The Oankali Appearance

Part of what causes me problems when I’m reading Lilith’s Brood is that I can’t picture the Oankali, so I can’t truly understand the human’s reactions to them. I know from reading Lilith’s Brood that they are bipedal with two arms—four if they are an ooloi—so they vaguely resemble humans. Oankali are hair-less with greyish colored skin and have tentacles covering their heads and bodies. They use these tentacles to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell; they function as sensory organs. There are dense clusters of the tentacles near an Oankali’s eyes, ears, and throat.

When Lilith is first introduced to Jdahya, she is frightened by the sensory tentacles that remind her of Medusa’s snakes, and I was similarly repulsed reading it (13). However, as I’ve almost finished Lilith’s Brood, I find myself less offended when reading about the Oankalis’ appearances. I’d liked to say this is because I’ve grown and learned to accept their appearances, like Lilith, but, in reality, I know it’s because I have a tendency to imagine them to as close to human as possible when reading about them. This makes it easier for me to ignore what I would have trouble accepting if I were to truly encounter them, which I know is not what Octavia Butler would want. To make it easier for me to understand what the human characters feel when they see the Oankali, I decided to google if anyone had tried to illustrate these alien creatures. These are some of the pictures I found striking:

This was, for me, one of the “worst” ones. By which I mean it made me the most uncomfortable to look at.

This is an actual book cover from an old version of Lilith’s Brood. I’ll admit that I am much more comfortable with this representation of the Oankali than the previous one, but this one is still a little creepy. I think this one is more acceptable because the Oankali’s sensory tentacles are theoretically pressed against it’s skin making it appear more humanoid-like.

This is a representation of Nikanj specifically. I found this to be the best depiction of Oankali—well the one I was most comfortable looking at, anyway.

I was also pretty comfortable with this depiction, but it’s not accurate because the it’s essentially an Oankali head on a human body.

My reactions to the different illustrations of the Oankali reminded me of Sabrina’s post because I was most comfortable with the drawings that depicted the Oankali as similar to humans. The image that imagined the Oankali as these truly alien creatures I found most unsettling because the illustration was so different to me. I immediately perceived it as “bad” and “scary”—the first picture actually continues to remind me of a monster from Scooby Doo every time I look at it.

Butler wants us to view the Oankali as nonhumans, so to let myself imagine them as close to the human form as possible is falling into a trap. These pictures definitely helped me to visualize what the humans are actually looking at and understand what they might be feeling when they interact with the Oankali in the novel.

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