A lesson on Good-faith: Octavia Butler’s Trilogy, Lilith’s Brood, and Hermeneutic Reflection

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not…Habit is persistence in practice. Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.”–Octavia Butler, “Furor Scribendi”

During this unique semester of virtual learning, I took a class that focused on the author Octavia Butler. The novels we read are from her trilogy, Lilith’s Brood. A secondary material we needed to engage with was William A. Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen’s non-fiction work, From Here to Equality. A course concept that unites these two works is the concept of good-faith. I defined good-faith earlier in the semester based off of Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion Framework principle called shared humanity. Shared humanity is defined as “recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience” . Good-faith means accepting that someone did their best, or that you did your best. This concept has been more important than ever to adopt amidst the struggles of learning virtually. Butler’s trilogy positively challenged my good-faith as a reader.  The reading experience taught me the importance of practicing good-faith as a way to establish my identity, in a personal and professional setting. I learned that practicing good-faith is a viable habit to acquire for the preservation of self and of others.

Good-faith is a concept that can be applied to literary studies. Literary studies conducted on a text is like a palimpsest, for through literary criticism, meaning of the original text can be rewritten. A literary criticism term that applies to this concept is called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is defined on the English Oxford Dictionary as “the study or analysis of how texts, utterances, or actions are interpreted” . Butler’s writing craft in this trilogy encourages readers to contemplate the harm and care of exegesis. Hermeneutic studies recognize that when one reads a book, they usually bring themselves along. As I read Butler’s trilogy, I found that my own judgments and biases were getting in the way of an accurate interpretation of the book’s content. As a result, I learned that I was often the barrier to my own progress through the sequential books. I couldn’t appreciate the progression of the plot from one book to another if I misinterpreted earlier scenes. I became like the antagonists in the book, but even this was seemingly debatable, and that is a scary thought.

Interpretation and storytelling are very powerful tools of social change because they can manipulate people’s thoughts and values. In Chimamanda Adichie’s Tedtalk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” she illustrates how a single story has the potential to cause harm through negative depictions of groups. Another form of storytelling that has the potential to be either an act of harm, or care, is what I would call the emendated story. The emendated story is a story that is revised. My initial interpretations of various scenes contained within this trilogy edged toward an act of harm, for my interpretation of the text revised it from its original version to something different in my head. For example, I would ascribe gender pronouns to the ooloi, who are a genderless species. What may seem like a little mistake is not so little. The attribution of gendered, stereotypical traits to the ooloi could have skewed my image of this character who is not characterized as such on the page. This was an act of harm because before I could correct my slip of speech and thinking, I was not doing what Lilith preaches to Titus: “I’ve taken their word for what they are” (Butler 89). This can be an example of an unofficial emendated story obtained by a reader’s interpretative lenses. Emendated stories can be an act of care when applied to historical storytelling. When reparations are conducted in a nation, this rewrites how a nation addressed an issue that was previously neglected. This form of an emendated story is an act of care because it rewrites and declares a new set of values a nation has adopted. Emendated stories can signal progress.

Reparations is an example of good-faithed practices, but sometimes there are barriers to this end goal. A social form of hermeneutics exists through stereotyping, prejudice, and implicit bias. The greatest conflict of the whole series is that the humans did not consent to be engaging in the Oankali trade. The humans are forced to be enslaved by the Oankali because if they do not unite with them, their rights are restricted. The humans may be able to live on their own, but they cannot reproduce without an ooloi. Although the humans did not choose to be enslaved by the Oankali, the Oankali did not choose to have their special biological needs either. Jdahya explains to Lilith that the Oankali are in a helpless predicament where they are villainized in the eyes of the humans: “we are committed to the trade as your body is to breathing. We were overdue for it when we found you” (Butler 42-3). Given this information, both groups are not liable for the ongoing transaction of the gene trade.

The greatest harm of this gene trade transaction comes to those who abide to these truths with good-faith, but are punished for accepting the reality by those who reject it. The humans claim that their rights are restricted by the trade, but the Oankali are restricted in areas of their lives as well. Most Oankali remain in denial of the human’s feelings of injustice. Ignoring the injustices experienced by both parties only intensifies the tension between the two groups, thus hurting everyone involved. The Oankali are prejudiced against the humans because of their human contradiction (Butler 470). Humans are prejudiced against the Oankali because they are a foreign species who are terribly ugly and threatening in their eyes. Humans become preoccupied with the outward appearance of the Oankali, thus they are unable to reason with them logically. This explains why the solution to unity may be found through the construct ooloi who can adapt to these superficial barriers to conflict resolution. Nikanj confirms this statement after observing Jodahs bond with humans successfully: “I don’t believe we would have had many resisters if we had made construct ooloi earlier” (Butler 607). In Darity and Mullen’s book, From Here to Equality, their argument for reparations states that the “debt must be borne by all…by the recognition of the need for national redemption” (245). The acceptance of each of the groups’ shared humanity can bring and bind the humans and the Oankali together, for neither can be blamed for their innate desires. Reparation efforts in the novel means accepting these truths and paying the debt from having previously denied their existence. Reparation advocates strictly adhere to evidence-based work, which is a good-faith value that literary analysts abide to as well by providing textual evidence to support their arguments.

The greatest obstacle to absorbing the text while reading this trilogy, for myself, was confronting the implications of the human contradiction. The human contradiction was a term coined by the Oankali. The Oankali are at once fascinated and afraid of this contradiction. Akin, a construct child, finds this contradiction attractive: “humans were a compelling, seductive, deadly contradiction. He felt drawn to them, yet warned against them” (Butler 266). The human contradiction consists of the traits the Oankali are trying to breed out of the humans: “Intelligence and hierarchical behavior. It was fascinating, seductive, and lethal. It had brough humans to their final war” (Butler 442). Jdahya explained these two traits as “two incompatible characteristics” (Butler 39). As a result, this makes human behavior highly unpredictable, which caused the Oankali to be took with surprise. The expression of these two traits can be unique for each individual. Therefore, this means that humans and Oankali alike can be either positively, or negatively surprised by someone’s behavior. The goal would be to have people manifesting stronger intellectual muscles over hierarchal tendencies, like we see in the character Lilith. Lilith assumes leadership by not asserting dominance over her awakened group; rather, she practices her good-faith “learn and run” philosophy to gain respect (Butler 117). This meant that not only did she need to practice good-faith with the awakened, but that the awakened needed to practice good-faith with Lilith and validate her knowledge. The Oankali must practice good-faith by recognizing that these two traits do not always get expressed, just like some genes can remain unexpressed. To practice good-faith as a reader, I needed to accept the complex implications of the human contradiction and the Oankali’s biological needs. Only once I recognized these truths, could I accept the reparation movement in the novel that was used to bring and bind these two groups together. In other words, one can not fully appreciate the ending if these truths are refuted.

The ending encapsulates Butler’s belief in the capability for humans to undergo change to unite each other:

“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 746).

Butler provides readers an experience to either accept or reject her fundamental message of this trilogy–people are capable of changing. I went into this trilogy being challenged constantly and sometimes being frustrated by falling into Butler’s traps. At the end of the day though, I would desire to leave this class by validating that this experience provided me a “nutritious coating,” a lesson on accepting our shared humanity. To accept that people are imperfect, and that these imperfections can be a source of growth and change. Most importantly, it would be to validate Butler’s craft and her role as a planter, for readers like myself and others. Butler had the potential to change me, and I hope that I opened myself fully enough to let her change me through her words. I aspire to hold tight to Butler’s message of hope in my everyday life, by challenging myself and others to practice good-faith. Practicing good-faith can help others transform for the better and it can help you become a better person too. The lyrics of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s song, “On Children,” encapsulates the good-faith values espoused in Butler’s trilogy. Butler’s books encourage readers and her characters to be:

“The bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far” (On Children).

Butler’s good-faith instinct was adopted by our professor when she designed the course. This class was structured on good-faith! The student’s grades are determined by the students themselves through self-assessments. Professor McCoy is a supportive figure who encourages growth and provides plentiful feedback on our writings. She challenges the hierarchy in the classroom that can be created through hidden curriculum. She tells students that they can call her by her first name. I have been grateful to have her as a teacher for more than one course. I have been able to accept that the classroom is a learning environment and not a place to project some manifesto of oneself. I remember when she warned us about creating manifestos. At the time, I was greatly taken aback. I think this response was in part due to my general learning experience in the past. I felt a need to prove myself in the classroom. As a result, I felt that I needed to come to class having already established an understanding of a book, but this encourages passive thinking in the classroom and this was not acceptable for this class. Professor McCoy’s grading structure demands that we show care not only to our own growth, but the growth of other students. This good-faith course design makes the class come full circle at the end of the semester. Butler’s trilogy ends by showing that good-faith efforts can pay off to the betterment of everyone, just as Professor McCoy hopes that applying this same principle to the class would enable us to witness for ourselves the beauty of good-faith.

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