Why You Should Listen to Octavia Butler
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
This blog post discusses why you should listen to people who are showing us alternative visions for the future. These are people who are dreaming, modeling, or exploring, and embodying the future in unique and diverse ways that are attentive to the past, while grounded in the present. It asks you to consider how they can tell us a lot about what’s to come in the future: what sorts of issues we’ll be dealing with, and how to navigate it.
Take Octavia Butler who was instrumental in situating the Black experience within sci-fi, paving the way for Black women
In my PhD, I used Octavia Butler’s texts Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), though some of her other works, including The Evening and the Morning and the Night (1987; 2001), Fledgling (2005), Kindred (2003), and Wild Seed (1980) were also used to make sense of this project. She has so many others that I haven’t even yet read, as such, I don’t claim to be an Octavia Butler expert, only when it comes to the works I’ve read in relation to emotions and shame research. So for those who don’t know, who is Octavia Butler?
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. She was born on June 22 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.
It is well documented that Butler identified as a feminist. She has been praised for centring Black women as protagonists in her stories, disrupting gender norms, and rejecting binaries. Like other Black lesbian writers like her, she was prophetic at telling the future. Her novels have been heralded for their accurate predictions of dystopian futures that many of us find ourselves currently living in.
If you recall, the initial stages of the pandemic seemed to bring out the best in us. I relate this to in the novels when Lauren shares that “nuclear exchange between Iran and Iraq scared the hell out of everyone. After it happened, there must have been peace all over the world for maybe three months. People who had hated one another for generations found ways to talk peace. But insult by insult, expediency by expediency, cease-fire violation by cease-fire violation, most of the peace talks broke down. (83). Adding, it’s always been easier to make war than to make peace (83). I find we’re at this level of breakdown collectively as societies. Where we’re giving in to our bad behavior, apathetic, exhausted, fearful, and feeling powerless. Or I’ll speak for myself.
In the Parables Series, the 2020s were rough for American society in her story. The chaos began around the turn of the century she said, getting progressively worse around 2010, but it wasn’t until 2025 that America really transformed into something unrecognizable, when Lauren’s community was burned, and she head out on the road. I’m afraid of what 2025 will look like for us and wondering if we can skip all of that and get to 2035 already.
By 2035 Lauren says, ““But Jarret’s kind of religion and Jarret himself are getting less and less popular these days. Both, it seems, are bad for business, bad for the U.S. Constitution, and bad for a large % of the population. They always have been, but now more and more people are willing to say so in public. The Crusaders have terrorized some people into silence, but they’ve made others very angry. And I’m finding more and more people who have the leisure now to worry about the nasty, downward slide that the country’s been on. In the 2020s, when these people were sick, starving, or trying to keep warm, they had no time or energy to look beyond their own desperate situations. Now, though, as they’re more able to meet their own immediate needs, they begin to look around, feed dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, and with Jarret, who with his war and his Crusaders, has slowed it even more. Some of these dissatisfied people are finding what they want and need in Earthseed. They’re the ones who come to me and ask, “what can I do? I believe. Now how can I help?” (393)
Even later in the novel, by the time she is in old age, well into 2090s, only then has she realized what she worked all her life for. Earthseed grew to fund scientific exploration and inquiry and technological creativity. It helped fund schools and colleges. Marc says that Earthseed is pathetic, and for Larkin to forget about them. Earthseed owned land, farms, schools, factories, stores, banks, and whole towns. Lauren and Earthseed are well connected-lawyers, physicians, journalists, members of congress, etc.
In the introductory chapter of Human Contradictions in Octavia E. Butler’s Work, Martin Japtok and Jerry Rafiki Jenkins describe Butler’s work as “experiments in social justice” (1). For them, Butler’s contributions include: “climate change/global warming, slavery, religion, colonialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, survivalism, otherness, exploitation, consent, negotiation, the workings of power and the tools of the powerless, the impact of hard and bio-technologies, and the meaning of being human” (pp. 1). She also addresses the opioid crisis, human and sex trafficking, trading human organs, and other ways we enslave people.
Had we taken her seriously in the 90s and 2000s, we would have seen that we were and are right on course to disaster, real epic fails, our demise even. It’s not lost on me that I’m recording this today, June 24, 2022, the same day that the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. Very on brand for Parables. Something President Jarret and his Crusaders would do. It’s not just women and people with uterus’, but we have to realize this level of authoritarianism isn’t good for any of us, nor the land, and environment.
Many in different Indigenous communities said the same thing. We didn’t listen. Even when I first started on my spiritual journey, New Age Spirituality was teaching us that the earth is abundant, has everything it needs, don’t buy into the hype and fear, planet earth will never collapse…boy was I wrong for ever listening. Should have stuck with the Black feminists.
But the issue is that so many don’t respect lesbians. We know that some Christians see gay, lesbians, bisexual, and queer trans people as deviant, as always doing immoral heathens. They see them as sinners and heathen. They refuse to listen to them. They say that they groom children to be gay and trans. Kids need to be in church not drag shows. Don’t say Gay. Criminalize families who support their children and are gender affirming. They call them pedophiles, deviant, immoral…meanwhile, they are living in real deep sin. Something Octavia Butler addressed in the Parables Series. Like church leaders taking advantage of women and children, raping some, while returning home to their wives and families. Then turning around and saying that its Black women who are the predators.
Butler has been known to pair strong Black women with white men and young girls with older men. Just think of Shory the vampire and that white boy. She was a child physically and he (a grown man), still decided to engage in romantic and sexual relationship with her. Knowing it was wrong, even though she was technically older than him in spirit. Lauren Olamina also marries someone who is her father’s age. 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.
I have the same critiques of Butler myself, which is why I’m not pressed when others have similar opinions of me based on my writings, especially when I’ve used Octavia Butler’s themes in my own fiction. You have to ask questions with curiosity when something seems off. I’d be concerned if we weren’t curious about what was going through her mind when she was world- building.
Like other problematic aspects of her work, its not always clear what’s intentional and what’s subconscious. Butler wasn’t perfect either. 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).
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.
But these problematic readings are the sorts of complexities we’ll be dealing with in the future. It’s the post-modernist shit that gets people like Butler and me in trouble. It goes there. It pushes the edges way out. Confusion. Contradictions. Messy multiplicity. That’s the future. We know because that was the past and is still the present.
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Until next time, in solidarity.