Photo from Pip R. Lagenta

Octavia Butler, My Shero

In a writing workshop, I was introduced to Octavia Butler, an amazing and prolific writer of the sci-fi genre. I began my dance with her in the short story book titled “Blood Child”.

My favorite part of each story was the Afterword, where she wrote her thoughts and motivations about the story. I felt as though I were getting a glimpse into her private thoughts.

I’ve read this book multiple times, from front to back and then a few stories more than once. I’ve dreamt about more than one story and have found myself fashioning my own sci-fi story in the way of Octavia.

I’ve been thinking about the reason that Octavia Butler has become my muse and mulled over my love of her writing. A few things are clear to me.

  1. Her story telling ability transports me into the story as a voyeur.
  2. She pushes boundaries which challenge my thinking.
  3. I’m immediately thrust into the story with few questions about what is happening.

I loved all the stories very much, but the three that keep calling me are: The Evening and the Morning and the Night, Speech Sounds and The Book of Martha. These three have scribbled notes along the margins and underlined phrases. I’ll share my musings and thoughts about this amazing writer and I hope you will consider reading her work. She has been a breath of fresh air for me as a female sci-fi writer.

The Evening and the Morning and the Night

This story was about a disease that came about if an adult took a drug that cured cancer and a baby was conceived after treatment. The baby had a disease called DGD. I won’t go into more than that, so you can read about it yourself. But, I will share some of my favorite lines in the story.

“People who don’t eat in public, who drink nothing more interesting than water, who smoke nothing at all — people like that are suspicious.”

In this one sentence she encapsulates so much about those with the disease. They must have to take great pains to attempt to blend in or else be seen as disease ridden. And apparently, society doesn’t treat those with DGD nicely. At this point you don’t quite know how they are treated, but there is a sense that it’s pretty bad.

“Healthy people say no one can concentrate like a DGD. Healthy people have all the time in the world for stupid generalizations and short attention spans.”

I loved this! We see more of the struggle of a person with DGD and their disgust with the “healthy person”. It feels like the person with DGD sees a healthy person as lazy and ineffective.

In the afterword she states that this story “grew out of my ongoing fascinations with biology, medicine and personal responsibility.” And she focused in on “how much of what do is encouraged, discouraged or otherwise guided by what we are genetically.” Then, she built a disease to explore this question. How beautiful is that? Building a disease to test a theory in story. I love her for this gift.

Speech Sounds

This was a sort of love story. Well, not so much a love story as a survival story with love in it. Because, after all, how can you survive without love. The world had gone toward the “Wild Wild West” where outlaws and bandits ran things, but there was a quirk. Some could communicate verbally and others could not. Some could write and read, others could not.

The story begins, quite innocently with the sentence “There was trouble aboard the Washington Boulevard bus.” which was exactly what happened to Ms. Butler, as she mentions in the afterword, trouble on a bus.

The first paragraph of this story enticed me to keep reading.

“She had put off going out until loneliness and hopelessness drove her out.”

I can just imagine this woman, at her wits end, really wanting to see someone, anyone that she knew. Before she killed herself. As we continue in this same paragraph, I learn that Pasadena is “twenty miles away” and a “day’s journey one way.” Was she walking? Was there a lot traffic on the roads? So many thoughts danced inside my head. Then, I read on, and learn that the buses run but irregularly. She was lucky when a bus did appear, but then the trouble began.

In one simple paragraph she set a scene that was vividly playing in my head. I was propelled to keep reading. In my head, I could imagine this woman on a bus with many strangers. A bus clearly run by someone or something that was not predictable or reliable.

Later in the store, she falls in love with a man who could read (she could not), watches him be murdered and then she goes on to save two children from certain death.

This short amazing story keeps me riveted each time I read it. But what really brought tears to my eyes was the afterword and her own experience on a bus which she weaves into this short story. I wrote, at the bottom of the afterword:

“This story and afterword bring tears to my eyes. It reminds me of our bus experience and the experience of race.”

Book of Martha

I’ve read and re-read this one at least a dozen times. It reveals something new to me each time I read this story. I won’t share any of my favorite lines because, well, I’d likely type the entire story. I’ll just share her afterword with you, as it captures the essence of the story beautifully:

“The Book of Martha is my utopia story. I don’t like most utopia stories because I don’t believe them for a moment. It seems inevitable that my utopia story would be someone else’s hell. So, of course, I have God demand of poor Martha that she come up with a utopia that would work. And where else could it work but in everyone’s private, individual dreams?

I am in love with Octavia Butler. I strive to learn from her, emulate her and honor her work through my own writing.

I’ve gone on to savor two other books she has written, Kindred and the Parable of the Sower. Both amaze and delight my senses and tickle me to continue to write.

Wherever you are in the ether Ms. Butler, thank you for your words, talent and for sticking with the craft of writing.

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