By Riziki Millanzi
In 1995, Octavia E Butler became the first Science-Fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially nicknamed in America the ‘Genius Grant’. During her life, she won not only one or two, but multiple Hugo and Nebula awards.
Butler’s writing has paved the way for Black women writers. From Nnedi Okorafor who was told to ‘stay away from all that weird stuff’ to Candice Carty-Williams who has always had to deal with the everyday assumptions of who she is and what she stands for, Butler’s writing and legacy shows us that Black women are very much capable of writing about everything and anything that they want.
“People have the right to call themselves whatever they like. That doesn’t bother me. It’s other people doing the calling that bothers me.”
Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred was the first of her books that I encountered and still even today holds a special place both in my heart and on my bookshelf. In Kindred, Butler takes the well-trodden ‘slave narrative’ genre and turns it into something fresh, unique and undeniably ground-breaking. She was not the first to write a neo-slave narrative, it’s true. But nobody else before her had thought to combine it with the untold possibilities of time travel. Furthermore, Kindred places a strong-willed, powerful and free Black woman in the Antebellum South of the USA and dares to ask: what if?
‘What if?’ is the question that is ultimately on every Science-Fiction and Fantasy writer’s mind. What if we could change how this works? What if we could do that? What if we just removed this or simply added that? In her work, Butler dares to ask ‘What if?’ in new and exciting ways that had never been asked by a writer before her, let alone a Black Female writer. In the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Butler asks ‘What if a Black Woman became one of the leaders of our world? In Fledgling: ‘What if a different species was to treat us how our society treats Black Women?’ And in Patternmaster: ‘‘What if issues of race and gender became even more blurred and convoluted?’
By asking these questions, she paved the way for the many women that would come after her, from across the world, to push the limits, test the boundaries and to work up the courage to ask ‘What if?’ too.
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
The world of Science-Fiction and Fantasy always has been a White-Male dominated space and continues to be so even today. The Black Speculative Fiction Report found that in 2017, only 4.3% of published Speculative fiction was written by Black authors, and men still continue to dominate the genre overall. Octavia Butler showed the world that Female writers of Speculative fiction were not to be ignored, that they had stories to be told and that they are just as valid or powerful as writers of traditional fiction, poetry or prose.
Because of Octavia Butler, women writers such as Naomi Alderman are able to ask ‘What if women had the power?’. Black African-futurist writers such as Nnedi Okorafor can ask ‘What if we explored how the apocalypse would come about in Africa rather than America or Europe?’. Because of Octavia Butler, I can be inspired by strong Female characters in comics and films such as Black Panther, I can get excited about a Fantasy series set in Africa like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and get to witness the reclaiming of a genre which is almost perfectly suited to exploring the intricacies and issues of the Female experience.
“Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas.”
There has always been a battle of high and low culture within society, with Speculative fiction almost always falling under ‘low culture’, labelled as crass or straight up considered ‘wrong’. When reading the works of Octavia Butler, I am faced with books that I can’t consider as anything other than right.
Pushing boundaries is hard and getting people to reconsider their biases and open up to new possibilities is even harder. Critics, readers and teachers alike find it hard to categorise Kindred, or even Butler herself. Her work is Feminist, it’s enlightening, it’s provocative, it’s truthful, it’s an examination of the human condition, it’s an exploration of race, it’s a championing of all things Female, it’s Science Fiction, it’s Avant Garde, it’s African-American Literature, It’s universal and most importantly, it’s timeless. That’s why this Black Women’s History Month, I’m celebrating Octavia E. Butler.