Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

      For the past week or so, I’d been filtering ideas for things to write about here. High on the list was “something about Octavia Butler,” but I didn’t know what that something could be. I jotted down the following on Thursday, February 23rd:

    I finished reading Octavia Butler’s latest novel, Fledgling, a short while ago and am already planning on reading it again in a few months. It doesn’t come close to being her best work – doesn’t quite rank with Kindred or the Parable tales – but it was so good just to be in her world again. The story opens with Shori awakening in a cave, finding herself nude. After slightly gaining her bearings but not yet her memory, she commits a violent act that will haunt her for the rest of the story. She and the reader slowly piece together that she’s a 53-year-old vampire who, due to the slow aging process of her kind, looks like a pre-adolescent girl. More specifically, she’s a vampire o’ color, nappy hair and all. That detail allows Butler to riff on her trademark concerns – racism, gender issues, power structures in different societies, complex and complicated sexualities, and the ways they all interlock. It’s a fast read, comfortingly and thrillingly familiar even as Butler puts her own identity-politic spin on vampire lore.
      But I couldn’t really get beyond that. I wanted to write something to explain her huge influence on me and so many other writers of all races, gender configurations and sexual persuasions. A 1995 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and a 1999 recipient of the Nebula for Best Novel for Parable of the Talents, the Pasadena born and raised author was officially a sci-fi writer. But like all true artists she was so much larger than the category boxes used to define and sell her. It’s hackneyed but true to say that she transcended genre. Whether turning her eye on the distant past or the not-too-distant future, she saw the thread of identity – that which we construct for ourselves and that which is created and thrust upon us – as the rope by which we are either hung or freed. And none of it is easy or without costs. But her heroines, primarily colored girls too strong and with too many responsibilities to consider suicide even when the rainbow is kicking their asses, fought and led and showed multitudes by example. Lesbian and gay characters were presented so matter-of-factly that the but-of-course… nature of presentation itself had the kick of revolution.
      With her death on Friday, February 24 (due to injuries sustained after she fell outside her Seattle home and hit her head on the cobblestone pavement) what’s been lost is incalculable. She wrote with a fierce new center – melanin-based, female and or gay/lesbian/bi, politically progressive, democratic and inclusive – that in plot, content and her own confidence as an artist, overturned the white-hetero-male status quo that’s not only been the historical barometer of artistic and cultural validity, and individual worth, but that has also manifested in the smug-ironic-reactionary-hipster-wigger-rightwing-consumerist strain of white supremacy that's infected contemporary culture and politics. A few years ago, I pitched the idea of interviewing her to a couple of editors. I thought that – given her work and its prescience regarding how the convergence of religion, corporate America and government would detrimentally play out in the lives of 20th and 21st century people of color, sexual minorities and the poor – she’d be a fascinating voice to tackle the meaning of George Bush’s second stolen election and his plunging of the country into an ill-conceived war. I mean, who gives a fuck what a French intellectual thinks about the ills and woes of America? Why keep drawing from the same pool of old white men to analyze and contextualize what’s going on in the world? There was no interest from anyone to whom I'd pitched the piece. I still think that a taped dialogue between Butler and Margaret Atwood would have given us the blueprint to save the world.
      I loved her for so many reasons, not only for her work but for how she positioned herself as a writer. As I prepare to sell my first book, grappling with just how to do that in a way that doesn't make me feel too much like a whore or fraud, I admire her determined privacy, the way it was just about the writing, for her, and how so little was known about her personal life aside from the barest biographical details. (Not surprisingly, though, there has been little mention of the fact that she was a lesbian. In fact, only Jazzmyne Cannick has mentioned it explicitly so far.) It is so expected that writers, like everyone else nowadays, do what they do merely as a stepping stone to celebrity. The idea that we might write for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with desiring the spotlight, touring the lecture and panel circuit, or even amassing huge wealth (though wanting to at least be able to cover the basics) is anathema to the time in which we live. But she managed to do it all her way – a private private life, work that exploded the possibility of a genre, and a legacy that will be read and studied and cherished for years to come.


"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery."
-- Octavia Butler, "Parable of the Sower"

5 comments:

DEADLEE said...

so - when i worked at Borders - Meshell Ndgeocello was always in the Octavia Butler section - and she gave me a long talk about why she liked her work so much - so it looks like she influenced a lot of people -- hey good blog
DEADLEE

leddy said...

"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery."

Octavia Butler

My mother turned me on to her and she inspired so much.I absolutely love what she wrote above.... it reminds me to be picky about who I let my circle.

nydy - leddy's mom said...

I am sad becaise another "black wonder" has been called to a higher place, bless her soul. She was a role model to many being the first at a lot of things, the first woman science fiction writer, the first black science fiction writer, numerous awards to compliment her greatness, and her ability to make the future seem so familiar because she related it to the past and the present so well. I love all of her novels, but tne one I find the greatest to be, the one that I recommend to everyone (just to get them hooked on and into the Butler Experience) is "Kindred", where the past meets the present in order to bring about the future. Amend.

Moni said...

Thank you so much for writing about Octavia. I too would have loved to hear Octavia and Margaret's blueprint.
She truly was a rare gem who was taken from us too early, as is always the case with people like her. May her soul rest in peace.

The Humanity Critic said...

She will be missed..