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February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler died on Saturday.

As a reader, you get many, many authors who dazzle and challenge you, who turn you on, who piss you off, or make you think, or reveal to you what a book can be. But if you're a writer, you only get one author who turns you out. It's not mystical; it's a function of timing. At that moment when your metaphorical pen is poised, and the world is about to come into focus for you and begin emitting stories, there will be one author who shows up, smiles at you, and opens the gates.

My friend Russell turned me on to Octavia Butler in early 2001. I had been working in the Asian American arts community for a couple of years and I guess he thought it would behoove me to get another view of what an "ethnic" literature could be. I bought "Parable of the Sower". Two days later I went to the bookstore and bought every other book of hers I could find on the shelves. It took six months of searching local new and used bookstores, but I devoured her entire body of work (except her disowned novel "Survivor", of which there are now three used copies available on Amazon, for $50 - 85.)

Since I first read her, the surface upon which my knowledge and cultural understanding float has been disturbed. The books I read were debris floating across my consciousness: some, like icebergs, with more bottom. Octavia Butler dropped an anvil out of the sky and it did not float. See, everything I had read before her had been a trigger to that fugue state in which archetypes lived and had tea. Octavia didn't truck with fugue states. She reached a broad hand inside and dragged those fairy/robot/hybrid motherfuckers out into the cold light. They dropped straight down through my fears for the future, my bitter, narrow-browed suspicions about the present. They collected on the sea floor, a junkyard, an indication of where the weight is.

For six months, it was raining anvils. When I was done, I sat down and wrote my first science fiction story. It was melodramatic, overblown, clichéd, presumptuous, smug, silly, and pulpy. But it was good. It had one toe on the ground.

See, we can't write an ethnic, a hybrid, a violent, a displacement, a scary story directly. There are too many Thanksgiving tales, and immigrant stories, and freedom stories. There are too many food stories, and wise grandparents, and mafiosi. There's too much rising up, and falling into degradation. There are too many ruts of structure for us to fall into that channel us away from the story we started trying to tell. Too many well-worn channels that pervert our stories into something comforting, confirming, conservative. You cannot write the story you are writing. Octavia's time-travelers and aliens and demons and vampires are not symbols for us, or representatives. They are us, with the bullshit pared away. Her fabulism is the most direct speech.

I only really met her once (and she was kind and gentle and very, very smart, and she invited me and my friend into her house, and gave us books and a little of her company.) But she was my mentor, my model and my muse. She made writers real to me, she made writing real to me. She performed a duty for me that all apprentice writers have to have performed for them: the opener of floodgates. She was mine, I only get one, and she's gone.

It kills me that she lived such a lonely life -- such a solitary one -- in which the difference to other people between "lonely" and "solitary" is perhaps dignity and perhaps product, but the difference to yourself is essentially nil. It's nothing like pity or sympathy; it kills me because my novel I'm working on -- at once the most, and least worthwhile thing I've ever spent time on -- points ahead to a selfish, internal, solitary life, with no promise of any rewards beyond those of merely being able to write. There's no promise that I'll have any of her power, any of that iron weight to balance out the self-absorption and distance my life is shaping up to be. How did she do it? Was it all compromise? Was it worth it to her? And who will hold down the ground now?


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This brought tears to my eyes, Claire. Thanks for writing such a beautiful piece about her and you and, for various values of "us", us.

well spoken, claire. thank you.

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