My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first read Octavia Butler in the late 90’s when I was writing my graduate school thesis. I had embarked on a rather exhaustive study of feminist science fiction and dystopia (yes, my degree is worthless…. moving on now), and for the better part of six months, I immersed myself in writers like Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ, Suzy McGee Charnas, CJ Cherryh, Ursula LeGuin, Sherri Tepper, Marge Piercy, and of course the wonderful Octavia Butler. Twenty years ago, most of these writers were pretty niche and not at all mainstream, and there were definitely a few old-timey professors in my department who thought I should spend my time reading the established canon. Not that I didn’t respect and read the established canon–I definitely did (and still do). But I argued that meaningful and revolutionary writing was happening outside the established texts and we would be remiss to overlook those works. Well apparently things have changed. Now if you check out UCLA’s reading list for African-American literature, Kindred is there, and while it’s not yet required reading along side modern greats like Toni Morison and Alice Walker, Butler’s great book has at least made the list of “for further reading.” And that is awesome because I can’t think of another novel (aside from Beloved) that so expertly communicates the absolute horrors of slavery from from a women’s point of view. The slave narrative is one of the main genres of American literature and Butler uses that genre and melds it with another American staple–science fiction–to brutal and far-reaching effect.
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman living in California with her white husband Kevin. For reasons that Butler never explains, she is pulled from the present and dropped into the past, into antebellum Maryland. All we know is that extreme nausea precedes these episodes and that extreme fear sends her back home. The first time she’s pulled through time, she sees a boy drowning in a lake. She rushes in and saves him only to be attacked by his mother. She appears back in California just as suddenly. We learn as the novel progresses and Dana makes more trips to the past that the boy she saved, Rufus, will grow up to be the owner of a plantation. To complicate matters further, he is also her ancestor. Her grandmother three times removed is a slave on this very plantation, and in order to secure her own existence she is being pulled through time to not only keep him alive but to facilitate her great, great, great grandmother’s rape.
And this is why science fiction and fantasy are so important. What other genre could tell this story? Butler is making some truly hard arguments here about memory and history, about what slaves had to do to survive, and about how history has often derided and overlooked the unique stories of women who were often doubly burdened by forced labor and forced sex that turned them into breeders. It’s very easy for modern people to judge the past, to judge those that lived through it and had to do and endure horrible injustices in order to survive. Butler said that one of her inspirations for writing this was a conversation that she had with a guy who expressed such anger at what he perceived was the older generation of African-Americans holding the movement back: “I’d like to kill all these old people […] but I can’t because I’d have to start with my own parents.” Butler noted how he wasn’t able to acknowledge the sacrifices his parents had to make to give him a better life and how this conversation was the impetus for Kindred (Yaszek 1057).
But it’s not just the past that Kindred focuses on. Butler also explores how race still informs so much of our identities and interactions. In the present (which in this book is 1976) both Dana and Kevin’s parents ostracize them for their interracial marriage; obviously, not everyone has gotten past race. And when Kevin is pulled with her on one of her trips to the past, he has to pretend to be her owner in order for them to share a room. Butler also makes a point of describing Rufus and Kevin similarly: their eyes are the same, and sometimes their expressions are the same. Even though Kevin is horrified by the indignities that the woman he loves suffers, he is still able to remain somewhat removed from everything, and his skin color guarantees that his experience in the past will afford him safety and privilege.
The fact this book is now standard fare in African-American and women’s lit courses across the country is testament to how far sci fi and speculative fiction have come. I would now argue that this book should be included in American literature survey courses and that anyone who has an interest in literature that truly gets at the heart of the American experience should put it on their list.