top of page
  • Writer's picturedee'archives

Who is Octavia Butler?

YouTube video is available.

Octavia E. Butler was a Black African American lesbian science fiction genius and the

first Black woman to win the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction.

A Gemini, she was born on June 22nd, in the late ’40s, in Pasadena, California, and passed away on February 24, 2006, in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 58, after falling outside of her home.

In what was one of her last television interviews, filmed in November of 2005 with Amy Goodman and Juan González of Democracy Now!, Octavia Butler shared that as a little girl, she got into writing after watching “a bad movie, a movie called Devil Girl from Mars and she went into competition with it.”

She was only 12 years old at the time and had set out to write an even better version of the story. Butler expressed, it gave me the chance to comment on every aspect of humanity. People tend to think of science fiction as, oh, Star Wars or Star Trek. And the truth is, there are no closed doors and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it. (Democracy Now!, 2021)

And anywhere she went.

Historically, science fiction was not taken seriously as high art and was devalued in literature as a lesser genre. Stephanie Smith (2007) suggested that it was the feminist, Black, 2STLGBQQIA+, and class movements of the 1950s and ’60s that contributed to the diversification and appreciation of sci-fi, which had until then remained largely white male-dominated.

In this regard, Octavia Butler was instrumental in situating the Black experience within sci-fi, paving the way for Black women. Stephanie Smith (2007) wrote, “Butler was the only prominent, popular, female, African American and decidedly feminist voice in a historically white domain” (p. 385).

To this day, her work is world-renowned and has been taken up by activists and scholars in Afrofuturism, critical race theory, Black feminist theory, queer theory, and disability studies (Anderson, 2020). It is well documented that Butler identified as a feminist.

She has been praised for centering Black women as protagonists in her stories, disrupting gender norms, and rejecting binaries (Jesser, 2002). Butler provided us with stories of Black women living with disabilities, shifting how we look at what Megan Obourn (2013) called, “injury and impurity that values motherhood as a historically determined and embodied social identity and political position” (p. 110).

Butler’s novels have been heralded for their accurate predictions of dystopian futures that many of us find ourselves currently living in (Anderson, 2020). But as Nancy Jesser (2002) asserted, “Octavia Butler is both a heroine and problem child” (p. 1). There are those who have found Octavia Butler to be problematic and essentializing, arguing that she perpetuates harmful stereotypes of women, reducing them to mothers, “Black Eve’s,” “earth mothers,” healers, teachers, and artists (Jesser, 2002; Foster, 1982). Butler has also been known to pair strong Black women with white men and young girls with older men. Even when Black women are paired with Black men, the characters are typically heterosexual and the male gaze centred (Jesser, 2002; Foster, 1982), although, in the Parables series, Lauren explores intimacy with another woman and Lauren’s brother Mark is gay, though not out because of his role in the church.

Additionally, some of her storylines have sanist moments, labelling those with mental

illness or some form of madness as crazy. Ableism also slips into her novels at various points,

including in Talent (1998), when a child with Tourette’s Syndrome is beaten and killed because

their condition was considered a sign of possession by the devil (pp. 278–279).

Butler has written in fat-phobic comments, classism against the working class, and characters grappling with their homosexuality in the church. It is not always clear if Butler explores these sentiments and narratives as social commentary or if she herself endorsed these problematic scripts.

I’ll end it there. Please like, subscribe, and share.

Until next time, in solidarity.

2 views0 comments
bottom of page