Today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Octavia Butler. She had this to say about writing,
Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.
If only we were all so capable of simple wisdom. I did not read Octavia Butler when I was growing up and discovering science fiction and fantasy. I came to reading her a little later, when I had some experience with the genre, when I thought I understood it.
She taught me new things. Butler’s writing is powerful, straightforward, and seemingly unsubtle. She does not play games with her readers, she doesn’t obfuscate what she wants to convey. Her writing trusts the reader to apply their own cognitive powers. At the same time, she is careful that her reader remains oriented in the time and space of her words and won’t get lost because of careless details or forgotten words.
I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things.
When you read Butler’s writing, it feels like this quote is painfully true. She doesn’t shy away from the dark parts. She doesn’t pretend that humans are utopian creatures destined to succeed. Quite the opposite, in fact. But she never lets herself, or the reader, give in to that darkness completely. There is always a reason to strive, and always a good even in the bad things. It is this combination of plain-spoken awareness of the human condition, and a hopefulness that we would always try even in the face of the worst of ourselves, that fascinates and pulls. Reading the Xenogenesis trilogy recently, I was drawn again into her ability to fully realize powerfully drawn characters with sparse description and no waste in words. Butler says what she needs to say and moves on to the next thing. But she takes you with her, never leaves you behind.
There are few writers, in my own experience, who do as much with as little as Butler can. She jumps through time, introduces alien species, starts in the middle of the story, and creates incredibly complex relationships. And she does it all effortlessly, so that you follow and return and never feel alone in the story. She often wrote that persistence and habit were greater than inspiration as a writer. She worked mindless jobs that gave her the mental space to write and create while sustaining her person. This comes through in her writing, this drive and persistence, this will to create.
“Who am I? I am a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I am also comfortably asocial—a hermit…. A pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
She writes of being a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist… and her novels certainly touch on those topics. Identity is inescapable in her work. As a white male who grew up in the United States, I see the struggles she identifies, but I don’t know them. But she brings her reader into those struggles in an intimate way, always teaching in the best way possible, by letting the reader draw their own conclusions in a sea of possibility. As a writer, she still embodies “show, don’t tell.” It’s certainly sad that she did not live to be an eighty-year-old writer. I would have delighted to read her words now, to hear what she might say to us in the political climate we live in today.
Science fiction and fantasy are struggling with issues of inclusion and diversity. Octavia Butler won all the accolades. She was a paragon of great writing who was respected by her peers and lauded in public with the many awards that speculative fiction has to offer. This is not to downplay the struggles of any other writer but rather to celebrate that great writing which is rewarded from whomever it originates. I like to think – without pretending to know her mind – that Butler would not appreciate the culture we have created in our “geek” communities at present. She was never fond of hierarchies or “peck-order bullying.”
Her focus on the ways that humans change – and can be changed by outsiders – coupled with a respect for the survivor, are windows opened often in speculative fiction but rarely with the honesty that she brings to these stories. I’ve been struggling throughout writing this to find the word that would sum up her writing for me. Honest is the best tribute I can give. Her work is painfully, poignantly honest.
I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.
We should all aspire to what Octavia Butler has to teach us. Perseverance, the power of habit, honesty about who we are and how we got there. Her voice is sadly missed for what she might have still had to say to us. This piece certainly does not do justice to all that I could say about the gift her writing gives to me. But on this, the tenth anniversary of her death, it was the very least I could do to remember.