Kindred, Octavia Butler

North America Project 2022

First, an apology to anyone who took me at my word that my first up read for Project 2022 would be ZNH’s Their Eyes were watching God. I meant it to be. I bought the audiobook. But when I was halfway through January with no work, no driving in sight I gave up on my chances of getting to Their Eyes and instead began reading Kindred which I had on my shelves (with the cover pictured, from Headline, London).

Of course, as soon as I was halfway through Kindred, I got a job, which turned into two jobs, one up the coast and one back, both overwidth so no nighttime travel, a day in between, plenty of time for reading. What did I listen to? Something stupid and an Amanda Lohrey, The Philosopher’s Doll.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an African American woman, brought up by her widowed mother in racially diverse Pasadena, California where her mother cleaned houses for white folks and put up with a lot of shit.

The Octavia Butler site features the quote “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out it was called science fiction.” But in fact Butler was drawn to SF at an early age, through SF magazines, had her own typewriter at 10, and was soon writing SF of her own. In the late 1960s she worked days to put herself through college at night, graduated, went on to writing courses through UCLA Extension, and from there, recommended by lecturer and SF writer Harlan Ellison, to the Science Fiction writers workshop at Clarion, Pennsylvania where she met and became lifelong friends with (African American) SF writer Samuel R Delany.

The first half of the 1970s Butler describes as “five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs … before I sold another word.” But she had already begun work on the ‘Patternist’ series of novels, and after the publication of Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) she was able to write full time. You can only imagine how fiercely determined Butler must have been, to start writing, to get through school and college, and then to break into the man’s world, the white man’s world, of Science Fiction.

I have reviewed her later novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) but I probably knew her before then for Lilith’s Brood, the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). If these are no longer on my shelves I blame my son whose taste in SF is impeccable.

Kindred (1979) is an exploration of why and how slaves put up with what they did, sparked in the first place by seeing what her mother had to put up with. Interestingly Roots, which of course deals with the same issues, and which I read and wrote about last year, came out as a book in 1976, followed by the immensely popular TV series a year later, so two or three years before Kindred. But I haven’t seen any discussion that this is where Butler got her inspiration.

Despite my great admiration for Butler, I was initially disappointed that she was using SF in Kindred as just the frame for another Historical Fiction account of slavery in early nineteenth century American cotton fields. But of course Butler is cleverer than that. The novel covers a few months in 1976 in the life of Dana, an African American woman and her white husband, Kevin, just another middle class couple in California, both writers, late twenties; or a few years if you count the time, the times, they spend on a Maryland cotton plantation in the years before the Civil War.

The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong … I heard [Kevin] move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.
The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods.

There is a child, a white boy of four or five, drowning in a pond. Dana pulls him out, fends off the hysterical mother, begins mouth to mouth. Successfully, luckily. This boy, Rufus, is, or will be, her great great grandfather.

It’s a complex story and Butler uses it well to discuss complex issues. The Sf element is that each time Rufus is in danger he drags Dana back through time (and across the width of the continent) to save him. Each time she is in danger she returns to 1976, to within a few minutes or hours of when she left. If Kevin is touching her he goes with her. And if he’s not he doesn’t, which leaves him one time stranded in the nineteenth century for a ten years, from his point of view.

Dana, works out from her family history her relationship to Rufus, and intuits that his friend, Alice, the daughter of a freed Black family must be her great great grandmother. The thing is to keep saving Rufus until Alice has a child by him. Butler uses Dana’s status as a Black twentieth century feminist to interrogate black-white, and master-slave relationships.

Dana comes to see Rufus’ father in more and more nuanced terms but nevertheless she ends up being whipped by him not once but twice.

As they reach adulthood Alice takes a husband, but Rufus wants her for his mistress. The husband is sold down south, and then Rufus attempts to force Dana to persuade Alice that she has no choice.

We criticize Hist.Fic. authors for writing with modern eyes, but by framing Kindred as SF this is exactly what Butler does, with devastating effect. A wonderful, powerful novel.

.

Octavia E Butler, Kindred, first pub. 1979. My edition published by Headline, London, 2018 with Foreword by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. 295pp.

27 thoughts on “Kindred, Octavia Butler

    • Excited to read what you think about Malcolm X! There is no audiobook for that one, to my knowledge. I loved the tension in Kindred. You have to ask, is all the suffering of her ancestors worth it to bring her into the world? If Rufus died, wouldn’t other children be born, born perhaps out of love instead of rape? The book reads as a total moral and ethical conundrum and doesn’t give the reader any easy answers. Great job, Bill, and so happy you read this one.

      Like

    • There is certainly no science in her science fiction here. It is just an interrogation of the premise: what would happen if a modern Black woman turned up in an 1830s cotton plantation (wearing trousers!)

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. SF is or has been such a white-boy field that it is refreshing to read an author who’s coming at it from a different direction. I did some minor shelf reorganising this morning and I see I have Imago (I should apologize to my son). I read a lot more SF than I review (Lessing’s Shikasta at the moment) and I might read Imago next.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think you told me I should warn you before I read it. But it was just sitting there and it filled a hole, Sorry. I have a longish trip booked for this coming weekend, so I had better listen to Malcolm X while I have the opportunity
      Yes. Definitely worth your while.
      And I’ll provide a link to your review when it’s done,

      Like

      • My reading plans are so ad hoc right now, so no need to apologise. I accidentally started a 700+ page book last week, so that’s me sorted for another week or so!!! I have been waiting for the new Zora Neale Hurston nonfiction to turn up – it’s several weeks late already. And yes you should listen to Malcolm X. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I really love this story too. And you’ve brought up an interesting question too, about how characters/we can slide into habits when we are emotionally stressed, pulling on people we are tied to, dragging them along with us on occasion, although not-so-often across eras in our everyday lives. Butler is just so smart. It’s heartwarming to see her work more widely available now; she deserves much study and admiration!

    Like

  2. Melanie, I have Autobiography of Malcolm X on Audible. I started work yesterday and am listening to some trash (a female assassin from Ghana) but will listen to Malcolm X before the weekend.

    It’s obvious I don’t do book groups. I never thought about should Dana ‘sacrifice’ Alice to ensure her own birth – I actually assumed she had no choice – but now you bring it up I think she should rather have helped Alice escape.

    Like

  3. Butler has been on my TBR for such a long time, and in particular Kindred, since I love time travel stories so much. Part of what I love about them is what you have identified at the end (and part of what I personally love about some historical fiction) – I think they are a great tool for analysing historical events with a modern eye. You have encouraged me to pick this up sooner rather than later.

    Like

  4. Pft. Plans are just that, plans. They are meant to give us focus and guidance and be broken as needed. I’m glad you picked up Kindred when you had a chance! And I can’t wait to read your review of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The audiobook is 110% the way to go!

    You so eloquently put into words what I never could about the SF framing of this incredible story. Butler’s writing has always chilled me, but Kindred is the one to top them all. I don’t know what it is about this book… perhaps how connected I felt to Dana and Rufus and their experiences. Even though I knew the time hops would save them when they were in danger, I always got anxious!

    Like

    • Thank you for “eloquently”! It’s quite likely many Americans can see both sides of Dana’s story – the modern woman and the racist south – in life going on around them. Perhaps not the whippings, but assaults and murders nevertheless and of course the assumption of white privilege. I think that’s Butler’s strength, that her SF is so grounded in the present.
      I’ll definitely be reading/reviewing Their Eyes later in the year. Next up (end of Feb) Melanie and I have something planned for Malcolm X and then March is another SF, by Canadian Nalo Hopkinson.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Precisely! It’s how grounded in the present Butler’s writing is that it makes it easy to connect the experiences of the present with the experiences she’s elaborating on in the past. Those parallels bring your emotions to the fore and make the horrors she describes so much more… real. Chilling.

        I look forward to reading your other reviews! This will be fun to follow.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve seen this book mentioned many times but always held back from it myself because of the time travel aspect. The two books I’ve read which had that element were dire. But your review shows thst it’s not just a fancy literary device for Butler. So I shall add it to my reading list. I’m reading Their Eyes were watching God right now, for our book club.

    Like

    • SF fans and writers think a lot about time travel – because of the paradox of changing your own past – and we all have theories about how it might work (I’m sure no one has any idea about what make it work). And of course lots of writers do it badly, carelessly or both.
      But as you’ve gathered Butler had good reason for using this device and does it well – she is very good at SF as well as at writing.

      I’ll read your review of Their Eyes. I’m sure it will give me things to think about as I listen before I write my own review towards the end of the year (probably!)

      Like

      • 1. I could not recall if I had read a book two years ago, let alone write a review. You must make excellent notes.
        2. Bron and I are planning to read Voss this October. Are you still in? (You’ve been writing about not making plans). I can’t see it on my shelves, I had better buy myself a copy sooner rather than later.

        Like

  6. I have never read one of Butler’s novels even though I’ve meant to for a long time. Kindred seems like an obvious choice.
    It’s interesting to read about her background… How hard she had to work puts me to shame. Makes my life seem like a walk in the park.

    Like

    • That’s the point I guess, nothing was easy. And still isn’t, and Trump’s mob are doing all they can to make it worse again.

      Butler is both a powerful writer and a very good writer. We’ll worth giving a try.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s