Reimagining the Homeland Through Speculative Fiction
Date: 
August 15, 2022

Speculative fiction as a genre is conducive to diasporic literature, particularly for Palestinian writers, because it combines several literary genres that, when put together, speak to the experiences of Palestinians in Occupied Palestine and in exile. By bringing together seemingly disparate genres, speculative fiction becomes an expansive one—wide and varied enough to encompass the multitude of lived realities and future hopes of Palestinians all over the world.

Since 2019, there have been notable publications of speculative fiction by Palestinian writers. These include the anthologies Palestine +100: Stories From a Century After the Nakba, edited by Basma Ghalayini, and Reworlding Ramallah, edited by Callum Copley, as well as the Palestinian speculative fiction-specific issues of science fiction magazine Strange Horizons and literary fiction magazine Fiyah. The literary pieces reimagine the homeland through the lens of the explicable (technology) and the inexplicable (the supernatural). 

Marek Oziewicz, a professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature at The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, defines speculative fiction as follows:

“The term ‘speculative fiction’ has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating ‘consensus reality’ of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more.” 

The complexities of life under a violent occupation and in the global diaspora do not lend themselves to one single, straightforward genre. Speculative fiction is particularly appropriate given its “exclusive focus on possible futures.” Futurism as a subgenre hinges on the belief that a particular group of people will exist in the future and their continued existence is reflected in fiction to that effect. 

As Palestinians, especially those in Occupied Palestine, are suffering ongoing ethnic cleansing, it is not farfetched to say that all Palestinian fiction is futurism. Because Palestinian futurism imagines Palestinians surviving into the future, Palestinian fiction is inherently anticolonialist: continued existence implies resistance. 

The focus on futurism is a central theme in Palestinian speculative fiction. The Nakba didn’t end in 1948 — it is ongoing — thus the geopolitical struggles of the present perpetually affect Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the ability to act upon the right of return. As the editor of Palestine +100, Basma Ghalayini writes in the book’s introduction, “The real future — the actual future — is unknowable. But for SF [science fiction] writers, the mere idea of ‘things to come’ is license to re-imagine, re-configure, and re-interrogate the present.” 

The aforementioned publications help the reader imagine the Palestine of the future, thus making our present an alternative history in fiction. 

The stories include a simulation that makes people falsely believe that Palestine has been liberated; aliens who draw the borders for a two-state solution; ghosts testing their pre-1948 housekeys in the locks of homes now occupied by settlers; and the last living Palestinian who must be kept alive in an energy-absorbing glass box because he houses the energy of every Palestinian before him. The stories seldom feature Zionists as significant characters — at most, they are mentioned in passing.

Though these are narratives of resilience and fear, the stories often contain an element of indirect revenge. The Palestinian characters do not seek to violently colonize the Zionists in a tit-for-tat manner – instead, they convey a hope that justice will be served, even beyond the main character’s death, when they will not be around to witness it.

While the presence of Palestinians in a future era indicates hope for and belief in the survival of Palestinians, this does not mean that all Palestinian speculative fiction is inherently hopeful or uplifting. Most often, these stories portray Palestinians living with the same injustices they experience today, only amplified and made worse by the presence of future technologies. 

“In all cases, the future’s technology, though designed to ease conflict and ameliorate trauma, manages only to exacerbate it,” Ghalayini warns the reader.

Because the future is, more often than not, an inevitability that will lead to further distress, there is an implied nostalgia in the anthologies. Ghalayini describes this phenomenon:

“When Palestinians write, they write about their past through their present, knowingly or unknowingly. Their writing is, in part, a search for their lost inheritance, as well as an attempt to keep the memory of that loss from fading.”

Nadia Shammas and Summer Farah, the editors of the Palestinian speculative fiction issue of Fiyah magazine, elaborate further in their Letter from the Editors at the magazine’s opening:

“The ability to imagine another world is vital to producing a better future. The ability to imagine another world is vital to processing the pains of this one.”  

They do not say imagine a better world—only “another world.” 

While bodies are subject to the confines of the Occupation’s border walls, guard towers, and checkpoints, imaginations are not. Even when imagining a future worse than the present, writing these stories is an act of defiant freedom and resistance to apartheid. Or, as Shammas and Farah articulate, “Speculative fiction provides the ability for Palestinians to reject the present, to reject the oppressor’s gaze upon our identities and imaginations. We counter them with our own fantasies and realities.”

Even when the Palestine of the future is worse off than the Palestine of today, there is one key difference: nearly every short story depicts Palestinians with agency. Using some of the aforementioned story details as examples, the characters can choose to leave the simulation that makes them believe Palestine has been liberated and experience it as it really is; the last Palestinian on earth may be trapped in a glass box, but he can still release the ghosts of his fallen comrades to haunt settlers. While the characters may not be superhuman or able to improve their lot in their fictitious lives, they do not go down without a fight. 

 

About The Author: 

Mandy Shunnarah (they/them) is a Palestinian-American writer based in Columbus, Ohio. They studied English literature at Birmingham-Southern College and have been writing professionally since 2009. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, is forthcoming from Belt Publishing. Read more on their website, mandyshunnarah.com

Press Here

Read more