Adapting to the Unfamiliar

Throughout this semester, I have deepened my habits of thinkING and I look forward to applying these new skills to my life beyond this course. I have gained a new appreciation and understanding of textual evidence, and am now much more comfortable asking myself why the things that I find interesting matter to the entirety of a story and to society as a whole. At the beginning of this course, I was not especially excited to start reading a science fiction novel. I was not quite sure why I never felt compelled to read science fiction, but after reading this novel and looking more closely into Octavia Butler’s writing, I have realized that the reason I was not interested in science fiction before was because I enjoy more realistic and relatable stories. 

However, I ended up really enjoying reading Lilith’s Brood and making dozens of annotations throughout the novel of things that I found notable. Oftentimes, I bookmark quotes or sections of novels that I find interesting, typically with no greater purpose besides the fact that I find them notable. For example, a frequent note that I made throughout my reading was in regard to the “human contradiction” that is often discussed throughout this novel. I found this incredibly interesting, especially because I had never thought of how truly contradictive humans are. Throughout this course, I have learned that I need to ask myself what these sections contribute to the story, why the author may have incorporated them, and especially why it piqued my interest. I was surprised to see that so many parts of this story did interest me, as I am not usually interested in science fiction. I noticed that while the situations portrayed in Lilith’s Brood are not incredibly realistic, the emotions and experiences can still be relatable to me. These notes that I took demonstrate how Octavia Butler uses this concept to illustrate how characters adapt to new situations in order to show how important familiarity and flexibility are in bringing and binding people together, harm and care, and change. 

Throughout Lilith’s Brood, Butler demonstrates how familiarity can bring and bind people together and make them more adaptable in new situations. In this trilogy, there is a clear separation between Oankali, Humans who mate with Oankali, and resistor Humans. I noticed especially how the resistors display that familiarity brings and binds them together. When Akin lives among the resistors, he is treated well because they “liked him simply because he looked like them” (Butler 385). The fact that Akin looks generally human to the resistors made the resistors more comfortable around him and more willing to care for him. Conversely, the resistors encounter the two Oankali-Human constructs, Amma and Shkaht, who do not look as human as Akin does. The resistor Neci wants to cut off Amma and Shkahts’s sensory tentacles because she believes that the girls would look more Human without them. Neci explains how she thinks the girls will “learn to do without the ugly little things if [the resistors] take them off while they’re so young” and “they’ll learn to use their human senses” (Butler 375). Since Neci is uncomfortable with how the girls look—they are not as Human-presenting as Akin—she believes that making them look more familiar to her might make her and the other resistors more capable of bonding with them. It is important to note how humans use the sense of sight to gauge familiarity, whereas the Oankali use senses like taste, smell, and touch to determine familiarity. When Akin tells the resistor Tate how much it would hurt the girls to cut off their tentacles and that a sensory tentacle could still sting a human even if the Oankali were dead, Tate seems to care more about the fact that a human could get hurt than the Oankali girls being in excruciating pain from losing their tentacles. This carelessness connects to the way that humans value visual appearance for comfort because even though cutting the girls’ tentacles off will hurt them immensely, it is more important to the humans that they are visually appealing. Tate asks Akin many questions about the process of removing tentacles, but seems to stop her questioning when Akin brings up the harm and pain it would cause the Oankali (Butler 381). Butler makes this subtle but important move to show how the Humans value their own comfort and familiarity over the comfort of someone different than themselves. 

The Oankali also demonstrate how familiarity brings and binds them together by sterilizing the Humans because they do not want Humans to mate with one another and make something that the Oankali do not want and does not look like them. Akin explains how the Oankali have taken away the Human’s ability to reproduce, saying “their kind is all they’ve ever known or been, and now there won’t be any more. They try to make us like them, but we won’t ever really be like them, and they know it” (Butler 377). However, at a time of doubt in Akin’s life, he remembers words that Lilith once told him:

“‘Human beings fear difference’, Lilith had told him once. ‘Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization’” (Butler 329).

Lilith tells Akin that in times when he feels conflict, to “‘try and go the Oankali way’” by embracing difference (Butler 329). While the Oankali do believe that their species is superior to humans and want to essentially eliminate the humans, they are more adaptable than humans are in terms of familiarity. By illustrating this, Butler draws attention to how important familiarity is to all life forms when bonding with one another; however, adapting to the unfamiliar, like the Oankali pursue, can be just as important when bringing and binding people together. It is especially important to note that this conversation takes place between Lilith and Akin—both of whom exhibit human and Oankali characteristics—and Lilith urges Akin to follow the Oankali way rather than the human way. This advice implies that Lilith believes that the Oankali have a better way of accepting what is not familiar to them, displaying their strong adaptability. Familiarity is especially important in the conversation of what brings and binds people together because it can create a basis of comfort and understanding to explore unfamiliar things; meanwhile, adaptability can serve as a show of good faith and comfort as well. 

When considering how familiarity and adaptability brings and binds people together, it is also important to note how the idea of consent may be adaptable beyond what we are familiar with. I believe that consent plays a vital role in discussions about both harm and care. First, it is important to understand that there is sometimes a lack of consent on both sides of a situation. Additionally, we must consider that consent does not always equate to something bad happening to someone. In the case of sighted humans, physical attraction can be a nonconsensual situation. At the beginning of this semester, we viewed a “meet cute” from the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. In this scene, the two star-crossed lovers saw one another for the first time through a fish tank. In the context of the film, it is assumed that there was an instant physical attraction between the two. However, what we may fail to recognize is how physical attraction between sighted people often lacks consent. Neither of the participants in this scene asked for the physical attraction from the other, but they projected their own physical attraction onto the other. While this is not inherently harmful, it is still a nonconsensual situation. 

In a recent Zoom discussion, Beth presented the metaphor of how breathing is essentially a non-consensual act. Although breathing is something that every Human and mammal must do to survive, it is something that we have not consented to at birth. This discussion blurs the line of harm and care with regards to consent because while we tend to see almost everything that is not consensual as negative or harmful (in most cases it is), there may be some instances where not having consent is positive or caring. In this case, if mammals did not consent to breathing they would all die almost instantly. In Imago, when Lilith discusses mating with Oankali as a Human with Jesusa, Jesusa asks, “You didn’t have a choice [to mate with Nikanj], did you?” and Lilith responds “I did, oh yes. I chose to live” (Butler 672). This situation is similar to the metaphor of breathing. Lilith “consented” to a certain extent, but the only other option was death. This “choice” also brings up the question of how much the Oankali “care” for humans like Lilith if their version of “consent” is basically a negative ultimatum where one choice is life and the other is death. I found a similar situation in other instances where the Oankali seem to do positive things for the Humans, but without their knowledge or consent. For example, the Oankali cured Lilith of her cancer before she was Awakened and Jodahs altered Marina’s body so that she could safely bear children. The latter was a situation where Jodahs (who changed her body) also did not entirely consent, but it seems harmful that the Oankali—especially the ooloi—are physically unable to stop themselves from healing someone, especially when the person being healed does not consent. Butler provokes readers to think of consent in a different way than we’re used to; instead of seeing a lack of consent as strictly harmful, Butler exposes the ways in which lacking consent can also be used in a caring and necessary way, just like breathing. This nuanced concept of consent is perhaps unfamiliar to Butler’s audience, forcing readers to demonstrate good faith in Butler by adapting to a new meaning. 

Finally, recognizing how familiarity and adaptability brings and binds people together has really helped push me further into the habit of being “prepared to change and be changed”. All in all, I am typically receptive to new information and ideas as long as they do not challenge my moral values. In my second To the Forums! Discussion post, I discussed how I believe that willful education is one of the most vital practices of good faith. I often refer back to this post, as it is something I truly believe in and work to implement in my everyday life. In this post, I explain how I believe that “In an age of constant access to ever-evolving information, there is virtually no reason why one should choose to remain ignorant to the lives, experiences, cultures, etc. of others.“ In her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie touches on this aspect of being prepared to change and be changed, detailing a time when she realized how media and other people’s opinions affected her own views. Adichie tells the story of when she visited Mexico for the first time and was shocked by the difference between actual Mexican people and the negative, harmful way that they are stereotyped in the United States. What I find to be most important about this story is that Adichie recognizes that she arrived in Mexico with these negative biases, and was ashamed to have had them. Furthermore, this instance helped Adichie realize that this is probably not the only example of a societal, implicit bias affecting the way she sees things, and worked to change this issue in herself and others. I view myself as “prepared to change and be changed” because I work every day to be like Adichie and recognize the perceptions I have and be open to new interpretations of them. Whenever I catch myself thinking something stereotypical about something or someone, I take a moment to reflect on why I have those thoughts and how I can actively change them. Even going into this course, one of the first things I said during our first Zoom meeting was that I was not really “that into” science-fiction novels and usually do not enjoy reading them because they are unrealistic and therefore unrelatable to me. However, through reading Lilith’s Brood, I have formed a new, deeper understanding of what science fiction can be, something that was not familiar to me before reading Butler’s work. I have accepted that while a story may be unrealistic, it can still have themes that I relate to, like Butler’s discussion of familiarity and adaptability in Lilith’s Brood. I look forward to recognizing especially when things feel “safe” or familiar to me in my life outside of academia and further adapt my perception of the world around me when I must oppose that familiarity.

One Reply to “Adapting to the Unfamiliar”

  1. Hi Sophie!

    I have loved reading each of your “moves” for this final essay, and it was just remarkable seeing it all come together. I loved how you wove so many Forums! discussions into this culminating final essay, from the Romeo + Juliet clip, to the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Ted Talk, to issues surrounding consent.

    Your central theme of “familiarity” is so interesting and fitting for the semester we have just had. Since the pandemic hit in March, nothing has felt “familiar”. But, we didn’t have an option to just stop living until things felt familiar again, we had to work to find a new normal. This is an ongoing process, and some days are better than others, but the only other option than trying to find a way to make it work would be to just stop everything. This is like the example you mentioned in your essay- Lilith having to choose if we wanted to mate with Nikanj or stop living. In both situations, we may be navigating obstacles we never imagined we would have to face, but all the same, we are willing to keep trying. To keep working towards finding this familiarity, this happiness again.

    Your discussion of consent reminded me of something I wrote in my essay about harm/care- that things are never as clear-cut as we would like them to be. I think we are raised to think “This is a good person” or “This is a bad person” because it’s easier to quickly label people, then actually realize that each person is complexly unique, with too many layers for us to ever understand, nevermind using one word to label them. It might be easier to describe things or people as only one thing, but this causes extreme harm. What’s more important than trying to “pin down” who a person is, or make them conform to one label, is just to acknowledge that every person is too complex to ever understand, and with this realization come knowing that we should always keep an open mind. I learned that having an open mind and being willing to correct my mistakes was integral this semester to navigate Butler’s traps.

    Your ending comment- ” I must oppose that familiarity.” is so powerful. You succinctly tied up in just a few words a huge concept that I think we all learned throughout this semester. It might be easier to resort to what we know we like, but this would get boring so quickly. This is how ignorance is bred, by refusing to be uncomfortable. I think by reading Lilith’s Brood, we were all forced to encounter something we didn’t know how to process. But, instead of abandoning the story and characters altogether, we binded together as a class to create meaning.

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