- Octavia E Butler was one of the leading science fiction writers of the 20th
- Her seminal novel Kindred was partly inspired by growing up as a black woman in 1950s and 60s California.
- Butler said a novel is the product of life experience.
- She likened the task of writing a novel to climbing Machu Picchu.
Science fiction writers come from many backgrounds. Some have a comfortable upbringing that supports them through the mean years of their early career. Some start writing as a hobby that becomes their full time job. Some have to struggle to make ends meet. And then there’s Octavia E Butler.
She was born in 1947, to a shoeshine man and a housemaid in Pasadena, California and grew up on the wrong side of segregation. Like most of us drawn to writing, she started as a child scribbler and like most of us, she had to ignore the naysayers in her family. While every writer has a well-meaning relative who worries that they should get a proper job that pays the bills, Butler’s aunt was crushingly definitive: ‘Honey, negroes can’t be writers’.
Butler persisted and published her first novel, Patternmaster, before she was 30. It was the first of many novels that would win her multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and a place in the canon of science fiction literature. Or to call it by its proper name, literature.
Her 2004 interview with Joshunda Saunders was intended to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Kindred, probably her best known novel. Butler died unexpectedly two years later so although neither she nor Saunders knew it at the time, the interview is something of a retrospective of her life and career.
Kindred is one of those rare novels that refuses to conform to expectations. It tells the story of Dana, a black woman who is repeatedly yanked from the 1970s, when Butler wrote it, to antebellum Maryland whenever her ancestor, Rufus, is in mortal danger. Dana saves Rufus from his own foolhardiness several times, and allows Dana to watch him grow from a headstrong boy to the plantation owner who will become her ancestor.
Many reviews devote a lot of words to discussing whether the way Dana’s time travelling is handled makes it science fiction or fantasy, but to focus on genre definitions is to miss the point. The time travel is a device to describe slavery through the eyes of a modern woman, and to make a direct link between America’s history and its present. As well as a gripping novel, it is as good an example as has ever been written of how speculative fiction can explore contemporary issues.
Too nuanced for Hollywood
In spite of its subject matter, Kindred eschews a simple division of the characters into victimised slaves and devilish owners. Rufus’s viciousness is commented on by other owners while the slaves struggle to exercise what little freedom their circumstances allow. At one point, a slave tells Dana he has no choice but to work for his owner and she rounds on him, saying that while the choice between working and being whipped may be a poor choice, it is nonetheless a choice. Whether Dana is delivering a true pearl of wisdom or rationalising her own unpalatable choices is left to the reader to judge.The complexity of Kindred may well be the reason it has never been filmed. Unlike many of the recent films about slavery in the USA, Kindred refuses to allow us to fantasise about fighting the system by showing how resistance was a short path to an inconsequential death. Nor does Butler allow us the comfort of feeling morally superior to the slave owners, but rather challenges us to deny that we will make different choices than those of the characters if we ever find ourselves within a similarly repressive system.
Machu Picchu as a half-written novel
In her interview with Saunders, Butler says that the length of time it takes to write a novel is ‘as long as you’ve lived up to the time you sit down to write the novel and then some’, and describes how the idea for Kindred had been with her since college even though she didn’t write it until a decade after she graduated. Her description of her mother ‘not hearing insults and going in back doors’ gives a clue to its origins, although it is not the narrative of victimhood that phrase suggests.Butler has more to say on the ‘and then some’, likening the process of writing a novel to climbing Machu Picchu. As she climbed, she had to ignore the part of her mind insisting she’d climbed high enough, just as she has to ignore the part of her mind telling her to give up while writing a novel. Even an occasional short story writer like me can relate to that. Just as I can relate to her story of the dentist who thought he could just sit down and write a masterpiece without putting in the years of reading and bad writing that she started before her tenth birthday.
While Butler never talked up how hard it must have been to climb out of the wrong side of segregation to the height of her profession, her life gives us a fable of success in the face of adversity as strong as any in fiction. Sadly, we can only speculate about what more we may have learned from her in the last ten years if she hadn’t died so early.