i found god in myself
& i loved her/i loved her fiercely
Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.
Martha Bes is a 43-year-old Black woman, living in Seattle, Washington. Martha—in Octavia E. Butler’s story, “Book of Martha”—is tasked by a godlike figure (or someone so powerful they might as well be a god) to make a change. God asks her to consider carefully “What change would you make if you could make only one?”—one that would allow humanity to survive instead of its present trajectory to destroy itself. God says that Martha must “Think of the needs of the future … as well as the needs of the present.”
Butler’s Martha is understandably fearful, distressed, and upset by the task she is given. The wrong kind of intervention will lead to depopulation, decreased birthrates, and a fundamental alteration of what it means to be human. Martha hopes (thinks) she must be dead or hallucinating, though she is not. Instead, Martha is set apart from space and time to do this work of helping humanity.
Octavia E. Butler herself is set apart in time and space, our [Black] grandmother paradox:
The paradox also acknowledges the ways in which time feels layered in Afrodiasporan traditions, where the past is always layered over the present moment—our ancestors reside with and within us, even if on a different temporal plane/scale.
Today we can feel how time is a spiral, how the present moment is always layered with multiple pasts and underlying alternate futures. Time as a concept is not only related to one’s individual life but also to society that goes back many generations and in one’s community. In helping to define the concept of future, Rasheedah Phillips points to traditional indigenous African spatiotemporal consciousness. Here, time is a matter of pacing (not linear, calendared, or marked by a clock), akin to walking: “Time begins when you arrive at your destination.”
Indeed, Butler’s Patternist Series was published out of chronological order and shifts back and forth temporally, looking at descendants and ancestors simultaneously. Her work often takes the long view of history. Black diasporic time also forms the foundations of both Kindred and Wild Seed, which is, at its core, a historical novel rooted in Igbo culture and African American culture at the same time. With these traditions in mind, we can read “Book of Martha”—and celebrate Butler’s birthday—outside of the current/future ancestor binary. Instead, we can understand both life and death as multivalent and temporally flexible. Consider how people tell me where they were when they learned Butler transitioned and how her work continues to be ever-present in their lives, almost as though they regard Butler as a mythologized deity. An obscure note in the archives posits the notion that the Parable’s Books of the Living were told to Octavia E. Butler by Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist of the story named for the Yoruban deity, Oya.
As excitement (and trepidation) builds for newer film and television adaptations of Butler’s novels, I keep returning to my own roots as a mythologist and to her short fiction, interviews, and essays. Every once in a while, some newly digitized footage or long-forgotten audio is launched into the public sphere. People want more from her, even while knowing she never got to be that 80-year-old writer she saw herself as in the future.
Now, it is Butler’s 75th birthday, over 15 years since she made her transition. Revisiting the “Book of Martha” would be a wonderful way to celebrate Octavia E. Butler, her readers, and culture workers who live by her work. As God tells Martha—and us—“You will help humankind to survive its greedy, murderous, wasteful adolescence. Help it to find less destructive, more peaceful, sustainable ways to live.”
Originally published on scifi.com in 2003, “Book of Martha” appears as the final short story in the second edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories. “Book of Martha” is often overlooked in the praise of Butler’s creative work. And, yet, this story contains profound and generative images that set it apart from much of her other fiction.
Over decades earlier, Butler’s Wild Seed asks what we would do with creative immortality and the ability to heal ourselves and others from the inside out, how do we thrive while under the threat of death. Dawn, Imago, and Adulthood Rites comprise the Lilith’s Brood trilogy; these books ask us what it means to be human, and if we can make the necessary symbiotic changes to continue to exist in any form, faced with sterilization, manipulation, and colonization. The unpublished novel Blindsight depicts a blind faith healer (real powers notwithstanding) who can “see” in other ways. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents outline ways to shape and be shaped by the archetype of Change. Kindred asks us what we would do to survive the circumstances and realities of our foremothers, if we are willing to be complicit in our shared fate, how the past and future intersect and coexist. And Fledgling, Butler’s final published novel, has us begin to remember ourselves, piece by piece, again symbiotically finding our families—chosen, blood, and gathered—from the perspective of a Black female vampire hybrid who names herself Renee (rebirth).
Some of these themes, and others from Butler’s other essays and novels, appear in “Book of Martha.” The story also shows the greatest evolution of a character’s perspective and self-actualization, and does so in just a few short pages. It seems to ask what we might do if we could humbly accept the sacred reflections of ourselves, as well as the responsibility that goes along with that kind of radical self-acceptance.
At the start of the story, Martha is a writer, and she has just roused herself from a long stint of being at her computer in the flow of ideas, writing. Now, she is in need of movement, drink, and sustenance.
Martha of Abrahamic scriptures is the sister of Mary and Lazarus, the man Jesus resurrected after being dead for four days. In more than one of the gospels, Martha is seen busy, to the point of preoccupation, with preparing sustenance and provisions for Jesus’s initial visit, and then, later, at a meal that also honors her newly resurrected brother Lazarus.
The Martha of the short story never comments on her own namesake but acknowledges that she doesn’t even believe in a literal God. She knows the stories of Jonah, Job, and Noah, the Tower of Babel, and other biblical tales through her mother’s insistence that she go to “Sunday School, to Bible class and to vacation Bible school.” Her mother attended church as a girl and insisted her daughter attend as a child all to make her “good.” But Martha has come to understand Bible stories as parables rather than literal truths. Butler described herself as a former Baptist having long ago let go of the religion of her mother and grandmother.
Another kind of Martha appears in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel Handmaid’s Tale, which depicts a regressive reproductive rights nightmare of the highest order. Unlike the Handmaids, Atwood’s “Marthas” are not subjected to the violence of systematic rape, forced pregnancy, and stolen children. A Martha’s value is in the labor of her body in other ways. While “Marthas” are the cooks, housekeepers, and nannies for the ruling religious fundamentalist class, they are assigned these roles because of their diminished fecundity without the capability of being impregnated. In the 2017 Hulu adaptation of the book into a television show running for four seasons (with a fifth season in the works), Marthas are most often depicted on-screen by women of color.
However, Atwood’s book and subsequent television show refuse to deal with the socially constructed realities of race in a meaningful way. In the book, Atwood banishes people of color to toxic work camps called “the Colonies”; in the show, showrunner Bruce Miller maintains that the show is giving more people of color opportunities to work in television. In the show—he argues—racism is nonexistent, as infertility trumps all, despite the optics or racialization and class we can see as viewers. Also of note, in the show the titular handmaid June/ “Offred” has a Black husband who is given the surname of “Bankole” likely inspired by Franklin Bankole, husband of Lauren Oya Olamina, protagonist of Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.
It is true that this “Book of Martha” depicts its protagonist as having a “broad black face.” But this Martha is different. Butler’s Martha ultimately devises a plan that will help humanity, without changing them so much that they are no longer human, or lack free will. She toys with the idea of limiting population growth, or limiting human behavior in some way directly—such as when the Tower of Babel limited communication, dividing and isolating people based on their inability to understand one another.
Through Martha, Butler expresses the fundamental problem with communal utopias. In the afterword that appears in print versions of the story, Butler writes, “I don’t like most Utopia stories because I don’t believe them for a moment. It seems inevitable that my Utopia would be someone else’s hell.”
How can we make decisions that benefit humanity as a whole, now and in the future as we excavate the past?
Perhaps that is a clue as to why Martha’s solution is to have humans inhabit their own private utopias in their dreams. Consequently, they enjoy themselves thoroughly in sleep, which also causes them to be more awake, aware, mature, thoughtful, engaged, and able to be more concerned with real consequences.
Each person will have a private, perfect utopia every night—or an imperfect one. If they crave conflict and struggle, they get that. If they want peace and love, they get that. Whatever they want or need comes to them … it might take the edge off their willingness to spend their waking hours trying to dominate or destroy one another.
People in this new configuration of Martha’s will follow their affect (which is not the same as the Joseph Campbellian “follow your bliss”). Whatever they love to do most, they will dream about doing these things, and the dreams will change to keep up with their interests: “The satisfaction should be in the dreaming, not in trying to make the dreams real.” Children will be allowed the autonomy to have these enriching dreams; parents and children will want and need relationships with one another (preventing abuse and neglect of children).
Martha is childless, though realistically compassionate about childrearing: “Loving and raising children is risky, too, and it’s hard work.” This seems to be a theme of the pandemic. Caregiving of any sort is challenging, and the risks and importance of relationships are innumerable.
Indeed, the most profound and generative parts of “Book of Martha” come from Martha’s lived experience and what that experience brings to her decision-making. She describes herself as “born on the bottom level of society … poor, and black, and female to a fourteen-year-old mother who could barely read … homeless half the time.”
Martha is given the task for all that she is and all that she is not. She is given freedom—to argue, ask questions, be terrified, examine human history, consider consequences and warnings—in service of the work set out for her. She has to bring her whole self, moving through, and processing her fears of making a devastating mistake.
The manifestation and embodiment of God evolves throughout Butler’s story. First, God appears to Martha as a 12-foot tall, glowing, larger than life-sized white man in robes with a long beard. Eventually, Martha is eye to eye with this white male God; now the being is no longer glowing. Next, God shifts to slightly taller man with a clean-shaven face, “a tall, stocky black man wearing ordinary, modern clothing—a dark sweater over a white shirt and dark pants.” After Martha prepares and eats tuna salad sandwiches with God, she leaves the room to get something to drink. Now, she returns to find that God has changed to a woman.
Martha is disappointed with herself for taking so long to see God as a woman. But God only says, “You see what your life has prepared you to see” and that old habits “tend to outlive their usefulness.” Martha is in her Season of Change, letting go of things which are no longer useful, poised to exist in a new way.
Martha feels like she is looking at a mirror, like God could be her sister. “On impulse, she stepped to God and hugged her—hugged her hard, feeling the familiar woman’s body beneath the blue jeans and black t-shirt that looked as though it had come from Martha’s own closet.” Martha realizes that she’s come to like, “this seductive, childlike, very dangerous being” even though her decision for humanity will likely deprive her of her writing career. With people being able to dream their own stories, live out their own myths in their sleeping lives, they won’t read as much for a time. Writing is the only thing Martha ever loved, so she asks God to make her forget that the decision to change humanity was hers.
Butler’s Martha makes us ask: What does it mean to humbly embrace those sacred parts of oneself, to love god fiercely and to love ourselves? How can we make decisions that benefit humanity as a whole, now and in the future as we excavate the past? Might we really have the ability to look for valuable insights in the archetypes and dreams (and their meanings) that evade us in waking life?
A part of me feels that Butler is revealing a kind of free, culturally-responsive, therapeutic wellness practice. It’s where people can work through things and experiment with feeling whole. Therefore, they’d be less likely to project, splinter, abuse, and project their psychological insecurities on others.
I know my interpretation reflects my own utopic impulses toward wanting people to have their basic needs met in every way, to have human beings treated with dignity, respect, and value with rich histories and contributions to our collective survival. I have always read almost all her work as ways of dealing with psychological trauma or experimenting with psychologies of liberation. In the case of Martha, she is tasked with giving humanity the tools to liberate themselves from their highly intelligent, yet hierarchical, behavior. I, like Octavia E. Butler, want us not to one-up ourselves to death.
In trying to complete this essay, I kept thinking about Butler being ahead of her time in so many ways. She wrote through and across genres, beyond the categories publishers used to market her books. She lived through the most vibrant and closely documented decades of the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath—the backlash of trying to uplift people who had been told they were worthless for hundreds of years. She thought we had more work to do.
I wonder now what advice she might have, which insights for dealing with the backlash we are still facing in the reaffirmation of Black life, the environment, oppression, gender equality, and war. What work might she have us now do? I can almost hear her urging us to “See to it!” or (“Asé!” as she discovered in her early research for Wild Seed.)
I imagine all the additional stories Butler could have told and the successes she might have had in today’s literary climate. Today, there are books that did not exist on the shelves of her favorite libraries until after her transition in 2006: spicy, expansive speculative romances, alternate present novels, diverse epic fantasy tales, life-changing children’s and young-adult fiction. I think of Fledgling as the first of many crossover books that she would have written if she’d had more time, if more of her basic needs had been met earlier in her life so that her health was robust and her life extended.
I wonder what she would have thought of the alarm people are still feeling about the uncanny prescience of the Parables. I try to consider what she would have thought of social media and how she would have interfaced with information such as it is now. Finally, I wonder what she would think of her legacy and the power dynamics, issues, and unexpected twists that have arisen in her absence.
Butler’s words always make us ask questions. Today, rereading “Book of Martha” for her birthday, I wonder: What would we be willing to trade for more of her? What would we give to get just one more book, one more short story, one more workshop, one more interview, one more dream, one more embrace of the divine that we see reflected in her work, represented by our ongoing survival?
This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and supported with funds from the Barnard Digital Humanities Center at Barnard College.