Delicious Rage: Octavia Butler

by Shonda Buchanan

Rage.

When Octavia Butler was a painfully shy child, a tall and gawky black girl in segregated Pasadena, California in the 1950s, she was “an easy target” for bullies. Born in 1947, she hid in libraries, spending her formative years in books and a “pink notebook,” writing and living in the world of fantastical characters whose lives were as complicated and isolated as her own:

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear....I hid out in a big pink notebook. I made myself a universe in it. [1] 

Rage.

When she was twelve and watched Devil Girl From Mars, Butler derisively thought, “Geez, I could write a better story than that.”[2] This thought set her off to write a multitude of terrible stories, she says, and submit them to “innocent magazines.” One of her first “terrible” stories grew from her Baptist upbringing, a short story portraying a preacher losing his faith. Biblical themes continued to pervade her work, however young Butler found herself gravitating towards supernatural, alien themes with strong female protagonists and dystopic plots that hinged on power struggles, issues of authority, transgender and sexual politics, and human-alien interdependency. [3] 

While becoming the first Black woman to be recognized internationally as a preeminent sci-fi writer, she felt maligned and pigeon-holed by the blanket term “science fiction” and preferred “near future,” because her plots were rooted in current events or recent history. [4] Over the years, speculative fiction, a newly minted branch of sci-fi, has been used more accurately to reflect her themes. Writing through the lens of “what if”, Butler saw society’s dichotomies—abject poverty against obtuse wealth, gender inequality, race and discrimination—and used that material to highlight cultural, societal and political realities. She chose science fiction as her genre because she could hide her own quiet anger, and society’s deeply-seeded racial, socio-political and cultural myopias. As with Kindred, where a black protagonist is transported back in time to save her white slavemaster ancestor from death, thus saving her own lineage, Butler’s themes are never overtly concerned with a singular issue.

Because of her upbringing in a society which structured different treatment for the sake of difference itself, she layered, disguised, and subverted into her work themes of racial, social, cultural and political bias, exposing the ills of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Butler wrote to expose our human faults, but also to give us hope; she wrote to bare the ugly pettiness of dominance but also to show us our ability to rise above those same faults in order to survive the coming apocalypse or possible extinction as presented in several plots. In Adulthood Rites, a half Oankali alien, half human who was kidnapped by humans must relinquish his alien self in order to save the human race. Taken in another context, what white man or woman would give up his privilege to save a Black man or make an American Indian woman’s life better, or raise another community of color to equal status?

Rage.

Butler’s housemaid mother cleaned the homes of white women in Pasadena. When she accompanied her mother, Butler witnessed how disdainfully she was treated and spoken to; the horrified girl resolved to never be a maid. In fact, seeing that treatment spurred Butler further towards her chosen profession of writing for her keep, defying her mother’s (and society’s) expectations that she apply the typing skills she taught herself at age twelve as a secretary. As an adult, Butler wrote during the day, attended Pasadena Community College and worked at night, taking all manner of odd jobs, even once as a Potato Peeler.

Rage.

Butler’s personal rage and disappointment at racism and bigotry led her to obfuscate her own gender and race when she first started seriously submitting her short stories and novels to agents and publishing houses. She knew that a Black woman writer of sci-fi and near future stories would not only never get her foot in the door, but wouldn’t even be allowed to knock.

Rage.

When her first novel, Patternmaster was published in 1976 and featured characters with African names and alien-human interdependence, Butler's work subtly "raged" against societal ignorance, bigotry, power, and arrogance. No one knew her race or gender for the first few publications, not until she was requested to give talks about her work. Her readers and audiences then had no choice but to deal with a tall, imposing, shy but brilliant Black woman who made it her business to challenge prejudice or discriminatory beliefs through her work, or any man or white author in the genre should they attempt to invalidate her work based solely on her race or gender.

Glee.

When she won the MacArthur Grant in 1995, this fresh genius, sci-fi Witch became the first science fiction writer to win this prestigious award. Already a winner of the lauded Hugo and Nebula Awards, the MacArthur (also called the Genius grant) firmly established Butler as not only a contemporary, but a beacon for other Black writers, sci-fi writers of all ages and women writers, as well as agents and editors, showing them how people of color and women were, indeed, going to be a part of the future, no matter how hard literary and film industries continued to portray whiteness and British accents as the only valid futuristic images.

Butler, who wrote over a dozen novels, died on February 24, 2006 at the age of 58 in Seattle, Washington, where she lived for the last seven years of her life. In honor of Butler’s work and life, arts and literary organizations across California hosted panels and discussion in 2016, commemorating the 10-year anniversary of her death, and will hold more events in 2017 to celebrate her 70th birthday had she lived.

Sometimes, magic comes from the most unlikely of places. Octavia Butler’s dreams and goals, like a spell, could have been halted at any time for any number of reasons but instead, as if ordained by a Cardinal Witch, the winds for change were ripe, but also purposeful, she told one New York Times interview, “I wrote myself in.”[5] Like the immortal from her lauded novel Wildseed, Butler’s work has metamorphisized and will continue to take on many more shapes and forms for loyal fans and new readers, weaving people of color, women and other underrepresented subsects into the future, while confronting hierarchical and sociopolitical issues.

Look what a little good rage can do.

 

[1] "Science Fiction: Octavia Estelle Butler." Media in Transition. http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/science_fiction/profiles/butler_index.html.

[2] Butler, Octavia. "Devil Girl From Mars: Why I Write Science Fiction" Media in Transition. http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/articles/butler_talk.html.

[3] "Octavia E. Butler Collection at The Huntington." The Huntington. http://www.huntington.org/octaviabutler.

[4] Butler, Octavia. Interviewed by author, 1996. 

[5] "VISIONS: IDENTITY; We tend to do the right thing when we get scared." The New York Times. January 1, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/01/books/visions-identity-we-tend-to-do-the-right-thing-when-we-get-scared.html