As the semester boils down and our class tries to organize the multiple confused, frustrated, complexities hidden beneath the myriad of emotions that Butler’s work allows us to experience, I feel almost obligated to enter a state of deep reflection. The constant questions that I have for Butler- “Was Blake just as bad as Eli or worse? Does It matter?” “What do you think about autonomy?” “WHERE IS AKIN?!” – seem to dissipate and for all that is left with is the story of Octavia Butler—her texts, her stories yet deeply interwoven in each word is a truth she wishes to reveal about our humanity. There are hundreds of revelations that a reader can encounter through Butler’s fiction, or there could be one. I’d like to share my mine.
“MUTATO NOMINE DE TE FABULA NARRATUR” meaning, “with the name changed, the story applies to you.”
I first came across this phrase while reading the work Zulus by Percival Everett about a year ago. It spoke to me in a way that is still difficult to understand much less articulate so bear with me. This phrase has unconsciously haunted and influenced my perceptions of the literature I am exposed to, and I soon realized it played a crucial part in the foundation for most of my frustrations with Butler’s work. Both Everett and Butler made it especially difficult for me to identify a particular ‘evil’ in a nonhuman character because if put in a similar situation I cannot say that humans would react differently, and if humans would react in a similar fashion then judging the decisions/actions of the nonhuman become contradictory. This was most blatantly exemplified in Lilith’s Brood starting with a memory in Dawn.
After her initial introduction to the Oankali Lilith’s reacted with suspicion, fear, and anger- all rational responses considering all the trauma she has experienced. But during a specific scene, she questions her role as a human amidst the nonhuman, whether she would now serve as an experiment for the Oankali, as a pet of sorts, then as if my magic Lilith reminds us of what humans have done.
“Human biologists had done that before the war—used a few captive members of an endangered animal species to breed more for the wild population, was that what she was headed for? Forced artificial insemination. Surrogate motherhood? Fertility drugs and forced “donations” of eggs? Implantation of unrelated fertilized eggs. Removal of children from mothers at birth…Humans had done these things to captive breeders—all for the higher good, of course.” (60)
The scariest thing about my grappling with this information isn’t that it happened but rather that the Oankali could have done the exact same thing, but they didn’t. They gave humanity a choice, one that humans may not have given to other animals that they worked on. The name has changed and Oankali are put in the same role as the Human Biologist, but they make a more humane choice. Fast forwarding to Imago we see humans making the same decisions amongst each other, doing the same things that pre-war biologists did to animals, “They encouraged his mother to work in the gardens and help with the building and be away from her son. That way, when the time came, when Adan was thirteen years old, they were able to put mother and son together.” (662).
With a final name change, but the story remaining consistent, humans take advantage of each other, with a manipulation that was previously only applied to animals—the cycle would continue. This is what Butler taught me. Humans beings aren’t always humane, not toward others nor each other, and those who are put in advantageous positions always have a choice. Butler seems to remind me that regardless of which position I hold I must never lose my ability to be humane and remember:
“MUTATO NOMINE DE TE FABULA NARRATUR”