This is part of a roundtable on the work of Octavia Butler. The index to the roundtable is here.
One summer, Octavia Butler came to me in a dream. There were black feminists and ice sculptures everywhere. And a porch. It must have been heaven. Octavia walked up to me and tilted her head. She lovingly said “I hate you.” And laughed. And played a little bit with my hair, her hands as gentle as humidity. Then she went on to explain something important about mosquitoes that I can’t remember now.
Sweet ancestral hate. That’s a new one.
As a self-identified Black Feminist Love Evangelist, my relationship to chosen black feminist ancestors has been one of love and affirmation. Mostly, I identify with the black women writers and activists whose words I read, reread and chant and sing. They offer affirmation for who I am and for the world that I believe in. One January I even found myself receiving urgent love letters (motherourselves.wordpress.com) from the internalized voices of the likes of Audre Lorde, Ella Baker, June Jordan and Toni Cade Bambara every morning. And at the end, when I had thanked my grandmother and declared the project complete…I got this letter from ancestor-trickster Octavia:
Ha! Didn’t think I would show up, did you? Here I am, making room for the difficult, the unsatisfied, the restless creator in you. She is the one that will make the hard choices and the new worlds to live on. She is the one who will question everything, down to how life appears.
With all this loving you are doing, and which you must do, don’t disdain your opposition. You would call it the queer thing, the part of you that just wont fit into the terms of this world. It deserves to grow and to shatter everything, even your sense of who you thought you were.
I know I came in and messed up the whole coherence of the project, your whole timeline and pretty picture. And I know you trust me less than the others, that you have never been seduced by my narrative voice. That is why I showed up here anyway.
What your life and work will be will exceed your expectations, your invitations, your affinity. Life is stranger than anything you would want to imagine, and that’s the good news. Wake up to the reality that survival is a sharp thing, full of edges and decisions and sacrifice. And while you believe in abundance, I will stay here, insisting that everything here is a shell that still needs to be broken through. Acceptance is not what you think it is. Remember me while you learn that the boundaries will not hold, and whatever safety they provide is strategic at best, but usually false, usually lazy, usually a trick for evading breakthrough.
I do not rest because this world does not warrant it. And it is the restlessness in you that will knock things out of place that should not be set up how they are.
Don’t forget that even your crankiness is bigger than you. And make room for me and for knowing that some things must be destroyed.
Here, watching and waiting, undoing the neat package you thought you had. Remember, gifts are messy.
Right. The thing is, unlike other chosen ancestors, I don’t particularly identify with Octavia Butler. I don’t see justification of who I am. I define myself by my unconditional (and possibly undeserved) love for our species. I truly believe that we can come into alignment with our planet and stop killing ourselves and each other, and I am disturbed by what happens to our species in all of Octavia Butler’s stories. My interpretation of Butler’s work is that she believed that our species and this planet were fundamentally incompatible. There is no future where humans and Earth work it out. Through disease or through the interventions of another species, humans in Butler’s body of work must give up on being human or get the hell off this planet. It is never going to work. Humans will always use their intelligence for hierarchy which will breed destruction.
What a depressing thesis. But of course it is more than justified. Our species has a drastically abusive relationship to the resources of the planet, the other life-forms on the planet and to ourselves and each other. And Butler’s experiences on this planet would not necessarily lead to cuddly feelings about this species.
I remember watching a video of Octavia Butler sitting awkwardly in a circle of black women writers gathered in the Bahamas at a 1988 retreat coordinated by Cheryll Y. Greene, executive editor of Essence Magazine and late great hero of my soul. Octavia was explaining to the pantheon of writers (including Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara and many more) that there was no reason that she should be the only Black woman science fiction writer. It was lonely. She encouraged them to start writing science fiction and gave them some tips. She also explained some of the struggles she had faced in deciding to be a writer at all.
She described when she first moved out of her mother’s house. She was in her twenties and she got her own first place. A cheap apartment. And she had a dog. And she worked all the time. And one day the children in the neighborhood tortured and eventually killed her dog. She told this story to the gathered women writers and she laughed as if it still hurt. What kind of a species is this, where children kill a dog because they can?
In that moment I had to acknowledge that the futures we imagine are based on our lived experiences and what we can possibly extrapolate from them. I did not come to adulthood welcomed by dog-murdering children. In fact, I came through childhood and into adulthood with my own hardships, but also with the irreversible impact of Octavia Butler and Black women writers and thinkers in and beyond that circle lifting me up. I was six years old when Butler spoke those words and when the recorded image reached me I was sitting comfortably and gratefully in Cheryll Greene’s living room where she was actively transferring legacy and love.
In the finding aid to Octavia Butler’s archival papers there is not very much mention of correspondence with other known black women writers who were in that circle or who were her elders or contemporaries. There is testimonial and archival evidence that she took care to mentor younger black women science fiction writers like Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor, but who was there for her?
In Toni Cade Bambara’s papers at Spelman College I read some letters from Octavia Butler to Toni Cade Bambara and was surprised and not surprised that her letters to Toni felt as abrupt as her surprise ancestral letter to me. She bluntly told Toni Cade Bambara that her handwriting was terrible and that she really couldn’t be expected to read her letters unless she evolved to the use of a typewriter. And maybe that, and her rigorous book production schedule, had something to do with the fact that it had taken her almost a year to write Toni Cade back. Bambara and Butler stayed somewhat in touch, but they also had very different theories about the species. Bambara’s Salteaters offers the proposition that the life of an individual human, the organism of her family, the ecology of her community, the vibration of the species, the synchronicity of the environment and the ringing of the solar system were all the same thing on different relevant and interconnected scales. The thesis was that if people could heal themselves and each other, the imbalances (many of which were/are human made) in the environment and the society could be healed. Not that they would be healed, but that they could be. Whereas Butler’s humans seem to be hopelessly out of sync with this planet and any other planet that they journey to (as evidenced by Survivor…the out of print novel in the Patternist series that she didained and repressed…and the recently written about drafts of the unwritten books in the Parable series…), Bambara’s humans are one with everything, for better and for worse.
I would love to be a mosquito near the blood of their living conversations. I wonder if there was hair-touching or any sweet declarations of hate.
Recently on a visit to Los Angeles I had the honor of being taken on a tour of Octavia’s first world and the general setting of some of her novels (Pasadena, CA) by Dr. Ayana Jamieson, founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy network and brilliant scholar on the psychological, literary, spiritual and historic impact of Butler and her work. We went to places where Butler used to live, the libraries she devoured as a child, what used to be her elementary school and at the end of a transformative day where I learned so much about Octavia Butler we went to pay our respects at her grave.
Ayana, guardian and generous distributor of so much about Octavia Butler’s legacy had been holding birthday celebrations and remembrance rituals in honor of Octavia Butler at the gravesite in order to bring visibility to the fact that she was home and as a marking point for the work of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network which brings together people whose activism and creativity is inspired by the models that Butler created.
She had been to the grave many times and had brought other colleagues to pay their respects as well.
I was excited and nervous to visit Octavia’s gravesite. But when we arrived at the spot…she wasn’t there.
That’s right. I went to visit Octavia Butler at her grave, and she stood me up. But as Ayana’s dissertation explains, graveyard hi-jinks are well in Octavia’s wheelhouse. The Yoruba goddess/orisha Oya, is a key figure in Butler’s Parable Series. The protagonist is named Lauren Oya Olamina, after the orisha who is most associated with change. It is no coincidence that Lauren Oya Olamina creates a religion and movement called “Earthseed” based on the premise that “God is Change.” Oya is also understood to be the guardian of the graveyard and the double-helix whirlwind that connects the living to the dead, because the change between life and death is one of the most mysterious changes we know about. Ayana explains it much better in her dissertation, but in that moment of being stood up and engaging the employees at the cemetery (who didn’t know about Butler’s literary fame) we both knew that if anyone could hide in a graveyard…it was Octavia Butler.
Ultimately it turned out that initially Octavia Estelle Butler’s black gravestone (which reads “All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change.”) was stacked on top of her mother’s gravestone. Her mother’s name is also Octavia Butler. (Her pink gravestone reads “God is love.”) The mistake had been intact during all the birthday celebrations and previous visits. But before I got there it was corrected. Octavia’s stone was moved to where her body was actually buried, but at the time we had no idea where that was and neither the find-a-grave computer at the cemetery or the nice workers there could help us find her.
Like every troublesome experience I have had with ancestor Octavia, this left me thinking. What happens when the dead move? What happens when the dead move us? Is this a sign from the black and humid universe that because of the work of people like Ayana Jamieson and Adrienne Maree Brown (who bases emergent strategy workshops on the visionary models in Butler’s fiction and is co-editing with poet Walidah Imarisha a collection of visionary fiction short stories by social justice activists) Octavia is shifting her position? Does she believe in the species again? Or did she believe in us all along, and just offer drastic critiques and bleak futures in order to motivate those of us who legacy has afforded love to act immediately on our love for the species and the planet?
&Maybe both. Maybe all of it. I love your sweet and smirking face Octavia. You confuse the best out of me. Thank you for being who you are. (And hating me so good.)