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March 16, 2006

Elegies to Octavia (Continually Updated)

I've been collecting these since she died. The visceral experiences caused by reading her books are amazing. Please post any writing on Octavia in the comments, or send them to me and I'll update the post itself with a quote.

I am sad beyond words. Stunned. One of our most perceptive and talented, brave writers has crossed over, but what a gift she has left us. Such a fine and broad body of work for us to remember and explore. I've learned so much about myself simply from entering her words on the page ... Octavia's impact on my life is personal, deep, and I have heard the same from so many other readers who felt that their lives had literally changed after experiencing her work ... There is so much I could say, but I would just invite you all to revisit her work and pass it on to a new friend, pass it on to a growing reader. --Sheree Renée Thomas

I remember when someone mentioned to me that Samuel R. Delany, the author of the award-winning novel Dahlgren, happened to be black. I was as stunned as a young, African-American, science-fiction-loving geek could be. All my close friends were big into science fiction, and not all of us were such pootbutts that outside of a library we spent our time cowering from gangbangers, though that was often the case. Science fiction explained our weird-ass dysfunctional lives better than any social realism, but I don't think any of us thought we should or could write science fiction about our lives ... So when I first heard of Octavia Butler, it was like hearing about a black hockey player. -- Jervey Tervalon

Summer 1995, was a wild summer because it ended a chapter of my life thanks to a tropical storm and two hurricanes passing through, the last one trashing the boat I lived aboard and forcing my family to move to Ohio ... that night I lay huddled up in a sleeping bag and a flashlight reading "Wild Seed" as the Hurricane battered the house we stayed in, and I made it all the way to the eye of the hurricane having not paid a single bit of attention to what was going on on the other side of a brick wall several inches away from me. -- Tobias Buckell

At the time in the workshop, I was writing a story about an Efik woman in Nigeria who learned to fly. The story was set in the 1920's. This character was mean, selfish, promiscuous, strong willed and quite frankly, she disturbed me. When I read Wild Seed, I practically cried. There, in the book's pages, living in a remote Nigerian village long ago was Anyanwu, complex, Nigerian and mythical. It was after reading that book that I went through my own "transition" and started to call myself a writer of science fiction and fantasy. -- Nnedimma Okorafor Mbachu

I sensed a deep loneliness in Octavia, but also humor, vast intelligence, and a level of investment in her craft that was simply phenomenal ... What does it take to be a writer of such depth and courage?  I say, the capacity to dig into your own wounds, to fold yourself, concentrate yourself so purely into the work that your own life is eclipsed in comparison.  To live in the penumbra of your own work.  There are costs to this ...  -- Steven Barnes

"People really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you," she once said. But her work went far beyond simply mourning the victim. She showed us why repulsion cannot be avoided, why we often resemble what we hate, and why it is sometimes our best qualities that prevent us from accepting the differences of others. Her ability to both understand the outsider perspective better than others and then to invert it, places Butler above her science-fiction-writing peers. She is a disturbing and important writer... -- Tyler Cowen

I haven't read any of her books, but yet, I find myself sitting in front of the computer almost in tears...I thought I had time! I thought I had time to get to know her style, form a critique, maybe see her at a speech and then maybe walk up to her, pages in shaky hand, mouth dry, and ask her to look over my stuff ... it's just not fair, goddamn it, each new generation of radical women of color writers must learn the lessons, fight the fights, write our souls, without the mentorship of the very people that inspired us and gave us strength to write in the first place. -- brownfemipower at Women Of Color blog

My clearest memory of her is from a BayCon in the 1980s in San Jose. I had recently read C. S. Friedman's In Conquest Born, and thought it a mildly enjoyable first novel. Butler came by the table where I was selling books and said, in her distinctively beautiful gravelly voice, "That's the most racist book I ever read."
"Really?" I said. "Why?" (After all, everyone in it was white.)
"Because," she said, "the whole culture is built on valuing people by how they look."
*zap* *pow* *right to the heart of things*. -- Laurie Toby Edison & Debbie Notkin

I don't think many in the field ever realized how transformative she was ... Whenever people run that line about the period "before cyberpunk" being fallow and tame, I shake my head and realize how much farther we have to go. When Butler wrote about the effects of misused power on individuals, she blew those boys out of the water on every single page. She could be truly scary, in a way that splendidly illuminated this truly scary world. -- Scott Westerfeld

There was nowhere she wasn't willing to take you. She had a particular fascination with relationships of dominance and submission, master and slave, predator and prey. Though she always positioned herself on the side of the victims, she frequently focused on complicity, portraying such interactions as complicated and intimate. One cannot be eaten or raped without being touched. There was sometimes a narcotized pleasure built in on one side of the relationship or both. -- Karen Joy Fowler

I can't describe the look on her face but I know it well. Every woman I have loved and admired is capable of that look: the one that says "that's not good enough" and "I know you can do better," in a single glance. The perfect balance of disappointment and optimism that makes you understand it's only *you* selling yourself short. Then she said it out loud so I knew she REALLY meant it. "That's too bad," she said. "I'd like to see what else you can do." Sometimes I wonder why those words didn't crush me. Of course they were never intended to: she hit my "challenge" button with a vengeance. -- Eddie at "The Write Grrrl" blog

I’m sure most of us know the statistics of her career — the awards she won for her novels and stories, the fact that she was the only science fiction writer to win a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genuis grant.” But she was so much more than that. She often said that a lot of her work wasn’t science fiction. “You could call it ‘save-the-world fiction,’ but it clearly doesn’t save anything,” she said. “It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done, and obviously the people who are running this country don’t care.” -- Leslie Howle (and check out this link for other remembrances of Octavia.)

She was wickedly funny in a dry way that you could miss if you weren't paying attention. She was unfailingly courteous and kind. I think Brad Denton (2nd week) found us a little wild at times, Nalo (3rd week) found us almost sufficiently wild, and Connie Willis (4th week) would holler at us, in her fifth-grade-teacher voice, to "Settle Down!" -- but we didn't pull anything with Octavia, I can tell you. Not because we imagined that she would chide us (she wouldn't have) nor because we thought she might be wounded (ha! like we could wound her!), but because her dignity filled the room. You had the sense of what a crime it was to waste this life, to waste whatever God had given you. -- Benjamin Rosenbaum  (and check out this link for other remembrances of Octavia.)

Blessed with an I.Q., grades and S.A.T. scores good enough to get me into any college in the country, but unable to solve three-dimensional emotional issues with a one-dimensional 17-year-old mind, I found myself in a dark corner, in a basement, on a dingy yellow couch waiting to conduct what I’ll refer to now as a “business deal”.  ... As I sat there looking around the room and waiting, I noticed a small paperback book on a wobbly wooden table in the corner.  The cover had been ripped off and the pages were tattered and worn.  I started reading and before I knew it, I had followed Dana Franklin back into the early 1800’s – the book was Kindred and the author was Octavia Butler.  And there in that moment, I found a greater purpose – and what was, for me, a higher calling. -- D. Lee Hatchett

(And here again is my own blog entry about her.)


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The loss of her keen intellect and fine writing was a crushing blow. I was a fan and hoped to enjoy new fiction from her for years to come.


My introduction to Octavia's work was in 1994, when a friend recommended "Parable of the Sower." The vision of the near future that she presents in this book is frighteningly plausible, and we saw hints of it in the chaos and lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Lauren Olamina remains one of the most unforgettable literary characters I've ever known. Her wisdom and strength in the face of incredible obstacles and her vision for a better world were a tremendous inspiration. That is legacy of Octavia Butler: her work transcends gender, race and literary genre to teach valuable lessons about the potential of humanity. Rest in peace, sister Octavia. I know you're in a better place: the place you wrote about.

thank you, darkdaughta.

david, thanks for your post. that is definitely something that separates octavia's writing from others'. everyone wants to present wise, good, righteous, balanced protagonists and/or heroes. but octavia was specific about what made her heroines such, and showed us how these qualities interacted with events, where their limitations were. her characters are *real*, she doesn't have to try to convince us with language that they are what she says they are. they're role models.

this comment was removed because it offered a personal attack to someone quoted in the above post

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