Black Firsts: Octavia Butler
The “Queen Mother of Science Fiction”
Octavia Butler, born on June 22, 1947, gifted us with a genre of writing we had not experienced from African-American artists and writers before her or alongside her. Her work transcended time, broke down universal barriers, and shifted the category of “science fiction.” She wrote with a vigilance that somehow felt oneiric yet quite real while reading her work.
We could have been her characters. We are her characters.
The way she beckoned a plot and described her settings could pull you from wherever you were while reading her books, short stories, and essays and deposit you to that very spot. She was mythical yet real. She was defiant yet obedient. She was skillful yet willing to learn more about her craft.
She was a writer I simply had to read. My first book by Octavia Butler was the enthralling and still incredibly popular, Kindred which was given as a reading assignment in my African-American Literature class when I was in college.
It is a story of a young writer (Dana) shifting through time, traveling from her current period of the 1970s in California back to the days of antebellum slavery in Maryland. There, in the throes of thriving slavery, she meets her ancestors (Rufus and Alice Greenwood) and experiences the life and times of what it meant to be enslaved, but in temporary doses brought on by dizzy spells that initiated the time traveling.
She was mythical yet real. She was defiant yet obedient. She was skillful yet willing to learn more about her craft.
Butler depicts just how painful the shifts in time can be by bringing on dizzy spells that land Dana in various places during the antebellum slavery days where Rufus always seems to be in some sort of trouble and Dana arrives in the nick of time to help him.
By her third trip shifting, she and her white husband Kevin are both placed at Rufus’ home where they had to prove to the young master that they are indeed from the future and their stay in that time gets longer and even more intense.
It is an invigorating and impressive read as well. However, I did not expect anything less given the reviews I read before diving into reading the book for the first time. Plus, my African-American Literature professor gushed openly about it and was sure it would change our lives after we read it. It changed mine.
I wanted to know more about this writer who was unafraid to test the waters and completely transform the way I looked at science fiction. Thus, over time, I bought Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Sower, and Fledgling. I was not disappointed. Butler shares her gift of diving into the unknown, encountering mystics, and the push and pull of spiritualism with every read. I read her work and want to know what was growing in her mind — how did she come up with the talented work she gave us?
Butler became a receiver of firsts. She was the first science fiction writer to earn the McArthur Fellowship, class of 1995. She was forty-eight years old when she received the award. A few accompanying her within this class was journalist Alma Guillermo Prieto, writer Sandra Cisneros, and filmmaker Allison Anders. Butler also won the Hugo Award and Nebula Prize respectively, for not one, but several of her written works; Bloodchild and Speech Sounds, and Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower.
She is also known as the “godmother of Afrofuturism” which is a title never bestowed upon anyone else. Much of her vision for her work can be seen in videos by Beyoncé, in episodes of Black Mirror, and in movies by Ava DuVernay.
Butler shares her gift of diving into the unknown, encountering mystics, and the push and pull of spiritualism with every read.
When I mention my favorite writers, she is on that list. I have written a few pieces that toe the line of science fiction, spiritualism, and fantasy because of reading her work. She inspired me to push the envelope and never be afraid to try new genres in writing.
Octavia Bulter died at the age of fifty-eight on February 24, 2006, from a stroke. It is hard to believe that it has been nearly fourteen years since her death, however, the work she produced lives on. I will always remember her as the “Queen Mother of Science Fiction.” Butler’s body of work, the way in which she devoted her time and skills to encourage young writers via workshops, and public speaking about her personal growth in the sci-fi genre (which was traditionally dominated by white men) are symbols of Butler’s willingness to help writers hone their craft.
Also read: Sky’s Falling Girls
At first, I thought Butler’s work an esoteric brand, but as time passed, that view has changed. Not only is her legacy a strong one in the African-American community — she is widely known and acknowledged for her efforts and accomplishments as an African-American science fiction writer.
To Octavia Butler: the first to do so many things in the world of writing. There will never be another.