A Hopepunk Guide: Interview with Alexandra Rowland

We talked to author Alexandra Rowland about hopepunk, a term she coined in 2017.

Author Alexandra Rowland and the cover for her book A Choir of Lies

This interview with Alexandra Rowland (A Choir of Lies) was part of my research for “Are You Afraid of the Darkness: A Guide to Hopepunk,” a feature written for Den of Geek’s New York Comic Con print magazine that delved into the hopepunk term, first coined by Rowland in 2017. I recommend beginning with that article before diving into this full interview transcript.

Den of Geek: What is your current definition of hopepunk?

Alexandra Rowland: Well, there’s the glib answer: “Hopepunk is the opposite of grimdark”, and there’s the more nuanced answer: Hopepunk is a subgenre and a philosophy that “says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.” (from my essay,“One Atom of Justice, One Molecule of Mercy, and the Empire of Unsheathed Knives,” which is the closest thing that I’ve written to a hopepunk manifesto.) Whichever you choose, it’s important to remember that punk is the operative half of the word – punk in the sense of anti-authoritarianism and punching back against oppression.

Has that definition of “hopepunk” changed since you first coined it in 2017?

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Yes and no. The heart of it hasn’t changed at all, but my efforts to remind people of the angry part of hopepunk definitely have grown. The instinct is to make it only about softness and kindness, because those are what we’re most hungry for. We all want to be treated gently. But sometimes the kindest thing you can do for someone is to stand up to a bully on their behalf, and that takes guts and rage.

Do you consider hopepunk a genre or something else?

I mostly talk about it in the sense of a subgenre, yes – similar to how we use the words grimdark or cyberpunk. But it’s important to remember that the sorts of stories that we tell (and how we tell them) reflect our values and perspectives on the world, or at least a value or perspective that we’re striving to understand in some way.

By telling hopepunk stories, we necessarily have to be asking questions like, “How do we care about each other in a world which so aggressively doesn’t care about so many of the people in our communities? Who do we consider community, and is that definition too narrow? How do we fight back against the people who want to make us sit down and shut up?”

By asking ourselves these questions, hopepunk expands from simple “genre” to an entire life philosophy. It sticks in the back of your head and changes you, a little bit.

What are your favorite examples of hopepunk?

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Sense8, Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the Russian movie Stilyagi – these are all amazing (and sometimes difficult and emotional) works. But as far as I’m concerned, the face of hopepunk is Sam Vimes, a character from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. He’s a gritty, hardened cop who is introduced when he’s lying blind-drunk in a ditch. He’s tired, he’s flawed, he’s jaded and cynical… And yet he still, right at the basement foundations of his heart, believes in something. He gets out of the ditch, sobers up, gets his life in order. He holds onto his principles with a white-knuckled grip because he knows how easily they could slip away from him. He knows how easy and comfortable it would be to let himself become corrupted by his cynicism. But he stands up, sometimes against whole armies, and refuses to budge from what he knows is right and just. He is the very embodiment of: “No, you move.” And they do. The whole world does.

How intentional was that initial post? Was “hopepunk” something you had spent a lot of time thinking about before you wrote that initial Tumblr post?

Hah, the first Tumblr post was just that glib line “Hopepunk is the opposite of grimdark” and it was entirely off-the-cuff. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when people were reblogging it and saying, “Wait, I think there’s something here and I think I understand it instinctively, but can you explain so I can be sure?” that I started actually examining what I meant and discovered that oh, actually, yeah, this is important and it’s something that I care about deeply.

I have seen some criticism, generally, of the overuse of the word “punk” as a suffix. Do you ever wish you had used a different word? Were there other words/phrases you considered?

We think that “punk” as a suffix has been overused because many of the recent genres that have invoked it did so for aesthetics (ie: to reference “cyberpunk”, the first instance of the compound), rather than because it meant something, and that’s annoying. Cyberpunk is punk. Steampunk is not – in fact, steampunk often reinforces the imperialist, colonialist narrative and ideals, which is the opposite of punk.

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I have never wished I used a different word. The purpose of language is to communicate meaning clearly, and “hopepunk” seems to have carried its own meaning with delightful efficiency.

Do you think there’s something specific to Tumblr as a social platform that allowed hopepunk as a vibe to flourish?

I think that the very format of Tumblr was part of it – while Tumblr is terrible for having an actual conversation with someone, there’s one thing it’s really good for: you can write an essay as long as you want and then people can share it effortlessly. With Livejournal and Dreamwidth, you could do the former, but not the latter. With Twitter, you can do the latter, but the former is tedious in the extreme. That said, hopepunk didn’t stay on Tumblr very long. People were crossposting screenshots of the post to Facebook and Twitter within the first 48 hours.

I think that hopepunk as a vibe flourished simply because it was the summer of 2017. We had a new president and the world was terrible and frightening. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and whether it was too late to change anything, and so many of us were looking around for… something. Guidance, or comfort, or a promise that Good would eventually triumph, or ways that we could make a difference and heal the world. We were starving for stories that would tell us how and why to resist. I didn’t invent the vibe – the vibe was already there and already burning. All I did was name it.

Were you surprised by the amount of attention this Tumblr post and hopepunk as an idea has gotten?

Initially, I was just vaguely bemused that anyone was listening to me, but at the same time I understood intellectually why hopepunk was resonating with people. Simply put: they were hurting, and hopepunk was a thing that helped comfort the hurt. In hindsight, I’m just very happy – when so many people find a philosophy like hopepunk meaningful and compelling… it sorta restores a bit of your faith in humanity, doesn’t it? Maybe all is not yet lost, if there are enough people around to say, “Oh. Yes, this.”

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Why do you think there is a need for an idea like hopepunk right now? Do you think culture is becoming more or less hopepunk?

There is a need for hopepunk because our president is a fascist. Because there are children dying in concentration camps within our borders. Because Jeff Bezos makes nearly nine million dollars per hour while his warehouse employees risk homelessness. Because we think it’s normal that people should go bankrupt if they get ill and need medical assistance, or that they should get an Uber to the hospital instead of an ambulance. Because climate change is real. Because children have safety drills to practice what to do in case of an armed shooter in their school. Because racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism exist.And there is a need for hopepunk because it reminds us that these dragons can be slain. Because it reminds us that there’s power in a union, that communties banding together can make a difference. Because the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. We’ve beaten them before, and we can beat them again, and the next time after that. The work is never finished, and the fight is never permanently won. But we keep fighting anyway, because it is the fight itself, not “winning”, that’s the point.

As to whether we’re growing more or less hopepunk… It is easy to embrace despair and to think that the world is unrelentingly terrible, but at the end of the day, we’re all just human. As individual humans, we haven’t appreciably changed in tens of thousands of years. We still struggle with personal flaws and failings, we’re still rude and inconsiderate and selfish, and we’re still all making the same mistakes that our ancestors were making hundreds and thousands of years ago. And yet, as a society, we haven’t managed to kill each other off yet, and we do keep striving relentlessly towards something better.

Do you think of hopepunk as a reactive idea? Does it have to be in relation to grimdark/noblebright or is it something bigger than that?

I think that all genres are reactive — the purpose of storytelling is to show us possibility, andauthors, since they are humans living in the world (sounds fake, I know), naturally react to the social context around them. Trends in horror movies, for example, reflect the shared cultural fears that we face. In the wake of WWII, the horror genre was fixated on the monstrous side effects of radiation. In the wake of 9/11, we got a spate of horror movies about airplanes.

Grimdark and hopepunk are reactive to two opposite social contexts — they are the man standing at Julius Caesar’s shoulder as he rides his chariot through the cheering crowds, whispering to the emperor: “This too shall pass.” In some contexts, it is a warning (grimdark). In others, a comfort (hopepunk).

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You are involved in lots of fandom spaces. (Love your Good Omens fanvids! Thank you for your service!) Do you think transformative fanworks tend to be more hopepunk than mainstream works or curatorial fandom?

Oh absolutely. I think of transformative fanworks as Marxist creativity. It is a group of people literally seizing the means of production and making the canon anew in their own image, often because so many of us haven’t seen ourselves reflected in mainstream media. Also I just have big feelings about Art being an ongoing conversation, and how Fan Art is a valid and legitimate part of the conversation and that it deserves to be acknowledged and honored. (And on that note, thank you for the lovely compliment!)

Tell me about Choir of Lies. Would you consider it hopepunk?

A Choir of Lies is the standalone sequel (meaning they’re a thematic pair but you can read them in either order) to my debut fantasy novel from last year, A Conspiracy of Truths. They are about fake news and the power of stories, and Choir specifically is about fantasy tulip mania, grief, recovery from trauma, and how we use stories to heal ourselves. It was deliberately and explicitly written with hopepunk in mind — problems are solved by communities rather than by heroic individuals, and sometimes the most important and meaningful thing that you can do is to make a small and simple gesture of kindness, something on the scale of holding out a hand to help someone who’s tripped. Small, yes, but important — and to the person who is receiving the gesture, it might change everything.

More generally, do you intentionally try to write hopepunk stories?

In general, yes, I do tend to. I write about characters being emotionally vulnerable with each other and relying on communties and networks of support, and characters who knowingly engage with systems of power and oppression. I write about ways to solve problems that don’t involve violence. I write about ethics and what we owe to each other. I write about basically good people being flawed and messy and broken, and about basically awful people having complicated moments of shining grace and humanity. I write about characters who are smart and who think about themselves and their impact on the world, and who wonder out loud how they can do better. I write about characters who care, ferociously, about other people.

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What else are you working on right now?

Ongoing projects include my two podcasts: Worldbuilding for Masochists and Be The Serpent (the latter of which was nominated for a Hugo Award this year!). I’m always writing something or other, but nothing that I can talk about publicly yet in any detail, beyond that they’re book-shaped things.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.