When she died in 2006, black female science fiction pioneer Octavia E. Butler left behind more than a dozen books and devastated admirers worldwide. Many of us thought about her on her recent June 22nd birthday.
But her work lives on. From book club meetings, to college classrooms, I have been thrilled to see more readers organizing to embrace the work of Octavia Butler, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (also known as the “genius grant”) in 1995.
Coming soon: Butler’s Kindred as graphic novel, and more
Next year, a graphic adaptation of Butler’s seminal 1979 time-travel novel Kindred will be published by Abrams ComicArts. In Kindred, a contemporary black woman is whisked between slavery-era Maryland (in the early 1800s) and modern-day Los Angeles. Kindred is in film development, as the option to make the book into a movie was exercised this year, according to a knowledgeable source — which means a movie may also be on the horizon at last.
Also, according to the black cinema website Shadow and Act, director Ernest Dickerson is shopping a film version of Butler’s 1984 plague novel Clay’s Ark.
New York-based director and producer M. Asli Dukan, whose documentary Invisible Universe: a History of Blackness in Speculative Fiction, says she has met readers from all over the world who love Butler’s work.
“They could see themselves in her narratives, and it made these science fiction worlds that Octavia created — which were often perceptive observations of history and astute speculations of a world that could be — even more relevant to them,” says Dukan, who is currently raising funds for post-production.
The inspirational scope of Butler’s work
Butler’s novels and short story collection, Bloodchild, span in topic from time travel to space travel, telepathy, plague, aliens and even vampires — in her last novel, Fledgling, a vampire’s melanin protects her from sunlight.
In Parable of the Sower, her teen protagonist creates a religion in a post-apocalyptic world, embodied in the words: “All that you touch / You Change / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth Is Change. / God / Is Change.”
“I think [her work] speaks to people because we sense the truth of it — ‘everything we touch, we change, everything we change, changes us,’” says Detroit writer and scholar Adrienne Maree Brown, who discovered Butler as a teenager. Brown is a Kresge Literary Arts Fellow focused on science fiction and social justice. “And for women and people of color reading her work, we want to see ourselves living and leading in the future.”
Academics keep Butler’s legacy alive
Like many others, I gobbled up Octavia Butler’s work when I first discovered her while I was writing my second novel, My Soul to Keep. I met her soon after, when I was invited to appear with her on a 1997 black speculative fiction panel at Clark Atlanta University. Another panelist was award-winning novelist and television writer Steven Barnes, who knew Octavia for 20 years.
“She was the purest writer I have ever known,” says Barnes, now my husband, who often gave Butler rides when they were neighbors in Los Angeles, because she didn’t drive. “We need our heroes.”
In March, I hosted an Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts at Spelman College in Atlanta, where her friends, readers and colleagues — including Steve, and authors Samuel R. Delany and Nalo Hopkinson — remembered her and her work.
Dr. Tarshia Stanley, president of the Octavia E. Butler Literary Society that launched in May (and chair of Spelman’s English department), says she believes Butler’s work must be preserved. “It’s very important that we specifically work to see that everything stays in print,” she says, and “that this academic generation doesn’t grow up not knowing who Octaiva Butler was.” (For more information on joining the Octavia E. Butler Literary Society, write Dr. Stanley at TStanley@spelman.edu.)
Social media and Butler’s memory
Social media has also emerged as a powerful tool for uniting Butler’s readers. Brown has helped create the Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategy book club network on Facebook to encourage a political reading of her work, as well as the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network on Tumblr. She also has launched an Indiegogo campaign to co-edit the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Butler also has an official website, www.octaviabutler.org, and a fan-driven site, www.octaviabutler.net.
And in July, Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl are publishing a book of Butler essays and reminiscences, Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (Aqueduct Press). Shawl is also cofounder of the Carl Brandon Society, which administers an Octavia E. Butler scholarship to the Clarion writing workshops for writers of science fiction and fantasy, where Butler got her start.
Thanks to her readers, I predict that her work is here to stay.
A note to Butler’s new fans
If you’re new to Octavia E. Butler, remember: her novels are not meant to be comfortable. Her words flow easily, but her landscapes are often violent and unpredictable.
When I first began reading Parable of the Sower, the near-future scenario was so plausible and overwhelming that I could only read a few pages at a time.
But I could not stop. In time, like Butler’s characters, I found new strength.
I learned. I grew.
Follow Tananarive Due on Facebook and on Twitter @TananariveDue. Tananarive Due is the Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta. She has won an American Book Award and NAACP Image Award. She and her husband, Steven Barnes, are raising funds to complete a short horror film based on their novel ‘Devil’s Wake’: learn more at www.dangerword.com.