Saturday, March 04, 2006

Eulogy for Octavia Butler

I almost didn't post this. It's essentially an email I sent to the ACFW loop. I posted similarly on my TSR blog, Miranatha.

But I decided that, since 1. this my main blog, and 2. I received email saying my words had touched a chord in some fellow readers/writers, it might be a good idea to post it here, too.

Octavia Butler died on Friday, February 24, at the age of 58. If you haven't heard of her, then you must never go near the science fiction section of your bookstore or library. If you have heard of her, you know she was a pioneer in that field--a double minority voice in it, black and female, or triply so, if you count that she was a lesbian--and highly esteemed by her fellow writers for her clean prose and powerful stories.

As a biracial gal, I appreciated Octavia Butler's writing presence in the SF/F world. She was the FIRST woman of color I remember seeing write within that genre, my favorite genre. That is no small thing.

Back when I initially wanted to write, I first considered writing a romance. Hispanic heroines were quite rare; no targeted Hispanic romance lines existed. I wondered if there would even be a market. (The ENCANTO line from Kensington came and went pretty fast.) The hundreds of romances I'd read had a lot of "pale skin" and "skin like fresh cream" and "flaming red tresses" or "golden blond hair" and "sky blue eyes" or "flashing emerald orbs." Not a whole lot of Esperanzas and Consuelos trod through those pages, unless they were housekeepers or cooks on a ranch. Or a Californio's daughter in a thwarted romance with an Anglo rancher in a historical tale. Or the vain, femme fatale rival of the virtuous, white heroine in love with a Spanish, alpha-male tycoon.

So, seeing Octavia's very not-white face, a sturdy and homely face that seemed so very real, was an encouragement to me and, I'm sure, to other minority wannabe-writers, some of whom were and are, like me, not the glamourously shot gals on the dust jackets of many literary or romance novels. (Never underestimate the value of a role model.)

You know, I can only think of two other black writers in the genre, Samuel Delany and Nalo Hopkinson, but then, I don't read as much as I used to in any genre. I still don't think there are oodles. No Hispanic one comes right to mind, beyond the late Lester Del Rey. Ain't that sad?

Butler's introduction to BLOODCHILD & OTHER STORIES (somewhere in my chaotic library upstairs) is an encouraging thing I recommend to unpublished writers. I'm pretty sure that's where she talks about her numerous--and I mean NUMEROUS, dozens and dozens--of rejections. This from a woman who went on to win the most pretigious awards in her genre, as well as a MacArthur "genius" grant. A study in persistence. She also was a kindred spirit (no pun intended) in the sense of being a bit antisocial and something of a hermit, like me.

Butler said in interviews that she used religion in her stories of interstellar travel because religion makes people do extraordinary things. She said writers should study anthropology and history, anything that helped you understand people, which was more important to storytelling than studying how to string words together. She said,
"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It's just so easy to give up!''


For those interested, here's an interview with Ms. Butler.

Amazon has an excerpt of KINDRED for those who might be interested in a time-travel tale. And she had this to say--which had me near to weeping, because the same thing, the same looks, were aimed at my dark-skinned, poor, uneducated father--about the "why" of that novel. It's from the LOCUS interview with her:

On Kindred: "...I really had had this experience in college that I talk about all the time, of this Black guy saying, 'I wish I could kill all these old Black people that have been holding us back for so long, but I can't because I have to start with my own parents.' That was a friend of mine. And I realized that, even though he knew a lot more than I did about Black history, it was all cerebral. He wasn't feeling any of it. He was the kind that would have killed and died, as opposed to surviving and hanging on and hoping and working for change. And I thought about my mother, because she used to take me to work with her when she couldn't get a baby sitter and I was too young to be left alone, and I saw her going in the back door, and I saw people saying things to her that she didn't like but couldn't respond to. I heard people say in her hearing, 'Well, I don't really like colored people.' And she kept working, and she put me through school, she bought her house – all the stuff she did. I realized that he didn't understand what heroism was. That's what I want to write about: when you are aware of what it means to be an adult and what choices you have to make, the fact that maybe you're afraid, but you still have to act.''

Here is a brief excerpt from PARABLE OF THE TALENTS:
My old home has come back from the ashes. This doesn't surprise me, somehow, although I saw it burn years ago. I walked through the rubble that was left of it. Yet here it is restored and filled with people—all the people I knew as I was growing up. They sit in our front rooms in rows of old metal folding chairs, wooden kitchen and dining room chairs, and plastic stacking chairs, a silent congregation of the scattered and the dead.

Church service is already going on, and, of course, my father is preaching. He looks as he always has in his church robes: tall, broad, stern, straight—a great black wall of a man with a voice you not only hear, but feel on your skin and in your bones. There's no corner of the meeting rooms that my father cannot reach with that voice. We've never had a sound system—never needed one. I hear and feel that voice again.


Ms. Butler ends her novel IMAGO, the third novel of her XENOGENESIS series--a copy of which I just plucked off my shelf--with this paragraph:


I chose a spot near the river. There I prepared the seed to go into the ground. I gave it a thick, nutritious coating, then brought it out of my body through my right sensory hand. I planted it deep in the rich soil of the riverbank. Seconds after I had expelled it, I felt it begin the tiny positioning movement of independent life.



I hope that, in her last days, she returned to her mother's faith, that faith she'd left behind. I hope she embraced the Lord who alone can give new life to the dead and planted seed that she has now become, so that more than just her books will live on vibrantly.

1 comment:

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I don't read SF/F so I never read any of her work, but many in the blog world are mourning her passing!

I too hope she found her faith in the end!