When We Know What It Is Not, We Can Search For What It Is

When I read Liz’s last post, I found myself really glad that she brought up the idea of slavery again (thanks Liz!). I remember finding it very interesting (for lack of a better term because I did not know what to make of it at the time) when we read the Afterword of “Bloodchild” and discovered Butler’s assertions that she was not writing about slavery. I had not interpreted this particular short story as one about slavery, but I was intrigued by Butler’s choice to very explicitly say that it was not one. Why did she feel this was necessary?

I have a few ideas now about why Butler might have chosen to write about things other than slavery, and to be so forward about the fact that she was doing so. Of course, I could be entirely incorrect, but these are just some thoughts I have on the issue.

To use the wording that Dr. McCoy used throughout the semester, Octavia Butler loves to “push” us with her writing. It seems that at each and every opportunity in Butler’s novels, she pushes some boundary either on an individual level or on a greater scale. The characters, relationships, and worlds she creates are extremely complex, as we have found time and time again this semester. We have considered so many aspects of her work that exist outside what most of us would consider familiar. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Butler did not want to write about slavery, because it is familiar. Slavery is certainly not a comfortable topic, nor do I mean to say that it is not complicated or difficult to understand. However, when someone mentions slavery, people generally know what they’re talking about. Yet, if someone tries talking about a supposedly-symbiotic relationship between a human and a vampire-like species whose venom causes addiction, people will probably be pretty puzzled. I worry that it sounds like I’m saying that literature and other work concerning slavery is base or something like that–I’m certainly not trying to imply that. What I mean is, perhaps what Butler was trying to prevent by being so explicit about not writing about slavery is basically what Liz’s project partner did when she tried to sum up Xenogenesis: Liz told us this story “was explained to me as a dystopian novel where an alien species takes over and humans are their slaves.” Maybe Butler thought that if we could, or thought we could, so seamlessly link her works to slavery, that this would be as far as we took them. By telling us her works aren’t about slavery, Butler forces us to find some other meaning in her writing.

Another idea that I have is this: maybe Butler wanted to be clear that she was not writing about slavery simply as a way to assert that she was a black woman writing science-fiction that had nothing to do with slavery. Going back to the idea of pushing boundaries, this status would have pushed several boundaries at the time when Butler was writing and publishing. She was female. She was black. She was writing science-fiction. And, to add to all of those things which would have been somewhat surprising at the time, she was not writing about slavery, one of the things people had become more “used to” having black people write about. As I said above, Butler forces us to find other meaning in her writing when she tells us it is not about slavery–maybe she wanted to be so explicit about this so that her works could be viewed as one black person’s perspective on issues other than slavery. I know I’m in tricky territory here as I speculate on the author’s intentions, but I do think it’s a question worth speculating on.

I have come across a fascinating article entitled Why Do White Writers Keep Fictionalizing Black Experiences?, which I highly suggest reading if you can spare the time. Interestingly enough, the article references Octavia Butler, Colson Whitehead (I know Dr. McCoy’s 101 class explored his work this semester), and even Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who Sandra referenced in her last blog post! Here’s an excerpt from the article that I find particularly relevant to what I am speculating on in this post:

“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this summer answered questions from Guardian readers and touched a nerve when she told a 50-year-old white man stuck with the desire to write about “a young Bengali girl” that there were still stories to tell from his own point of view. Another commenter called the advice “short-sighted,” arguing that it “will only ensure that we have more books about middle aged [sic] white men and no books about disadvantaged Bengali girls.” Adichie disagreed:

It’s unfortunate that you seem to assume that if a white middle aged man [sic] doesn’t write about a Bengali girl, then the story of Bengali girls will not be written. There are in fact many Bengalis who can write about Bengali girls—and it probably doesn’t feel “insurmountable” to them. And “disadvantaged Bengali girl” is a very troubling way of framing an idea of a story. It already suggests that this character will be seen through the lenses of her “disadvantage” alone. People are people. “Disadvantaged” people also have agency, and dream, and think, and desire. Sometimes how one frames a story determines whether or not we will see the fullness of a character.”

This notion of seeing “the fullness of a character” is what I am basically getting at when I speculate that perhaps Butler wanted readers to know that her writing was not about slavery so that we could see the fullness of her characters, and furthermore, the fullness of her stories, as going beyond slave and captor.

I want to reiterate that these are just my own ideas, which may or may not have any relevance to the actual intentions of Octavia Butler as a writer. I wish in no way to speak for her, but rather, to contemplate the questions I believe she has intentionally left to be asked about her and her writing.

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