Octavia Butler found strength in writing
JUST three months ago, Octavia Butler -- who died Saturday at age 58, apparently of a stroke, outside her Seattle home -- was happy. With “Fledgling,” her first novel in nearly a decade, she had broken through at least seven years of writer’s block. She felt like she was getting out from under a depression caused by eight low blood pressure medications. She talked about “living alongside” Shori, the 53-year-old vampire heroine of “Fledgling,” a character who, struck by amnesia, looked like a 10-year-old girl. She needed a break, she told me, from writing books that were “responses to the news.” She discussed what she would do next, torn between writing more about Shori and returning to the “Parable” series she had worked on during the late 1990s.
Listening to her deep voice, I was struck by two things. First, Butler was 10 when she started writing. She said many times that writing saved her. She was shy; she felt powerless, she had crooked teeth that embarrassed her even as an adult. (Her friend Harlan Ellison remembers that she always covered her mouth when she laughed.) Her mother had worked hard as a maid. Her father died when she was very young. She had dyslexia. By age 15, she was 6 feet tall.
Second, Butler was 53 when she began “Fledgling,” creating a character who was physically and emotionally powerful, though she had forgotten and had to relearn this about herself. Butler’s characters were always forgetting their own strengths. Age 10, Carol Gilligan and other psychologists have written, is when most girls start forgetting. Writing, most authors will tell you, is one way of remembering.
It always seemed that Butler was surprised to call herself a science fiction writer. “I write about people who do extraordinary things,” she once said. “It just turned out that it was called science fiction.”
It wasn’t that she didn’t love the genre but that she felt the world itself was the strange creation of some trickster God. Imagine a planet where humans capture other humans, call them property, drag them across the ocean and force them to work! Imagine a planet where women are considered less intelligent than men! Somebody, she told me, has got to be making this stuff up.
A lifelong nondriver, Butler talked about the loneliness of Los Angeles (she was born in Pasadena in 1947 and lived there for more than 50 years before moving to Seattle in 1999) and about how much more of a sense of community she felt in her adopted home, though by all accounts she was never much of a socializer.
She arrived in Seattle with 300 boxes of books and felt, she told one interviewer, as if she had moved to Alpha Centauri. She explained at great length how much fun it was to create characters, and one had the sense, listening to her, that these characters were very much a part of her life and kept her from being lonely.
Butler’s books do not fit the stereotype of a woman writer, let alone a black writer or a lesbian. Some authors don’t like to publicize their private lives, and she was of this ilk. And yet, reading through the many websites and blogs devoted to her, one finds again and again readers who were surprised, delighted and emboldened by her identity as well as by her beautiful imagination. She offered, Ellison once wrote, a “woman’s-eye view of ‘Brave New World’ or ‘1984.’ ”
Every once in a while Butler would acknowledge that her books came from her experiences as a black woman.
“Kindred,” which she wrote in college, was inspired by a black man telling her: “I wish I could kill all these old Black people that have been holding us back for so long, but I can’t because I’d have to start with my own parents.” He was the type, she said later, who would have killed and died rather than surviving and working for change.
He put her in mind of her own mother, who worked so hard to support her and make sure she was educated (including, Butler remembered in our phone conversation, much-dreaded accordion lessons!).
When Butler won a MacArthur genius grant in 1995, she used the $295,000 to buy a house in Pasadena for her mother and herself.
In the short story “The Book of Martha,” the narrator, visited by God, is surprised when the deity changes from a white man to a black man to a black middle-aged woman just like herself. When I asked Butler about it, she laughed. “I was just playing,” she said. Baptism gave Butler a conscience, for which she was grateful, but she never, she explained, had much use for religion. She was not one for telling people how they ought to think about things.
A writer dies at 58. She leaves 12 novels and dozens of stories, all of which enlarge the universe we inhabit. Where does she go? Into one of the futures she has sought to visualize? Certainly her stories are kept alive by her readers. In that way, her soul is scattered, like ashes from the urn, among her characters. They stand watch. They serve, in the end, as protection from loneliness and a wise investment in immortality.
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