For Octavia

Remembering Octavia Butler

File:Butler signing.jpg
Octavia Butler signing a copy of one of her books. Photo by Nikolas Coukouma, taken October 25, 2005. Released under the Creative Commons “Attribution Share-Alike” 2.5 License by Nikolas Coukouma.

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler is one of my biggest sheroes. She died on February 24, 2006, and I miss her terribly to this day. Her stories are my solace. Every time I remember or read one of her novels, I feel closer to her. I feel stronger, wiser, and more capable of facing life. Most of all, when I read her stories, I feel like there is nothing wrong with me. Her boundary-defying characters make me feel like my own strange, beyond-the-boundary thoughts are beautiful and normal.

I came to Butler later than I should have –in my mid-to-late twenties, I think. I had heard of her before that but had refrained from reading her books. I was too busy with classics, romance, French philosophy, and other material that I thought was more important for me. Science fiction was something I had nibbled at in high school, but not too much. To me, it was the kind of stuff weird people read. I was too young then to understand where that perception came from, or how weird humans are in general. Later in life, I would come to embrace my own weirdness for the gift that it is, but I was not there yet.

Kindred was my first Butler epiphany. I read it at a time when I was thinking deeply about racism and what it means to be black in the United States. It is the story of a time-traveling African American woman who must protect a slaveowner’s son to ensure her own future birth. That book made me think harder than any sociology text ever had about the interconnectedness of the races and the dense labyrinths of oppression within which we live. Butler’s Fledgling is, I believe, the only vampire novel I have ever read. It has been over a decade since I read it, and I still think about it often. I recently finished her Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis) trilogy, which includes the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago.  The series features the Oankali, a group of extraterrestrial, tentacled beings trying to trade genes with what is left of a decimated human race. The human reaction to the Oankali – a combination of terror, disgust, and fascination – is one many of us feel when faced with a person or a situation that violently disrupts our sense of what should or should not be. The ability to disrupt a person’s view of the world is a power that most great fiction writers have, and it is what keeps me coming back to Butler’s books.

At the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors talked about reading Octavia Butler’s novels as a child. I can only imagine what path my life would have taken had I been introduced to Butler’s bold, complicated, and mesmerizing black women characters during my teenage years. Maybe I would have spent less time trying to conform to weird beauty standards and more time just being myself. Better late than never, though, and I am glad to be reading her books as an adult.

Rest in peace, Octavia. I wish you were still here.

Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947- February 24, 2006)

Copyright © 2018 Stacy Torian. All rights reserved.

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