Inverting History in Octavia Butler's Postmodern Slave Narrative

By Steinberg, Marc | African American Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Inverting History in Octavia Butler's Postmodern Slave Narrative


Steinberg, Marc, African American Review


Beyond of the historical slave narrative, Octavia Butler's 1988 Kindred may also be deemed a contemporary science fiction novel, though the author herself claims that "Kindred is fantasy.... There is no science in Kindred" (Kenan 495). (1) Butler's vision in the novel is certainly not utopic. Whatever its narrative context, Butler's novel looks to the antebellum slave narrative form as a background for exploring issues of literacy in opposition to the reality of possession, oppression, and violence. Content and form intersect in the novel as the veiling of temporal boundaries blurs the notion of slavery transcended. By zigzagging the time frame of the novel from past to present, Butler points to ways in which past and present become interchangeable. She also writes of plausible historical actions and relationships, "filling in" possible gaps that may be evident in classic slave narratives. Butler assumes a non-Western conceptualization of history--one in which history is cyclical, not linear--in order to demonstrate ways in which certain forms of race and gender oppression continue late into the twentieth century and beyond. She incorporates postmodern fiction literary techniques to critique the notion that historical and psychological slavery can be overcome.

Unlike other contemporary revisions of the traditional slave narrative--most famously, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage, Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, and Toni Morrison's Beloved--Butler's neo-slave narrative, at least in part, takes place in the relative present. As such, it more clearly blurs history and the present (though the neo-slavery novel by convention imposes the past onto the present). The novel liberally borrows from very modern and postmodern ideas concerning time and continuity. Like John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor or E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Butler attempts a contemporary re-write of an historical or plausibly historical event. Thus, she reclaims control over text and ideas, significant postmodern concepts. This drive to contain and to define one's personal or communal history can be seen in many contemporary novels. Ultimately, Butler's novel remains part contemporary postmodern text, part historical slave narrative.

One might label Kindred a sort of inverse slave narrative. Born into freedom herself in 1950, its protagonist Dana becomes enslaved on her twenty-sixth birthday in 1976, the bicentennial year of US independence, and, as many actual slave rebels reported, she must prepare for a dangerous, consequential escape. Dana's escape, with its trials, pitfalls, and obstacles--including capture by her white owner-ancestor Rufus and his slave overseer Weylin--parallels numerous slave narrators' accounts of flight from bondage. It is not simply Butler's account of Dana's enslavement and escape that resemble antebellum slavery narratives', but also her novel's concentration on rhetorical strategies of subterfuge, its record of resistance and oppression, and its concentration on the separation of families. Underscoring the novel's slave narrative conventions, Sandra Y. Govan claims that "Butler treats the recurring themes of casual brutality, forcible separation of families, the quest for knowledge, the desire to escape, the tremendous work loads expected of slaves as efficiently as any of the narrators or documentary histories discussing the slavery experience ("Homage" 91). (2) By assuming the form of the slave narrative and by shifting its focus from past to present to past, Butler's novel stresses the ways in which present-day African Americans might suffer from the markings of the past. Adapting genres is, of course, a very postmodern concept. Both John Barth and Thomas Pynchon have taken the form of the 18th-century novel to write contemporary updates of their own. Butler's agenda, however, is much less playful than theirs--and much more political.

Of course, to be reminiscent of a slave narrative, Kindred must present a world of intense and implacable oppression, possession, and violence. …

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