Kindred Spirit: Science Fiction Author Octavia Butler

By Page, Lisa | The Crisis, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

Kindred Spirit: Science Fiction Author Octavia Butler


Page, Lisa, The Crisis


Octavia Butler was a paradox. She was a visionary who melted the boundaries of popular fiction. And she was a loner who hated to draw attention to herself. As a writer, she was bold enough to change the entire landscape of science fiction. As a person, however, she was intensely shy.

As a child, she struggled with dyslexia and had trouble in school, yet she loved to read and write. She came from humble beginnings but created social heirarchies in her complex work, which many labeled genius.

Butler died Feb. 24 at her home in Seattle after a head injury resulting from a fall and an apparent stroke. She was 58.

Born in 1947, Butler was the only child of a shoeshine man and a domestic worker. She was raised in Pasadena, Calif., and lived briefly on a chicken ranch her grandmother owned near Victorville, Calif. She grew up to become the first African American woman to publish science fiction to popular and critical acclaim. She was also the first science fiction writer, Black or White, male or female, to win a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, which she won in 1995.

Butler is probably best known for her novel, Kindred, first published in 1979. It's the story of a modern Black woman forced to travel back in time to Maryland before the Civil War. She is called to rescue one of her ancestors, a White man who fathered children with one of his Black slaves.

The story not only details a riveting picture of racism and slavery but also of sexism in American culture, both past and present, between slave master and slave, and husband and wife. Butler's insight into these relationships is still fresh, almost 30 years after Kindred's initial publication. It is a classic still widely taught at colleges and universities.

"I don't write about good and evil," she told Juan Williams in a National Public Radio interview originally aired in 2000. "I write about people. Even the worst of us doesn't set out to be evil ...they are frightened perhaps because they think their way is the best way."

Much of Kindred's appeal is in its characters: men and women who are flawed and often self-destructive, yet sympathetic.

"She was worried about two things," says her friend, science fiction writer Steven Barnes. "The first was our tendency toward heirarchies and the second was our tendency to think we're always right."

Her work attempted to shed light on these concerns. While Kindred dealt with racism and American slavery, other works tackled themes around gender and the complicity of humans to contribute to their own demise.

Her Xenogenesis Trilogy (republished as Lilith 's Brood in 2000) included characters who were never differentiated by gender. And another book, Parable of the Sower, included a protagonist who suffered "hyper empathy," that is, the ability to literally experience other people's pain (and pleasure) as a possible antidote to cruelty in human behavior. Butler said she realized that people would find ways to carry on violence, even if such sensitivity existed.

She herself was sensitive as a child.

"I can remember getting very upset over things that weren't upsetting to anyone else," she said in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross that originally aired in 1993. "Most kids empathize too much at some point in their lives and are forced to grow out of it. My character can't grow out of it."

Barnes calls Butler "more of a philosopher than an intellectual. She studied with emotional intent. She asked, why are we so cruel to each other? …

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