A few weeks ago at The Stone at the New School, flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell led her ensemble into the “Xenogenesis Suite,” dedicated to the author Octavia Butler. Mitchell has also recorded the suite that was released on the Firehouse 12 label. Several months ago during a visit to Abu Dhabi, I attended a performance based on the “Parable of the Sower,” one of Butler’s most popular novels. Her imaginative flights, her science fiction has often been cited in reviews of the “Black Panther” film, especially on the pertinence of Afrofuturism, and at least one writer feels Butler’s vision has also been appropriated in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
The point here is that Butler continues to have currency via a variety of interpretations of her works. Such was the potency of her vision, the genius of her creativity, to say nothing of her energetic production.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Calif. She was raised by her mother after her father’s death. An introverted child with a slight trace of dyslexia, her refuge at an early age was the library, particularly in the stacks where the fantasy books were located. She was 10 when she asked her mother for a typewriter and began creating science fiction stories. When she wasn’t banging away on her typewriter she helped her mother clean houses and experienced very early being at the mercy of employers who were less than kind. This powerlessness was one of her first motivations to become a writer as a way for her to gain control over her life and creativity.
At 12, after watching a televised version of the film “Devil Girl from Mars,” she believed she could write a better story. To demonstrate this conviction she drafted a story that would be the basis for her Patternist novels. With little understanding of the difficulty Black women faced in publishing, she asked her junior high school science teacher to type her first manuscript, which she submitted to a science fiction magazine. Similarly to the way Malcolm X was told not to aspire to be a lawyer, Butler was advised by her aunt that “Negroes can’t be writers.”
“After graduating from John Muir High School in 1965,” according to her biographer Carolyn Davidson, “Butler worked during the day and attended Pasadena City College at night. As a freshman there, she won a college-wide short story contest, earning her first income ($15) as a writer. She also got the “germ of the idea” for what would become her novel “Kindred.” An African-American classmate involved in the Black Power Movement loudly criticized previous generations of African-Americans for being subservient to whites. As Butler explained in later interviews, the young man’s remarks were a catalyst leading her to respond with a story providing historical context for the subservience, showing that it could be understood as “silent but courageous survival.” Butler graduated from Pasadena City College in 1968 with an associate of arts degree with a focus in history.
Despite her mother’s desire that she focus on more gainful employment, Butler continued to work at jobs that would not interfere too much with her determination to be a writer. Even so, it was an exceedingly exasperating route to success as she often emulated some of her favorite white writers. She soon succumbed to enrolling at California State University, in Los Angeles, and taking writing courses through UCLA Extension.
A breakthrough finally occurred after she gained entry in the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild West, a program created to mentor minority writers. One of her teachers, the renowned Harlan Ellison, was impressed with her writing and encouraged her to attend the six-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania. It was at Clarion that she met Samuel Delany, another aspiring sci-fi writer and they became lifelong friends. Ellison was also instrumental in procuring her first story for his anthology “The Last Dangerous Visions,” which remains unpublished. But her story “Crossover” was published in the Clarion anthology in 1971.
Then came a flood of novels over the next five years, including those in the Patternist series: “Patternmaster” (1976), “Mind of My Mind” (1977) and “Survivor” (1978). In 1978, she was finally able to stop working at temporary jobs and live on her writing. After setting aside the Patternist series, she began to research and write “Kindred” (1979), and then finished the series with “Wild Seed” (1980) and “Clay’s Ark” (1984).
When she won the Hugo Award for her short story “Speech Sounds” in 1984 and a year later received the Hugo, the Locus Award and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for her novelette, “Bloodchild,” the prominence she sought was finally obtained. With these achievements in her possession she traveled to the Andes Mountains and the Amazon rainforest to begin research on what would become the Xenogenesis trilogy: “Dawn” (1987), “Adulthood Rites” (1988) and “Imago” (1989). In 2000, they were subsequently published as the collection “Lilith’s Blood.”
The abovementioned “Parable of the Sower” was published in 1993 and it further cemented her status in the genre. One authority on her writing explained “Parable of the Sower” as unfolding journal entries of its protagonist, a 15-year-old Black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives with her family in one of the walled neighborhoods. “People have changed the climate of the world,” she observes. “Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.” She places no hope in Donner, who she views as “a symbol of the past to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future.” Rather, she arms herself to survive in that future. She practices her aim with BB guns, and collects maps and books on how Native-Americans used plants. She then develops her own belief system, Earthseed, a kind of Darwinian concoction.
When the day comes for her to leave her walled enclave, Lauren walks west to the 101 freeway, joining a river of the poor that is flooding north. It’s a dangerous crossing, made more so by a taboo affliction that Lauren was born with, “hyperempathy,” which causes her to feel the pain of others.
In 1995, Butler was the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant, the first for a sci-fi author. The prize was for $295,000. Four years later, after her mother’s death, she moved to Lake Forest Park in the state of Washington. It took several years for her to resume writing, and in 2003 she published “Amnesty” and “The Book of Martha.” Her novel “Fledgling” was finished in 2005, and it was her last sci-fi novel.
Although it was apparently true that she suffered from depression and high blood pressure, the cause of her death on Feb. 24, 2006 remains uncertain. She was 58.