Little did I know all that would change when my friend handed me a book and said, “You need to read this.” The book was Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. Over the next 12 years, I slowly made the acquaintance of the African American lady who wrote fiction of a sort I had never encountered before. Her writing, characters, and themes challenged me in how I viewed storytelling, the purpose of speculative fiction, and how I approached my own writing.
Octavia Butler died at the age of only 58, about a year before I ever read any of her works. She wrote twelve books and a number of award winning short stories, challenging stereotypes, genre, and beliefs. She wanted to be a writer and so she wrote, often writing at night because that’s when she had time. Her ethic, her dedication to her craft, and the vision she had for her stories still inspires me every time I pick up one of her works.
Wild Seed shocked me. It spanned many centuries, had improbable characters, told a story of love, racism, genetic manipulation, and perseverance. The immortal Doro, breeding his own race of super-humans, coming into conflict with the only person, a shapeshifter named Anyanwu, who could stand up to him, has long stayed with me. Butler drew me in right from the first line, subtly introducing me to this terrible being that claimed so much yet was in many ways a frightened and frightening boy. The story made me hungry for more of her work.
I’ve read all that she’s written, apart from a short story or two that I haven’t gotten my hands on yet. Through her writing, I discovered an entire movement of works known as Afrofuturism, spanning music, literature, arts, dance, and fashion. Ytasha Womack, author of the book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture defines it as:
“Afrofuturism is an intersection between Black culture, technology, the imagination and liberation and I like to add mysticism as well. Generally, it looks at alternative futures and (possible) futures through a Black cultural lens. So it stretches the arts. It can be a process, a methodology. It can also be just an artistic aesthetic. It stretches to music, to theory, to other aspects of the arts.”
It gives voice to an absence I had felt, a combining of two deep-seated yearnings within my being: a love of African cultures and the vast and hopeful potential of science fiction. In Octavia Butler’s work, I was exposed to both.
Her works deal with race and the role of women. Almost all of her protagonists are impressive, strong African or African American women. They inhabit their worlds, leave their often difficult lives, and shine out a power that I like to imagine Butler herself exuded. From Lillith, who has to contend with an alien race about the changing nature of humanity; to Lauren, the hyperempath that must find her way in an increasingly painful dystopian world; to Shori, who contends with those among her own vampiric kind that cannot abide her skin color. In each work, Butler is acutely aware of her purpose, her unique voice, and the potential of her characters. And yet it never feels forced, tired, or didactic. She raises honest questions without offering simple solutions.
Her work is patently disturbing. The nature of speculative fiction allows for metaphors and analogies to be pushed to an extreme. Sometimes, those extremes go beyond what we may find comfortable. “Bloodchild” is a short story of symbiosis, family connections, and male pregnancy, in which a young human boy is impregnated by an alien as a surrogate. In Fledgling, the Ina people have a very different family structure that can seem wrong and unnatural. The mingling of human and alien DNA by the Oankali is rightly repulsive to the main character, until she finds she loves her child despite the fact he is no longer entirely human. None of the ideas are presented in a vacuum, none are meant simply for the shock value. Within each work, Butler carefully explores ramifications, consequences. She presents ideas and works them through to their full extent, pulling an equally engrossed and at times repelled audience with her.
Kindred is probably her most studied work, often included in AP Literature and African American Literature courses. It deals of a young African American woman in 1970s California, who through some unexplained phenomenon, is transported to a slave plantation in Maryland before the Civil War. Dana must deal with a different world and expectations and yet, different from a slave narrative such as Frederick Douglass’, she and the audience view events through contemporary eyes. Her role is complicated in that she is brought back in time on several occasions, each time to save the life of her ancestor, the son of the plantation owner. It’s a complex story, fraught with internal strife, misgivings, loyalties, and situations with no right answers. And it’s Octavia Butler at her best, showing her readers worlds and characters they could not otherwise have imagined.
I recently had the privilege of writing a paper pertaining to her work for one of my Masters level courses. And now that I’m getting close to the end of my program, I’m looking at Thesis topics. And somehow, they all involve Octavia Butler. Her writing has captured my attention and held it. I’m going to reread her works many times over the course of the rest of my life. I just wish I’d had a chance to meet the amazing woman that was able to write such unique worlds and characters and get me to question and ponder.