Sunday, January 31, 2021

Positive Obsession

Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006)
From Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories

Jacket art by American artist Laurence Schwinger (b. 1941) for the first edition of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979). Click on image to see entire front cover. Image courtesy of Laurence Schwinger’s website.
Among the items in the archive of Octavia E. Butler’s papers and manuscripts is a commonplace book in which she wrote notes to herself, including self-motivational goals and advice like:
I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc.* My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not.

This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months. Each of my novels does this.

So be it! I will find the way to do this. . . .
Butler, who died in February 2006 at the age of 58 following a fall outside her Seattle home, never realized this ambition. This past September, however, her novel Parable of the Sower, first published in 1993, finally made it to the New York Times Best Sellers lists. Abby Aguirre, describing in The New Yorker how the novel and its sequel (Parable of the Talents) eerily foretold aspects of current events, writes that Butler “extrapolated her vision of a near-future dystopia from what she read in the news, forecasting what kind of collapse might result if the forces of late-stage capitalism, climate change, mass incarceration, big pharma, gun violence, and the tech industry continued unhampered.” At a 1998 conference, Butler addressed early questions about the book’s canny prescience: “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is ‘I certainly hope not.’”

Parable of the Sower sold an astonishing 200,000 print copies in various editions during the past two decades (over half of them in the last two years), but it is still outpaced by her best-known novel, Kindred (1979), which sold well over half a million copies through retailers during the same period. The irony is that the most popular novel by one of America’s most famous and influential science fiction writers isn’t science fiction at all but is instead a historical fantasy. The plot features an African American woman and her white husband who somehow travel through time between the 1970s and the early 1800s, but “there's no science in Kindred,” she pointed out in a conversation with the novelist Randall Kenan. “I mean, if I was told that something was science fiction, I would expect to find something dealing with science in it.” Yet, not surprisingly, the book gets shelved with her other books in stores. As she joked in an interview with Stephen Harper. “I have a feeling that if I wrote a biography about my mother, it would wind up in the science fiction section.”

The history behind the fantasy of Kindred revolves around the lives of people, either real or realistically imagined, in the early years of the nineteenth century. In a pivotal scene, the main character, Dana, slips frighteningly back to antebellum America, where she realizes that she must keep secret some of her twentieth-century knowledge or lives would be endangered. Among the historical figures she recalls are “two important slave children right here in Maryland. The older one, living here in Talbot County, would be called Frederick Douglass after a name change or two. The second, growing up a few miles south in Dorchester County, was Harriet Ross, eventually to be Harriet Tubman.” On other occasions, Dana indicates that, in her life during the 1970s, she has read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. She is glad to see, for example, children eating with the older slaves in the cookhouse because “she’d read about kids their age being rounded up and fed from troughs like pigs,” an unmistakable reference to this passage in Douglass’s book:
The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.
While she was writing her novel, Butler stayed in the Maryland region where Douglass lived. Her research, particularly her extensive reading of some of the lesser-known slave narratives, convinced her that she would need to moderate the horror of plantation life in her novel. As she explained to Kenan:
It’s not pleasure reading. As a matter of fact, one of the things I realized when I was reading the slave narrative—I think I had gotten to one by a man who was explaining how he had been sold to a doctor who used him for medical experiments [probably Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, 1855]—was that I was not going to be able to come anywhere near presenting slavery as it was. I was going to have to do a somewhat cleaned-up version of slavery, or no one would be willing to read it. I think that’s what most fiction writers do. They almost have to.
A decade after she published Kindred, as her standing in the literary world continued to rise, Octavia Butler wrote for Essence magazine a remarkably compelling essay outlining the path of her career, from early childhood in the 1950s to her status as a full-time writer in the 1980s. We present her life story as our Story of the Week selection.

* Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Publisher Weekly, The Washington Post

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My mother read me bedtime stories until I was six years old. It was a sneak attack on her part. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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