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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