"The only lasting truth is change" The Public Perception of Octavia E. Butler
by Makella Ama
“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.”
It has been 44 years since Octavia Butler published her first-ever novel. 44 years since she changed what it meant to be a writer and more significantly, a Black writer navigating the realms of dystopian futures in literary novels.
Although Butler's work has previously been critically acclaimed - from being the first science fiction author awarded the MacArthur Grant to being inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, until two weeks ago (September 2020), Butler had never figured on the New York Times (NYT) Bestseller list.
Unlike certain other best-seller lists which highlight factors such as reviews and collective general sales, the NYT list only reflects the number of books sold at certain bookstores and online retailers in the United States during a given week, and is thus not an objective measure of whether a book necessarily ‘sold the best’. Despite it being mathematically subjective and heavily biased by editorial evaluations, being featured on the list is still highly coveted by many authors because of its commercial influence within the literary world. Being deemed a ‘bestseller’ by the NYT carries timeless acclaim and holds an enormous weight in the types of recommendations made to readers (and non-readers) in bookstores.
Octavia Butler’s genius has been so poignant that she has even had a mountain on the planet Pluto named after her by the International Astronomical Union; a gesture which arguably acts as a testimonial to how the novels she created were truly out of this world. Despite all this, Butlers’ acclaim on the NYT Bestseller list only occurred posthumously after her passing in 2006 and this begs the question - why has it taken so long?
In a short essay titled “Why I Write Science Fiction”, Octavia Butler describes how she began writing at the age of 12 after watching the film ‘Devil Girl From Mars’ and realising that not only could she write a better story than what she had observed but that, in her own words, “anyone can write a better story than that”. This realisation acted as a catalyst for Butler recognizing that she can write herself into her stories and although her novels are not autobiographical, they all crucially intertwine the troubling topographies of discrimination, race, class, and gender disparity. These were all issues that Butler experienced herself as a Black woman born to a working-class family during segregation. And yet these same issues seem to be present now, 73 years after Octavia Butler was born in 1947.
Why aren’t there more Science Fiction Black writers? There aren’t because there aren’t. What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.
—Octavia E. Butler, in Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories.
Butler has been honest about the micro-aggressions and outright racism she has constantly had to experience, and in an interview episode of Charlie Rose, in 2000, she describes how she was once told by an editor that “it wasn’t really necessary to have Black characters in science fiction because you could always make any racial statements you needed to make by way of extra-terrestrials”. As a Black writer myself, there are a lot of nuances in this statement that hurt to acknowledge. What is it about Black bodies being written into stories that seems to be a disposable second-hand thought? Why do people believe that the existence, the survival, the ability to live as a Black person is so wild to imagine that the only thing we can be compared is that of an extra-terrestrial? Many science fiction features preface white male heroes traveling to far distant lands going to save people. [*Cue here, overdone, homogenous white saviour complex*]. For Butler, writing science fiction was a chance to create worlds that did not succumb to this trope. The reality of dystopian novels is that after critical exploration, it is easy to see that the lives lived by protagonists set in dystopian worlds are really not so far removed from the same realities experienced by many minorities.
It is for this same reason that Octavia Butler did not like being pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer and described herself as simply “a writer”. After all, is science fiction really ‘fiction’ if it reflects social phenomena that occur in modern-day society? Butler was first published almost half a century ago with the book Patternmaster; the last in a chronology about a society which has been divided by plague and power. However, Butlers real career breakthrough occurred in 1979, after the publication of Kindred. This novel followed the story of Dana, a writer who finds herself transported through time only to realise that in order for her to exist, she must make a difficult decision regarding her ancestors who were slave traders in 19th century Maryland. Kindred explored themes such as power dynamics, trauma, and race as a social construct and the novel is still commonly used as a core text in many (largely American) high school/college courses today. It is important to note that there was a 13-year gap after Butlers’ first ever publication before she was considered a best-seller by publication houses such as Beacon Press, which, in 2004, advertised Kindred as a “classic by a visionary author,” after it had sold over 450,000 copies. Arguably, Butler was already a visionary when Kindred was written, 25 years before Beacon Press made their statement, however much like the NYT Bestsellers List, it took a commercial body to acknowledge this fact before Octavia Butler was recognised on a more global scale.
Some may perceive Butler to be a niche writer, which, as she stated in the same interview with Charlie Rose, may have to do with the fact that, whilst “being considered a science fiction writer gives [her] the freedom to write about many themes, it is confining in the sense that people think science fiction is about Star Wars, and you have to be about 14 to enjoy it, and if you’re any older than 14 then you should be reading literature… whatever that is”. This suggests that Butler was aware of the fact that her books were only being advertised to a particular literary audience that did not fall into the ‘mainstream’ category, and this may be one of the reasons why it took 14 years after Octavia Butler’s passing before she was acclaimed on a list by the New York Times. Arguably, Butler’s impact has transcended the science fiction literary world, and she has been crowned “The Mother of Afro Futurism” (a movement in film, literature and art that explores the intersection between the African diaspora with technology). Butler’s works have also been referenced by the likes of Janelle Monae (in Antebellum, 2020), Ava Duvernay and Nnedi Okorafor to name a few, which provides further evidence to her importance and ripples of significance in and out of best-selling lists.
I personally didn’t know of Butler until last year when I realised that I could not identify even five, let alone ten books that had been written by a Black author. This realisation came as a shock to me because in my (just over) 2+ decades of existence, it was never something I had really questioned. That’s how accustomed I had become to reading about white characters in white spaces and in white places. The only Black author ever explored in my secondary school was Malorie Blackman, and even then, this was after I had discovered her in my own time. Actively having to read or even find novels (whether they are fiction or non-fiction) by authors who are Black or authors who are POC should not feel like work. But unfortunately, much like most things concerning the acknowledgment of anyone who isn’t white, extra work is required. I would like there to be a day where novels by all Diasporas are easily accessible to students and books lovers alike. Whether this is in libraries or online or in bookshops. Feeling seen in fiction, a place that so many people venture to in order to escape the often-stifling realities of life, should not be hard. If fiction is all about capitalising the importance of imagination when creating new worlds, why is it so hard to imagine the existence of Black people and People of Colour in these narratives? This is what Octavia Butler did for me and so many others like me and this inclusion is a testimonial to being *seen*; an often-overlooked privilege that so many minorities do not get to experience. For me, this very sentiment was most prominent when I read the words “there is no end to what a living world will demand of you” in Parable of The Sower - the first in a two book series which features Lauren Oya Olamina, a woman who fights to make her voice heard in a world where chaos and violence rules and only the rich and powerful are safe.
Perhaps, there has been a shift in the accessibility of Butler’s books because of their stark similarities to the states of our current societies, which makes for thoughtful literary comparisons in nuanced essays and discourses. This might not be enough to explain this boom in sales, however, as it has been noticed that people have tended to buy less dystopian fiction during the pandemic, turning instead to escapism Perhaps, the recent BLM protests have acted as a reminder of the importance of inclusion as a forethought, rather than an afterthought for the purpose of quotas and databases. This surge in interest towards inclusivity is also evident in the plethora of <Anti-Racist Reading Lists> that are now available during the wake of the BLM movement; for example, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is also mentioned in WBUR’s (NPR News Station) “Reading List On Race For Allies Who Want To Do Better” (2020). Although this shift of recognising Black authors, to a certain extent, suggests a sense of solidarity towards Black communities, it’s easy to wonder whether this process is merely a temporary form of tokenism or whether this new accessibility is a phenomenon that will be more long-lasting. Arguably, perhaps a further reason why Butler has only entered the NYT best-sellers list now is because literary bodies are only remembering now that ‘wider audiences’ constitutes many minorities that may not be reflected in the board rooms of institutions such as The New York Times, and a good book isn’t only a good book if it centres whiteness.
Octavia Butler was a phenomenal writer and created dystopian worlds that surprisingly (unsurprisingly) still reflect many issues still evident in the world today. Yes, although being recognised on the NYT Best Sellers list was never something Octavia Butler needed, it was arguably something she deserved a very long time ago.
I, for one, shall indeed be continuing with my belief that subjective editorial decisions made by gatekeepers such as the New York Times should always be questioned with a critical eye, but nonetheless, it’s nice to see Octavia Butler finally acknowledged. As commonly stated within Black African American Vernacular English (AAVE) colloquial, to a large extent… “it’s pleasing me and my homegirls”, and that alone, is enough.