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Octavia E. Butler: hiding a life of magic in plain sight

DAA'IYA L.SANUSI | 4/12/2011, 4:39 p.m.

Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, the thought of being the little Black child of the First Family of the most powerful nation on planet Earth would have been high art in the genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction, fantasy and sci-fi are supposed to be the genre of alternative thought, but all too often, the preponderance of this work is valued most and visible predominantly in the Euro-American or Asian literary canon. But in walks Octavia E. Butler.

The National Black Writers Conference (NBWC) Bi-annual Symposium is outstanding; this year, though, it was particularly introspective because of the frequent occurrences of supernatural themes explored in Black writing from slavery to the present, not to mention African stories since time immemorial.

The life and work of renowned speculative fiction writer Octavia Butler was the subject of the daylong celebration of and homage to the late master storyteller. The symposium featured a number of science fiction writers well known for the high caliber of their work and the extraordinary depth of social consciousness witnessed in their work.

Artists/authors included the husband-and-wife collaborative duo of Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due, recent winners of the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work of Fiction; L.A. Banks, best-selling author of the Vampire Huntress Legend (VHL) series, who has written over 20 novels and eight novellas in dark fantasy, crime suspense and romance; and Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature and numerous other awards, including the Locus Award for Best First Novel

(2005).

The renowned Dr. Brenda M. Greene, mother of spoken-word artist Talib Kweli and NBWC conference coordinator and executive director, Center for Black Literature, put the symposium together so that authors, editors, agents, friends, aspirants and admirers could come together and pay tribute to the great impact Octavia Butler has had on the literary canon and upon their lives personally.

"I was actually introduced to Octavia Butler by Talib, my son. I explained to him I really like science fiction, and he said, 'Well, you're going to love this. It has all the elements--love, African history, spiritualism.' The first book he suggested I read was 'Wildseed,' which is a book that I love because it takes you into another world, but it also has strong characters who are based in an African tradition and philosophy. She was really a philosopher who used her imagination to tell stories about the conditions of this world and this life. And she was prophetic to me." "Part of what I see as a goal of the writers' conference is to document what is happening [on the Black literary front] and to bring newer writers to talk about their work," attested Dr.Greene.

Tananarive Due, the American Book Award-winning author of nine works, ranging from supernatural thrillers to a mystery to a civil rights memoir, said, "It has been so devastating, the wake of Octavia's loss; it's only now that we can begin [I can begin] a celebration--of her and her work--and of 'The Good Shadow' that she has cast that inspires us to move, intrigue and challenge readers the way she did. Ms. Due's most recent novel is "Blood Colony." "From the time that I met her in early 1982 until she passed away, I simply considered her to be one of the most profound and honest writers I've ever met. And an absolutely superlative, wonderful, warm, genuine person," confirmed Steven Barnes.

"Octavia Butler put it so honestly, confronting the very large social/political issues. I don't feel I have the right, as a writer, to not incorporate some of these issues in my work. So, when I did the VHL, you could say 'Oh, vampires...' But there is metaphor in it for 'blood as oil' and metaphor for young, incarcerated individuals...and the social issues I explore like economics and others such as what it means to be female and have gifts when you are supposed to be 'the least of those'," evinced L.A. Banks Jacqueline Harris, a fanturned-friend of Butler's, has authored "A Healing through Scared Masters' and shared a comment remembered from many conversations with Butler: "Just write the book, Jacqueline, and we'll take care of everything else." Harris expressed gratitude to the assemblage of respectful readers of Butler because of finally finding closure in her loss.

"Ultimately, what you see in her work is a profound sense of hope about the Earth and its ability to heal itself and about human beings and their ability to survive, especially if they can act together as family," expounded Barnes.