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Iconography: Octavia E. Butler and Rewriting the Other

Octavia E. Butler is most likely the best writer I've ever encountered. That's certainly true technically: she's flawless. I mean that there is literally not a thing I would change in her writing, and that is absolutely unique. But it's her incisive, loving explorations of a broken world that will blow your mind wide open.

She was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, and died at 58 after a fall outside her home in Washington. Her New York Times obituary was excellent; I suggest you read it. It mentions her childhood spent reading any books her mother, who worked as a maid, could obtain from her white employers. By the time Ms. Butler was an adult, the grounds had been laid for her incredible hard work, starting writing at two in the morning. It was not an easy life, but Octavia Butler made her way slowly into the hearts and esteem of readers around the world. She was known for being shy, and quiet, and the finest of human beings. I find it hard to write about her, because I tear up trying to explain how my life has been so changed by her writing.

Ms. Butler deserves her iconic status. She worked hard, for years, with precious little money and next to no encouragement. And she paved the way for writing women of color in the United States. Ms. Butler was black and a woman writing science fiction in a context in which black women weren't supposed to write, and certainly not science fiction. There's an image of sci fi as a genre of the white man, going out and exploring, conquering, the universe. She took these elements of striving for other futures and turned them to social justice. She took the alien other and confronted us, her readers, with the otherness in our experiences.

I've been reading and writing about Ms. Butler's work for a good while now, but I have to tell you something important. I've never read her most famous novel, Kindred. It's about a black woman, Dana, who is transported back in time to a plantation in the antebellum South, where she is repeatedly forced to save the life of a slave owner's son who will one day be her ancestor. Dana also has to make sure that her slave ancestor, Alice, will have a child with this young man so that Dana herself can be born. That's the kind of story Octavia Butler wrote—intense almost beyond belief. And almost past bearing: that's why I've not yet read Kindred. I'm saving it up for when I feel a bit stronger, because even Ms. Butler's short stories are searing to the touch.

The first story of hers I read was "Bloodchild". It should be enough to tell you that by the time I finished it, I was very much pro-choice where I'd been a bit iffy about the whole thing beforehand. That's the kind of writerly power we're talking about. It combines thinking on bodily autonomy, abortion, slavery, race and ownership in the most deft of fashions. It's hard to tell you the extent of the effects this story had and has on my thinking because of that very deftness. Ms. Butler lays the conclusions out in front of you gently. I tried articulating this in a piece I wrote in February 2009:

Her work is scary. You will come in unprepared and on surfacing you'll find you've changed your mind. About something, anything. We all face up to the fact that life is messy and complicated and painful, but Ms. Butler picks up the thoughts at the back of human awareness and drives them home. It's not necessarily direct; she was too fine a craftswoman to lead you right to the centre of a story. But by the end, she's led you all around and through the premise and the story and the terrible implications. And the conclusion – such as it is, because her work is of a wider human conversation – has gently but definitely found its way to you.

I get chills just thinking about "Speech Sounds," which is about a world in which humanity almost dies off due to a plague radically limiting communication capacity. It's exemplary of her writing in that there's a great cynicism about the human willingness to be kind, an immense sense of endurance and, through it all, somehow, hope. That's true for Dawn, too: no connection is real, nothing can be trusted, and somehow the heroine, Lilith, has to survive horrific alien manipulation of her past and her descendants.

Do these stories sound familiar? They should: Octavia Butler wasn't really writing about fantastic future worlds, of course. She was writing about the legacy of slavery, and the manipulation of women's bodies, and being made alien by the powerful. She was writing about the great pains of her life, her people, and thousands upon thousands of shaken readers. She wrote about aliens and the future, but she was writing about herself and our messed up little blue world.

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Comments

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Octavia Butler

This is perhaps the most moving and personal writing about Butler I've seen. Thank you for being so passionate about her work. I agree that it is scary, and provocative, and will change your view of the world. When I first read Kindred, I thought I might pass out from the sheer intensity of it. Thank you, again, for this piece. I wish more people would read her work. It is astounding and beautiful!

Thanks very much!

Thanks very much!

In reply: must we force Butler to remain the other?

Ms. Kacelnik, as much as I appreciate your passionate descriptions of Butler's influence in your life, I have mixed feelings about the way you've presented her here. I'm reminded of the film Finding Forrester, where we spend the whole movie being told that the young black writer is a genius, only to have the film cut to the musical score just as Sean Connery is beginning to read the boy's work. In other words, we only get Connery's speech about the boy's writing, rather than hearing the words themselves.

The same is true here. To be honest, you seem intent on reducing Butler to a series of broad political positions (such as being pro-choice) and racial inheritances (the burden of slavery), erasing whatever it is that made stories like "Bloodchild" something no other writer, even a pro-choice writer, could produce. I am particularly troubled by your willingness to write about Kindred without having read it -- but then again, since you already know what the book is going to give you, it's hard to imagine why you'd feel a need to read it at all.

I'm not suggesting that "Bloodchild" isn't, in part, about the importance of giving women the right to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term. I merely think that, if you are going to write a Butler post that's really more about you and how you use other people's writing in your own life, you should recognize the underlying ambivalence you clearly feel toward her. You haven't read Kindred yet because it frightens you, and your portrait of Butler changes from that of a writer committed to "social justice" to someone for whom "no connection is real, nothing can be trusted" -- in other words, a victimized person taking refuge in cynicism, somebody we can comfortably pity. This celebration of her ends up speaking for her and keeping her at a distance.

Hmm.

Chally will do :).

Well, considering I'm writing a piece about Octavia Butler and encouraging people to read her work rather than engaging in plagiarism, I can hardly ethically present her words themselves, but only refer people to them. That's how a biographical, reflective piece works.

I've listed a lot of impacts Ms Butler has had. You seem to be confusing what I got out of her work politically with me representing her actual political positions. I don't think I ever positioned her as prochoice here, for example, but me myself. I have... no idea what Kindred is going to give me, which is why I posted a summary of the plot and tied it in with a pattern rather than being willing to simply write about it without having read it, which would be plain silly and would also erase my whole point about the extent of Ms Butler's power in my life! That is pretty explicit.

I don't feel ambivalent about Ms Butler at all. I'm not frightened of reading it. I never painted Ms Butler as 'someone for whom "no connection is real, nothing can be trusted,"' that is a description of Dawn. Please don't put words in my mouth, particularly that I think of Ms Butler as a 'victimized person taking refuge in cynicism, somebody we can comfortably pity'. Perhaps you might consider that you are the one speaking for someone else and reducing me to a series of (in this case, inaccurate) political positions.

The whole point of the piece is that, as the title conveys, Ms Butler rewrote the other, forcing people to confront that categorisation. The idea is that her writing fights the possibility of remaining the other. You have it entirely backwards. Kindly exercise some basic respect for what I actually I wrote and don't assume things between the lines such as aren't there, or don't engage.

A rambling fan letter for Octavia Butler

Thanks to your (repeated) recommendations, Chally, I finally picked up a few of Butler's novels. Not knowing her work, I went with the cheapest used editions Powell's had on its shelves; fortunately, this led me to read Dawn, and to discover just exactly why you are so passionate about her.

Other than being simply an amazing, well-told speculative fiction story about a post-apocalyptic future and first encounter with semi-benevolent aliens, the likes of which the more-recognized, more-accoladed white men authors of scifi would be proud to have produced, one of the things I really got out of the book is that they couldn't have. It isn't a story of conquering and pillaging; it isn't even a story of underdog-rises. It's a story of a subjugated woman, ambivalently co-conspiring with her owner-lover, plotting her children's eventual escape from the slavery in which she is -- because she has no other choice -- allowing them to be born. It's not a "black story", only appealing to a "niche" audience, but it's a story a privileged voice could not tell. It wouldn't occur to the white male voices of scifi to tell.

Far too often when I'm talking about trying to expand the voices of X because when everything is white-washed and male-centric all these other, important stories are lost, the dismissing argument is that if we're just missing "women's stories" or "black stories", then what's the loss? Writing about the "black experience" would be a niche story for a niche audience; not applicable to "everyone else" (and yet books about "the white experience" are? ah, but white writers don't write stories informed by their race; only nonwhite authors do, apparently. I forget this, silly me). I get frustrated trying to defend against this douchebag of an argument without resorting to stereotypes, because the truth is I don't know what we're missing, because those voices have been silenced. The idea that diversity is pointless because it would "just" be about "woman's experience" or "the black experience" is ridiculous and insulting; allow these long-marginalized voices to be heard, and what we get is a work like Dawn: of grand human relevance, of startling and strange beauty, of conflict and ambivalence and nuance, of morality without preachiness, of a potential future mirroring our definite past. It's not "a woman story" or "a black story", but it's a story that can only be told when a (specific, talented, diligent, intelligent) black woman is granted a platform for her genius voice.

Anyway, that's my clumsy attempt to talk about one of the (many!) thoughts I had after finishing my first foray into Butler's work recently. I'm so glad her work is available, and I'm so grateful that you've pointed me to it. I grew up in a house with literally thousands of speculative fiction books, and before last year I had never heard of Octavia Butler; that's unacceptable. Above everything else, she's good, and deserves to be celebrated among the best in my favorite, usually-awful genre.

I'm so glad to have

I'm so glad to have introduced you and to have indirectly helped lead you to those amazing thoughts you've just shared!

Butler's parable books are

Butler's parable books are what made me go on a post-apocalyptic reading spree. In some ways it was unfortunate I read her first, because it was difficult to be impressed by anyone else's vision after that. She focused on female-based re-created society, and it had an incredible impact on me. I wish there had been more, and she left us way too soon!

Thank you!

Beautiful post. I am so glad you chose to write about Octavia Butler. She is one of my favorite writers (to read, write about, and teach), and I am always trying to get more people to read her, so I'm really glad to see her getting such good press here. Also, she is one of the few authors whose death made me cry (ranked alongside June Jordan, Douglas Adams, and Molly Ivins).

a long-time fan of Octavia Butler's

I've been enthralled with Butler's work since I read Kindred nearly 20 years ago in college. Her last book, Fledgling, was misunderstood by many of my friends, some of whom write book reviews, as being close to offensive for its portrayal of what they saw as pedophilia. But that's what Butler did so well—she took what we presume to be rational, "normal" presumptions about society's prescriptions and proscriptions, and forced readers to reconsider. Fledgling gets us to commit to human/vampire relationships in a way quite unlike the vapid portrayals of the Buffy and Twilight series. Butler's Lilith trilogy, too, makes us question human compassion and highlights race at the same time, something most of her work prioritizes. Nobody writes about race as well in speculative fiction as Butler, or sets readers through such discomforting rides in a review of their own privilege.

I too want to put pressure on the "black genius/savant/magical" persona, and remember that Butler was many things, including lesbian, a MacArthur awardee, and very introverted, and while it's one thing to explore the material conditions wherein she was writing, feminism would remind us to look at the historical moments of her writing and how it's been taken up across the political spectrum.

I'm glad there's a discussion about her work, because she gets overlooked by so many, even as she won multiple writing awards and the aforementioned $500,000 MacArthur Grant. But I can't abide that anyone wouldn't read one of her books for the presumed strain it would cause—take your time reading it, if need be, but don't put it off any longer, because every book changes us, and this one certainly deserves reading.

In 1995, Butler wrote: "I'm a 48-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm also comfortably asocial -- a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles -- a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."

Gosh, I really wish her expectation had come through.

Thanks again

Thanks for adding to my reading list again... looking forward to reading Octavia Butler. Apparently I have missed plenty of icons. My library holds list is already growing out of proportion with my ability to devour print media but keep 'em coming.