Octavia Butler: The Brutalities of the Past Are All Around This
Gabrielle Bellot on a Writer Who Changed Her Life
As a preteen, Octavia Butler decided she’d had enough of second-rate science fiction. “Geez,” she said after watching Devil Girl from Mars, a 1954 B-movie. “I can write a better story than that.” Anybody could, really, she mused. “Somebody got paid for writing that awful story,” she concluded in high dudgeon. A year later, she was submitting stories to magazines.
They were “terrible pieces of fiction,” she admitted jocularly in a 1998 talk at MIT, but she had embarked on her journey to write something epochal, a story that could forever reshape a genre’s landscape. A dream architect, she wished to be, whose fabulous and frightening creations would remain after we woke up. One of those transformative stories appeared in her 1979 novel, Kindred, which strikingly reimagined the neo-slave narrative genre by making a 20th-century black woman (and, once, her white husband) slip back into 19th-century Maryland through unceremonious, frightening time-travel. (Though time travel is often associated with science fiction, thanks largely to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Butler instead describes Kindred as fantasy because its temporal traversing is never explained scientifically.) Kindred, a novel explicitly designed to make its readers uncomfortable, has a special, if controversial, resonance for America today: how we teach and talk about texts that contain depictions of bigotry and violence.
Butler was accustomed to the weight of others’ bigotries; she grew up with insecurities about her body, some of which stayed with her into adulthood. Her body was large—she was six feet tall by the time she was a teen—and her voice was deeper than that of the girls around her, its gentle rumbling tone and pitch varying from androgynous to masculine, and students teased her mercilessly. Some of them called her a boy, others a lesbian. Butler did not identify as gay, as she told Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin in 1998, but she ruminated about her sexuality and sense of gender, at times musing that she might indeed be what others called her and even going twice to a “Gay and Lesbian Services Center” to “talk about such things… at which point I realized, Nope, this ain’t it… I’m a hermit.” Already socially awkward and lonely, the schoolyard taunts and jeers pushed her into a cavernous isolation. An outsider, she retreated inward, carving out a deep inner space, a lamplit palace of the self.
“I’m very happy alone,” she said later to David Streitfeld, a sentiment I understood well as a queer only child who, also, learned to live inside as much as out, learned to step through the pools of topaz light in the cities of me when the lonesomeness became too desert-heavy. Aloneness, sometimes, becomes its own familiar, gentle comfort. “If I had to change myself into something else,” Butler continued, “I’d probably be unhappy.”
Yet she was still lonely, and the blue music those of us who live in the sadness of solitude know well would play inside her for most of her life. She avoided being photographed and asked publicists not to reproduce photos of her. But she never let the indigo melody become a shipwrecking siren-song; she turned it, instead, into art. She learned how the blue songs can, sometimes, be soothing, even lovely, though they make us cry. “I shall be a bestselling writer,” she wrote to herself in 1988. She became a respected public speaker, even as she remained, endearingly, the shy, awkward black girl—the black girl, subversively, in a time when American science-fiction and fantasy had few women of color in its ranks. At her heights, she wore her difference like a sidereal pearl necklace.
The effect of all this was indelible. In Butler’s writing, the themes of her young exile and gender-non-conformity frequently resurfaced, Kindred a veritable album of them. It is no accident how frequently Dana, the protagonist of Kindred, is mistaken for a male by strangers both by her clothing and how she looks, while her voice and comparatively educated manner of speaking also confound 19th-century Southern expectations, causing her to be labeled white, just as Butler, too, seemed to defy simplistic societal norms. “You were wearing pants like a man—the way you are now. I thought you were a man,” Rufus, the white Southerner who unwittingly calls Dana into the past each time he becomes morbidly scared, describes the first time he saw Dana. Later, Dana takes this further. “I had decided to become a boy,” she writes. “In the loose, shabby, but definitely male clothing I had chosen, my height and my contralto voice would get me by.” While this is a temporary disguise, it is difficult not to see echoes of the very images of gender non-conformity—in voice and appearance—that preoccupied Butler in real life. While a novel like Parable of the Sower depicts Butler at her more literarily luxuriant in terms of style and mythologizing, the shorter and more minimalist Kindred, arguably, contains more of Butler herself.
It also contains a cubist portrait of Butler’s mother, who Butler described as one of the germs of Kindred. “My mother did domestic work and I was around sometimes when people talked about her as if she were not there,” she told Randall Kenan in 1991. “I got to watch her going in back doors,” she continued,
and generally being treated in a way that made me… I spent a lot of my childhood being ashamed of what she did, and I think one of the reasons I wrote Kindred was to resolve my feelings… Kindred was a kind of reaction to some of the things going on during the 60s when people were feeling ashamed of, or more strongly, angry with their parents for not having improved things faster, and I wanted to take a person from today and send that person back to slavery.
Kindred, read through the prism of Butler and her family, becomes a representation of invisible women, forgotten women.
When I first heard Butler speak, I was surprised for a moment by her androgynous voice, then fell in love with that bashful, articulate figure. How we naturally sound should not matter, but it always, cruelly, does. As a trans girl, I knew—still know—what it felt like to be nervous every time I opened my mouth to speak, lest the sound not match my appearance, as hormone therapy does not affect our voices after puberty. Knew what it was like to avoid readings, parties, any events at all, because I couldn’t rise above my self-shame. Knew what it was like to beg people not to post photos of me because of how much anxiety my appearance gave me. Knew what it was like to practice shifting my vocal resonance, the thinness of my vocal cords, the shape of my throat, nearly every day for two years to try to get a voice that would make me feel less discordant about myself, less scared of what so many cis people take for granted. Knew what it was like to practice before making every phone call after coming out as trans, to record myself each day to see if I sounded “passable,” to prepare to be told sorry, sir, may I speak to Gabrielle, to be asked to “prove” my gender in a hospital in Tallahassee, to be afraid each time I opened my mouth in public that someone would frown or flee or flip out. The clip of Butler I’d seen was from 2002, nearly two decades past, yet I felt I was right there with her, for a moment, admiring her and hearing the midnight music all at once.
Butler was inspired to write Kindred partly because she had heard so many young black Americans minimizing the horrors of slavery and claiming that if they had been enslaved, they simply wouldn’t have tolerated this or that. Such naïveté and ahistorical braggadocio upset Butler. She wanted to write a novel that showed such young people what it might feel like to become a slave: not merely to teach them the brute facts about this American institution, but to show them, on the page, teeth getting kicked out, backs being torn open from whips, white slaveholders casually attempting to rape black women, who would be savagely beaten, even killed, if they resisted, what it would be like for a reader to live in the night-day of European slavery.
Sometimes we educate best by unsettling, by pulling back the curtain of a world and saying, look, scream, and never forget. (Ironically, Butler ended up toning down Kindred’s violence, thinking it would be a difficult sell if she wrote a bloodier—and thus more “accurate”—version; compared to the slave narrative The History of Mary Prince or Solomon Northup’s account of becoming a slave, Twelve Years a Slave, Kindred is somewhat tame, and Dana, for all her abuse, gets off easier than many other slaves in her era, partly because the privilege of her education allows her to almost entirely escape working in the field, and largely because she can time-travel.) Historical novels are also always contemporary novels, and Kindred drew clear connections between the antebellum South and Butler’s America.
Dana’s return to a slave-holding world appearing to have scarcely aged while those around her have grown older was novel for its genre, echoing less a neo-slave narrative than fantastical science fiction, like, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic, A Princess of Mars (serialized in slightly shortened form in 1912 and published as an unabridged book in 1917), in which protagonist John Carter returns to the South in the 19th century multiple times without appearing to age. “I was much surprised to note that he had not aged apparently a moment, nor had he changed in any other outward way,” Burroughs’ narrator notes. Unlike the white Carter or Dana’s husband, however, Dana’s blackness prevents her from escaping and returning to the South so simply; she may seem to age slowly, but her body is increasingly scarred by brutalities: back-bloodying whippings, teeth kicked out, an arm lost—the latter the most terrifying, unforgettable reminder.
Kindred erodes the naïve idea that the brutalities of the past are no more in the present. This confluence of violence is clear from the first sentences: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone.” Rufus, who begins relatively kind, becomes increasingly brutal, like his father; the moral impossibility of being a “good” slave-owner passes from father to son. Later, returned to the present, Dana hears on the radio “a story about South Africa—blacks rioting there and dying wholesale in battles with police over the policies of the white supremacist government” and reflects that “South African whites had always struck me as people who would have been happier living in the 19th century, or the 18th. In fact, they were living in the past as far as their race relations went. They lived in ease and comfort supported by huge numbers of blacks whom they kept in poverty and held in contempt.”
Here, Butler braids past to present. “The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” And much of 21st-century America, for all its outward progress, still thrives and flowers out of blood and chain, even if white America has learned to hide them better, such that the unaware do not believe the blood and chains even still exist, or see only the scarlet blossoms.
On the one hand, Kindred is yet another of an old type: a story in which violence against black bodies, brutal despite Butler’s bowdlerization, is put to the fore, a theme that obsesses American media, as exemplified by HBO’s forthcoming show about that hackneyed conceit, the South separating itself and slavery not being abolished. (Imagining something else instead, like the Haitian Revolution spreading across the colonies, seems too subversive.) Despite the novelty of Kindred’s time-traveling conceit—tessering, scarier than in A Wrinkle in Time—it is still, ultimately, another slave narrative in an America that often seems surprised if black artistic production does not center or orbit around such violence.
On the other hand, despite the novel’s expurgation of more extreme violence, it remains gutsy. Kindred, like Paul Beatty’s outlandishly and intentionally offensive The Sellout, was not merely willing to make readers uncomfortable; it was designed to do so. Beatty’s novel was rejected by 18 publishers; it seemed too raw, too controversial, like Kindred before it was cut down.
On some days I fear such books becoming a fading, fugacious type, a fear exacerbated by how much non-nuanced, reductive outrage proliferates nowadays—particularly on social media—around “problematic” books, whereby one person’s dislike of a text can celeritously turn into a mob mentality of widespread inquisitorial condemnation. This represents a vocal minority, but the trend is still worrisome, even if well-intentioned. It’s important to highlight who gets to tell stories at whose expense, why trolls and bigots are given prestigious and well-paying platforms, and why diversity is both necessary and itself worthy of critique when it becomes reduced to a pandering marketing buzzword. Yet much “discourse” on social media—which can easily reach publishers and reviewers—rarely rises to the level of critique, devolving, instead, into toxic call-outs, clinquant self-righteousness, and scattershot, superficial accusations, whereby those who dissent with particular claims often feel nervous to voice their opinion, lest they be labeled, without nuance, superlatively condemnatory epithets. Kindred, which challenges notions of “purity”—racial, moral, societal—remains popular, even as it symbolically defies the tenor of such purity-testing outrage. We need open-hearted, open-minded critique, not conservative authoritarianism masquerading as liberalism.
When I taught texts like Heart of Darkness, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Small Island, and Carmilla, there were, inevitably, uncomfortable moments: some students were angry at passages, while others failed entirely to understand the uproar. This was good. It prompted open-ended conversations: why do you think this, and, always most importantly, do you have evidence to back up your claim? This was what animated Chinua Achebe, who, rather than simplistically advising people not to read a problematic tome, instead produced “The Image of Africa,” a lecture and, later, essay that revolutionized Conrad criticism. When I put our books into historical context for my students—everything from looking at Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” and fin-de-siècle advertisements for whitening soaps to Irish nationalism and Edward Said’s thoughts on Orientalism—the texts came alive. We came to a place of hopefully conquering prejudices by confronting rather than avoiding—but also by speaking, without condescension, to each other. Such pedagogy is optimistic, especially in Trump’s America, but necessary.
But it’s taxing if you are a marginalized person already overwhelmed by others’ bigotries. It’s painful to read many a vile passage in Heart of Darkness, even if understanding Conrad helps me better combat his assumptions. It’s harder, more stressful, for me to read The Man in the High Castle—in which the Axis wins WWII, slavery is reinstated in America, and Africans are nearly extirpated by genocidal Germans—now that Nazis have re-entered the mainstream of European and American discourse; but Dick’s novel of chance and luck, for all its casual depiction of government-sanctioned bigotry and evil, remains instructive of how thin the thread of our status quo is. How evil remains, regardless of who wins wars. We fail if we read only what comforts and confirms.
“A society,” James Baldwin wrote in “A Talk to Teachers,” an essay delivered as a lecture in 1963, “depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted. Now,” Baldwin continued,
the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society. Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.
We must teach, in other words, what the world contains, so that our students—and, we, in turn, as teachers are always also students—can make informed decisions. The true leaders and shakers of tomorrow, like Baldwin, do not shy away, but, rather, are informed well enough to take down their opponents (as Baldwin did with Buckley), are unafraid to turn into pillars of salt by looking back. “I would try to make him know,” Baldwin wrote of a hypothetical black student, “that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him… that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”
So, in part, is how we survive, even if that survival is harsh, scarring. “I couldn’t let [Dana] come all the way back,” Butler told Kenan about why Kindred’s protagonist loses part of her arm on her final return to the present. “I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole… Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.” Time heals, but also hurts; the past is indeed a different country, but less so than we may think. This is Kindred’s painful, portentous power.