Back To The Future With Octavia Butler’s Kindred

I found Octavia Butler’s Kindred on Audible last year. Her name sounded familiar and I knew that she was a famous writer, known for some sort of fiction that I didn’t typically read. She was a science fiction writer. A spinner of fantastical yarns. Not my normal reading fare, and yet, I felt a bit ashamed not knowing more about her. My life literally began with a love for the written word. My father named me after the poet Nikki Giovanni. I have immersed myself in writing and reading and novels my entire life, and I consider myself knowledgeable about most of the female authors one should know when they care about such things. I should have known who Octavia Butler was and why she is considered one of the best science fiction writer

I think it is because of the genres she wrote. Science fiction. Fantasy. If you were to ask me to list five science fiction writers, I’d be hard pressed to do so. Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury. Fantasy? Piers Anthony. That’s all I got. I have never been a huge fan of those genres, not even in television or film. So it’s probably not odd that I have never heard of her, but I certainly feel that my degrees in English and creative writing were lacking. Probably too much Byron, Shakespeare and Donne.
I’ve since read that her books, especially Kindred are taught widely in high school and colleges. Not in my high school. Not in my college. Toni Morrison? Yes. Alice Walker? Yes. Zora Neale Hurston? Yes. Octavia Butler? No.

But her works should absolutely be taught in schools. Her stories teach lessons. But probably not the ones most evident. I think when most analysis of her works are done, it’s assumed she’s dissecting contemporary issues of race and gender under the guise of science fiction. But I think the lessons to be learned from Octavia are different. Deeper.

But let us begin at the beginning. After I read the blurb for Kindred, I knew that I’d heard about it, at least in passing. Time travel. Yes please. Slavery.  This could be interesting. But yes, it was ringing bells. However, I could not recall one single item about the author herself. Except that her name was Greek, and she was African-American. A pioneer for being a woman and a person of color writing science fiction. I spent a day reading, listening and viewing everything I could find online about her.

And all this, just so I could have context when I listened to her story.

The why of it

I wanted to know about this woman who wrote science fiction. I wanted to know about this African-American who wrote fantasy. I am one of those rare beings that have not watched the Star Wars movies. I don’t love Star Trek, not the old tv show, not the movies and I’ve never given the new show on CBS a chance. So, I needed to know what kind of black woman not only writes science fiction and fantasy, but thrived at it.

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The first thing I discovered, was that she died in 2006.  I momentarily mourned the fact that I did not have the opportunity to follow her career when she lived. But after that, I read about her life in Pasadena, California with a mother as housemaid and a father, a shoeshiner who died when she was young.

She began writing as a child, her interest in science fiction beginning with magazines and growing as she watched fifties SciFi movies. Octavia has gone on record about seeing her mother being discriminated against, being treated unkindly.  She has stated that these experiences created the seeds of stories in her imagination. But she didn’t want to dwell on those negative situations, didn’t want to complain about them. she wanted to teach lessons, that the opposite of hate is love. That discrimination can be overcome by empathy. She then went to Pasadena City College, received an associates degree in history and began attending workshops for science fiction and fantasy writers.

What really resonated with me about her background, is that her story is one of progress, of positivity and can-do action. No dwelling on the racism, oppression and discrimination that legitimately worked against African-Americans during the tumultuous Civil Rights-era on an emotional, spiritual and physical levels  I like that she was focused on her goals, wasn’t worried about what people thought she couldn’t do, and wasn’t deterred by the negative imagery placed in the media. She literally created her own world, her own space in which to create and live.

So Predictable

It’s a bit ironic, I think that the majority of articles and interviews that Octavia participated in included questions about how she overcame the challenges of being black in a post-Jim Crow world, what were her thoughts on race relations… Always dragging her back to the past, when she was clearly a forward-thinking person. As if that was the point of her works.

As if.

But she was not in the past, maybe not even in the present. She lived in the future where she could shape the world to her satisfaction. She was focused on solutions, but in order to promote her stories she was forced to go backwards and talk about the problem. Which she did, eloquently. And then smoothly turned the narrative back to her world, where she felt most comfortable. Back to the future.

And that’s when it hit me. The why of it. Why she wrote science fiction, when it was not common for woman or African-Americans to do so. It was her way of dealing. As a child, Octavia was described as socially awkward, painfully shy and suffering from dyslexia. At this young age, she escaped into reading, traveling to faraway worlds where she could be and do anything she pleased.

And then she began writing those stories. It is probably no coincidence that she selected science fiction and fantasy as her means of escape during a time when her life was difficult, judgements were based on the color of her skin, and her world was made worse by being six-foot tall by the time she was fifteen. And she was a masculine-looking young woman who did not fit society’s norms for beauty. Children picked on her. She was bullied. Not necessarily because of her appearance, but other issues. Kids are cruel and all that.

If Octavia had grown up in a different time, she may not have needed the escape. May not have needed to create new worlds to live in. May not have a reason to focus on a better tomorrow instead of her not-so-great present. Maybe she would’ve written romance. Or mysteries. But aren’t we all glad she did not?

I now at least understood the why. Or had a working therory.

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Courtesy of Octavia Butler’s Estate via The Huntington Library

Thoughts are things

At some time in Octavia’s life, she must have been introduced to the universal laws of attraction. Yes… that not-so-secret secret which has been around for thousands of years in ancient civilizations, indigenous cultures and our modern world. The idea that people and their thoughts are pure energy. That like energy attracts like energy. That by replacing self-limiting or self-destructive thoughts with positive affirmation and creative visualizations you can create the world you desire. She came of age in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies, one of the hot beds of New Age and New Thought activity. She was a writer hanging out with other writers and creative types. In retrospect, how could she not know? She probably read Helena Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled or Napoleon Hill’s Think And Grow Rich or Wallace Wattle’s Science Of…. trilogy. And her mind was blown.

So when I discovered her handwritten notes in an exhibit at The Huntington Library last year… I got it. The image of the note (above) attests to the fact that Octavia focused on solutions, not problems, and her mindset was success-oriented. If you know anything about the power of positive thinking, use of affirmations, creative visualization and the universal law of attraction, you can read this note and see that Octavia focused on the positive. She focused on success, on the desired outcome. And she believed in her own power to create her future with her thoughts.

She believed that if she wrote the words down,  “I am a bestselling writer.” If she thought the words infused with positive emotion, if she could see herself as a bestselling author, if she could feel as if she already was a bestselling author… it would happen. And it did. It could be a coincidence. But it could also be the law of attraction working perfectly an in accordance with its own principals.

Octavia went on to win several awards for her short stories, including the Hugo. In 1999 she was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as the “genius grant”. And her novel, The Parable of the Talents won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award for Best Science Novel in 1999. Kindred has gone on to sell over 400,000 books.

My point is, the fact that she focuses on the positive, focuses on her goals and the actions she needs to take resonated with me. I believe that words are things, that we create our future every moment with our thoughts and words. So, when I read this, I guess you could say I felt a…  kindred spirit with Ms. Butler. Pun totally intended.

There are no victims

Kindred begins in California in the late seventies. The main character, Dana begins the story with an amputated arm. She is in the hospital, being questioned by the police, who believe her husband, who is white is abusing her. Neither wants to explain to the police unexplainable reasons for what has happened to her.

What follows is a horrifying tale of time travel made all the worse because the travel is uncontrollable and inconsistent. This is not the tale of a woman simply going back into time, having an experience and then returning. No, in Kindred Dana ping pongs back and forth, hurtling through time and space to appear in the present and then the past and then the present again. That present though.

She’s a black woman who travels through time and back to pre-Civil War Maryland… Horror ensues. This is not a story that romanticizes the south with plump black women stirring large pots of beans and baking biscuits, intimations of hot interracial sex between brooding square jawed masters and pliant nubile mulattos or knock-kneed, tow haired youths coming-of-age with the help of a kind hearted slave.  Tropes be damned. This story is dark and gritty and terrifying as any Stephen King novel.

My favorite part of the story? Octavia doesn’t create Dana as a victim. Yes, there is racism and oppression based on color and gender but Dana is strong and independent and focused on doing whatever it she needs to do to achieve her goal. She has absolutely every reason to feel victimized, to spend her time blaming others, to focus on all of her problems and none of the solutions. But Octavia didn’t do that in her own life, and she didn’t write those self-destructive practices in her stories either.

The main character, Dana focuses on surviving, making sure her cruel white ancestor lives to torture another day… and returning home. She doesn’t dwell on her circumstance, she doesn’t throw herself a pity party and indulge in the ridiculously cruel society that has deemed her sub-human. Rather, she takes every chance, every opportunity to achieve, to better her opponent. To win.

In a CNN article, author Walter Mostly said of Octavia, “She had a deep commitment to science fiction, and she wrote many wonderful books, but her talent was in world building, And underneath that was a social and political fever which spoke so loudly and clearly to women in the black community.”

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Courtesy of Octavia Butler’s Estate via The Huntington Library

And I agree. Octavia was a world builder. And she does have a message. But not just for women. Not just for black women. It’s for everyone. It’s for mankind.  This was a woman who wrote about humans and aliens. Okay? Her scope was larger, her gaze higher. Her dreams were for humanity. Some considered her a visionary. Others… a genius.

She believed you could create your world, your future…  with words and thoughts. She wrote stories, shared them with us, left them for us, not to study the break down of gender roles or the oppression of women, not to study racism, find it under every corner, but to explore and understand that we create our world in every moment. That we are all world builders and have a responsibility to create and share love, kindness, goodness and empathy, not hate, animosity and fear. Those lessons are in Kindred and her other works as well, if you have the eyes to see.

In 1996, Butler told De Pauw University’s Stephen W. Potts that she tried not to read critical theory about her work’s intersection with race and gender politics, saying “I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don’t worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It’s just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It’s not very good for storytelling.”

She understood that negative words and thoughts are insidious, infectious. Allow them into your mind and they become part of your world. An inherent part of her world building. I would guess that Octavia was disappointed that scholars picked her work apart searching for commonalities of gender and race discrimination in contemporary society, instead of taking cues from her work on how to create solutions.

Octavia has self-described as a feminist, but based on her writings she was the old-school variety. The woman who seeks to be empowered by simply taking the power she wants and needs for herself, not by trying to take it from others in order to improve herself. Once again, the writer chooses light over dark, good over evil in her quest to tell the story. Another lesson to be learned.

And why this story? That, I really wanted to know. What compelled this author to write this story? She overheard an African-American activist and college-student complaining about the subservient older generations of blacks and wanted to kill them for being so docile when the circumstances, apparently called for the opposite. She wanted to explain to him and other like-minded men and women that it took a kind of courage and integrity to decide to be subservient, but she recognized that sometimes one has to walk in another person’s shoes to truly understand.

Mission Accomplished

I believe with Kindred, Octavia achieved her goal. You cannot read her story of a strong, independent, forward-thinking black woman who travels back into time and is forced into slavery and not understand the choices that were made. You read her story and see that men and women who should see themselves as victims, instead felt they were the victor. They did not dwell on the racism and oppression around them, they did not complain about their circumstance. Instead they only saw freedom and opportunity until that freedom and opportunity manifested itself for future generations. Maybe they were not able to enjoy it themselves, but they wished for their loved ones, for the generations to come.

You can see the future of freedom and opportunity the slaves in Kindred manifested in the past, every time the main character, Dana is abruptly sent back to the future. The world built by slaves, one in which the benefactors of their hopes and dreams lived, loved and worked free of chains and yokes. At least the physical kind. And not a perfect world, mind you, because the art and science of manifesting is also not perfect. But those enslaved men and women, her ancestors built the world that she could enjoy by focusing on what they wanted, not what they had.

And that is a powerful lesson we should all heed. We are all creating our future, one word, one thought at a time. Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” As we consume the negative images and words on Facebook and Twitter, as we view the 24-hour news cycles, as we engage in conversations, debates and arguments about the theatrics playing out all around us, what are we thinking? What are we saying? If thoughts truly are things, then what are we creating? What world are we building for the future?

Octavia Butler’s Kindred reminds us… that the future is now.

#WhatToReadNext

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