Octavia E. Butler: Who was the black science fiction writer who overcame prejudice and poverty?

Visionary author ignored aunt's advice that 'Negroes can't be writers' to pursue her passion

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 22 June 2018 19:05
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Octavia E. Butler explains why she first started writing science fiction: 'I can write a better story than that'

Today marks what would have been the 71st birthday of American science fiction novelist Octavia E Butler (1947-2006).

The author of Bloodchild (1984), the Xenogenesis trilogy (1984-89) and the Parable books (1993-98), Butler is the subject of today’s Google Doodle.

“I began writing about power because I had so little”, she is quoted as saying in Carolyn Davidson’s study The Science Fiction of Octavia Butler, reflecting on her place as one of America’s few black writers in the genre.

Born in Pasadena, California, on 22 June 1947, Octavia Estelle Spencer was the daughter of a housemaid and a shoeshiner, raised in a racially-integrated community by her mother and maternal grandmother, a strict Baptist, following her father Laurice’s early death.

A prodigious reader of science fiction magazines from an early age, at 12 Butler saw the hokey British B-movie Devil Girl from Mars (1954) on television and felt confident she could write a better story herself, begging her mother to buy her a Remington typewriter.

“Honey, Negroes can’t be writers”, an aunt told her, hoping to spare her feelings from the disappointment of inevitable rejection. Fortunately, Octavia ignored this advice and enlisted the help of her science teacher at John Muir High School to type up her first manuscript and submit it for publication.

Butler graduated from Pasadena City College in 1968 with an Associate of Arts degree, with a speciality in History.

Working as a secretary to make ends meet, she continued to write – imitating the white male writers she had read in her youth for the want of black and female role models – and enrolled at California State University in Los Angeles between 1969 and 1971 to study creative writing. Her first story to be published was “Crossover” in the year of her graduation.

It was at the Screenwriters’ Guild of America’s Open Door Workshop that her prose caught the eye of novelist Harlan Ellison, who encouraged her to attend the six-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania and acquired her story “Child Finder” for inclusion in an anthology.

Butler worked on the three novels that would comprise her Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) before publishing Kindred (1979), a time travel novel addressing slavery that was inspired by an encounter years earlier with Black Power activists in high school but which left publishers bemused.

Her name really became known when she won Hugo awards for her post-apocalyptic short story “Speech Sounds” in 1984 and the novel Bloodchild in 1985.

A holiday to South America inspired the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989).

In the 1990s, this extraordinarily prolific writer received the $295,000 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant and completed Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) with plans for four more novels in the sequence before abandoning it in frustration, her writer’s block exacerbated by depression, itself partly brought on as a side-effect of medication to control her high blood pressure.

Her final book was the vampire novel Fledgling in 2005, the same year in which she was inducted into Chicago State University’s International Black Writers Hall of Fame.

Octavia E Butler died aged just 58 in Lake Forest Park, Washington, apparently having suffered a stroke and hit her head on the pavement outside of her home.

On the impact of race on the genre she loved, Butler’s thoughts were sobering: “Why aren’t there more SF Black writers? There aren’t because there aren’t. What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.”

Film director Ava DuVernay is currently working on a TV adaptation of Butler’s dystopian novel Dawn (1987), promising to introduce her to a whole new generation of fans.

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