As a speculative fiction author, Octavia Butler broke new grounds in the genre, going beyond the patriarchal Eurocentric and white supremacist framework of a lot of early speculative fiction. In her novels, she explored underrepresented topics like the continuing impact of American slavery and racism on black bodies and minds and larger society, and the seeds of late capitalism leading to dystopia. She also gave us stories from the perspective of black people, specifically black women (herself being a black woman writer), something that was rare in these genres.
Last Sunday, I attended Brooklyn Book Festival and the panel, “The Legacy of Octavia Butler,” featuring author Ytasha Womack (Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy), author Daniel Jose Older (Shadowshaper), artist John Jennings (Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation) and author Ben Winters (Underground Airlines). Each panelist talked about the mega influence of Butler on their work and what was possible to write about and focus on in speculative fiction. Like me, all the panelists wished they found out about her work earlier because her work validated them and the truths of our histories and realities in ways other novels in the same genre did not. As Jennings expressed, Butler’s skill was destabilizing the stereotypes and categories that we place on ourselves and others; she was centered on exploring the liminal spaces and identities. Butler herself didn’t fit the stereotypes of a typical black woman — she was reclusive and reserved, and she was willing to go into and engage with spaces that others did not dare.
She wrote with the purpose of showing the full range of humanity, including black humanity — our strength and vulnerability, an often unsafe space in a hyper-masculine world; our ability to survive, be resilient and find hope in the face of trauma and learning how to navigate through that trauma and circumstances of utter destruction; our comfort with hierarchy and wanting to be on top of that hierarchy and in relation to that power dynamics, including sexual power dynamics.
Two ideas that the panelists brought up summed up Butler’s work: the connection between the ethno-gothic and futuristic hope. I was reminded of the phrase “fantasy in the hold,” mentioned by scholars Frank B Wilderson and Nathaniel Mackey. Jennings described Butler’s works like Kindred , a kind of sci-fi horror story, as a form of ethno-gothic, or grim fantasy as Butler called it. It highlights the existential connection to the past and maps a system to deal with the system and design of slavery and its trauma. The racialized body, which can be labelled as a kind of “hold,” becomes a portal or vehicle to another space. The horror and haunting of racialized reality and of the past become larger than life, monstrous as they incorporate the surreal, the supernatural and the paranormal. But the flip side of it is that fantastic, futuristic hope, which is part of many Afro-diasporic religions and spiritualities. In the similar vein of the haunting of something else, it is the ghost of the future or of alternate possibility of reality. That north star of hope and possibility that fantasy can gives us.
Ytasha mentioned how Afrofuturism presents that kind of hope and connection to our humanity through these narratives. Afrofuturism is a continuation of many Afro-diasporic religions, including West African syncretic Christianity, Vodou, Santeria, Candomble and others that involve magical and spiritual possession rituals. As a paramedic, Daniel Jose Older found that hope was in the power to act and that active engagement cleanses you despite the outcome. That ability to embody ecstatic empowerment, that agency of spirit. His book, Shadowshaper, which features a secret society who practice shadowshaping magic, infusing magic and spirits in art, I see as part of the continuum of Butler’s works like Parable of the Sower (Earthseed religion), fighting oppression, racism, and sexism with self and community empowerment through spirituality and futuristic hope since spirituality is at the intersections of identity, power, history and culture. Butler showed us that our connection to the supernatural, paranormal and the parahuman can frighten and disorient us, but also allow us to investigate our experiences of who we were, are or can be, and give us hope of other possibilities when our current reality is too much to bear.
Why is Octavia Butler important to you? Comment below!
Below is a lecture from Nathan Alexander Moore on the Ethnogothic: