Sunday, 1 June 2008

June writer: Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was born and raised in Pasadena, California. Her father was a shoeshiner who died when she was a baby and her mother worked as a maid in order to support the family. According to the shy daydreamer who was later diagnosed as dyslexic: "I was writing my own little stories and when I was 12, I was watching a bad science fiction movie called Devil Girl from Mars and decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try, and I've been writing science fiction ever since."

She described herself as "comfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of Seattle [where she moved in 1999] —a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."

Butler's most popular work is Kindred, a time-travel novel in which a black woman from 1976 Southern California is transported back to the violent days of slavery before the Civil War. Kindred was repeatedly rejected by publishers, many of whom could not understand how a science fiction novel could be set on a plantation in the antebellum South. Butler stuck to her social justice vision - "I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you" - and finally found a publisher who paid her a $5,000 advance for Kindred.

She remains the only science fiction writer to receive one of the vaunted "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a hard-earned $295,000 windfall in 1995 that followed years of poverty and personal struggles with shyness and self-doubt.

Her awards:
  • 2000: Lifetime achievement award in writing from the PEN American Center
  • 1999: Nebula Award for Best Novel - Parable of the Talents
  • 1995: MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant
  • 1985: Hugo Award for Best Novelette - Bloodchild
  • 1985: Locus Award for Best Novelette - Bloodchild
  • 1985: Science Fiction Chronicle Award for Best Novelette - Bloodchild
  • 1984: Nebula Award for Best Novelette - Bloodchild
  • 1984: Hugo Award for Best Short Story - Speech Sounds
  • 1980: Creative Arts Award, L.A. YWCA
Excerpt from Kindred
Online story: Bloodchild
Online story: Speech Sounds
Online story: Amnesty
Online story: The Book of Martha
NPR Essay on a World without Racism
Democracy Now! interview: Octavia Butler on Race, Global Warming and Religion
New York Times obituary


KeVin K. said...

The best thing Harlan Ellison ever did for American fiction was talk Octavia Butler out of pursuing a career in writing TV sitcoms.

Chumplet said...

Wow. What a great person to aspire to. Thank you for telling us about her.

wordtryst said...

Kevin, TV sitcoms? You can't be serious...

Chumplet, believe it or not, the first time I heard about her was when she died and Miss Snark wrote an obituary. That sent me scurrying to Google and I couldn't believe that I'd never heard of her. Maybe it's because I'm not a sci-fi fan per se although I've read some that I absolutely loved. But I don't usually seek out the genre.

Anonymous said...

I just read the first couple pages of Kindered and placed it in my shopping basket. There is a 25th Anniversary edition now in print and that should say a lot about her success.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Well, thanks for the education - I can't believe I've never come across this woman before. But it's true. I'll be looking out for her work now.

KeVin K. said...

yep. Sitcoms. Look it up.

Octavia Butler was fond of ending the world. Books like Clay's Ark and Dawn and Adulthood Rites are all pretty much straight-ahead science fiction. She also had a series about shape-shifters that never took with me. It was her works that also addressed social and personal issues that really resonate. The Parable series are very good. Kindred is my favorite. My daughter is recommending I read one she wrote about vampires -- I forget the title -- which she says has a lot to say about identity and belonging. Octavia Butler was an excellent writer with a vivid imagination and an absolutely dead-on voice. Highly recommended.

wordtryst said...

Kevin, I think your daughter must have been referring to her last book, Fledgling. I haven't read the novel (yet) but I saw an interview where she discussed it. I would normally never touch a vampire novel; I'll have to work my way up to it.

Zinnia, when I discover intriguing writers like her I know I have to seek out their work. Zora Neale Hurston was a case in point. Yann Martel was another. I'm seldom disappointed.

akalol, Kindred just moved to the top of my wish list.

Lane said...

What an interesting woman. I shall definitely seek out her books.

I love her self description an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."

stephe said...

An amazing human being.

If only I'd known her.