Possession, Interpretation, and Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild

With the development of Ricky Rice’s pregnancy in LaValle’s Big Machine, I thought it the perfect moment to reflect on one of my favorite readings from this semester, Butler’s sci-fi short story “Bloodchild”. If you’ll recall, Butler dismisses the notion that her story alludes to slavery in the afterword, which sparked controversy in the class from those who read it as such.

“It amazes me that some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery. It isn’t.”

While I read “Bloodchild” as a love/coming-of-age story, and perhaps I’ll write a blogpost outlining why I agree with her assessment, I’m more interested in an author or artist’s right to control the interpretation of their work post-release.

This raises the question of who does an author’s, or more specifically, Octavia Butler’s work belong to? Author’s can often be very possessive of their work, but once a story (or any work of fiction for that matter) is published and enters the public sphere, the audience can interpret things in ways unintended. We see this all the time, especially in this age of rapid media dispersion, where viral stories are twisted to support out-of-context opinions or facts are “cherry-picked” to appeal to a specific audience.

Not to oversimplify the relationship between artist and artwork, but I’m going to oversimplify the relationship between artist and artwork into two schools of thought: artists who take possession of their work and have a rigid stance on interpretation, and artists who believe the art they make is not for them but for someone else and have a fluid stance on the meaning behind the work.

One artist who finds himself in the latter school of thought is Hamish Patterson, a far (like really really really far) out dude who runs his own YouTube channel. I’ll include a link to it at the bottom of this post as well as a link to the video I will soon reference. In his video titled “Art show and sale” he says to the camera

“This isn’t my art, I’m just the conduit for somebody else’s dream” 4:47

Clearly the degree of ownership an artist feels towards their work varies from person to person. By publishing “Bloodchild”, does Butler consent to her audience drawing conclusions from her story that she did not intend? My answer is, to a degree, absolutely. Obviously there are extreme cases in which interpretations are clearly wrong and cannot be supported by the text, but in a literary work as loaded and rife with social commentary as “Bloodchild”, what people take from it will change with the surrounding social environment as well as unique personal events.

I do not think an author has the right to decide what the audience should or should not take from their story. They may write about what they believe the story is about, but in the end what lessons and themes the audience attach themselves too is determined by the readers themselves. This post is a reminder, then, to remember that when publishing a work people can and will interpret it in different ways and to carefully consider how your next story, social media post, or speech may be corrupted and made into something negative instead of positive.

Hamish’s Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUMRaiiNMl3m7LxtCPI2tJg

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