Octavia Butler is a staple of science fiction and Afrofuturism. Octavia looked to highlight the horrors of our present world’s oppressive systems. She tackled slavery, white supremacy, capitalism, climate change, fascism, religious fundamentalism, and more.
Sources in this Episode: Who Was Octavia Butler Afrofuturism: How Octavia Butler is Moving us Forward
Octavia Butler's Life & History: Write What Doesn't Kill You by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
BookRiot “I am a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I am also comfortably asocial, a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles. A pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil and water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
Their full name was Octavia Estelle Butler. Their parents were Laurice and Octavia M. Butler. They were born in Pasadena, California on June 22nd 1947. Octavia (Jr.) went by Estelle to everyone but her mother, who called her “Junie”.
Growing up, her mother worked as a domestic worker and cleaned houses for a living. Octavia would go to work with her mother sometimes, and they witnessed their mother being disrespected by her employers. They would feel reasonable anger at witnessing this, but were most frustrated by the fact that her mother didn’t stand up for herself against the people who insulted her. Her mother and her bonded over reading the Bible together, and her mother was very passionate about Octavia’s education. Her mother would bring her lots of books that she got from places she worked. This started Octavia’s love of books, and she got a library card at age 6. Octavia had 4 brothers, all that died before she was born, and she often wondered what it would have been like if they lived. She used books as a way to escape and create worlds, spending lots of time in her mind. Reading so many books made it easy for her to create stories, and started telling herself stories when she was 4 years old. When she was 10, she wrote them down so she wouldn’t forget them. At the age of 13, she was sending her stories out to publishers.
Writing was her passion, and she realized this when her mother suggested she could be a writer - after that moment being a writer is what Octavia wanted. Her mother bought her her first typewriter which was a portable Remington. Apparently, her family wasn’t the most supportive of her pursuing writing as a career. Her mother accepted it, but many people didn’t see writing as a practical occupation. Her mother wanted her to get a job as a secretary and be able to sit while working. There are times in her life when she could have pursued those kinds of careers but they didn’t interest her. The article recounts an interview with Jane Burkitt where Butler stated that those careers “all sounded like levels of hell to me.” It was Butler’s experiences with other people that also influenced her desire to write.
She felt out of place as a kid and didn’t relate to her peers. There were times when she was bullied by older kids until she learned to fight back. She didn’t like doing so because she didn’t enjoy hurting people (which reminds me of the hyper-empathy in Parable of the Sower). In fact, a handful of things I read in this article reminded me of Lauren in Parable of the Sower in the way Octavia spoke about her life. Specifically her understanding of her perception of her appearance, and how others would masculinize her voice and physical traits. This is something Lauren spoke of and even used to her advantage when traveling north, disguising herself as a man because it was safer. The opinions of other people did bother Octavia a lot, and she described adolescence as the one time in her life when she felt suicidal. This influenced her to isolate herself and not engage with people her age. It also affected her desire to escape through books, libraries, and writing. It was a place where she could create a different world, as well as make sense of society and how people act. In an interview in 1997, she spoke on how these experiences pushed her to write. “Because of this, because I was so ostracized and because I was so shy, writing was a real refuge for me. So, in that sense, I guess you could say my body helped to make me a writer.” This influenced how she took in the world too. When between projects, Octavia would spend a lot of time at the library and would browse through sections she’d never been in before. If she found something interesting she would take it home to read but if it wasn’t she’d put it away after a few pages. All of this tied back to honing their literary skills. Spending time alone didn’t bother Octavia so much as she got older, and she was able to accept herself and the way she was. “I like spending most of my time alone. I enjoy people best if I can be alone much of the time. I used to worry about it because my family worried about it. And I finally realized: This is the way I am. That’s that. We all have some weirdness, and this is mine.”
Octavia also apparently had dyslexia and claimed that that caused her to read very slowly. She would need to read slowly enough to be able to hear the words in her mind and picture things. They loved audio tapes for this reason. Butler said to Charles Rowell in 1997, describing their love of audio tapes, “I find it delightful. I learn much, much more and better if I hear tapes. I can recall when I was a very little girl being read to by my mother. Even though she was doing the domestic work that I talked about, she would, during my very early years, read to me at night. And I loved it. It was, again, theater for the mind.” As someone who has a similar struggle with reading, in that I also read very slowly, more from a cognitive processing standpoint, it’s neat to know Octavia Butler and I have something in common. It was schooling that ruined reading for me initially, in that you’re given such strict time limits that it’s easier just to read the SparkNotes on a book you’ll have a test on than it is to actually read the book. It was actually this series that restored my love of reading and it was ebooks that made it so I was able to read. It’s almost like accessibility is important…
As Octavia got older, they discovered different styles of writing, as well as their niche. Octavia got into science fiction after watching the movie “Devil Girl from Mars”, and thought she could write a better story than that. So she turned the movie off and started writing. That was the first time they tried to write science fiction. What activated her career was when they were admitted to the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers Guild. In this program, she met one of her mentors and friends, Harlan Ellison. Ellison encouraged Octavia to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s workshop, where they met Samuel R. Delany, who was another one of her mentors. From attending the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s workshop, they sold their first short story “Crossover,” to the Clarion Journal, and it was published in 1970. After that success, they were unable to get anything published for five years. During this time Octavia entered into an array of jobs to support herself: washing dishes, sweeping floors, going through warehouse inventory, sorting potato chips, and so on.
In the meantime, every night at 2 or 3 am, they woke up to write. Butler liked to write in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark out. This was true for the ten years that she worked temporary jobs, between 1968 to 1978. Although she purchased a computer in later years, she preferred writing on a typewriter. She loved writing when it rained. Later on in her career, she would come up with a routine: taking a walk between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m., doing work around the house, sitting down to write at 9 a.m., and cutting time out later in the day to read.
This shifted when she was fired from one of her jobs in 1974 and decided to take the plunge. While Novel-writing seemed intimidating because of the length, Octavia thought of every chapter as a short story. With this method, she finished Patternmaster within months. She submitted the novel to Doubleday and it was published in 1976. After this, her career really started to take off. She published four novels, one per year, and in 1980 published Wild Seed. The early novels from Butler were the same stories she had in her mind from the age of 12, which is why they were able to be completed fairly quickly. The ones that followed were created from her adult mind and took a little more time to unpack. Octavia Butler wrote 12 novels and 9 short stories. Her life experiences were integrated into her writing. These experiences are what made many of these books so amazing. Their perspectives on the world, are something very unique and powerful. In the BookRiot article, they said that when Butler taught, she told her students “if something didn’t kill you, you would probably wind up using it in your writing.” This reminds me of our F the Patriarchy series, where we spoke of how who we are is always in our art. Or to quote Parable of the Sower “All that you touch you Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God Is Change”.
On Octavia Butler’s website, there is an overview of their impact. While they passed on February 24th, 2006, it was during this time that their books started to rise. In recent years their sales have increased enormously, because of their relevance today. Octavia’s work is taught in over 200 colleges and universities nationwide. Ava DuVernay is developing her novel DAWN for television.
In media, her novel DAWN is being developed for television by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”; “A Wrinkle In Time”). An opera by Toshi Reagon based on Butler’s novel PARABLE OF THE SOWER was part of The Public Theatre “Under the Radar” festival and toured worldwide in 2018. Amazon Studios and JuVee Productions (Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s production company) are developing a drama series from Butler’s PATTERNIST series, beginning with WILD SEED, and the series is being co-written by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu, who will also direct.
Awards and Recognition
2018, Eisner Award for Best Adaptation from Another Medium - Kindred, by Octavia Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (Abrams ComicArts)
2012, Solstice Award, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America
2010, Inductee Science Fiction Hall of Fame
2000, PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing
1999, Nebula Award for Best Novel – Parable of the Talents
1995, MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant
1985, Hugo Award for Best Novelette – Bloodchild
1985, Locus Award for Best Novelette – Bloodchild
1985, Science Fiction Chronicle Award for Best Novelette – Bloodchild
1984, Hugo Award for Best Short Story – Speech Sounds
1984, Nebula Award for Best Novelette – Bloodchild
1980, Creative Arts Award, L.A. YWCA
Octavia Butler & Afrofuturism: Writing us into the Future by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Octavia Butler is a staple of science fiction and Afrofuturism (A movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture). Octavia looked to highlight the horrors of our present world’s oppressive systems. She tackled slavery, white supremacy, capitalism, climate change, fascism, religious fundamentalism, and more. She has been called the mother of Afrofuturism and has inspired many Black science fiction writers today. She is well known for her ability to write terrifyingly prescient stories. Able to grab real-world horrors of her time and make predictions of our outcomes.
In 1993, Octavia published Parable of the Sower, a dystopian future tale set in the not-too-distant future of 2024. The world she builds is one of fierce hopelessness and forced resistance. Gas prices make vehicles nearly obsolete, people find themselves enslaved by companies to make ends meet, drugged communities set fire to towns and desire to destroy the rich, police are expensive and help only the rich, jobs are nearly nonexistent, religious groups take control of the government, and education is impossible. This futuristic hellscape feels a bit too close for comfort when reading in today’s political climate. Further, in her sequel, Parable of the Talents, a right-wing, conservative and Christian political leader is running for Presidential office and uses the slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
She also explored what it means to be human, our flaws, our biases, and our successes. Forcing us to confront our history and futures.
In Dawn, her protagonist Lilith Iyapo wakes aboard a ship that belongs to the Oankali, a breed of alien that had rescued her and other humans from the uninhabitable Earth. A world made deadly by our own wars and hate. The Oankali diagnose humans with the incurable defect of hegemony. Our desire and need to have caste systems, people in power, and rankings of a sort have guaranteed our downfall. Our only chance of avoiding another world-ending fate would be to breed children with the Oankali, prompting the next step in our evolution and ensuring grounded beings who can be equal to one another.
In Kindred, Octavia’s protagonist Dana, a 1970’s Black woman is transported back in time and is forced to protect her white ancestor lest she is erased for good. She grapples with these expectations and must reckon with her history, the history of this country, and the impact it had on her modern living.
In Bloodchild, she introduces us to a boy tasked with giving birth, dismantling and confronting our expectations of birth, gender identity, and motherhood. In Wild seed, sex-changing and shape-shifting characters steer the narrative.
Her stories often feature strong femme protagonists who confront society’s expectations of them while dismantling the oppressive ideologies that seek to hold them back, simply by existing and refusing to back down. Most often these protagonists were strong, intelligent Black women who encountered communities that doubted their abilities. Without pushing back aggressively against these thoughts instead prove their knowledge and power through actions and patience. For genres that often center on whiteness, chosen-one archetypes, and rely on heroes of certain demographics, Octavia breaks many walls simply by being a voice in this genre. With Afrofuturism or Black Speculative Fictions, there is the intention to create and share worlds in which BIPOC peoples and cultures aren’t erased. She had the nerve to envision a future where we still exist, where we can be the heroes and villains, and where we can be the answer. At the risk of being written out of the future, creators and writers like Octavia fought to write themselves back in. To not be reduced to background characters, laborers, or stepstools for white heroes to perch upon and succeed.
In an article on Princeton University Library’s site titled, Afrofuturism: How Octavia Butler is moving us forward, by Julie Mellby they explain her messages,
Beginning in the 1970s, her narratives upended the primarily white, male-dominated genre of science fiction occupied by George Orwell, H.G. Wells, and Ray Bradbury by introducing heroines such as “Parable’s” Lauren Olamina, a fifteen-year-old Black girl who dares to undertake a perilous journey to make a new home for herself and her multi-racial, multi-gender followers. Through Lauren, Butler tells us to “Embrace diversity. Unite— Or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed by those who see you as prey. Embrace diversity Or be destroyed.”
Her Patternist series (starting with Wild Seed) she started writing when she was very young. It ended up being her first novel but she actually wrote the story backward. Starting with The Patternmaster, she began working backward to discover the origin story, and how did she get there. Her writing was an outlet for her own troubles. A way to sort through her feelings in a dark world and find some piece of light.
Seeing what was happening around her drove her to ask questions such as, “What do we do to stop this?”, “How can we convince others to change?” and “What happens if it keeps happening?” and this outlet was her offer to help with those very issues.
Her works not only inspired new fiction writers but also social activists who wanted to apply these lessons in the real world. Activists such as adrienne maree brown, who has co-edited an anthology of science fiction stories inspired by Octavia Butler titled, Octavia’s Brood, uses Octavia’s lessons and implement them into her own strategies for change and community organizing.
Octavia’s works still influence creators today and her existence in the field made room for others, such as Tananarive Due (Horror Noire) and adrienne maree brown, to follow behind. She once said, "If I hadn't written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death," and without her, our destiny amongst the stars may never have been known.