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Break In Case of Emergency: Octavia E. Butler's Legacy

Science fiction novelist, MacArthur “genius” grant winner, and Los Angeles-native Octavia E. Butler would have been 70 on June 22, an age at which writers, if not exactly young, often remain vital.

Consider that Toni Morrison is 86, Alice Walker is 73, Samuel R. Delany is 75, while Harlan Ellison — Butler’s first editor —  is 83. Salman Rushdie was born two days before Butler, and, in the eleven years she’s been gone, he’s published two novels (a third is forthcoming), a memoir and numerous essays. It’s not unreasonable to think she would have put the intervening years to similarly productive use, perhaps adding to her tally of twelve novels but most certainly continuing her work as teacher and mentor across her overlapping communities — African American, science fictional, Afrofuturist, feminist, womanist.

Octavia E. Butler, notes on writing, “No entertainment on earth…” ca. 1970-1995. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia E. Butler, notes on writing, “No entertainment on earth…” ca. 1970-1995. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

What we can say is that Butler remains an essential presence even in absence, her work not simply growing in esteem but taking on new coloring and resonance with each passing year. Almost immediately after her untimely death in 2006, a growing field of what Pasadena-based scholar Ayana Jamieson straightforwardly terms “Octavia E. Butler studies” began considering the writer’s literary output from multiple angles: literary, political, climatological, scientific.

One school of thought promulgated by adrienne maree brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Walidah Imarisha mines Butler for “emergent strategy,” the solutions crafted by her characters in response to their speculative obstacles suggesting new forms of real-world organizing and flesh-and-blood resistance. This slide from Shaping Change, a 2016 conference on Butler, suggests ten “emergent” approaches to activism that echo themes from Butler’s Parable books:

Instagram post by @adriennemareebrown
Instagram post by @adriennemareebrown

Embroiled in narratives featuring aliens, time-travel, mutants, climate catastrophe, viruses and so on, Butler’s characters also face quotidian (for some, at least) problems of community and self-ownership, of survival and self-care in the face of social and political disenfranchisement. This means that whether we’re reading about the genetic ethics of the alien Oankali in the Xenogenesis books (absorb what is useful in others), or about Lauren Oya Olamina’s advice in the Parable books to “shape god,” what we’re encountering is not just writerly invention but a form of spiritual-political aikido. This is a situationally self-aware system for survival that focuses not on brute force but on leveraging one’s own strengths. And just like any martial art, Butler honed her practice over years of introspection in her rigorously updated journals and commonplace books, her private, pen-and-paper dojo.

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.: 1979), first edition. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.: 1979), first edition. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.,

Butler’s emergent, unexpected utility has allowed her work to powerfully encapsulate a broad range of eras since the publication of her very first novel, “Patternmaster,” in 1971 - post-Civil Rights, Reagan, so-called post-racial and so on. This is not just a matter of her fiction’s uncanny prescience on question of politics and climate but of the author’s larger intuition that Black lives and Black stories invariably exceed their assigned frames. Just as an Octavia Estelle Butler tale is never “just” a work of science fiction, the lives of Black women like Butler the world over are never just the limited, predictable, generic ways we talk about them.  

Closer to ground, 2016 into 2017 in Los Angeles was “The Year of Octavia,” a 12-month experiment in telling unlimited, unpredictable, sui generis stories about Black people informed by close reading of Butler’s words. Conferences, performances and exhibitions spread across her native Southern California, from UC San Diego, to Clockshop, to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, to the Armory Center for the Arts in her native Pasadena. Just last week,  “The Huntington Library hosted “Octavia E. Butler Studies: Convergence of an Expanding Field” a one-day conference co-convened by Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bailey of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network that explored “the expansive ways Butler’s writing, research, and life foster deeper understanding of the past, present, and possible futures.”

The year leading up to what would have been Butler’s platinum birthday was an open, decentralized, hybridized affair, its aspects dovetailing with the multi-vocal tendencies of her storytelling, the complex L.A.s (plural) her characters often inhabited.

It’s also been a deeply interdependent remembrance, much of the work the result of immersion by writers and artists commissioned by Clockshop including Tisa Bryant, Lynell George, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten, Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade, Lauren Halsey, Mendi + Keith Obadike, Connie Samaras, and Cauleen Smith in the Octavia E. Butler Collection housed at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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Butler willed her papers to the Huntington, but died suddenly at 58 without having had a chance to organize them. The result was a gift of almost 8,000 items in 354 boxes - the aforementioned journals and commonplace books, but also manuscripts, correspondence, drawings, report cards, notes-to-self, manila envelopes stuffed with research material, clippings and so on.

A wonderfully unruly collection, which has quickly become one of the most accessed repositories at the Huntington. But, as writers Bryant, George, Coste Lewis and Moten all pointed out during an April 23, 2016 reading of works inspired by it, also a deeply private and disconcertingly personal collection. Venture in deep enough, and, like one of Butler’s telepaths diving into another’s mind, the line between communion and trespass may suddenly lie at your back.

A fraction of that unruly archive has been on public view in the Huntington’s West Hall in “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories,” an unavoidably thin chronological and thematic slice ably curated by Natalie Russell, the Huntington’s Assistant Curator of Literary Collections. The precious documents all sit just out of reach in glass displays, but the tactile everyday-ness of her work materials is clear to the eye if not the hand. “Telling My Stories” does not presume to encompass this incomparable life, choosing instead to convey its commonly agreed upon bullet points:

School photograph of Octavia E. Butler, ca. 1962. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
School photograph of Octavia E. Butler, ca. 1962. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Her childhood and schooling in Pasadena, a child of the African American working class.

Her oft-decried shyness and dyslexia, her early love of science fiction and world-building as a way to end run around personal and social limitations.

Her love from the earliest age of blackness in herself and others, as well as her understanding that its realist challenges might yield to novel, unreal approaches.

Her transformative - for both her and for us - participation in programs designed to nurture and amplify marginalized voices. Not just Pasadena’s democratizing City College, but Open Door, an early diversity fellowship sponsored by the Writers Guild. The Clarion science fiction and fantasy workshop, a haven of serious professional training at a time when genre fiction was often considered a distinctly unserious pursuit. Her attendance along with Ntozake Shange, Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, Thulani Davis and others at a ground-breaking gathering of Black women writers organized by Essence Magazine.

Her long years of toil, working odd jobs and rising early (sometimes at 2:00 a.m.) in service of a professional dream that many - including her own family - considered Quixotic at best.

Her daily note taking and journaling, her near constant interrogation not just of the subjects of her fiction but of herself. Her reminders, exhortations and affirmations attesting to the work of self-creation.  

Octavia E. Butler, notes for Parable of the Talents, ca. 1996. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia E. Butler, notes for Parable of the Talents, ca. 1996. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

A sudden turn of professional fortune that not only brought success and recognition, but new anxieties and responsibilities.

The objects under glass in West Hall at the Huntington Library are not the work themselves but the work before and after the work. They are inherently physical objects, almost every one touched directly by Butler’s hand. Their dominant visual motif is Butler’s print penmanship: neat, legible and spatially astute, but also emphatic and a touch obsessive. Her relentless cycles of addition and revision can leave one unmoored in time, the many layers of ink on a given page - multiple point widths and applied pressures, a rainbow of underlines and highlighting - suggesting a hand driven as much by anxiety as by due diligence.

Octavia E. Butler, outline and notes for Parable of the Sower, ca. 1989. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia E. Butler, outline and notes for Parable of the Sower, ca. 1989. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

The specter of suffering haunts these deeply private notes to self, Butler’s record of her ritual internal buttressing and mending doubling as receipts attesting to payment in full of the Black Woman Tax. Imagining what she might have achieved freed of such burdens is like speculating about the work lost to her untimely death — a fool’s game — but pilgrims to the archive can’t help but report it contains many an overburdened to-do list — get up, write, work, pay the bills, go shopping, see your mother, write, write, write, edit, believe. Rinse, repeat.

A telling tick-tock of the effort it takes to just stay sane in a (real) world essentially bent to one’s erasure.

A strain of magical thinking also ghosts the margins of these handwritten items, an undertone detectable in some of the earliest on view. The now famous ““So Be It! See To It!” notebook is from 1988 after she was relatively (if not well) known, but “Telling My Stories” shares plenty of pat exhortations to positive thinking from as early as 1975.

Octavia E. Butler, notes on writing, “Tell stories filled with facts…” ca. 1970-1995. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia E. Butler, notes on writing, “Tell stories filled with facts…” ca. 1970-1995. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

The antidote to these Oprah-couch-ready nostrums — one woman’s politics of radical self-care may be another’s Secret-like law of attraction — is in what many of the items in “Telling My Story” reveal as Butler’s most radical resolution: to do what is right. That resolution is not just in her framing of personal wealth and fame as means to ameliorative largess — “I will send poor black youngster to Clarion or other writer’s workshop. I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons. I will help poor black youngsters go to college.” — but in Butler’s daily commitment to the details of her life.

Perhaps the most startling and illuminating item on view at the Huntington is the handful of lines Butler wrote just hours after her beloved mother died:

“Monday, November 18, 1996

My mother, Octavia Margaret Butler, died this morning between 8 and 9am. I got the call just before 9 and called her funeral insurance people, then Auntie Bee. I wanted, before I talked to Auntie Bee, to know what would be required of me. She - Auntie Bee - has already gone into debt for other reasons. I wanted to know what should be done and commit myself to do it so that she would not.

What must I do? I’ve seen her. She was cool, still limp - no rigor yet. Only cool. I’ve felt living people who were that cool. I held her cool, almost living hand, and it felt almost normal.”

What resolve it took to not just hold that hand but name its qualities!

What steel to not simply ask “what is to be done?” but do it.

“Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories” is on view until August 7, 2016 at The Huntington Library.

Top Image: Patti Perret, photograph of Octavia E. Butler seated by her bookcase, 1986. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Patti Perret

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