Butler was the first major African-American female speculative fiction writer, and her pioneering, extraordinary work, which included novels, novellas, books of short stories, and essays, redrew the genre through the lens of a Black-centered, politically conscious feminism, in the process opening up new imaginative and discursive spaces within speculative and science fiction, in African-American and African-Diasporic cultural production, and in the larger American literary and cultural fields. Indeed, Octavia Butler found original and very accessible (to a broad readership) ways of treating many of the central and pressing concerns of contemporary society. These include the sociopolitical inequalities of racism and ethnocentrism, misogyny and gender concerns, class discrimination and poverty, as well as issues surrounding community and collectivity, sexualities, history and memory, and so many other themes, locating them, with her consummate artistry, within the speculative literary frame. Her work is, at its core, deeply humane and, I don't think she would deny this, utopian in the best sense. Amidst the complex difficulties that she often portrayed, which are so true to our lives, you could find her faith in our basic and utter humanity and in the possibility of social justice offered readers.
Here's what I wrote on the Cave Canem list this evening, when I learned of her passing:
This is devastating news. Thanks to [poet, professor and literary activist] Q[uraysh Ali Lansana] and everyone else at Chicago State University who made the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference possible this past fall, I had the opportunity to hear her chat about her writing with Sandra Govan, read from her newest novel, and talk about her life and work. Gregory Hampton of Howard [University] gave a brilliant paper on her work. What the experience underlined for me once again was how important and vital her work was and is, and how deeply she connected with people across multiple boundaries. Very sad news--I can see her at the long table in that large atrium at Chicago State and hear her, laughing, patiently answering questions, and sharing her brilliance with everyone who was there. She will always be one of my s/hero/in/es.
At that same conference, I offered some brief and informal remarks, focusing on locations and dislocation,s on Butler's work. Here's a short selection:
In Octavia Butler's works, one of the first things a reader notices, and one of the things that's so exhilarating, is that she finds characters who are, and who situate themselves--whose identities and identifications--are different from the standard norms of science and speculative fiction, fantasy and futurist works. In fact, Octavia Butler is one of the progenitors of what is an increasingly large body of work, that includes her own, written by Black people, Black women in the US across the diaspora, that writes Black people into works in these literary genres.For the last few years, I have used at least one of her stories in my introductory fiction class, and though I have written nothing that could be called speculative fiction, except in the very broadest sense, I consider her work to be very important to my evolving understanding of the possibilities of creative writing and of art and artistic practice in general. Her superb vampire novel Fledgling, which she published last fall (and spoke about at Chicago State University), is one I highly recommend.
Her characters, her heroines, usually are women, and usually are Black, or of color. But Butler often complicates this. She doesn’t allow or afford them an "easy place to be," to use that phrase. She engages a poetics of struggle--Kobena Mercer has spoken of Diasporic writing, Black writing, as a "struggle in language"--and when you look at Octavia Butler's various series, her plots, her characters and their narrative journeys, this struggle comes through.
I would say then that one of the locations in Butler's work is this "struggle," which is to say, one of the key places in her work is a place of movement, not stasis, a movement of survival and resistance, of empowerment and self-empowerment, of negotiation.
Writer Tayari Jones posts a series of links to other blogs and websites that remember and memorialize Butler in very personal ways.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, her hometown paper, has prepared a fine obituary.
From my post on her work last October--how remarkably prescient she was, as always:
Choose your leadersLet us read her work, listen and learn. Gods and Goddesses Bless Her!
with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward
is to be controlled
by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool
is to be led
by the opportunists
who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
is to offer up
your most precious treasures
to be stolen.
To be led by a liar
is to ask
to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant
is to sell yourself
and those you love
--Octavia Butler, an excerpt "From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING,"
in The Parable of the Talents (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998),