“What’s in a Name?” Categorization in Butler’s Fiction and Romeo+Juliet

In an interview with Randall Kenan, Octavia Butler spends a great deal of time resisting the labels Kenan presents to her. Immediately, she is contrary to the idea that her writing might be “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction or fantasy (Francis, 27). While reading “Bloodchild,” select interviews with Butler, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet I considered the ways language categorizes people and what the resistance to such labels says about those people. In this post, I tried to reconcile my readings with what Butler talks about in her interviews.

Initially, I read “Bloodchild” as an allegory for imperialism, treated like an act of sexual violence. Early on, I started making connections with the short story to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi epic Alien, which can be read as an allegory for both rape and imperialism. As a result of this connection-making, I began to look for all the ways in which the film and the short story were similar and neglected to search for the ways in which they were different. Thus, it came as a shock to me when Butler stated in her afterword that “Bloodchild” “would not be the British Empire in space” (Butler, 31). I then went back and re-evaluated the text to find that “Bloodchild” is still quite like Alien, just not in the way I originally thought. The humans in the film enter into a contract with the aliens just as they do in “Bloodchild.” Both stories are pregnant man stories and both explore the ways in which social contracts demand some sort of rent paying. A rereading helped me to understand that centering literature to suit a preconceived notion is dangerous, especially in the case of Butler’s fiction. At first, I categorized her work, then I tried to read without any category in mind. In reading some interviews and articles that dealt with Butler and her work, I noticed that she is aware of the inevitable categorization that surrounds her work and writes specifically to challenge such notions. This is not a story about slavery rather, it is a tale of love and the binding forces of social contracts.

Later in her interview with Randall Kenan, she addresses claims that “Bloodchild” is about slavery. She pushes back on this idea and redirects her message as a “deal” brokered with inhabitants to achieve some level of symbiosis (Francis, 31). To the editor of this collection, Consuela Francis, this is typical of Octavia Butler. While Butler has noted her work is at the crossroads of feminism, black literature, and science fiction, she simultaneously dispels any assumptions about her work and constantly tries to escape labels which she sees as limiting to her creative process (Francis, 27). What does this resistance say about Butler the writer? Perhaps she acts aloof or ambivalent towards political extrapolations. More likely though, Butler knows what her readers might think and preempts their conclusions about race, feminism, and science fiction. I think Butler wants her readers to engage with texts without any particular lens and to react truthfully to the very human elements of her extra-human prose.

I think the resistance to categorization is also prevalent in Romeo and Juliet. Two star-crossed lovers curse their names which pull them apart so that love might be free to bind them together. The resistance of labels has a freeing power in the play just like it does in Butler’s creative process. Whether the name is Capulet or Montague or Terrans or Tlic, labels can drive people apart. Therefore, we as readers need to be attentive of the labels we assign and when characters like Romeo or Juliet or T’Gatoi or Gans act contrary to their labels. It is in these instances where we can discover what truly brings people together because it likely has little to do with our preconceived categorizations. In 2017, we should be careful with the practice of categorization because it can be exclusionary. I believe Butler’s fiction will be a good primer for challenging the ways we engage with people and texts.

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