Return of Kindred spirits: an anniversary for Octavia E. Butler is a time for reflection and rejoicing for fans of speculative fiction.
Octavia E. Butler might be considered by some to be a prolific writer, but fans have suffered a four-year drought, since Parable of the Talents in 1999, waiting for a new novel from her. They will have to make do with the rerelease of her groundbreaking novel Kindred (Beacon Press, November 2003, $14.95, ISBN 0-807-08305-4), which was first published by Doubleday in 1979.
During her notable career, Butler has won two Nebula and three Hugo Awards for her writings. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to win a $295,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
Although Kindred wasn't published until she was 32, Butler said she wrote it years earlier when she was in college. Her debut novel Patternmaster, published in 1976, actually sprang from her agile brain at age 12.
Kindred was critically acclaimed for its perceptive examination of the effects of slavery on American society past and present, survivor guilt and gender issues. The book's crossover appeal endures today, and it continues to find a variety of audiences--fantasy, literary and historical, says Dr. Roland L. Williams, an assistant professor of African American literature at Temple University.
"Primarily, it has endured because it is an exceedingly well-written and compelling story ... that asks you to look back in time and at the present simultaneously," Williams says. Williams is the author of African American Autoboigraphy and the Quest for Freedom (Greenwood Press, January 2000), which cites Kindred as an example of neoslave narrative.
During those days, story ideas came easily, Butler says. "I had all these ideas that had been rattling around in my head for a number of years, but I didn't know how to write a novel, so I wrote bits and pieces," Butler commented in an interview from her home in Seattle. "When I started writing professionally, I wrote a novel a year because I had all these ideas." That brilliant mind is still teaming with ideas for stories at 56, but it's more difficult to whip them into novels because of health problem.
The reclusive author has published only one short story and a few essays since the release of Parable of the Talents, her Nebula Award-winning novel. "I've started several books since then and I've gotten well into them before they died," Butler says. "I had some place for them to go before I started and somehow they just petered out. After a while it didn't seem reasonable for them to continue."
The final book in the Parable series was one of the attempts that came to a literary dead end, but fans shouldn't give up hope.
"It's something I may get back to," Butler says. "What I'm really hoping is that the novels that I've been thinking about kind of mature into something."
Meanwhile, Butler spends her days reading and working on her current project: a novel about a sleeper ship filled with comatose colonists. And then there is an occasional speaking engagement. "I think of myself as a hermit even though I live in the city," Butler says.
Kindred, the third of her 12 novels, differs from Butler's other books in that it is placed in the past rather than the future. Butler was never comfortable with its placement on the science fiction shelves. "Kindred is not science fiction, it is, in actuality, a kind of grim fantasy," she adds. "The novel is the tale of Dana, a modern African American woman snatched back to the antebellum South to save Rufus, the brutal son of a white plantation owner. Dana is called again and again into the past to keep Rufus alive until he fathers the woman who win become her ancestor. Dana, who is married to a white man, must face her misconceptions about America's "peculiar institution?" At first, her pride makes her rebel, and she is beaten for her insolence by the white masters and shunned by other slaves who see her as a traitor because of her speech and education.
"Dana is determined not to tolerate the beliefs of the time, but she eventually recognizes that the whole society is set against her and that she has to put up with it to survive," Butler explains.
Rufus is not all bad. Butler gives us glimpses of a vulnerability and at times Rufus appears almost as much victim as his slaves. Nor is Dana clothed in sainthood, as she persuades her own ancestress to submit to Rufus's sexual demands of risk being beaten to death. Yet given the same choice later, Dana decides death is more tolerable.
"I don't write about good guys and bad guys, I write about being human," Butler says.
In an interview with Locus Magazine (June 2000), Butler said the idea for Kindred grew from a comment by a fellow college student, a black guy who wished that he "could kill all these old black people that have been holding us back for so long, but I can't because I have to start with my own parents."
The young man clearly did not understand the true heroism of his people, Butler told Locus. "He was the kind that would have killed and died, as opposed to surviving and hanging on and hoping and working for change. And I thought about my mother, because she used to take me to work with her when she couldn't get a baby-sitter and I was too young to be left alone, and I saw her going in the back door, and I saw people saying things to her that she didn't like but couldn't respond to. I heard people say in her hearing, 'Well, I don't really like colored people.' And she kept working, and she put me through school, she bought her house--all the stuff she did. That's what I want to write about: when you are aware of what it means to be an adult and what choices you have to make, the fact that maybe you're afraid, but you still have to act." Butler pays tribute to both her mother and grandmother in her writing. Their strength is evident in Dana, Alanna in Survivor and the other women who do the necessary in Butler's books.
An Octavia E. Butler
Warner Books is the publisher for all of Octavia E. Butler's books still in print, with the exception of the reissue edition of Kindred, which was her third novel.
Adulthood Rites, April 1997, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-60378-3; Dawn, April 1987, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-60377-5; Imago, April 1997, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-60363-5; Lilith's Brood, Aspect, August 2000, (Xenogenesis trilogy) #13.95, ISBN 0-446-67610-1
Mind of My Mind (1977) August 1994, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-36188-7; Patternmaster (1976) May 1995, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-36281-6; Wild Seed (1980) February 1999, $6.50, ISBN 0-446-60672-3
Clay's Ark (1984) December 1996, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-60370-8; Parable of the Sower (1994) February 1998, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-60197-7 (nominated for a Nebula Award in 1994-95);
Parable of the Talents (1998) January 2000, $13.95, ISBN 0-446-67578-4; Survivor, Doubleday, March 1978, ASIN 0-385-13385-5
IN HER FOOTSTEPS
For Kindred's anniversary, BIBR looks at two new offerings in the genre.
Dark Matter: Reading the Bones
Edited by Sheree R. Thomas Warner Books, January 2004 $25.95 ISBN 0-446-53860-9
Sheree R. Thomas's second collection of short stories and essays from the African Diaspora is the proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. But you know it's going to be good.
Thomas presents the works of 28 writers-some historical such as W.E.B. Du Bois, some well established like Samuel R. Delany, or new starts like Nalo Hopkinson. There are also many welcome new voices. The first Dark Matter collection, which was published in July 2001, focused more on hard-core sci-fi, This time around, Thomas chose a less-traveled route.
"The stories are speculative fiction, which is a broader category than just science fiction," noted Thomas, who was reached at a monthlong writer's retreat in upstate New York. "It's either magical realist work, or horrific work, or folklore, or just imaginative fiction."
Thomas harvested promising stories from unsolicited manuscripts by writers that were new to her. The result is a darkly rich pastiche of ideas, styles, themes and aesthetics.
"Like the diverse communities and personal histories from which they hail, black writers are not a monolithic community," Thomas writes in the Introduction. "Their interests are manifold, their expressions and personal rhythms as wide and varied as the land in which their ancestors first gave voice."
There are original works like Wanda Coleman's "Buying Primo Time," where dreams become high-priced commodities few can afford, or David Findlay's "Recovery from a Fall," an erotic tale of lust and longing. Or Nisi Shawl's "Maggies," which probes the difficulties of an adolescent coming-of-age. More well-known contributors include Walter Mosley ("Whispers in the Dark") and Tananarive Due ("Aftenoon").
In addition to the Dark Matter series, Thomas edits a literary journal, Anansi: Fiction of the African Diaspora, and she has contributed to national publications. She is working on her first novel and a third anthology.
The Salt Roads
by Nalo Hopkinson Warner Books, November 2003 $22.95 ISBN 0-446-53302-5
For someone who cut their teeth on the works of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and later Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany, my first encounter with the vivid and erotic prose of Nalo Hopkinson was a shock to the senses. Warner Books is billing The Salt Roads as a "mainstream" novel with appeal outside the sci-fi genre.
Hopkinson, 42, says she doesn't sweat labels. "I always write fiction that has elements of the fantastic in it, but I don't care what the genre is," she says. "It is fiction and I'm quite happy with that."
Hopkinson's fourth novel is a brilliant and multilayered tale of Ezili, the Afro-Caribbean goddess of love and sex, called into being when three slave women gather to bury a stillborn haby. Ezili's attempts to discover her own nature by inhabiting the minds of living women throughout history: Jeanne Duval, the deeply sensual black mistress of 18th-century bohemian poet Charles Baudelaire; Meritet, a Nubian prostitute who becomes known as St. Mary of Egypt, and Mer, a slave on the island of Saint Domingue on the eve of the slave revolt that gave birth to Haiti.
Ezili's journey of discovery defies time and place. The reader must follow closely as Hopkinson abruptly shifts between centuries, countries and personalities. At times, the Ezili narrates the ston/. At others, her human hosts pick up the narrative. Ezili is a capricious spirit, who cares little for the bodies she uses in her sexual romps through time. In truth, she views her corporeal hosts as a prison.
At times, the story line becomes obscured by Hopkinson's frequent sidetrips into Ezili's altered state. Still, Salt Roads is a worthy read. Hopkinson draws vivid portraits of women who use their sex to survive under hideous circumstances. Ezili and her hosts have sex with men as a means to an end, but look to other women for love.
Hopkinson's previous novels are Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner Books, July 1998), for which she received the 1999 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; Midnight Robber (Aspect, March 2000), a New York Times Notable Beok of the Year in 2000, and Skin Folk (Aspect, December 2001).-- E.Y.
Earni Young is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Earni Young is a reporter and former editor and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. She previously worked as a columnist for the Miami Herald and has contributed to several national publications. Young catches up with science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler and recognizes the 25th anniversary rerelease of her novel Kindred in "Return of Kindred Spirits," on page 30.