By Terryn Asunder
Octavia Butler is the first published black, female, Science Fiction writer. Her influence on the genre and fiction as a whole is immense. She explores themes such as identity, oppression, community, and power through the lens of a black feminist, and she treats these themes with the nuance they deserve. Her prose is at once accessible and sharp. She has been recognized with several awards including the Macarthur Foundation Grant, and the Nebula Award. She is a lone voice in a genre dominated by white males and she brings emotionality, vitality, and optimism to Science Fiction.
The genre of Sci Fi, or better yet, Speculative Fiction, opens wide the possibilities for fictional accounts and settings through which Butler explores historical themes and human conditions. One of her more popular novels, and her fourth to be published, is Kindred. This book uses time travel as a vehicle for exploring the terror and torture of the antebellum South. The character, Dana, is a modern black woman who has both slave and white ancestry. She shares a special tie with her white, slave-owning ancestor, Rufus. This tie forces her to travel back in time and across a continent to assist the boy/man when his life is endangered. This work deals directly with the historical consequences of slavery on a group of individuals who are subjected to it and the choices they must make regarding their own survival and the survival of those closest to them.
Much of Butler’s other works deal with similar themes, but are removed from the historical context in which Kindred is based. Her series, which begins with the Parable of the Sower, is set in a dystopic and impoverished America. The main character, who is an empath, struggles to survive and create community. This is parallel to the character of Dana in Kindred. Dana is forced to struggle for survival in a brutal and alien world. She also tries to protect and integrate herself into the community of slaves of which she is now a part. The main character of Parable of the Sower must also struggle in an alien and vicious world to create a sustainable community. Although slavery is not a major theme in this series there are instances of slavery and people fighting against it, both as slaves and those observing the slaves.
Andrea Hairston, in her essay, “Ovtavia Butler – Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist”, describes Butler’s continued idea of community thus, “Her heroines reinvent family and create community as a way to rescue and redefine humanity.” (293) Hairston prefaces this statement by indicating that Butler has broken with the Sci Fi genre in her portrayal of women, “She also doesn’t write Doris Day Blues – tales of a middle-class housewife languishing in alienated suburbs . . .” Octavia Butler creates black heroines who are certainly not “the ultimate universal subjects,” but instead are women who seek to survive, and help those closest to them survive, in a damaged or adverse society. Community is a theme found in many of Butler’s works. Hairston describes it:
“Butler’s characters value community over individual success. Or better, individual success is defined in terms of community. Her questions are: what do we do to survive? How must we change if we are not to be wiped out by others, by ourselves? Her stories focus on those who make the compromises, those who do not have the power to determine their place in society, those who are forced to lives defined by more powerful beings/forces. (Hairston 297)“
Community, and the struggle to make and maintain it, are fundamental to Butler’s work.
Kindred brings this feeling to an emotional peak. Dana is, against all odds, not only in surviving herself, but also in helping those around her survive. She and her fellow slaves live in a society where they are not human, they are property. She must use what little influence she has over her ancestor, Rufus, not only as his repeated savior, but as a modern and educated black woman. This limited influence sees Dana acquiesce to her role as slave so that she might make the existence of her fellow slaves just a little less horrific. This often backfires. Dana helps a young couple escape from the plantation. They are eventually caught, beaten, mutilated, and mauled by dogs. Dana helps the young woman, Alice, recover from her wounds, but Alice’s husband and fellow escapee has been sold South. The master of the plantation, Rufus, desires Alice and is now in the position to have her. Alice is furious with Dana, “’Doctor-nigger,’ she said with contempt. ‘Thank you so much. Reading-nigger. White-nigger! Why didn’t you know enough to let me die?’” (160) Dana has attempted to alleviate the suffering of her fellow captives, but has managed to exacerbate it in an unforeseen way. The conclusion of the book sees Alice taking charge in the only way that she can, she finds freedom at the end of a rope hanging in a barn. Despite Dana’s attempts to save Alice, Alice’s only true freedom lies in death.
Another theme that Butler regularly explores is that of power and oppression. This is one of the nuanced themes of her series Xenogenesis. The premise of these novels is that earth has been destroyed by nuclear war and humanity has only just been saved by an alien species that happens to arrive in time to rescue the few remaining people. The Oankali are very different from humanity. They have three sexes, including a neuter sex, and their most valued resource is genetic material. They are in a position of great power over the humans in their care. They desire to interbreed with humanity, as this is the mission of all Oankali (to acquire new and unique genetic material). The series focuses on how humanity deals with this situation. Many humans rebel against their destiny with the Oankali. Butler depicts many power struggles throughout the series, from inter-species to inter-human. Eventually the Oankali grant an autonomous colony to those humans who desire to keep their genetic material to themselves.
Kindred showcases the themes of power and oppression in a similarly nuanced way. The obvious power struggle is between the white plantation owner and his slaves. However, there are power struggles between the slaves themselves, as well as between the main character, Dana, and her ancestral charge, Rufus. Butler depicts the power struggle between the so-called “house-slave” and the field-hands. The house-slaves have a perceptibly better existence than do the field-hands. They eat better, sleep in better conditions and the labor they are expected to perform is less harsh. Those slaves who worked in the house had to vie to keep their position there. One example of this is two female slaves who do the sewing for the house; there is only enough work for one woman and the woman (Alice) who is favored by Rufus, the owner’s son, is allowed to continue her work. Eventually the woman forced to work in the fields after having worked in the house gets her revenge. Liza tells the “Master” when Dana, Alice’s friend, escapes in the middle of the night. The power struggle does not end there. Friends of Dana teach Liza a lesson with their fists:
I was startled. I had never had a serious enemy – someone who would go out of her way to get me hurt or killed. To slaveholders and patrollers, I was just one more nigger, worth so many dollars. What they did to me didn’t have much to do with me personally. But here was a woman who hated me and who, out of sheer malice had nearly killed me. “She’ll keep her mouth shut next time,” said Alice. “We let her know what would happen to her if she didn’t. Now she’s more scared of us than of Mister Tom” (178)
This inter-slave conflict reflects the power struggle between the slaves and the power that a group of slaves could hold over another group or individual.
Another instance of intense power-struggle is between Dana and Rufus. Both hold a great deal of power over the other. This is a unique situation in which a slave, Dana, holds power over her “Master.” This struggle is depicted throughout the book as Dana continues to travel back in time and rescue Rufus from certain death. Every time she arrives in the antebellum south, she is unsure of how long her stay will be. While she is there she must act as a slave. She tries to secure a position of relative safety by using her role of savior to garner a position of power from Rufus. Rufus continually threatens to upset the balance that Dana desperately seeks. Rufus learns that the best way to control Dana is to threaten others. He does this particularly with the character Alice. Rufus demands that Dana convince Alice to willingly submit to his sexual advances.
“Help me, Dana.”
“You can! And nobody else. Go to her. Send her to me. I’ll have her whether you help or not. All I want you to do is fix it so I don’t have to beat her. You’re no friend of hers if you won’t do that much!” (Butler 164)
Dana is forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: rape without a beating, or rape with a beating. Dana speaks to her friends and the woman decides to submit. Rufus has successfully wrested more power away from Dana. Dana spends most of her energy helping herself and others avoid the worse abuses of slavery, but there is often little she can do. The final struggle between Dana and Rufus is over her last remaining vestige of freedom; her sexual body. Dana had frequently struggled with the notion of killing Rufus, but decided that it was best for all the slaves on the plantation if he were to remain alive. His remaining alive would limit the amount of slaves sold away from the plantation, their families, and the community of slaves. She dismisses this notion when he finally attempts to rape her. She stabs Rufus and kills him. The slaves and the plantation are all sold after his death, something Dana had actively tried to avoid. Despite these power-struggles, Butler places power where it truly lived, in the hands of the white slave owners. The inter-slave struggles pale in comparison to the main struggle, of white and black, propertied and property.
Octavia Butler, in an interview with The Travis Smiley Show, describes her intentions while writing Kindred, “I wanted to write something that would enable people . . . anybody, to feel this particular bit of history.” (Francis 219) This intensity of history can be compared to the slave narrative, as Sandra Y. Govan does in her essay, “Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel.” Govan makes a series of comparisons of Butler’s novel to the traditional slave narrative. Govan asserts that Kindred utilizes the same themes that exist in numerous other plantation-life historical novels:
The large, panoramic slice-of-plantation-life we see in this segment of the novel is deftly handled “factions,” that blend of authentic verifiable historical fact and well-rendered fiction. Butler treats the recurring themes of casual brutality, forcible separation from families, the quest for knowledge, the desire to escape, the tremendous work loads expected of slaves as effectively as any of the narratives of documentary histories discussing the slavery experience. (9)
Butler creates an emotionally charged portrait of the cruelty of slavery with all the historical accuracy she can muster.
The resulting story is, as Angelyn Mitchell describes in her essay, “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred,”” a “liberatory narrative.” Mitchell describes this narrative as seeking to “eclipse the racialized and deterministic condition of enslavement by revealing empowering volitional strategies.” (53) She also points out that Butler uses “the most vulnerable: black women in bondage.” (54) Mitchell makes the point that Butler examines the brutality of slavery from the perspective of those with the least amount of power within the system, and the most brutalized. Dana states that she is “the worst possible guardian [for Rufus] a black woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children” and blacks sub-human. (77) The use of a black female character as a vehicle to explore chattel slavery is effective. It brings the narrative to the least powerful and most oppressed group. These women endured harsh labor, rape, and the separation of their families. They were particularly effected as mothers and women, as well as blacks.
The theme of motherhood is also an important component of Kindred. Sarah, the cook, has had all her children sold. Many of the other slave women had their children sold. Alice sees two of her children die and the other two are used to control her. “The children become objects that Rufus employs to control Alice’s affection and sexual behavior towards him.” (Mitchell 63) Dana herself acts as a mother to many of the slaves on the plantation. She teaches the young children to read, she nurtures Alice back to health, she desperately tries to minimize the suffering of her fellows. The plight of the mother is to struggle not only for your own survival, but for your children’s as well. Dana struggles with this concept throughout the novel. She must tailor her actions so that she can ensure her own survival while ensuring the survival of others. The intensity with which these mothers must feel the loss of the children and families as well as the absence of freedom for both is evident throughout the narrative.
Kindred is an example of fiction by and about female women of color. The narrative serves to show the complexities surrounding issues that affect women of color. Slavery, power, community and motherhood are all themes from the book and are dealt with in nuanced and careful prose. Historical implications on the present and on women of color are called in to play. Oppressed women across the world face these difficult decisions regarding their personal survival and the survival of their children and communities. Oppressive institutions, such as slavery, render these choices difficult, if not impossible. Butler, however, presents a story in which a woman must struggle with her limited ability to help those she loves and to help herself. The end of the book depicts Dana making the ultimate decision to murder her attacker / would-be-rapist / enslaver at the possible expense of her fellow slaves. Dana finally met her breaking point and took her personal survival into her own hands. Kindred is a complex novel that taps into the emotional pain of the experiences of slavery, and of oppressed women across the globe.
Alaimo, Stacey. “’Skin Dreaming': the Bodily Transgerssions of Fielding Burke, Octavia Butler, and Linda Hogan.” Ecofeminist Literary Criticism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press,1998.
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979.
Francis Consuela, ed. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Jackson: University Press Mississippi, 2010.
Govan, Sandra Y. “Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel” Melus 13 Nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1986): 79-96
Hairston, Andrea. “Octavia Butler – Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist.” Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Middeltown: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.
Mitchell, Angelyn. “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred.”” Melus, Vol 26, No #, 2001