“Who am I? I am a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I am also comfortably asocial—a hermit…. A pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
– Octavia Butler in a 1994 interview with Jelani Cobb
Those were the words of Octavia Estelle Butler in an interview with Jelani Cobb in 1994.Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. She grew up to become one of the foremost American science fiction writers, winning the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times. She became the very first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant”.
Against her mother’s wish to become a secretary, Butler took up mini jobs that gave her ample time to write. In developing her craft, she experienced numerous setbacks which she later attributed to the fact that she kept patterning her science fictions after the stories she grew up reading; stories that were written by male, white, science fiction writers. Octavia eventually caught her break at the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America, West. The workshop was designed to provide mentorship to minority writers. Harlan Ellison, a respected science-fiction writer found her work impressive and encouraged her to be a part of the six-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop that was held in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Shortly afterwards she sold her two first stories; “Child Finder” to Ellison, for his controversially unpublished anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, and “Crossover” to Robin Scott Wilson, who published it as a part of the Clarion anthology of 1971. For the next five years, Butler worked on her series, The Patternist Series. Her rise to fame became apparent when her books, Speech Sounds and Bloodchild won the Hugo Awards and a number of other awards too.
“He led the way past the main house away from the slave cabins and other buildings, away from the small slave children who chased each other and shouted and didn’t understand yet that they were slaves.”
– An excerpt from Kindred by Octavia Butler
While Butler may not be strictly considered an afrofuturist (her work predates the term), her work does certainly achieve one of the afrofuturist goals of imagining a future that includes black people, deals with the black experience and interrogates black history, thought and culture. Kindred, for example, is a novel about how a person’s power and agency are linked to their gender and race. The novel tells the story of a black woman from the late 70s, Dana, who is, time after time, ripped back through space and time to a slave era plantation to save the life of her racist, slave-owning white ancestor. Kindred gave readers a blend of classic sci-fi but with Octavia Butler’s distinctive voice.
Butler had originally started reading science fiction from a young age, but became less intrigued by the genre because of the negative way ethnicity was portrayed in science fiction books, as well as the fact that there were no recognized female writers of the genre. As a writer, she embraced the goal of correcting this anomaly by, in De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Ranu Samantrai’s words, choosing to write self-consciously as an African-American woman marked by a particular history.
“…among the best SF writers, blessed with a mind capable of conceiving complicated futuristic situations that shed considerable light on our current affairs.”
– The Houston Post
Critics and publishers, as well as this article, have mostly labelled Octavia Butler’s work as science fiction, but although she enjoyed working in what she termed “potentially the freest genre in existence,” she refused to be boxed and fought against being labelled a genre writer. Quite a number of critics have pointed out that her stories have drawn the attention of people that vary in ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and she categorized her loyal audiences into three: black readers, feminists, and science-fiction fans. It is clear that Octavia’s work is ground-breaking, enduring and has mass appeal; all of which mark her out as a truly great writer.
If you’re intrigued to find more about Octavia Butler’s work, have a look at some of her books:
Parable series (also referred to as the Earthseed series)
Short story collections