My Neighbor Octavia

Sheila Liming

For years, I knew Octavia E. Butler, the famed African American science fiction and fantasy writer, by her first name only. That was the way she introduced herself when I first met her back in the fall of 1999. Butler had just purchased the house across the street from my parents’ and joined the ranks of our rather conventional suburban community in Lake Forest Park, WA, located just north of Seattle. A spate of rumors had attended her arrival on the block: “Octavia” wrote novels (about aliens!); “Octavia” had one of those “genius” grants; “Octavia” lived alone and was a reclusive artist type. An interview with Butler appeared in the Shoreline-Lake Forest Park Enterprise, our humble (and long-since defunct) local weekly, explaining that our new neighbor was, indeed, the author of a dozen novels and a MacArthur Fellowship recipient.

<i>Butler signing a copy of </i>Fledgling (2005). Wikimedia Commons

At the time, I was a high school junior who, like many my age, counted my recently minted driver’s license among my most prized possessions. My new neighbor, meanwhile, did not have a driver’s license—had never driven or owned a car in her life—and this disparity soon became the basis of our neighborly dealings with each other. I would often pass Butler on her walks to and from the grocery store and would stop to offer her rides, which she didn’t always accept; she was an inveterate walker, and walking had even factored into her house purchase. She told me as much on one of the days that she consented to being driven the rest of the way up the hill. She said that she desired only that a grocery store, a bookstore, and a bus stop be located within walking distance, and that the neighborhood should grant her access to the city without actually being in the city.

This was Butler’s motivation for moving to Lake Forest Park, a setting that I, at 16, viewed as insufferably unimportant. I never learned her general motivations for moving to Washington in the first place, but I have since glimpsed some of them in her fiction. Butler grew up in Southern California, remaining in the greater Los Angeles area until the age of 51. In the 1990s, prior to her relocation to Washington, she wrote her award-winning Parable novels. Both Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) describe a not-too-distant dystopic future in which the main characters, initially residents of Southern California, flee northward to escape the growing water crisis there and in the hopes of finding “any job that pays money.” “We’re going to Seattle,” proclaims the character Natividad, who, along with her husband and six-month-old, form part of a “broad river of people” flowing north from California toward the Pacific Northwest in Parable of the Sower.

Butler’s Parable novels—like almost all of her novels—portray California as a site of postmodern exodus and ruin. 

Butler’s Parable novels—like almost all of her novels—portray California as a site of postmodern exodus and ruin. Butler’s decision to leave California in the late 1990s seems, accordingly, to have hinged on the realization that it was becoming increasingly difficult to remain an optimist in such a setting. In a 2005 appearance on Democracy Now!, for instance, Butler explained that writing the Parable books, which she saw as “cautionary tales,” had left her “overwhelmed” and depressed, yearning for something more “lightweight.” Much like her characters in Parable of the Sower, she imagined that the Pacific Northwest might prove to be a more constructive setting for thinking about the future.

Nonetheless, I imagine that the move to our neighborhood constituted a dramatic change for Butler. She couldn’t help but stick out among the mostly white, unvaryingly middle-class residents of Lake Forest Park, the majority of whom tended to structure their lives around the very things that she lacked—namely, cars and children. But Butler, it is clear, was no stranger to the experience of being a stranger. “I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider,” is the way she put it in a 1998 Los Angeles Times interview.

Given such a statement, it is tempting to read Butler’s oeuvre through the lens of isolation; her novels ask us, time and again, to reflect on the terms of ordinary outsider-hood. At the same time, though, they also examine the complications and the rewards associated with social belonging. Solitude requires strength and self-assuredness, sure, but so does the trust that social belonging entails. As Walidah Imarisha recounts in her introduction to Octavia’s Brood, a recently released collection of “visionary fiction” dedicated to the author’s memory, Butler never sought to claim the title of “the solitary Black female sci-fi writer. She wanted to be one of many Black female sci-fi writers. She wanted to be one of thousands of folks writing themselves into the present and into the future.”

<i>Descendants of slaves of the Pettway plantation, at Gees Bend, Alabama, February 1937</i>. Photograph by Arthur Rothstein / US Farm Security Administration

For instance, in Kindred (1979), Butler’s best-known and most canonized work, the main character, Dana, travels back in time and winds up on a pre–Civil War plantation in Maryland. There, Dana encounters a variety of characters who are, in one way or another, “kin” to her: both Rufus, who is white, and Alice, who is black, are her distant ancestors, and Dana also gains an appreciation for the ties that establish her fictive kinship with the other slaves on the Weylin plantation. In spite of these overt references to formal systems of kinship, though, Kindred also advances an argument for the ties that exist between creative laborers in the postindustrial economy. Butler’s protagonist, who is black, is married to Kevin, who is white. Rather than foreground the subject of racial difference, Butler describes Kevin as being “like [Dana]—a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying.” Trying to write, for what unites these characters is a bond of creative perseverance that grows and deepens in spite of their personal fears of futility.

Back when I was 16, I, too, wanted to be a writer. If I wasn’t a full-fledged “outsider,” the time that I spent in the company of books meant that I didn’t resemble anything close to an “insider,” either. Which brings me back to the subject of my driver’s license: my anxieties about being an outsider-in-training (among other things) meant that I tended to skip a lot of classes back in high school. In my own, very small and very narcissistic way, I had come to rely on escape and subterfuge to combat the discomfort of social isolation. I didn’t know it then, but, just across the street, my neighbor Octavia was also struggling with similar feelings of isolation and anxiety (in addition to depression and writer’s block, as a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article explains) during that time.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” Octavia asked me when she got in the car.

One day, I blew off an entire day of school and instead drove to the remote mountain town where my family had lived and owned property when I was very young. Upon my return to Lake Forest Park, I met Butler coming back from the grocery store. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” she asked me when she got in the car. I told her that I hadn’t felt like going, skirting the deeper complexities of the issue, and said I’d been in Darrington. She responded that she had never visited the town, which is home to fewer than 1,500 people and located more than 60 miles from Lake Forest Park, but that she had seen it on maps. She asked me a variety of questions about the place before concluding our conversation with a remark that, for all its severity, still struck me as well-intended: “You should probably just go to school and stop screwing around,” she said.

I left for college in Ohio in the fall of 2001 and, to my very great regret, did not stay in touch with my former neighbor. Butler, for her own part, eventually conquered her writer’s block and went on to produce a final novel. Fledgling (2005) centers on a group of vampires who occupy a commune of sorts located “a few miles north of Darrington.” I was still in Ohio at the time of its publication, but I bought a copy and read it that winter. I imagined that, upon my next visit back in Lake Forest Park, I might be able to talk to Butler about the book and about Darrington. That conversation, however, did not come to pass: Butler died in February 2006 from what is believed to have been a stroke. My mom called to tell me the news, and it was from her that I learned that Butler’s body had been discovered by the two young girls who lived next door to her. I knew them well; once upon a time, I had been their babysitter.

Now, when I look back on the few years that I spent in close proximity to Butler, I find that I cannot do so without experiencing a kind of concomitant regret. I ask myself how I might have succeeded in being a better neighbor or friend to a person whose celebrity status seemed, to me, to mean that she needed neither. And I dwell on the memory of my missteps, marveling, for example, at the naiveté that led me to invite Butler, a Hugo and Nebula winner, to join my friends and me at our science fiction book club. Even worse, I cringe to think about the wasted opportunity that resulted from my failure to follow up on the invitation (which Butler actually accepted). I remember that we were reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and Butler said she knew it. Of course she knew it: she’d appeared alongside Russell at a sci-fi symposium held in North Carolina that same spring.

<i>A tribute to Butler in San Francisco</i> (2008). Photograph by Bess Sadler / Flickr

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Butler’s death, a fact that has been observed by news media tributes and by The Huntington Library in California, which acquired Butler’s papers in 2008 and has hosted a year-long series of commemorative events. In literary circles, then, it’s clear that Butler’s reputation has continued to rise over the last decade. But a recent trip back to Lake Forest Park prompted me to ask the question: did the neighborhood remember, too? I was curious to see what, if anything, might form the basis of the community’s recollections of Butler, and to know the extent of its residents’ acquaintance with her works and literary legacy.

I spoke to Terry Morgan, who still lives in the neighborhood and remembers passing Butler on the street and giving her “the black nod.” “I was the only other African American artist/musician living in the area, and Butler was kind of a mystery to me. You almost never saw her,” he said. As our conversation progressed, I learned that Morgan’s relationship with Butler in fact had the same foundation as my own: “I used to offer her rides,” he told me, explaining that, in exchange for this service, Butler invited him inside her house one day and presented him with an autographed copy of a book. The moral that emerged from our conversation was also similar: Morgan and I both wish that we could have known our neighbor better, and we both regret that feelings of intimidation and awe prevented us from doing that.

This regret finds its echo in Butler’s fiction, where characters are often forced to alter their expectations of independence in the wake of catastrophe, to venture to know and to trust their neighbors in ways that they previously believed to be impossible, or implausible. I squandered much of the opportunity that I had to know Octavia as a neighbor, but I have relished the process of getting to know Butler as an author, builder of worlds, and archivist of life in America at the dawn of the 21st century.