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Thank You, Octavia Butler!: A Tribute to Science Fiction's Trailblazing Author

By Christian Coleman

Octavia E. Butler signing a copy of Fledgling, 2005.
Photo credit: Nikolas Coukouma

Renowned author and MacArthur fellow Octavia E. Butler would have been sixty-nine this year, and maybe two or three books deep into writing a new series. Ten years have passed since her death, and in that time, the Huntington Library became the resting place for her archives. Her archives contain, among many things, drafts of an abandoned third entry in her Parables epic and the sketch of a sequel to Fledgling, the story of a genetically engineered vampire. Poring over the notes for novels that could have been, and rereading her bio, in which she wrote that she remembers being “a ten-year-old writer who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer,” I feel the ten years she has been gone.

I never got to meet her. My acquaintance with her, if you will, is based on her words and interviews. If I had the chance, I don’t know if I would have said anything more intelligent or intelligible than the babblings of an awestruck fanboy. But I would have managed to thank her for steering me toward my own writing career.

My introduction to Butler was her fifth novel, Wild Seed, which I read at age ten. Set in the seventeenth century, Wild Seed follows the struggle between two immortal Africans who give rise to a psionic superhuman race: Anyanwu, a 300-year-old healer and shapeshifter, and Doro, a 4,000-year-old body-snatching mind force who takes Anyanwu from her home in Africa to the New World to become part of his selective breeding program. Being the only immortals they know, Anyanwu and Doro, in spite of and because of their differences, grow to need each other.

This novel galvanized my imagination. I’ve read it four more times since then, each reading pinpointing over the years the facets—and recurring motifs in her other novels—of her vision that made me such a fan: The symbiotic relationship between the subjugator and the subjugated. Butler’s willingness to take you to the darkest places, where body horror and human cruelty are integral to the story. Characters, female and male, who play freely outside the binary conventions of gender. The centrality of people of color in a speculative narrative. The biological imperative of multiculturalism. These last two were especially important to me as a young reader and aspiring writer of color who, growing up in racially mixed neighborhoods, saw his everyday reality reflected and validated in her fiction.

KindredThis was wondrous stuff I wasn’t finding in most of the science fiction and fantasy I was reading at the time. (Before discovering Butler, I was a Ray Bradbury fanatic.) So, of course, I sought and devoured every single last thing she had written. By age eleven, I had read the novel she is best known for, Kindred.

I loved how she challenged notions of race and gender, making social commentary in a heightened sense of reality where telepaths vie for control of their psionic network in her Patternist series, tentacled aliens co-opt humankind into gene trading for the sake of evolution in her Xenogenesis trilogy, and a young woman creates a new, godless religion to make a post-apocalyptic future America survivable. I was already writing my own science-fiction stories, but Butler’s magnitude of thought and expanse of scope showed me how complex and far-reaching the genre could be. I knew I wanted to write like this. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, and after learning of her untimely death during my last year of undergrad at Boston College, that I decided to learn to write for publication.

As a novice writer with high aspirations and no knowledge of the publishing industry, I wondered: How do I become that good of a writer? How do I get started? Butler, in her signature spare and straightforward prose, had laid out the steps in her essay “Furor Scribendi.” She emphasized the importance of workshops where you have an audience that will tell you if you are communicating what you mean and conveying it in a compelling way. Writing, after all, is communication. In interviews, she mentioned having attended the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 1970, where she got her start. I thought: Why not aim high and get the same start and professional foundation she did? So I applied to Clarion.

I wasn’t accepted the first time. Nor the second time. Out of hundreds of applicants, Clarion accepts only eighteen each summer. In the meantime, to sharpen my fiction-writing skills I attended a local workshop in Boston, Grub Street. It paid off. After applying a third time, in 2013, an e-mail from the Clarion Foundation showed up in my inbox, telling me I had been accepted.

My Clarion class and I, UCSD, 2013
My Clarion class and I (back row, third from the left) with first week instructor Andy Duncan (back row, left) on day of arrival at the University of California-San Diego. Photo credit: Angus McIntyre

Founded in 1968, Clarion isn’t known as a writer’s boot camp for nothing. It lasts six weeks, each one taught by a different instructor: a writer (often a Clarion graduate), editor, or another professional in the field. Monday through Friday, workshop started at nine in the morning and ended at one in the afternoon. After lunch, unless an instructor had planned a lecture or brought in another author as a guest speaker, I read and analyzed four to five stories a night for the next day, all written by classmates, as well as drafting a new manuscript each week. I could only imagine what it was like for Butler to work to a litany of typewriters rat-tat-tatting late into the night.

Toward the end of the course, my classmates and I visited the Clarion archive and saw the manuscripts previous students had written. Four of our instructors—Nalo Hopkinson, Robert Crais, Cory Doctorow, and Kelly Link—were graduates and had manuscripts in that archive. And so did Butler. There we were, face to face with the beginning of the career she forged boldly, during a time when science fiction was still white male–dominant, as the first successful black woman in the genre. It was humbling to see her manuscripts and realizing that my own work (yikes!) would be preserved in the same archive.

Like many Clarion graduates, Butler became an instructor for the program. In my last week, instructor Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and president of the Clarion Foundation, told my class that whenever Butler taught there, she never took her instructor payments. She returned them to the foundation because she believed in giving back to the community. This is a grand gesture from an author who, in the rough beginning of her career, pawned her typewriters and subsisted on beans and potatoes to stretch a dollar while she wasn’t making a lot of money from writing.

She gave back in another way, too. Earlier this month, a letter Butler had written to herself, catalogued at the Huntington Library, made the rounds on social media. In it, she wrote out the trajectory of the career she wanted for herself. Toward the bottom, she also wrote that she would send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writers’ workshops. In a way, posthumously, she has. The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, administered by the Carl Brandon Society, pays the tuition for a writer of color to attend so he or she can have a chance at the same start Butler had. The first scholarship was awarded in 2007, a year after her death.

Finally, Butler gave me the courage to pursue writing in a genre that’s growing, awkwardly yet surely, into a more inclusive community representative of voices from around the globe. She gave me permission to write myself in, to write about what matters to me as seen through the lens of science fiction. She gave me Clarion. My classmates and I grew close during those demanding six weeks and are still in touch. We are a source of support for each other as much as we are colleagues to each other as we navigate our writing careers. I owe her so much and can’t thank her enough.

 

About the Author

Christian Coleman is the digital marketing associate and blog editor at Beacon Press. Follow him on Twitter at @coleman_II.

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