writing life, both in my blog and the book Writing Down Deep, an alchemy of the writing life, is strongly influenced by utopia and is designed for writers who want to dive deeply into their creative flow and into the extraordinary power of writing to affect individuals and the world.
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