Friday, June 18, 2010

A Hypothetical Letter to Octavia Butler

Once while I was struggling through the obstacle course required of those hapless mortals compelled to write a Master's thesis in English Literature, one of my professors asked me about the author I had chosen for my topic, Octavia Butler. I explained that she was a groundbreaking science fiction writer, a pioneer for black women in the field where they are almost non-existent.  When I explained that she lived somewhere on the East coast of the United States, he suggested I write to her as I was living in Miami at the time.  He thought she would be glad to hear from someone interested in her work. I thought it was a good idea though I wasn't sure how I would get the letter to her. Eventually the task shrivelled away, overwhelmed by the presence of other, more looming, tasks, though I hung on to the concept.  Someday I would do it.
In my head, I planned what I would say.  Ms. Butler's books are among the most disturbing I have ever read. Sometimes I've had to put them aside to give myself some relief from the images they’ve created in my mind. They are not at all typical horrors or science fiction with clear cut figures of good and evil, but curiously vivid situations where flawed human beings had to make terrible choices which could leave them changed and broken whatever the choice. Nothing is ever simple.

For example, in her Xenogenesis saga, Butler's main character Lilith must work with the aliens who have basically taken over the future of human beings. They wish to bond with mankind to help it survive, but this means changing the way humans live, breed and exist. Lilith is seen as a traitor by many humans, but how can she openly resist them without destroying them all? In Kindred a young woman is mysteriously transported to an antebellum plantation in the old South and discovers that to ensure her family's survival she has to condone the possible rape of one of her ancestors.
Butler was interested in looking at the difficult options humanity has to face.  There's no doubt that her works suggested a boundless imagination. As a writer myself, I was intrigued by her original ideas nurtured by her interests in medicine, cloning and what makes us human. While she sometimes horrified me, she compelled me with her juggling of possibilities and with her amazing ideas.
I was fascinated by her herself: reportedly shy, quiet and introspective, she found the creativity and courage to write and succeed in a field populated by white males.  At the age of ten, she started writing her own science fiction, unfazed and unconscious of the trail she was breaking.  She never stopped writing after that. I have to remember that.
The content of that hypothetical letter to her dwelled in my mind even as I procrastinated. I believe I would have thanked Ms. Butler for her single minded determination to do what she wanted to do.  I would have thanked her for opening the eyes of people of many ethnicities to the fact that science fiction and fantasy wasn't just for Them. Somehow I would have tried to express my gratitude for the way she has terrified, inspired and challenged me ever since I got to know her. I would have also thanked her for exposing me to the worlds in her stories, and to the whole experience of immersing myself in that world as I trudged through my thesis.
I would have enjoyed writing that letter. Octavia Butler died far too early at the age of fifty-eight.  That was four years ago. The solitary woman was alone when she died.  As her birthday approaches (June 22), I think of her and again I am glad that her astonishing work was acknowledged and admired during her lifetime.   She won every major award in science fiction, and she generated a large fanbase which spans age, race and ethnicity. Hopefully, she knew that her worth was recognized.  Perhaps my one simple letter would have not had much impact upon her. Or perhaps she would have been pleased to hear from yet another person she had inspired.  Mentioning as much to my sister, she observed, "At least she knowns now." Perhaps she does

Octavia Butler - Bibliography

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