I have finally made the time to do a bit of research on the life of Octavia Butler. In this post I wish to share some of the insight I have gained as to who she was as a person, so that we may gain a better understanding of her writing through this lens.
First, I think it is worth noting that Octavia Butler was raised by women. Her father passed away when she was seven years old, and from then on she was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother.
After her mother died, Butler moved to Seattle. When she moved, she brought 300 boxes of books with her! She says she had been building this collection since she was a child.
I was able to find these and several other quick, fun facts about Butler’s life on this site.
Perhaps Octavia Butler was not the biggest advocate for the Creative Writing major. Here’s a quote from an interview she did with Locus Magazine:
”I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me. You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. It’s just so easy to give up!”
On writing about slavery, Butler says in an interview with a Science Fiction Studies journal, “The only places I am writing about slavery is where I actually say so.” I think this is important to keep in mind as we read her work. In this same interview, Butler discusses the strong influence of family bonds in the lives of herself and others:
“Perhaps as a woman, I can’t help dwelling on the importance of family and reproduction. I don’t know how men feel about it. Even though I don’t have a husband and children, I have other family, and it seems to me our most important set of relationships. It is so much of what we are. Family does not have to mean purely biological relationships either. I know families that have adopted outside individuals; I don’t mean legally adopted children but other adults, friends, people who simply came into the household and stayed. Family bonds can even survive really terrible abuse.”
The Huntington Library in California received many of Butler’s papers and notebooks after she passed away. Some of this archived material can be seen at this webpage. I strongly encourage you to take a look at this link, as Butler’s personal writings are fascinating. While you’re at it, take a look at this page from one of her notebooks, circa 1988. The image is too large to insert into this post, but it’s worth the click – seriously.
NPR Books wrote an article about Octavia Butler in which they included this spectacular image, another of Butler’s personal writings now possessed by The Huntington Library.
I have included several hyperlinks in this post, and I encourage you to take a look at the articles and interviews I’ve linked to (and the other resources out there, as these are just a few). These sources contain some compelling information and ideas pertaining to the person Butler was, and I think that a better understanding of Octavia Butler might allow for a deeper understanding of (and respect for) her work.