Reading Octavia Butler’s Trilogy, Lilith’s Brood, with Good-faith

A common thread of the three course epigraphs for this semester is the topic of learning to grow. What am I trying to grow this semester in our English class 431-01 on Butler’s literature? I think that Professor McCoy is good at presenting us questions to make areas of potential growth more obvious, yet she can’t constantly remind us to stay on a focused track. She also can only do so much to make us have the courage to challenge ourselves. I think I am realizing something I have been pushing back against when it came to more challenging material in Octavia Butler’s literature. In my English class with Professor McCoy in the fall of 2019, we read Octavia Butler’s book Clay’s Ark. In that class, I along with other classmates, noticed that Butler can challenge a reader’s good-faith. Well, now I am seeing that Butler is still able to make me question my good-faith in her book Dawn.

I had defined good-faith earlier in the semester based off of Kristin Neff’s self-compassion third element called shared humanity. In Kristin Neff’s The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, she defined common humanity as “recognizing that all humans are flawed works-in-progress, that everyone fails, makes mistakes, and experiences hardships in life” (Neff 10). My good-faith as a reader of Butler’s books has been endlessly tested. I am constantly being entrapped by Butler’s work that has the power to entangle readers into the biases they hold. For example, in the book the aliens called oolois are creatures that do not have sexual organs. Referring to these creatures, I have repeatedly called them by either female or male pronouns out of a habit of using gender pronouns for those around me.

Butler’s books have the tendency to challenge reader’s beliefs, biases and their good-faith to get them actively thinking. In one of our course epigraphs, a passage from Butler’s book Imago is written at the top of our syllabus for us to reflect on: “I chose a spot near the river. There I prepared the seed to go into the ground. I gave it a thick, nutritious coating, then brought it out of my body through my right sensory hand. I planted it deep in the rich soil of the riverbank. Seconds after I had expelled it, I felt it begin the tiny positioning movements of independent life” (Butler). When we went over the syllabus and I read this passage for the first time, I was struck by the imagery. I still am in love with this passage and I am eager to get to this book to know its context, but as it stands, it serves as a great metaphor. Butler, and for that matter, any author is like a gardener with seeds in their pockets. Readers must dig a hole in their interiority to be open to receiving the seed. How easily that seed gets planted depends on a reader’s willingness to grow from what they learned in books about themselves and the world around them. In our last discussion forum for the class, the topic was implicit bias. Biases in readers and in the characters of Dawn are being actively challenged, thus indicating an area for potential growth in the reader.

I believe that Butler traps us purposely by using narrative techniques, such as cutting out an important scene. Lilith’s first time into the arena is not provided, thus leaving readers skeptical of where her loyalty resides. Is her loyalty with the humans or the Oankali? I am intensely infuriated by this omission. That scene could have provided readers with answers through characterization, but now I am just like the awakened humans wondering if Lilith struggled against what the Oankali told her. Did Lilith build a floatation device to test what the Oankali told her–that they are on a spaceship away from earth? I am utterly left with unanswered questions; thus, my moral compass is unable to be utilized efficiently.

Professor McCoy keeps gently reminding us of how easily Butler can entrap us because she knows her readers more than we know ourselves. This got me thinking about one of our course epigraphs taken from Butler’s “Furor Scribendi,” where she states that “habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not…As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent”. To get through this book, our habit of engaging in literary analysis is the most important tool we have. Habit could also be representative of biased thinking as well. Biased thinking is natural to us, especially if this is implicit bias. In the Tedtalk “Immaculate Perception,” Jerry King describes implicit bias as being the most destructive bias because it can be unperceived by the individual. The gender bias I have witnessed in myself, as noted earlier, is implicit.

A bias that I fear will manifest is a distorted perception of Lilith through not practicing good-faith. I fear that I will view Lilith as the enemy, as a traitor to the human species, just like most of the people she awakens feel. Feeling isn’t fact, and so I will have to remind myself to check the facts. Lilith was put into an impossible situation where choice wasn’t afforded to her, unless you consider assisted suicide a viable and appealing alternative. I don’t think it is responsible of readers to blame Lilith for choosing life and being forced to parent the awakened humans. However, I do think it is important to remember that Lilith’s biological chemistry could be altered from the memory operation Nikanji performed on her, which enables the aliens to be “leaving its mark” through an actively forming chemical bond to an ooloi (Butler 110). In the book, Lilith consents to the memory procedure, and to a sexual experience with an ooloi and Joseph that was not transparent, thus making her choice uninformed and an example of failed informative consent. It is only after the memory procedure, when Lilith learns a chemical bond had been planted in her that would make her have to “avoid deep contact-contact that involves penetration of the flesh” and to “avoid all contact with most people” (Butler 111). I find my good-faith tested by the disregard or negligence the Oankali have at being transparent with humans and treating them with dignity.

Kahguyhat said that humans would not be changed to the degree as descendants of theirs would be. I have my doubts about the timeline of the biological alterations possible. After Kahguyaht discloses the side effects of the memory procedure, it reports that “It’s different with humans. Some [humans] linger in the avoidance stage much longer than we would. The longest I’ve known it to last is forty days” (Butler 111). What struck me in this passage was the feeling that they were talking about the stages of grief. The avoidance stage sounds like another name for the first stage of grief, called the denial stage. In the denial stage, people are unwilling to recognize their present circumstances. As this article explains, during this stage a person can feel numbness, apathy, and shock. In the book, the avoidance stage is referring to the recovery process after a human receives a brain chemistry procedure that alters their memory capabilities. This avoidance stage causes people to avoid contact with other Oankali or humans who are not of the same ooloi family. I think that this stage represents the human process of accepting their changed biology from their interaction with the Oankali, which, as Joseph fears, will make them less human (Butler 196). This stage is fundamental for the humans to overcome their grief that accompanies this transition, thus aligning humans more with the Oankali.

I have had no trouble recognizing the grief of the humans, but what do the Oankali have to lose? Earlier in the text, Lilith is informed on the Oankali’s motive to save the humans. Jdahya informs Lilith that the Oankali are conducting a genetic trade with humans that focuses on cancer cell reproduction, but even this answer remains ambiguous (Butler 40).  I now wonder though, if this trade has consequences for both species, not just the Oankali. In an earlier forum discussion, I made a connection to the shared etymology of care and harm to grief. The fact that grief is resurfacing as a topic, this has me more curious about my views of the Oankali. I am now wondering if I have misinterpreted the Oankali’s motives. I don’t think I am able to give up my intense scrutiny and weariness towards them until further along, but as I am seeing, this may become increasingly difficult if Lilith becomes one of them. All I have considered through my readings was the cost of this new relationship to the humans just as Lilith questioned Jdahya, “I want to know the price of your people’s help” (Butler 15). Now that I am aware of my bias towards the humans, I am more inclined to try and listen to the Oankali’s sacrifice and griefs.

My goal for this course as we continue reading Butler’s trilogy is to be more adaptable. Rereading’s will be necessary because sometimes the biases one may hold and an inherent tendency to judge to survive, can have the opposite effect to thriving. A student in this class can’t thrive without self-awareness and being critical of one’s thought processes. I have found myself resembling those who are rebelling in the awakened group “who favored action” and who “don’t want reason and logic or your hopes or expectations. They want Moses or somebody to come and lead them into lives they can understand” (Butler 175, 174). The rebels don’t want the grief that comes with care. Showing care would be “biding their time, waiting for more information” (Butler 175). I need to learn how to process the information that is provided and to be patient for more information. Doing this can create some grief and discomfort, but that is better for the class and for myself. It would be practicing good-faith as a reader.

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