Octavia Butler passed away 11 years ago today at the age of only 58, leaving behind a body of work whose influence cannot be exaggerated. Butler was a Black, female genre writer at a time when science fiction was still seen by many as the territory of white men. Her writing centered on women of color in a way few narratives then did, and posited that empathy could be humanity's saving grace. As today's environmental and human rights crises make painfully clear, Butler's work is only going to become more relevant and necessary as time goes on. Let's take a look back at the life of one of the most important sci-fi writers ever.
She was raised by women
Butler was born in Pasadena, California, in 1947. As a child, her nickname was Junior, or "Junie," possibly because her mother's name was also Octavia. Her father Laurice James Butler passed away when she was seven, so Octavia was raised primarily by her mother and her maternal grandmother in a Baptist household.
Kindred was inspired by the time a very young Butler spent with her mother at work
Kindred follows Dana, a writer who travels back in time to the antebellum South and meets her ancestors, a white plantation owner and a Black slave. The novel argues for the courageousness of people existing under unimaginable circumstances, as Dana makes compromises in order to survive slavery. Butler's own mother was a housemaid, and many of Butler's earliest memories were of the degradations her mother endured at work. She told In Motion that witnessing the racism her mother put up with in order to bring Butler a better life helped inspire much of Kindred's message:
"I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, "I'll never do what you do, what you do is terrible." And she just got this sad look on her face and didn't say anything. I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves, but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further."
A terrible sci-fi movie helped launch her career
At 12, Butler saw Devil Girl from Mars (1954) on TV, a movie about a Martian woman sent to Earth to capture human males and replenish her own planet's dwindling male population. Butler knew she could write better sci-fi, and would later say the movie inspired her first forays into fiction:
“It’s impossible to begin to talk about myself and the media without going back to how I wound up writing science fiction, and that is by watching a terrible movie. The movie was called Devil Girl from Mars, and I saw it when I was about 12 years old, and it changed my life ... As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations. The first was that ‘Geez, I can write a better story than that.’ And then I thought, ‘Gee, anybody can write a better story than that.’ And my third thought was the clincher: ‘Somebody got paid for writing that awful story.’ So I was off and writing, and a year later I was busy submitting terrible pieces of fiction to innocent magazines.”
She was bullied
In high school, Butler had then-undiagnosed dyslexia that made school difficult for her, and stood out from her peers due in part to her height—by age 15, she was six feet tall. She sought refuge by spending her free time at the Pasadena Public Library, reading and writing in a big pink notebook.
In an essay for NPR, Butler recounted her personal experiences with bullying:
"Because I was an only child I was comfortable with adults, but shy and awkward with other kids. I was quiet, bookish, and in spite of my size, hopeless at sports. In short, I was different. And even in the earliest grades, I got pounded for it. I learned that five- and-six-year-old kids have already figured out how to be intolerant.
"Granted, I speak from my own experience, but it's a familiar experience to anyone who remembers the schoolyard. Of course, not everyone has been a bully or the victim of bullies, but everyone has seen bullying, and seeing it, has responded to it by joining in or objecting, by laughing or keeping silent, by feeling disgusted or feeling interested ...
"Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other 'isms' that cause so much suffering in the world."
A classmate's comment motivated her to write Kindred
After graduating high school in 1965, Butler attended Pasadena City College. When she heard a male classmate at PCC criticize previous Black generations for 'subservience' to whites, she was motivated to begin work on Kindred. Based in part off the racism she saw her own mother face as a maid, Butler wanted to encourage empathy for people who endured the unimaginable: "They were fighting, they just weren't fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that's most admired until you have to live with the results." She told Publishers Weekly, "I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure."
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She was friends with author Samuel R. Delany
In 1970, at the age of 23, Butler attended the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop at the urging of writer Harlan Ellison. There, she became lifelong friends with sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany. Following her death, The Washington Post said that when Delany first met Butler she was "incredibly shy, a student who spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent."
She supported herself by working as a potato chip inspector
After graduation, Butler, always an early riser, woke up at 2 a.m. every day to write, and then went to work as a telemarketer, potato chip inspector, and dishwasher, among other things. Despite a grueling work/writing schedule, she barely made ends meet. As she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I), "life for me was not wonderful starting out as a writer."
Butler's experiences in her day jobs later inspired one of the short stories in her Hugo and Locus Award-winning anthology Bloodchild. In an interview, Butler explained that "Crossover," about a factory worker whose ex-boyfriend meets her after her shift one night, was inspired by a former co-worker of hers: "I was watching a woman who was clearly going crazy, and there was nothing anybody could do. She had to work at this horrible, boring job, and when she went home, she had to take care of her ailing mother. That was her life. I’m not sure very many people could have held on."
Many of the jobs Dana works in Kindred before traveling back in time were also based on jobs Butler herself once held.
She was given a $5,000 advance for Kindred
After countless rejections and unwelcome suggestions from publishers that she change the novel into a historical romance, Butler was given a $5,000 advance for Kindred. She later told the Seattle P-I, "I was living on my writing, and you could live on $5,000 back then. You could live, but not well. I got along by buying food I didn't really like but was nourishing: beans, potatoes. A 10-pound sack of potatoes lasts a long time."
This advance marked one of the first times in her life that Butler could support herself solely based off writing. Previously, even after the release of her first three novels—Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, and Survivor—she had always held at least a part-time job in addition to her writing.
She was a world traveler
Butler traveled throughout the U.S. and the globe, often as research for her writing. She took her first ever vacation in 1976, after Kindred was published, and traveled across the country for a month via Greyhound, visiting New York, Seattle, the Grand Canyon, and many national parks for the first time. In the '80s, she traveled to the Amazon and the Andes as part of research for her Xenogenesis trilogy, which explores the relationship between the alien Oankali race and the surviving humans following a nuclear war. As part of that trip, she climbed Huayna Picchu mountain in Peru, an experience that she described as a metaphor for writing:
"It's an easy climb for anyone who is okay, you know. I mean, even if you're not in very good shape. But I managed to hurt my knee hiking. I kept saying, this is high enough, this is high enough, why don't I go back down? I got all the way to the top, crawled through the little cave and got to the top of the mountain and came back down. That's what I mean. It's a good metaphor for writing, because there will always come a time in writing a novel for instance, a long undertaking like that, when you don't think you can do it. Or, you think it's so bad you want to throw it away. I tell the students that there comes a time when you want to either burn it or flush it. But if you keep going, you know, that's what makes you a writer instead of an 'I wish I was a writer.'"
She was the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur Genius Grant
In 1995, Butler won a coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (often called the MacArthur Genius Grant). Butler told the Seattle P-I, "People may call these 'genius grants, but nobody made me take an IQ test before I got mine. I knew I'm no genius."
She avoided reading critical theory about her work
In 1996, Butler told De Pauw University's Stephen W. Potts that she tried not to read critical theory about her work's intersection with race and gender politics, saying "I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don't worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It's just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It's not very good for storytelling."
She did, however, read reviews of her work. One review in particular that stood out to her was of Parable of the Sower, the first book in her two-book Parable series. Parable of the Sower is set in 2024, and chronicles the evolution of Earthseed, a religion that worships the concept of change. Butler told Potts, "I'm not too upset when they [reviewers] are factually wrong about some incident, which can happen to anybody, but I am when they are inaccurate about something sweeping. For example, somebody writing a review of Parable of the Sower said, "Oh, the Earthseed religion is just warmed over Christianity," and I thought this person could not have been troubled to read the Earthseed verses and just drew that conclusion from the title."
When she moved to Seattle, she brought 300 boxes of books with her
After her mother's death, Butler relocated to Lake Forest Park, Washington in 1999. She brought with her 300 boxes of books, part of a collection begun in childhood. In Motion Magazine quotes her as saying, "My big problem is my mother gave me this gene—there must be a gene for it, or several perhaps. It's the pack rat gene, you know, where you just don't throw things out. I haven't thrown books out since I was a kid. I gave some books away when I was a little girl. My mother said I could give some to the Salvation Army. I gave some to a friend, and her brothers and sisters tore them bits. That was the last time I gave books away in large amounts. I just keep stuff. I still have books from childhood [...] It comforts me. I imagine when I'm dead someone will have a huge yard sale or estate sale and I don't care!"
Butler never drove
Due to her dyslexia, Butler was what the Seattle P-I described as "a confirmed non-driver." She was known to start up conversations with her fellow bus riders. Neighbor Terry Morgan said that after he gave Butler a ride once, "she took me into her house and autographed a copy of one of her books. That was a great 'thank you,' especially since I am an African American and we felt a common bond. But it was also obvious to me that writing was her life."
She was a fan of Fantastic Four comics and the Sookie Stackhouse novels
The massive book collection Butler brought to Lake Forest with her was truly eclectic. Butler told In Motion, "I have first editions of this and that, the first issue of the Fantastic Four. I used to collect them, not in the way that people collect things now. I didn't put them in plastic bags and never touch them. I read them and they looked pretty bad, some of them."
In the paper Reflections on Octavia E. Butler, Butler's Clarion West classmate Vonda McIntyre writes that, as Butler struggled with health issues and writer's block in the early 2000s, she "decided to read some lighter fiction instead of beating herself up all day every day about writing." Butler was reportedly a fan of Charlaine Harris's The Southern Vampire Mystery Series (also known as the Sookie Stackhouse novels), an urban fantasy series featuring a telepathic waitress from Louisiana.
A little over a year before she died, Butler published her own vampire novel, Fledgling, which follows Shori, the only dark-skinned member of the vampiric Ina race.
She was incredibly determined
Butler passed away suddenly outside her home on February 24, 2006, from a fatal fall that may have been the result of a stroke. After Butler's death, California's Huntington Library received her papers, including one notebook from 1988 with a page inside detailing her goals. In it, she determines that her books will reach bestseller lists ("whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I win another award or not") and ends with a list of dreams she planned to manifest:
"I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood
"I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer's workshops
"I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons
"I will help poor black youngsters go to college
"I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself
"I will hire a car whenever I want or need to
"I will travel whenever and whenever in the world that I choose.
"So be it! See to it!"
Butler's former teacher, Daniel Peña, wrote in Ploughshares that the list is representative of the struggle for financial security faced by many writers of color: "Having taught Butler before, and knowing what I know about her early struggles as a writer, I found myself equal parts impressed and depressed by that photograph, which burns with all the passion, love, and ambition for her own writing, but also the baggage that comes along with fighting—one weed at a time—through the woods that are 'the business of writing.' A business which, for many years, wanted no part of what Octavia Butler had to offer and which—had it confronted a lesser spirit—might have squashed her altogether."
After her death, Butler's desire to help aspiring writers of color attend the Clarion Writers' Workshop came true. The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually, and enables writers of color to attend the workshop that inspired her so much. More information on how to apply can be found here.
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Featured photo: Getty Images; Samuel R. Delany photo via Houari B. / Flickr (CC)