#WCW: Frank D’s Got a Crush on Octavia Butler

Today’s guest blogger is Frank D.

octavia_butler

In the realm of science-fiction, there is only one true African American queen: Octavia Butler.  Considering that the genre is dominated almost exclusively by men, Butler’s success and audience are a testament to her unique vision.

Allow me to preface this by saying that I am not a science fiction fan; I’ve never been a Trekkie nor have I read more than a snippet of texts from the genre.  Unlike my classroom library, built to reach a diverse set of interests, my personal library boasts a miniscule collection.  Aside from Well’s, Time Machine, Heinlein’s  Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War, little from this genre peaked my interest, although I am a fan of dystopian stories like 1984, A Brave New World, etc.

As an adjunct instructor in the First-Year Writing program at Temple University, careful thought was placed on the thematic structure of coursework.  Some of the ways the college approached the typically banal composition course were innovative, even somewhat provocative.  It was perhaps the influence of Sam Delaney, who besides being a noted science-fiction author and bearer of Gandalf’s beard, is a prominent professor at the college, which led us to use Octavia Butler’s Kindred the capstone text at the end of our course.   It would lead to an astounding experience for both my students and myself.

Butler is considered the quintessential voice amongst African American women in the genre of science fiction.  She is the only African American female to be inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and her awards and accolades are too numerous to recount.   But the most striking characteristic about her as an author is the rebellious humility with which she approached her work.  Butler commented numerous times about her status as a writer, openly defying labels while simultaneously fearing that the ‘science fiction’ label might cause others to avoid reading her stories.  It is a paradox that, although her career was remarkable, may have relegated her to a fringe market.  It is a paradox only one of her novels seems to transcend.  Kindred.

Kindred is a tour de force, carefully folding elements of traditional science fiction into a profound piece of historical fiction.  It is a story about history and perception.  Butler said it was the only novel of hers that was not particularly sci-fi, more of a “grim fantasy” in which the characters lived in the horrors of the past.  It is a cerebral type of science fiction, using the genre as a tool for social commentary; no futuristic settings, no strange races, only the twist of a mysterious first-hand interaction with one’s own past.  Within those pages, Butler challenges the reader to witness the unavoidable past through the eyes of the present.

Resources:

  •  An article where Butler addresses her use of the near-future to discuss the present.  She would likely argue that science-fiction is a process in which we use the past to create a future, through which we discover the present.
  • The official Octavia Butler site.  Included are resources for teaching her novel Kindred, as well as information about the Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund, which enables young writers of color to attend the Clarion writing workshops where she got her start.
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