Octavia E. Butler and the Liberation of the Margins

By Ibtisam Ahmed

As any scholar of utopianism can attest, it is not uncommon to come across texts that are not widely celebrated in the mainstream. Our work focuses on understanding hope, often from the margins, and the radical idealism of the genre does not automatically translate to market success. Nonetheless, it is still baffling to think that, until September 2020, Octavia E. Butler had never appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list. But, if there was ever a time for the record to correct itself, it is fitting that it should happen in such a tumultuous year.

My first experience of Butler was reading The Parable of the Sower in an undergraduate module at university. I was studying History and Politics, and, unlike most of my cohort, I was fascinated at how arts, literature and culture interacted with and represented social issues. Growing up in Bangladesh, I was raised on a rich local literary tradition of dissent against oppression, so the module – an elective in my final year – was a perfect fit.

Even within such an exciting and unusual curriculum, Butler’s work stood out. Her embodiment of utopianism felt more tangible, even as the worlds she created were fantastical and vibrant. At its heart, utopia engages in how we dream about hope. It considers the many ways in which humanity imagines alternatives to the ills that plague the world. Dystopia, a sub-genre, considers what happens when these dreams may be undone by injustice and inequality – how the trajectories of our current predicaments may lead to nightmares in the future.

Butler straddles both worlds, considering the dystopias we can fall prey to while also shining a light on the utopias that can fix them. She writes her characters experiencing comfort and freedom in fits and starts, avoiding the temptation to neatly resolve structural issues in one fell swoop. Revolution, when it happens, is messy but, ultimately, all the more transformative because of the struggle to achieve it. Joy in and of itself becomes a radical experience. After all, what is more defiant in an unjust world than being happy?

This promise of hope is tempered by the chilling knowledge of the inequities that Butler undermines. Every dystopian writer engages with real-world horrors in their work. They inevitably draw on the horrors of our collective memory, even if the worlds they build lay claim to a notion of originality. What set Butler apart for me the first time I read her, and what continues to put her in a different league, is how she completely rejects the very idea of being original when it comes to representing oppression. Instead, she consciously embeds history into her world-building.

The Parable duology may be set in a distant science-fictional future, but its dangers of greed and fundamentalist dogma are clearly built on the deep foundations of religious and class struggle. Meanwhile, its exploration of climate change is truly terrifying because of how plausible it is. Her short story “Bloodchild” deals with intergalactic space travel, but it is very clearly connected to humanity’s sins of colonialism and eugenics. The Patternist series traces identity, gender, race, and the ethics of power through the ages. And Kindred is arguably the most explicitly historical, using time travel to go back to a southern plantation.

When arguing for the value of utopian and dystopian scholarship, a common refrain is to suggest that these stories tell us something about our future and the dangers therein. Butler takes a step further because her futures are clearly informed by our past. Where other popular dystopias like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451 and The Hunger Games series create chilling renditions of the surveillance state, censorship and unfettered capitalism as theoretical, worst-case scenarios, Butler reminds us that dystopias have always existed for communities in the margins.

As an immigrant of colour studying in a majority white institution, and in a disproportionately white course, it was that truth that pulled me into a lifelong admiration for Butler and her work. Dystopias in the English language are not only guilty of leaving out characters of colour, they are inherently incomplete because they erase the historical contexts and traumas of human progress.

To draw a specific comparison to another dystopia written by a woman that has become a significant part of the current socio-political zeitgeist – the theocratic autocracy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a nausea-inducing world that feels worryingly prescient in the current Western climate. Yet, critics and scholars of colour, especially Black women, have pointed out that Gilead’s horrors are nothing new for people who have dealt with dehumanisation at the hands of enslavement and colonialism.

Whether a white writer can truly empathise with and write characters or cultures of colour is a complicated discussion, but that does not mean they cannot be critiqued for reframing our traumas as brand-new experiences. (To her credit, Atwood has acknowledged this failure in her subsequent writing and politics.) Butler, a Black woman who grew up as a child of working-class parents in the segregated USA, understood struggle and generational trauma in a deeply personal way. Thus, her dystopian imaginings make no claims to being far-fetched or even purely fictional. She understands that marginalised communities have always been oppressed and their resilience deserves to be highlighted.

That is also why Butler’s utopias feel more liberating. Earthseed, the emancipatory belief system in the Parable series, builds on real-world foundations of grassroots activism and allows for a centring of faith. This is important to understand – Black American liberation was strongly tied to religion, with both churches and mosques acting as spaces of communal healing and organising. To suggest a form of future freedom that would disconnect from these histories would then be a disservice to not only the characters but also the readers who look for hope in these texts.

A similar understanding of empathy and agency in the face of suffering is at the heart of Butler’s examinations of our hopes and imaginations. Kindred’s narrative reminds us that surviving against terrible odds is never as purely heroic as we may like to imagine, but that any compassionate action in the face of unspeakable evil is a triumph. The Patternist series simultaneously cautions against the overreach of power and empowers the vulnerable as the true means of achieving a better tomorrow. And while “Bloodchild” ultimately has an ambiguous ending, it is unequivocal in arguing that humans are not beyond redemption.

Ultimately, Butler’s legacy needs to be honoured beyond simply popularising her work – though, I hasten to add, that is a necessary first step. The power of her prose lies in how the way she describes human suffering never shies away from calling out the real misdeeds of our past – while also uplifting the power of the marginalised, the oppressed, and the vulnerable as the means towards salvation. It is unsurprising to know that her politics and her writing inspired the collection Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (edited by adrienne marie brown, Walidah Imarisha and Sheree Renee Thomas), an anthology of twenty stories that use fiction to argue for justice.

Which brings me back to reflecting on the timeliness of Butler’s renewed success in such a challenging year. 2020 is not just a woefully unlucky year, it is the culmination of world systems failing. Climate change, capitalism, institutional racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, police brutality, ableism and eugenics have gone unchallenged for far too long, and the responses of such varied movements as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, environmentalism, anti-occupation protests, queer solidarity, disability justice, and working class empowerment show us that we stand ready to finally listen to those most affected by inequity. There can be no better teacher of that lesson than Octavia E. Butler.

i. Angelica Jade Bastién, ‘In Its First Season, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Greatest Failing Is How It Handles Race’, Vulture, 2017. <https://www.vulture.com/2017/06/the-handmaids-tale-greatest-failing-is-how-it-handles-race.html> [Accessed 28 September 2020.

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.