What to say about Octavia Butler? I wish I’d known of her while she was alive so that I could have made contact. I will take a few minutes to act as one of her characters – seeking communication that can never come, missing the point by a little bit, skipping too many steps – and make contact as best I can.
I will use my words and I will use those of others, because together with our words we can try and approach this grand wordsmith. But there’s nothing I can say today that will give you the full flavour of this marvellous writer and this marvellous life.
Octavia Estelle Butler was a leading light of the science fiction world, black, a woman, a lesbian, where white men dominated.
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. She said something to this effect herself: “Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow…Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.’ (Source here.) She created a space for people like herself in the human imagination.
She was born on 22 June 1947 in Pasadena, California. Her mother, who worked as a maid, raised the young Octavia alone after the death of her father, who had shined shoes for a living.
From the The New York Times:
“I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors,” Ms. Butler once told Publishers Weekly. “If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
Always conspicuously tall for her age, Junie grew up paralytically shy, losing herself in books despite having dyslexia. Octavia Senior could not afford books, but she brought home the tattered discards of the white families for whom she worked.
It’s well worth your time to read the whole article. It talks about black characters in science fiction and human nature and themes.
Marcia Davis of the Washington Post:
Butler was a young black woman coming of age at a time when black women were mainly invisible. And when she was noticed, it was with unkind eyes. She was six feet tall by the time she was in her teens, a girl with deep brown skin and short hair. She was sometimes mistaken for a man, she would say. Early as a child, she cocooned herself in a world of books and nurtured audacious ambitions.
I wonder if in all that aloneness, in all her solitude, she knew just how beautiful she was and that she was loved.
She was known for her solitude, her careful way of writing, her quiet way of subversion.
Octavia Butler died after a fall outside her home in Washington state. She was 58.
Her friends Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due were interviewed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
“Octavia was one of the purest writers I know,” Barnes recalled Sunday. “She put everything she had into her work – she was extraordinarily committed to the craft. Yet, despite her shyness, she was also an open, generous and humane human being. I miss her so much already.”
Due added, “It is a cliche to say that she was too good a soul, but it’s true. What she really conveyed in her writing was the deep pain she felt about the injustices around her. All of it was a metaphor for war, poverty, power struggles and discrimination. All of that hurt her very deeply, but her gift was that she could use words for the pain and make the world better.”
“The only consolation in losing Octavia so soon,” stressed Due, “is that she must have known her place in history.”
More of Tananarive Due’s thoughts can be found here (and do yourself a favour). I also hope that she knew her place in history, but how can we? There must have been so much left in her to say, working its way through in her mysterious head. And I don’t think Ms Butler’s legacy is entirely apparent. As with any person working powerfully and unobstrusively, there’s so much that’s intangible. Her legacy is not just a list of books and short stories and awards. Her influence is in the work of the colleagues she left behind in feminist science fiction, in the arguments of all those college students studying her, in many people struggling with past and identity, in the new shape of a genre. It’s in my thoughts on abortion and autonomy. Octavia Butler changed my mind and added much to public discourse.
I think we all take some similar journey—we have something that we wish to communicate within us, and are stifled. In Octavia’s case, it was her beauty, intelligence, her warmth and courage. She could not communicate these things directly: when she wrote of slavery, publishers rejected it. When she wrote of blackness, publishers put green people on the covers of her books. She had to learn to speak in metaphor, or risk starvation.
Indeed. It has often been said that science fiction is a genre of colonialism. Mankind explores the furthest reaches of the galaxy, claiming new ground for Earth. The rational scientist conquers the alien other. Women are there as figures of horror or of lust. All of this characterises much of early science fiction. From the late 1960s, women started to make themselves known in science fiction, reclaiming what Mary Shelley started. Writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Joanna Russ, Tanith Lee, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Marge Piercy, Suzy McKee Charnas, Dorothy Bryant, Kate Wilhelm and Alice B. Sheldon (under her various pseudonyms) wrote up a storm and changed the face of science fiction. At a time in which people of colour were far from the SF mainstream and women were just emerging from publishing under masculine pseudonyms or gender-neutral alternatives, Octavia Butler was the first of her kind.
All of these women opened up what science fiction could mean. Alli Sheldon’s biographer suggests that science fiction is a good tool for women and feminism with its metaphors of alienation and distance and the other. Science fiction allows one to talk about the world without talking about the world. It also allows you to follow your ideas to their conclusions. And Octavia Butler didn’t shy away from utilising these tools as best she could, constructing the experiences of black women with the language she was allowed.
Piny wrote about Ms Butler after her death: “It’s hard to talk about Octavia Butler without going all inarticulate and rhapsodic. […] Her prose–clear, stately, efficient–leads you in and then quietly changes around you. Eventually, mostly, you catch up, maybe, but the story never becomes manageable.’
The first story I read of hers is her most famous short story, “Bloodchild”. I can’t even bear to tell you the premise because it should be read and felt without knowing what’s around the next corner. It funnels many complex ideas into a narrative at once so like real life and so foreign you’ll forget yourself in it except for your sense of discomfort. No matter what you currently think, it’ll open up new ideas for you on bodily integrity, ownership, slavery, abortion, pregnancy, family ties, colonialism: it’s something different for every person. It is one of the finest pieces of storytelling I’ve ever encountered. And then there’s “Speech Sounds” in which humanity almost dies off because a plague drastically limits the capacity for communication. And in Kindred a black woman travels back in time and has to save the life of a white slave owner who was her ancestor so that she can be born. Here’s a list of her works.
Ms Butler’s response when asked “What good is science fiction to black people?':
What good is any form of literature to Black people? What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking — whoever “everyone” happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people? (“Positive Obsession” 134-35)
This is from an essay she wrote.
But whatever is the source of our intolerance, what can we do about it? What can we do to improve ourselves? Of course, we can resist acting on our nastier hierarchical tendencies. Most of us do that most of the time already. And we can make a greater effort to teach children to resist their hierarchical impulses and beliefs and to channel what they can’t resist into sports and careers.
Will this work? Well, it hasn’t so far. Too many people will not, perhaps cannot, do it. There is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.
Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we’re as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned.
She didn’t believe in utopias. She didn’t believe in giving up, either. And I hope she’s found some kind of peace.
Notes: Her homepage is a good place to start looking for more information, as is Wikipedia. Here’s the page for the scholarship fund in her honour. You may also want to have a listen to this musical tribute by Nicole Mitchell.
The first image is by Beth Gwinn (source here). The second is sourced from here.