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‘A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky’ reveals Octavia E. Butler’s early life in Pasadena

Lynell George with the cover of her book "A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler"
Lynell George wrote “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” based on her research in the Huntington Library’s archive of the author’s work.
(Noé Montes / Angel City Press)

The Los Angeles Times Book Club is exploring the legacy and prolific writing of science fiction author Octavia E. Butler. This excerpt is adapted from “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” by Lynell George.

Some days it had to feel like moonscape, or the outer edges of some yet-to-be-understood terra incognita. Octavia E. Butler never asked to be here, may not have picked it if she had had the druthers, but she made do. Pasadena. Crown of the Valley. Earth.

How did she, I’ve come to wonder, endure the atmosphere? The picket fences. The rolling, manicured lawns. The uniformity. The predictability. The breezy conviviality. What was it like, Octavia, to feel earthbound?

People think they know Pasadena because of television’s establishing shots: the football games, the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, and that famous turn at Colorado and Orange Grove Boulevards, where the extravagant flora-draped floats lurch by for their close-up — all of it backdropped by a startlingly bright blue January sky.

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She knows the world is conversant in this perception. Pasadena, “Hometown Pasadena?” as she herself once quipped, “Where everyone is rich — right? Of course. People used to tell me this all the time.” Pasadena, she was well familiar, has many guises and many faces: the ones the world sees, the others you come to know once you navigate it for yourself.

The city appears to be a simple-to-parse grid except for an unexpected — and somewhat dramatic — direction-shift, at which point Orange Grove Boulevard bends from South to North to West to East, leaning eastward where it crosses Fair Oaks Avenue.

Octavia E. Butler seen sitting with leaves behind her
Growing up in Pasadena, Octavia E. Butler began writing at age 10, filling notebooks and diaries with her ideas.
(Cheung Ching-Ming)

Here, at this compass point — Orange Grove and Fair Oaks — just a few walkable blocks north of the sparkling upscale tourist destination, Old Pasadena, with its Tiffany outpost and Apple Store (both of which would most likely surprise even the sibylline Octavia) — you cross into a determinedly working-class stretch. It’s abuzz with heavy daylight-hours foot traffic: Pedestrians on the stroll, school children and uniformed adults (line cooks, doctor’s assistants, mechanics) — daydreaming or phone scrolling — waiting for buses. Sometimes you might glimpse a flock of bright parasols shielding women like Octavia’s now-long-gone mother who do day-work from the harsh sun. Parked beneath the shade of magnolia trees, street vendors sell fresh melons and mangoes — some dusted with ground cayenne peppers.

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Continuing north on Fair Oaks, the landscape is still, at this writing, a not-yet-gentrified collection of mini-malls that house laundromats and “Louisiana Chicken” and fish joints that advertise “You Buy, We Fry.” Churches abound, all manner of denominations and sizes. Some are free-standing edifices, others are storefronts bearing grandiloquent names. Tricked-out bicycles whizz by convalescent homes and locked-tight former beauty shops, their frosted hand-painted signage still evident; the char of fast food burgers and taco trucks spice the air. This western spine of Northwest Pasadena, just east of the famous Rose Bowl Stadium, is where Octavia, a native of Pasadena, spent some of her earliest years struggling under the weight of expectations — or the lack of them — in Southern California, where “normal,” like the classrooms and work that teachers tried to coax out of her, felt like a prison.

To begin to fully grasp Octavia Butler is to sink into the worlds from which she came. Southern California: the landscape, the people, the yearnings, the lean-years struggle and all of the other necessary bits and pieces that it took for her to collage together a public self.

Octavia Estelle Butler, science fiction writer, MacArthur “genius,” and visionary, spent incalculable hours in the service of putting words on the page — stumbling onto a thread of inquiry, letting ideas germinate, then sail around her imagination. She dreamt of alternative habitats and fleshed out heretofore unseen characters, giving them purpose, language, and agency. Equally if not more important, however, was Butler’s time and attention to crafting her most complex and unique creation: her life.

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Born in Pasadena in 1947, raised by a widowed, single mother who worked for years as a live-in domestic, Butler could not have begun her journey farther from her intended destination. Known among friends and family as Estelle, Estella, or Junie, she was an introspective and intuitive little girl. A voracious reader and sensitive observer, Butler lived deeply and vividly in her imagination. “I had been making up stories and telling them to myself since I was five or six,” she often recalled in interviews. “Because my mother, in an effort to make me read, refused to tell them to me. I did read. We were lucky enough not to be able to afford a television at the time, so I read everything I could find from my grandmother’s California Farmer ... to some interesting pornography I found in someone’s trash. But until I began writing my own stories, I never found quite what I was looking for. … In desperation, I made up my own.”

One of the houses where science fiction author Octavia E. Butler lived in Pasadena.
One of the houses where science fiction author Octavia E. Butler lived in Pasadena.
(Lynell George)

It was the beginning of what would be a daily, lifelong relationship with putting words on a page and, at the same time, creating her own time and space within which to exist — an alternative place to be and thrive. Her road into a deeply desired writing life was a labyrinth of twists, dead-ends, trap doors, and blocks — both on the page and in her day-to-day pursuits.

As a Southern California native, I had no idea of just how close I lived to (and how frequently I intersected with) her former life here in the San Gabriel Valley until I began working in the Octavia E. Butler Archive at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California — just 3.8 miles from Butler’s childhood homes; the locales are universes apart.

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In her old neighborhood of North Pasadena, there are no plaques or honorary pocket parks or reading rooms named in her honor, nothing that tells us that this was the soil of inspiration. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a deep and enduring love for Butler that still exists in this corner of Pasadena amid the compact cottages and well-tended California bungalows. One of her childhood schools has recently named its library in her honor. Residents and old friends keep her alive in stories. She was a fixture on the landscape, waiting for buses, beneath a canopy of sycamore trees, taking her brisk early morning hike up Lake Avenue, out of Pasadena into Altadena, tipping toward the majestic outline of the San Gabriels. Those mountains, on a clear day, look like a paper backdrop — a view you might, if you’re not careful, push your hand through.

In 2015, I was commissioned by Julia Meltzer to create a text, a “posthumous interview,” for the L.A.-based arts nonprofit Clockshop for a major retrospective of Butler’s work and legacy. The project, “Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archives of Octavia E. Butler,” assembled a provocative mix of practitioners from various disciplines. We sank ourselves into it, let inspiration guide us.

Octavia E. Butler at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1995.
Octavia E. Butler at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1995.
(Los Angeles Public Library / Reprinted with permission from the Estate of Octavia E. Butler.)

The archive is vast and, frankly, imposing: more than three hundred boxes and thousands of personal items drawn from decades of Butler’s personal files. It’s easy to find yourself pulled down one or another unexpected rabbit hole. Approaching the work required fashioning a loose plan. I wanted to decide on a path but keep open to what the material told me.

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Butler made all manner of lists: practical items — grocery and clothes shopping, last-minute to-dos as she readied for book-related trips — but she also lined up her wishes and intentions. In felt-tip pens, in pencil and ballpoint on notepaper, she articulated her desires on the backs of envelopes, holiday greetings or magazine subscription blow-in cards. Many of her desires also live in the margins of story drafts and her dime-store notebooks and formal journals. These wishes were part of her day-to-day work, along with her daily goals and page counts.

Writing, for her, was never a part-time endeavor, even when she was forced to press it into the corners of her study time or her day-job schedule. She had gravitated toward science fiction as a genre because it lifted the ceiling and dissolved the walls; it presented the sort of freedom and brazenness she needed for creating new possibilities. She knew that science fiction didn’t have to be spaceships or super bugs; the most compelling science fiction for her offered readers alternative versions of not just the universe but also themselves.

Octavia E. Butler’s grave at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena with her notebooks.
Octavia E. Butler’s grave at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. Born in Pasadena in 1947, she died in 2006. She was 58.
(Lynell George)

“What does science fiction mean to you?” was a question she often entertained in interviews, panels, and conferences. She answered it in many ways over the years, often seriously, even more often her reply was sparky and with tongue in cheek. Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is … a handful of earth and a handful of sky and everything around and in between.

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This excerpt is adapted with permission from the Introduction of “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky” by Lynell George, published in October by Angel City Press.

If you go: book club

The Los Angeles Times Book Club is exploring the work of Octavia E. Butler, whose books include “Parable of the Sower,” “Parable of the Talents, “Kindred” and “Wild Seed.”

What: Virtual meetup features journalist Lynell George, author of “A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler,” in conversation with Times reporter Julia Wick.

When: 7 p.m. PT Nov. 18

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Where: Free event livestreaming on The Times’ Facebook page, YouTube or Twitter. Sign up at Eventbrite.

Book giveaway: When you register for this book club event, you can receive a free copy of one of 10 books written by Butler or another author on a first-come, first-served basis, thanks to this donation: “Vroman’s was Octavia’s local bookstore for most of her life, and to show gratitude for the important service they perform in the L.A. community, the Estate of Octavia E. Butler and longtime literary agent Merrilee Heifetz are funding the purchase of these 700 books to be given away,” said Ernestine Walker, Butler’s cousin. “By choosing all novels by Black writers of imaginative fiction, many of whom honor Octavia for paving the way, we also hope to thank her readers by offering them free copies of five of her books as well. We are also grateful to the L.A. Times for all they’ve done to create and support this wonderful event.”

More info: latimes.com/bookclub

Book club giveaway black speculative fiction authors include Octavia E. Butler, Rivers Solomon and N.K. Jemisin.
(Top row: Grand Central Publishing, Beacon Press (Kindred)
Bottom row (from left): Aspect, DAW, Akashic Books, Make Me A World, Orbit)
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