Everywhere we turn in the midst of unrelenting crises—the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing twin pandemics of anti-Black and anti-Asian violence, ecological devastation, and the collapse of democracy—new projects and returns inspired by the writer and visionary Octavia E. Butler abound. On September 3, 2020, Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) made the New York Times bestseller list 14 years after her death, at last fulfilling her own prophecy that she would become a best-selling writer. In June 2020, Library of America revealed plans to release a volume on Butler edited by Nisi Shawl and Gerry Canavan. That same month, adrienne maree brown and Toshi Reagon launched Octavia’s Parables, a podcast that takes listeners through both Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (1998). Much more recently, almost 15 years to the day since Butler died, on February 18, 2021, NASA landed its Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars and named the location where the rover touched down the Octavia E. Butler Landing.
It’s Butler’s world, and we’re just living in it. But how exactly did Butler live in the world? What kinds of world(s) did she imagine? And how did what she imagine inspire and enliven those who came after her?
To mark what would have been Butler’s 75th birthday on June 22, Public Books is publishing three individual responses from scholars, journalists, and creative intellectuals whose personal and professional lives owe much to the author’s vision and visioning. Together, these tributes not only pay homage to Butler on her 75th birthday but also gesture to how we might attend to her life and her work for the next 75 years to come, thereby ensuring her legacy. As each of these tributes demonstrates, there is much more to learn about and from Butler as pertains to her creative practice, her literary works, and her understudied stories. Attending to each of these things and more will help us say her name boldly and abundantly now and forever more.
First, however, we should ask: Who was Butler? And why exactly does she have such a hold on us (and why can’t we let go of her)? What follows is my reflection on when and how I came to Butler’s work. Many of us have such stories when it comes to our most-beloved authors. My hope is for my story to spark some interest in those who have never read Butler and to rekindle excitement in those who have. My desire is that we keep reading, with Butler as our guide and guardian.
Meeting Octavia E. Butler through Her Writing
My own deep study of Butler began in September 2020. The moment when I began to delve deeper into Butler’s works coincided with a period of heightened change not just for me, but I imagine for most. COVID-19 vaccines were in the making, but not yet distributed. People who once greeted one another with handshakes and hugs now wore gloves and guarded themselves assiduously. Surgical masks and N95s not only prevented the transfer of air particles but also hid the friendliness associated with smiles. Toilet paper was still a rare commodity. Zoom meetings had replaced in-person gatherings. For these reasons, my study of Butler felt timely and her words instructive, as I looked on while society contended simultaneously with an unknown virus and an all-too-familiar force, better regarded as capitalism.
I had previously read Kindred (1979) and Wild Seed (1980), as well as selected stories from Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995). So in September 2020, I went in search of more novels, short stories, essays, and speeches. Within a matter of mere months, I became familiar with Lauren Olamina’s fictional religion Earthseed from Parable of the Sower, intrigued by the society of telepaths assembled by Doro in the Patternmaster series, and curious, if not also a little bit scared, of the alien race, the Oankali, from the Xenogenesis series.
The more I read of Butler’s essays and speeches, the more I could not help but be awestruck by her utter conviction to be a writer (“Writing is all I really ever wanted to do”1) and her equally adamant belief that one did not need inspiration, talent, or even imagination to be a successful author but only a determined will to persist (“Habit is persistence in practice”2). Perhaps, most of all, I respected the great lengths Butler went to, working as a dishwasher, warehouse worker, and potato-chip inspector, all so that she might support herself financially and carve out time in her days to put pen to paper.
What would it have been like to have met Butler in person rather than to only come to know her through her words? How did she herself describe the processes of creation she enacted, or the research required to build new worlds? Where did she learn to write? Who did she imagine would read her stories? For the answers to these and other lingering questions, I turned to interviews, especially those collected in Conversations with Octavia Butler (2010) edited by Conseula Francis, to get a glimpse of Butler’s voice. What is clear throughout the collection of interviews is how, as Francis reminds us in the preface to the book, Butler resisted labels and upended expectations. Although some of her readers may have wanted Butler to write a protest novel because she was Black, and others desired female-driven utopias because she was a woman, the only expectations the author ever gave into were her own.
Meeting Octavia E. Butler with the Help of Others
The pandemic didn’t just inform my desire to read Butler, it shaped how I could further my research of her. During this period, many archives, libraries, and other research institutions temporarily closed down, strategizing about how and when to safely reopen. As difficult as this period proved for researchers and avid booklovers alike, the shutdown of institutions prompted new courses of scholarship and study, communication and conversations. Ingenuity and innovation replaced frustration and anxiety as scholars developed creative workarounds. For instance, when I could not directly access Butler’s papers at the Huntington Library, I went in search of and reached out to those who knew her work most intimately.
One of the first people I turned to was Natalie Russell. Formerly a library assistant and now the assistant curator of literary collections at the Huntington Library, Russell was tasked in 2008 with cataloguing Butler’s files. The catch? Russell’s introduction to this author occurred at the very moment the Huntington Library assigned her to this project. Russell reflects on the experience of arranging Butler’s manuscripts and miscellany very movingly in “Meeting Octavia E. Butler in Her Papers.”3 In my conversation with Russell, she reiterated, as she does in her article, a personal connection—a friendship—that developed with the author as she learned about her life through her writings. Although Russell is not featured as one of the tributes for Public Books, our conversation certainly inspired the tributes that do follow and also suggested to me all the ways that Butler was inherently an autodidact who went in search of writing workshops to sharpen her literary skills and to libraries to seek out an assortment of books, including dictionaries and encyclopedias that she used to generate ideas for her stories.
I learned from Russell that although the Huntington Library was not yet open to the public, they had begun to experiment with virtual archival visits. Shortly after our conversation, I scheduled an appointment to look at a working draft of a thesaurus entitled Fire, Laughter, Emerald, Rain: A Thesaurus of First Names—a reference tool that organized first names by themes instead of strictly alphabetically—which Butler worked on sporadically since 1998 but never completed.4
I came to know Butler the way we all should know her: in the company of others.
Having previously conducted archival visits to both the Ralph Ellison Papers at the Library of Congress and the Toni Morrison Papers at Princeton University, I was familiar with the process to a point: identify and request research material, take appropriate notations and documentation, gently return files to folders, and begin again. But what I describe here, of course, hardly captures the allure and excitement of actually exploring literary archives: finding the unexpected, requesting references that you did not know about or plan to see, or devoting hours to reading across a wide range of ephemera not necessarily for research but rather for fun.
What distinguished my visit to the Huntington Library from my previous archival visits was that my encounter with the texts was not mediated by me alone but rather by a skilled and patient reader services assistant, Morex Arai. Every document I wanted to see had been pre-pulled by Arai. Every word or marginalia I struggled to read, Arai helped to decipher. The decisions on what to reach for next were sometimes made in part with the help of Arai. An archival experience that is usually solitary became fueled by necessary collaboration; a visit that is often very quiet was rich with conversation.
Through several virtual visits to the Huntington Library and conversations with Russell, I came to know Butler perhaps the way she would have wanted me to know her, the way we all should know her: in the company of others.
Meeting Octavia E. Butler on Her 75th Birthday—The Contributors
Whether you are new to Butler or a seasoned devotee, we all could benefit from (re)acquainting ourselves with her words. To that end, I asked three writers, scholars, and creative intellectuals intimately familiar with Butler’s work to reflect on her life as it relates to theirs. Regardless of what form they chose to compose their pieces in, be it interviews or reflective essays, each confirms that Butler’s influence is inescapable, her brilliance ever-instructive.
Lynell George is a journalist and essayist based in Los Angeles committed to telling the city’s story one sentence at a time. She has a long career in LA journalism as a staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, focusing on topics such as social issues, human behavior, visual arts, music, and literature. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso, 1992), a collection of features and essays drawn from her reporting; After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Angel City Press, 2018); and A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky (Angel City Press, 2020), a Hugo Award finalist that traces the California-born Octavia E. Butler’s formation through an assemblage of objects from her personal archive. George won a 2017 Grammy for her liner notes for Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings and is a 2020 recipient of a distinguished journalist award from the Society of Professional Journalists/Los Angeles.
Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the Department of English at Marquette University, specializing in 20th- and 21st-century literature. An editor at Extrapolation and Science Fiction Film and Television, he has also co-edited Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2014), The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and The Cambridge History of Science Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2018). His first monograph, Octavia E. Butler, appeared in 2016 in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series at University of Illinois Press.
Ayana Jamieson is an educator, mythologist, and depth psychologist. She is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, a global community founded in 2011, committed to highlighting Octavia Butler’s life and work while creating new works inspired by Butler’s legacy. Ayana’s essay “Far Beyond the Stars” contains methods for curating your own archive and appears in the Black Futures anthology edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (One World, 2021). Her writing also appears in Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge, 2016), Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction (MIT Press, forthcoming), and elsewhere. She teaches ethnic studies courses at California State University Polytechnic, Pomona, and is a faculty member at the Salomé Institute of Jungian Studies.
My Neighbor Octavia
Read these pieces together or read them individually. Read them once or read them often. Read them by yourself or in the company of others. But, whatever the case, do read them. A writer, a dreamer, a student, a pragmatist—Butler was all of these things but none of them without first being a voracious reader, a lover of literature and language. As she said herself, we must “read every day and learn from what you read.” To that end, order the copy of Survivor from eBay like Gerry Canavan did. Seek out Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky. Read “The Book of Martha” with Ayana Jamieson at the helm. Immerse yourself in the words and worlds of Butler. Soon you will have your own story about how you came to Butler, if you do not have one already. If that’s not an occasion for celebration, I don’t know what is.
Happy Birthday, Octavia E. Butler. Here’s to another 75 years and much, much more.
This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe and supported with funds from the Barnard Digital Humanities Center at Barnard College.
- “Interview with Octavia Butler,” in Conversations with Octavia Butler, edited by Conseula Francis (University of Mississippi Press, 2010), p. 50. ↩
- Octavia Butler, “Furor Scribendi,” in Bloodchild and Other Stories (Seven Stories Press, 1995), p. 141. ↩
- Natalie Russell, “Meeting Octavia E. Butler in Her Papers,” Women’s Studies, vol. 48, no. 1 (2019). ↩
- Sasha Ann Panaram
Bloom’sButler’s Taxonomy, The Black Scholar, 52:2, pp. 38-49 (2022). ↩