“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”
This is how the story of Dana begins in Kindred, my first Octavia Butler novel. I read these words on a bus, home-bound from New York. I had heard of this author and knew to expect some mystery, some fantasy, some unreal sort of stuff. What I did not expect was something quite physically strange. These first words that Butler had spoken to me sent chills down my left arm. Because believe it or not, in the seat in front of me sat a woman without a left arm.
Unusual for both a book and a bus, yet each had a woman with a missing left arm. I suddenly had the feeling that everything around me was imagined. This is how Butler had me, so to speak, at hello.
There are so many people in the world. It is really quite extraordinary, when you think about it, that a stranger can move you without ever having known you. Yet that was the gift of this writer. Octavia Butler was born on June 22, 1947, a summer Sunday in Pasadena, California. This was also the year that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established, the Atomic Energy Commission (i.e. the freshly renamed Manhattan Project) announced the possibility of nuclear power generation, the US launched fruit flies into space on a captured Nazi V-2 rocket, and a UFO was sighted in Roswell. Butler shares this all-American birth year with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both women were born at that unique point in American history, post-World War II, when the destructive potential of humankind captured in nuclear weapons was compounded by the limitless possibilities embodied in space.
Although they are women and compatriots, it is safe to venture that Hillary and Octavia were born in different worlds. As a black woman and as someone who overcame dyslexia, from a poor, single-parent, female-only family, Butler’s day-to-day life was strongly juxtaposed to the cosmic aspirations of her country. Her parents had jobs typical for black Californians of that time. Her mother, also Octavia, worked as a housekeeper and with three years of education, could read but could not afford books. Her father, a shoeshine man, died when little Octavia was six years old.
While giant leaps were being made to get men on the moon, slow and little progress was being made for black Americans. Just before she turned seven, in May 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States held that racial segregation in public schools was illegal in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education. The Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in public places and outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin was signed into law in 1964, when Butler was 17 years old. It was only days before Butler turned 20, in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, that the Supreme Court of her country held that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Prior to the case reaching the Supreme Court, a lower court judge in Virginia had stated that:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
A sexual or romantic relationship with a white man in Butler’s time was a public concern of the highest order. Curiously the judge seems to be getting God, the discovery of America, migration and the slave trade mixed up in a messy muddle about marriage. Unlike him, Butler knows her history. So when she marries black Dana in Kindred to white Kevin, Butler goes futuristic. When she has Dana visit her ancestor, Rufus, a white man on a slave plantation, Butler exposes the hypocrisy of race-defined America. The white male lover reappears in other Butler stories, embodying a ternary tension between power, desire and equality.
She conjures up dystopian worlds, evokes intergenerational traumas and imagines unearthly futures. Yet what really seems to baffle people, where most attention is levied, is the fact that her characters are of different races. Unless we talk about what has loosely been termed as “world literature”, the reality is that we still live in a literary world where the presence of a non-white character inevitably makes a story about race. This is the case regardless of whether you’re reading one of Octavia Butler’s protagonists or Jonathan Franzen’s brief flirts (think Walter Berglund’s young Indian crush Lalitha in Freedom). It is presumed that authors who write such characters have some complex race-based agenda. So it is unsurprising that in 2000, shortly after Butler was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, Charlie Rose asked her to explain herself in an interview: “What then is central to what you want to say about race?”
“Do I want to say something central about race”, wonders Butler, “aside from ‘Hey, we’re here’”. Her response is delightfully simple. She is claiming her place in literature and by doing so, making space for others. She is telling Rose what she told the New York Times, “I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.” The protagonists in her books are women, dark-skinned women, who often possess some supernatural trait. Their gift is also their downfall. It is uncontrollable and makes them physically and emotionally vulnerable. At the same time, their special ability gives these individuals the depth and self-reflection that only those who are “abnormal” can have. From this perspective, the women gaze at the people and places around them and see all that is wrong. One could say that through her protagonists, Butler explores her own awkward place in space-age, race-age USA.
Butler is a wholly American writer. While judges sat and decided how to distinguish between people by colour, presidents decreed weapons and wars, many artists and writers kept silent. Octavia Butler did not. She saw the decisions coming from above that would affect all Americans, and she did with them what a writer is supposed to do. She wrote with integrity and relevance. She did this in a visceral way, with imagination and originality appearing as characters, places and plots, delivered in a crescendoing rhythm that leaves her readers longing for more. You can read her for her writing and you can read her for who she was. Both are worthy. Octavia Butler died ten years ago, on 24 February 2006. But we know that she is neither time- nor earthbound, and is curiously observing us from somewhere among the stars.
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Vipasha Bansal is an international lawyer and linguist. She graduated from SOAS and Columbia University. Vipasha currently lives in Tokyo. Find her on Twitter @vipashabansal
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