Octavia E. Butler, Part 2: Notable Works

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Octavia E. Butler, Part 2: Notable Works

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Lilith’s Brood

Lilith’s Brood is a series of three science fiction works by Octavia E. Butler. The three volumes (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago) were previously collected under the title of Xenogenesis; the collection was first published under the current title of Lilith’s Brood in 2000.

Synopsis

The first novel in the trilogy, Dawn, was published in 1987. The story begins after the United States and the Soviet Union obtained nuclear weapons and their actions resulted in a terrible nuclear war that left the earth uninhabitable. Humans are all but extinct. The few survivors are plucked from the surface of their dying world by an alien race, the oankali. The title character Lilith (a black human female) awakens from stasis centuries later on an oankali ship. She meets her saviors/captors and is repulsed by their alienness. The oankali don’t have eyes, or ears, or noses, but sensory tentacles over their entire bodies with which they can perceive the world much better than a human can. Stranger still, the oankali have three genders: male, female, and ooloi. All oankali have the ability to perceive biochemistry down to a genetic level, but the ooloi have the ability to directly manipulate genetic material. Ooloi can mutate and “evolve” any living thing they touch and build offspring gene by gene using the genetic material from their male and female mates. Despite their alienness, the ooloi are strangely alluring – sexually arousing even while being visually repulsive. The oankali have made earth habitable again and want Lilith’s help in training humans to survive on earth without human technology. In exchange, the oankali want to interbreed with the humans to create a new human-oankali hybrid race. This book focuses on the conflict between Lilith’s desire to stay human and her loyalty to her species, and her desire to survive at any cost.

The second book, Adulthood Rites, published in 1988, takes place years after the events of Dawn. Humans and oankali live together on earth though everything is not peaceful. Some humans have accepted the bargain and live with the oankali and give birth to hybrid children called constructs. Others, however, have refused the bargain and live in separate, all-human villages. The ooloi have made all humans infertile so the only children born are the ones made with ooloi intervention. This creates a great deal of tension and strain as the humans see themselves being outbred by the oankali-human constructs. Desperate humans often steal human-looking construct children to raise as their own. The main character of the second book, Akin, is the first male construct born to a human mother. Akin has more human in him than any construct before him. This book focuses on Akin’s struggle with his human and his oankali natures. As a human, he understands the desire to fight for the survival of humanity as an independent race. As an oankali, he understands that the combination of the species is necessary and that humans would destroy themselves again if left alone.

The final book of the trilogy, Imago, published in 1989, shows the reader what has been hinted at in the first two books: the full potential of the new human-oankali hybrid species. The story is told from the perspective of the shape-shifting healer Jodahs. Through Jodahs’ unique heritage, it has unlocked the latent genetic potential of humans and oankali. In order to survive its metamorphosis, Jodahs must find suitable human male and female mates, and it finds them in the most unexpected of places: a village of renegade humans. This book brings a sense of completeness to the story by allowing the reader to understand the oankali better by understanding Jodahs.

Themes

Throughout the Xenogenesis series, themes of sexuality, gender, race, and species are explored. The oankali believe that humans have an inevitable self-destructive conflict between their high intelligence and their hierarchical natures. According to the oankali, this is what caused the war that almost ended the human race and this is why they cannot leave the humans alone. Lilith and the oankali-human hybrids are constantly battling with this inner conflict. According to Erikia Nelson, the trilogy parallels the story of African slaves in America and the conflict that latter generations of African-Americans feel regarding their integration into American society. The human-oankali hybrids feel that they have somehow betrayed their human side by integrating into oankali society, but at the same time, because of the vast power imbalance, they never really had another viable option. This theme is again acknowledged by Timothy Laurie, who contrasts the common nurturing image of womanhood with Lilith’s drive to survive at any cost, even if that entails sacrificing some of what she believes it means to be human. The series also draws upon elements of the myth of Lilith, the first wife of the mythological first man, Adam.

In addition to the social themes, the genetic mastery of the oankali show the possible results of developing genetic science and biologically based technology.

Bloodchild

Set on an alien planet, the critically acclaimed short story “Bloodchild,” first published in 1984, depicts the complex relationship between human refugees and the insect-like aliens who keep them in a preserve to protect them, but also to use them as hosts for breeding their young. Sometimes called Butler’s “pregnant man story,” “Bloodchild” won the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, Locus Award, and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award.

Kindred

Kindred is the best-selling novel by Octavia E. Butler. Part time-travel tale and part slave narrative, it was first published in 1979 and is still widely popular; it is regularly chosen as a text for community-wide reading programs and book organizations, as well as being a common choice for high school and college courses.

The book is the first-person account of a young African-American woman writer, Dana, who finds herself shuttled between her California home in 1976 and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. There she meets her ancestors: a spoiled, self-destructive white slave owner and the proud black freewoman he has forced into slavery and concubinage. As her stays in the past become longer, Dana becomes intimately entangled with the plantation community, making hard compromises to survive slavery and to ensure her existence in her own time.

Written to underscore the courageous endurance of people perceived as chattel, Kindred examines the dynamics and dilemmas of antebellum slavery as well as its legacy in present American society. Through the two interracial couples that form the emotional core of the story, the novel also explores the intersection of power, gender, and race issues and speculates on the prospects of future egalitarianism.

Genre

Publishers and academics have had a hard time categorizing Kindred. While most of Butler’s work is classified as science fiction, Kindred crosses disciplinary boundaries and is often shelved as literature or African-American literature. Butler herself categorized the work as “a kind of grim fantasy.”

According to Pamela Bedore, Butler’s novel is difficult to classify because it includes both elements of the slave narrative and science fiction. Frances Smith Foster insists Kindred does not have one genre and is in fact a blend of “realistic science fiction, grim fantasy, neo-slave narrative, and initiation novel.” Sherryl Vint describes the narrative as a fusion of the fantastical and the real, resulting in a book that is “partly historical novel, partly slave narrative, and partly the story of how a twentieth century black woman comes to terms with slavery as her own and her nation’s past.”

Critics who emphasize Kindred’s exploration of the grim realities of antebellum slavery tend to classify it mainly as a neo-slave narrative. Jane Donawerth traces Butler’s novel to the recovery of slave narratives during the 1960s, a form then adapted by female science fiction writers to their own fantastical worlds. Robert Crossley identifies Kindred as “a distinctive contribution to the genre of neo-slave narrative” and places it alongside Margaret Walker’s Jubilee, David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage. Sandra Y. Govan calls the novel “a significant departure” from the science fiction narrative because it links “directly to the black American slave experiences via the neo-slave narrative.” Noting that Dana begins the story as a free black woman who becomes enslaved, Marc Steinberg labels Kindred an “inverse slave narrative.”

Other scholars insist that Butler’s background in science fiction is key to understanding what type of narrative Kindred is. Dana’s time-traveling, in particular, has caused critics to place Kindred along science fiction narratives that question “the nature of historical reality,” such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “time-slip” novel Slaughterhouse Five and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or those that warn against “negotiat[ing] the past through a single frame of reference,” such as William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum.”

Main themes

Spoilers.

Realistic depiction of slavery and slave communities

“Strangely, they seemed to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him all at the same time.”
-Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Kindred was written for readers to feel what a modern black woman would experience in a world where blacks were considered not people, but property, and treated as objects with no rights and no choices; a world where “all of society was arrayed against you.” During an interview, Butler admitted that while reading the sickening facts of slavery as depicted in slave narratives she realized that if she wanted people to read her book, she would have to do a somewhat sanitized version of slavery. Nonetheless, scholars consider the novel a non-romanticized fiction of the slave experience. Concluding that “there probably is no more vivid depiction of life on an Eastern Shore plantation than that found in Kindred,” Sandra Y. Govan traces how Butler’s book follows the classic patterns of the memoirs of former slaves: loss of innocence, harsh punishment, strategies of resistance, life in the slave quarters, struggle for education, experience of sexual abuse, realization of the masters’ religious hypocrisy, and attempts to run away. Robert Crossley notes how Butler’s intense first-person narration deliberately echoes the re-tellings of ex-slaves, thereby giving the story “a degree of authenticity and seriousness.” Lisa Yaszek sees Dana’s visceral first-hand account as a deliberate criticism of commercialized productions of slavery, such as the film Gone with the Wind and the television miniseries Roots.

In Kindred, Butler also represents individual slaves as people rather than non-humans, giving each his or her own story. Robert Crossley argues that Butler treats the blackness of her characters as “a matter of course” to resist the tendency of white writers to incorporate African-Americans into their narratives just to illustrate a problem or to divorce themselves from charges of racism. Thus, in Kindred the slave community is depicted as a “rich human society”: the proud yet victimized freewoman-turned-slave Alice; Sam the field slave, who hopes Dana will teach his brother; the traitorous sewing woman Liza, who frustrates Dana’s escape; the bright and resourceful Nigel, Rufus’ childhood friend who learns to read from a stolen primer; and most importantly, Sarah the cook, whom Butler transforms from an image of the submissive, happy “mammie” of white fiction to a deeply angry yet caring woman subdued only by the threat of losing her last child, the mute Carrie.

Master-slave power dynamics

“I was beginning to realize that he loved the woman— to her misfortune. There was no shame in raping a black woman, but there could be shame in loving one.”
-Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Scholars have argued that Kindred complicates the usual representations of chattel slavery as an oppressive system where the master regards the slave as a mere tool/economic resource to be bred or sold. Placing Kindred alongside other Butler narratives such as Dawn, Pamela Bedore reads the bond between Dana and Rufus as reenvisioning slavery as a “symbiotic” interaction between slave and master: since neither character can exist without the other’s help and guidance, they are continually forced to collaborate in order to survive. Thus, the master does not simply control the slave but depends on her. From the side of the slave, Lisa Yaszek notices conflicting emotions: besides her understandable fear and contempt, there is also the affection bred by familiarity and by the occasional kindnesses of the master. The novel refuses to reduce a slave who collaborates with the master in order to survive to a simple “traitor to her race” or “victim of fate.”

Kindred also portrays the historic exploitation of black female sexuality as a main site of the struggle between master and slave. While in the present, Dana chooses her husband and enjoys sexual intercourse with him, in the past, her status as a black female requires that she subordinate her body to the desires of the master race for pleasure, breeding, and as sexual property.

Critique of American history

“The fire flared up and swallowed the dry paper, and I found my thoughts shifting to Nazi book burnings. Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas.”
-Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Scholarship on Kindred often touches on its critique of the official history of the formation of the United States as an erasure of the raw facts of slavery. Robert Crossley believes that Butler dates Dana’s final trip to her Los Angeles home on the 1976 July 4 bicentennial anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence of the United States to connect the personal with the social and the political. The power of this national holiday to erase the grim reality of slavery is negated by Dana’s living understanding of American history, which makes all her previous knowledge of slavery through mass media and books inadequate. Lisa Yaszek notes that Dana throws away all her history books about African-American history on one of the trips back to her California home, as she finds them to be inaccurate in portraying slavery. Instead, Dana reads books about the Holocaust and finds these books to be closer to her experiences as a slave.

In several interviews, Butler mentioned that she wrote Kindred to counteract stereotypical conceptions of the submissiveness of slaves. While studying at Pasadena City College, Butler heard a young man from the Black Power Movement express his contempt for older generations of African-Americans for what he considered their shameful submission to white power. Butler realized the young man did not have enough context to understand the necessity to accept abuse just to keep oneself and one’s family alive and well. Thus, Butler resolved to create a modern African-American character who would go back in time to see how well she could withstand the abuses her ancestors had suffered.

Therefore, Dana’s memories of her enslavement, as Ashraf A. Rushdy explains, become a record of the “unwritten history” of African-Americans. By living these memories, Dana is enabled to make the connections between slavery and current social situations, including the exploitation of blue-collar workers, police violence, rape, domestic abuse, and segregation.

Trauma and its connection to historical memory (or historical amnesia)

Kindred reveals the repressed trauma slavery caused in America’s collective memory of history. In an interview in 1985, Butler suggested that this trauma partly comes from attempts to forget America’s dark past: “I think most people don’t know or don’t realize that at least 10 million blacks were killed just on the way to this country, just during the middle passage… They don’t really want to hear it partly because it makes whites feel guilty.” In a later interview with Randall Kenan, Butler explained how debilitating this trauma has been for Americans, especially for African-Americans, as symbolized by the loss of her protagonist’s left arm: “I couldn’t really let [Dana] come all the way back. I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole, and [losing her arm], I think, really symbolizes her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.”

Many academics have extended Dana’s loss as a metaphor for the “lasting damage of slavery on the African-American psyche” to include other meanings: Pamela Bedore, for example, reads it as the loss of Dana’s naivete regarding the supposed progress of racial relations in the present. Robert Crossley quotes Ruth Salvaggio as inferring that the amputation of Dana’s left arm is a distinct “birthmark” that represents a part of a “disfigured heritage.” Scholars have also noted the importance of Kevin’s forehead scar, with Diana R. Paulin arguing that it symbolizes Kevin’s changing understanding of racial realities, which constitute “a painful and intellectual experience.”

Race as social construct

The construction of the concept of “race” and its connections to slavery are central themes in Kindred. Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint place Kindred as a key science fiction literary text of the 1960s and 1970s black consciousness period, noting that Butler uses the time-travel trope to underscore the perpetuation of past racial discrimination into the present and, perhaps, the future of America. The lesson of Dana’s trips to the past, then, is that “we cannot escape or repress our racist history but instead must confront it.”

The novel’s focus on how the system of slavery shapes its central characters dramatizes society’s power to construct raced identities. The reader witnesses the development of Rufus from a relatively decent boy allied to Dana to a “complete racist” who attempts to rape her as an adult. Similarly, Dana and Kevin’s prolonged stay in the past reframes their modern attitudes. Butler’s depiction of her principal character as an independent, self-possessed, educated African-American woman defies slavery’s racist and sexist objectification of blacks and women.

Kindred also challenges the fixity of “race” through the interracial relationships that form its emotional core. Dana’s kinship to Rufus disproves America’s erroneous concepts of racial purity. It also represents the “inseparability” of whites and blacks in America. The negative reactions of characters in the past and the present to Dana and Kevin’s integrated relationship highlight the continued bigotry of both the white and black communities. At the same time, the relationship of Dana and Kevin extends the concept of “community” from people related by ethnicity to people related by shared experience. In these new communities, whites and blacks may acknowledge their common racist past and learn to live together.

The depiction of Dana’s white husband, Kevin, also serves to examine the concept of racial and gender privilege. In the present, Kevin seems unconscious of the benefits he derives from his skin pigmentation as well as of the way his actions serve to disenfranchise Dana; once he goes to the past, however, he must not just resist accepting slavery as the normal state of affairs, but dissociate himself from the unrestricted power white males enjoy as their privilege. His prolonged stay in the past transforms him from a naive white man oblivious about racial issues into an anti-slave activist fighting racial oppression.

Strong female protagonist

“If I have to seem to be property, if I have to accept limits on my freedom for Rufus’ sake, then he also has to accept limits – on his behavior towards me. He has to leave me enough control of my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying.”
-Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

In her article “Feminisms,” Jane Donawerth describes Kindred as a product of more than two decades of recovery of women’s history and literature that began in the 1970s. The republication of a significant number of slave narratives, as well as the work of Angela Davis, which highlighted the heroic resistance of the black female slave, introduced science fiction writers such as Butler and Suzy McKee Charnas to a literary form that redefined the heroism of the protagonist as endurance, survival, and escape. Lisa Yaszek points out that many of these African-American woman’s neo-slave narratives, including Kindred, discard the lone male hero in favor of a female hero immersed in family and community. Robert Crossley sees Kindred as an extension of the slave woman’s memoir exemplified by texts such as Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, especially in its portrayal of the compromises the heroine must make, the endurance she must have, and her ultimate resistance to victimization.

Originally, Butler intended for the protagonist of Kindred to be a man, but as she explained in an interview, she could not do so because a man would immediately be “perceived as dangerous”: “[s]o many things that he did would have been likely to get him killed. He wouldn’t even have time to learn the rules… of submission.” She then realized that sexism could work in favor of a female protagonist, “who might be equally dangerous” but “would not be perceived so.”

Most scholars see Dana as an example of a strong female protagonist. Angelyn Mitchell describes Dana as a black woman “strengthened by her racial pride, her personal responsibility, her free will, and her self-determination.” Identifying Dana as one of Butler’s many strong female black heroes, Grace McEntee explains how Dana attempts to transform Rufus into a caring individual despite her struggles with a white patriarchy. These struggles, Missy Dehn Kubitschek explains, are clearly represented by Dana’s resistance to white male control of a crucial aspect of her identity — her writing — both in the past and in the present. Sherryl Vint argues that, by refusing Dana to be reduced to a raped body, Butler would seem to be aligning her protagonist with “the sentimental heroines who would rather die than submit to rape” and thus “allows Dana to avoid a crucial aspect of the reality of female enslavement.” However, by risking death by killing Rufus, Dana becomes a permanent surviving record of the mutilation of her black ancestors, both through her armless body and by becoming “the body who writes Kindred.” In contrast to these views, Beverly Friend believes Dana represents the helplessness of modern woman and that Kindred demonstrates that women have been and continue to be victims in a world run by men.

Female quest for emancipation

“I could feel the knife in my hand, still slippery with perspiration. A slave was a slave. Anything could be done to her. And Rufus was Rufus— erratic, alternately generous and vicious. I could accept him as my ancestor, my younger brother, my friend, but not as my master, and not as my lover.”
-Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Some scholars consider Kindred as part of Butler’s larger project to empower black women. Robert Crossley sees Butler’s science fiction narratives as generating a “black feminist aesthetic” that speaks not only to the sociopolitical “truths” of the African-American experience, but specifically to the female experience, as Butler focuses on “women who lack power and suffer abuse but are committed to claiming power over their own lives and to exercising that power harshly when necessary.”

Similarly, Missy Dehn Kubistchek reads Butler’s novel as “African-American woman’s quest for understanding history and self” which ends with Dana extending the concept of “kindred” to include both her black and her white heritage, as well as her white husband, while “insisting on her right to self-definition.”

The meaning of the novel’s title

Kindred’s title has several meanings: at its most literal, it refers to the genealogical link between its modern-day protagonist, the slave-holding Weylins, and both the free and bonded Greenwoods; at its most universal, it points to the kinship of all Americans regardless of ethnic background.

Since Butler’s novel challenges readers to come to terms with slavery and its legacy, one significant meaning of the term “kindred” is the United States’ history of miscegenation and its denial by official discourses; this kinship of blacks and whites must be acknowledged if Americans are to move into a better future.

On the other hand, as Ashraf H.A. Rushdy contends, Dana’s journey to the past serves to redefine her concept of kinship from blood ties to that of “spiritual kinship” with those she chooses as her family, namely: the Weylin slaves and her white husband, Kevin. This sense of the term “kindred” as a community of choice is clear from Butler’s first use of the word to indicate Dana and Kevin’s similar interests and shared beliefs. Dana and Kevin’s relationship, in particular, signals the way for black and white America to reconcile: they must face the country’s racist past together so they can learn to co-exist as kindred.

Reception

Writer Walter Mosley lauded the novel as “everything the literature of science fiction can be.”

Book reviewers have been similarly enthusiastic. Los Angeles Herald-Examiner writer Sam Frank described the novel as “[a] shattering work of art with much to say about love, hate, slavery, and racial dilemmas, then and now.” Reviewer Sherley Anne Williams from Ms. magazine defined the novel as “a startling and engrossing commentary on the complex actuality and continuing heritage of American slavery.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer John Marshall claimed that Kindred is “the perfect introduction to Butler’s work and perspectives for those not usually enamored of science fiction.” The Austin Chronicle writer Barbara Strickland declared Kindred to be “a novel of psychological horror as it is a novel of science fiction.”

Kindred has been a consistent text choice for high school and college courses throughout the years. Linell Smith of The Baltimore Sun describes it as “a celebrated mainstay of college courses in women’s studies and black literature and culture.” Speaking at the occasion of the reissue of Kindred for its 25th Anniversary by Beacon Press, African-American literature professor Roland L. Williams conjectured that the novel has remained popular over the years because of its crossover appeal, which “continues to find a variety of audiences – fantasy, literary and historical” and because “it is an exceedingly well-written and compelling story… that asks you to look back in time and at the present simultaneously.”

Kindred is often chosen for common reading by organizations and communities. The town of Rochester, New York, selected Kindred as the novel to be read during the third annual event of “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” in February and March of 2003. Approximately 40,000 to 50,000 people participated by reading Kindred and joining panel discussions, lectures, film viewings, visual arts exhibitions, poetry readings, and other events, and for several days, the town greeted Octavia E. Butler during her appearances at colleges, community centers, libraries, and bookstores. In the spring of 2012, Kindred was chosen as one of thirty books to be given away as part of World Book Night, a worldwide event that aims to spread the love for books and reading by giving away hundreds of thousands of free paperbacks in one night.

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