Recently I received a copy of Octavia Butler’s Kindred graphic novel, which was adapted by Damien Duffy and John Jennings. Reading the story in graphic novel form gave me a chance to see aspects of the book that I didn’t pay as much attention to as before. One was the mechanism by which Dana traveled back in time. On her second trip back to the past, Rufus mentions to Dana that he had seen her in the water right before she came traveled back to the past to rescue him. Rufus tells Dana that he saw her with his eyes closed and that he had stepped into a “hole” in the river where he saw her in a room full of books. He also heard both Dana and Kevin before the second time Dana came back. Rufus, although problematic, has inklings of visionary insight, but does he because of his connection to his future legacy in Dana (Rufus only has black descendants as he only had children with Alice) or because he was at the edge of imagining a different society but the slaveholding, racist, sexist, generally oppressive society around him impeded that?
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.
*The Sci-fi anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction From Social Justice Movements, will be released in Spring 2015 by AK Press! The anthology includes short stories from LeVar Burton, Terry Bisson, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Alixa Garcia, Autumn Brown, Bao Phi, David Walker, Dani McClain, Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Gabriel Teodros, Jelani Wilson, Kalamu ya Salaam, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Mia Mingus, Morrigan Phillips, Tara Betts, Tunde Oluniran, Vagabond, adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as an introduction by Sheree Renee Thomas.
*Kickstarter fundraiser for Latino/a Rising , an anthology featuring U.S.-based Latino/a science fiction work.
*Fundraiser for “Kindred: School-Wide Summer Reading” class project (Ms. Durkin‘s Books project at Coppin Academy 432 in Baltimore, MD): Help every student in the class receive a copy of Octavia Butler’s book!
*Afropunk’s “FEATURE: Visual Artist Melanie “Coco” McCoy Unravels The Mystery of Sankofa & Afrofuturism:” “When you scroll through Black Twitter or Tumblr you see a lot of young, Black radicals talking about protesting the injustices against our communities and wanting to change the mainstreams ideas pressed on us. However, how many of those “activists” do you really see out in the streets making that wanted change? Visual artist and writer Melanie “Coco” McCoy is regularly amongst the mobs of protesters on and off the computer screen. She stands for Black liberation, feminism/womanism, Black history, spirituality, Afrofuturism, Black female sexuality, and Afrocentric ideals. Many of these resonate in Coco’s paintings. She uses the ideas she studies at Temple University as a African American Studies major and incorporates them into much of her work. Much of her work is based on Sankofa. Sankofa is an Akan word (originating in Ghana) meaning, ‘to go back and fetch it.’ Coco believes deeply in that saying (that we’ve all heard time and time again) ‘you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’re coming from.’”
*Atlanta Blackstar’s Blerd’s “Black Speculative Tech – Uses of Technology in Black Science Fiction, Part 1:” Rasheedah Phillips (The Afrofuturist Affair) is looking for other examples as well.
Imagine seeing the journey of the Black Atlantic through the memories of a centuries-old vampiric human. A DC IT specialist working at an HIV organization Justin Kena is privileged with this information when he falls for one named Dante. As he falls in love, he learns of the ancient indigenous Yoruba group, the Razadi, who are vampiric and witnesses to pre-, during, and post-slavery times in Rashid Darden‘s Birth of a Dark Nation.
Birth of a Dark Nation flips the script on traditional vampire tales from its shifting narration to its inclusion of slave narration and cultural rituals to non-Western views of the vampire to it as a same-gender loving story that confronts those who say it is a recent Western phenomenon. Darden’s previous work, Lazarus, Covenant, and Epiphany has centered on black LGBT experiences, and now he has taken that and extended it to black speculative fiction.
The story begins with a Razadi receiving orders from an elder to watch over Justin because he is considered the “key,” similar to Neo in the Matrix or any messiah-like character. Later, we are introduced to Dante, a street hustler, who Justin randomly notices and to whom he has an instant attraction. When Dante finally reveals who he is to Justin, Justin begins his transformation from the computer guy at a dead-end job to part of the Razadi family and leader in his community.
Here’s the third recap from The Shadows Took Shape exhibition. Today, I am sharing the notes and questions (some thoughts came after the club) from the book club for Octavia Butler’s Kindred with moderators Rasheedah Phillips of The Afrofuturist Affair and artist John Jennings.
First, notes from Rasheedah’s presentation, Time, Memory and Agency
*The mechanics of the the machine: Who is controlling the time machine: Rufus, Dana or some outside third party? Is it an another ancestor or the books? Does Dana have a choice in going back; does she need to save Rufus, her ancestor? Who is more reliant on who to survive? How does the fear of death connect to a want of freedom as a kind of control button for returning from another time? How does Alice’s death figure into the conversation of death and agency?
*The grandfather paradox works on a sense of linear time, but Kindred seems to subvert the idea. Is it creating alternative realities or futures? Is it based on another construction of time, like Foucault’s “heterotopia of time“? How does African diasporic views of time, which tend to be cyclical and terms like sankofa, sasha, and zamani, fir into the discussion of Kindred? How is the book a dialogue between the and and future, recreating the present? Dana seems to influence the past in some ways and the past influences her relationship with Kevin. How does this apply to how we construct memory, whether cultural, personal, ancestral, or universal. How does Dana and Kevin remember memories from both the 20th century and the 19th century?
*How does the book make us rethink family and ancestry? We are told to honor the ancestors, but not all of our ancestors are honorable. How do we accept all of the people who came together to make us, no matter how painful? Would we save a character like Rufus, even at our own possible non-existence? What does the book reveal about moral relativity, and the complex web of family and slavery? Would we want to go back and change the past? Do we need it to survive as we are or would we want to create another future?
In Octavia Butler’s time-traveling fantasy Kindred, the novel begins with the main character, Dana, losing her arm. Even without the ending, that is an unusual way to begin a story. Similarly, Tiphanie Yanique‘s mythic/mystical/religious storytelling in her short story collection How to Escape from a Leper Colony, includes in the title story, a character named Deepa who has leprosy in her arm and is danger of being cut off. Other stories in her book feature crumbling bridges that attempt to connect Caribbean islands and the people on it turning into birds, two symbols of transcendence. The main theme of Yanique’s collection is that of traveling and love (she opens it with the prayer of Saint Raphael, the saint of lover and travelers: “Lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us.”).
If I had read both of these earlier last year, I probably would not have seen the connection, but after having read Nathaniel Mackey’s and Wilson Harris’ work on phantom limb and limbo, their works make much more sense. The stories in both books represent a dismembering of and an attempt at re-membering for the characters. Time travel, memory (think of pegasus and the hippocampus), stories, love and even to an extent religion symbolize our efforts to reconnect with something we have loss or feel is missing. The phantom limb is essentially the brain remembering the physical limb despite it not being there; the same for memory in general of trying to hold onto a physical person, event or thing.