Independent Life: An Act of Creation in a Tumultuous World

“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.” –Octavia Butler, Imago

Over the course of this epigraph, Octavia Butler succinctly describes the act of creation. In the beginning, there is a preparation: Jodahs considers a location to plant the seed, and give it a “thick, nutritious coating.” The process of creation, for Jodahs, involves the implantation of the seed into the rich soil. The result of Jodahs’ efforts is profound: it then ‘felt it begin the tiny positioning movements of independent life.” Jodahs enters this process with an open mind and has confidence that his efforts will produce something fruitful. The role of independence in this epigraph is crucial to note since the definition of independence implies two meanings: freedom from constraints and assumptions being the first, and then self-assuredness as the second. In this course, I initially thought that as a scholar and as a thinker, I always had to be more of a maverick and that the more original and freer from assumptions (as possible) my ideas were, the more valid my own ideas were. The act of creation, in this case, was a glorification of my own ego and need to be different. Over time, I have learned to be more self-assured in my own textual analysis and creative endeavors. I can take into consideration what people think, but because of self-assuredness, I do not have to let each critique be a buffer or a blow to my ego. The act of creation, in this instance, is an expression of self that is meant to be out for discussion and critique. In Imago, Jodahs is a construct, its role undefined in the setting of Lilith’s Brood that has categories of human, ooloi, and those that are a product of both. However, I take on many roles, such as scholar, author, creator, thinker, and future educator. In future discussions, pertaining to this text or otherwise, I hope to further examine the assumptions I have, coming from the roles of scholar, author, creator, thinker, and future educator. I hope to be self-assured and cognizant of my own assumptions, not only to be careful and propulsive in my own thoughts but also to reduce harm as much as I can. 

There is one instance I can recall in this course where my intellectual ideas caused harm. In a Zoom class, I used the idiom of “what we owe each other”, and the word “owe” drew a lot of questions. Alongside the help of Dr. McCoy and my peers, I realized that the word “owe” had capitalist connotations. By using the idiom “what we owe each other,” I was implying that respect is based in a capitalist framework, and relationships a transaction. This is rooted in historical precedent when referring to slaves. In the text From Here to Equality, which details the case for reparations for African-Americans, there is a clear connotation between property and dehumanization: “The same terms are applied to slaves that are given to cattle. They are called ‘stock.’ So when the children of slaves are spoken of prospectively, they are called their ‘increase’; the same term that is applied to flocks and herds.” (Weld, Weld, & Grimke, qtd. in Darity & Mullen 35) Vocabulary matters, especially when describing what brings and binds people together. In the case of slavery, the people who are enslaved are described in terms of property, and the ties between the people who are enslaved and the slaveholders are forever affected. The ties between humans and the Oankali in Lilith’s Brood are also tenuous and unpredictable. Near the end of Dawn, Lilith plans to introduce the ooloi to the humans, who have never crossed paths before. The ooloi, upon their first encounter with the humans, drug the humans. One effect of the drugging is explained here: “ean was going through a prolonged period of ooloi-induced reclusiveness. All of the humans who had been kept heavily drugged were this way––unable to tolerate the nearness of anyone except their human mate and the ooloi who had drugged them.” (Butler 193) This is an example of how Jean was negatively affected by her relationship with her ooloi. No one could have predicted the extremity of her symptoms, but her symptoms are a direct result of her relationship.

Amidst developing an understanding of myself and my boundaries, I have found it challenging as I have matured to determine which acts of mine cause harm and which acts of mine make another person feel cared for. Alongside that predicament, I also have found it challenging to determine whether other people’s actions cause harm towards me, or whether they make me feel cared for. When it comes to harm, one of the first examples I think of is from From Here to Equality.  Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, addresses Congress and tells them why slavery and the continued oppression of black people are legitimate: 

“All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind––from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just––but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.” (Stephens, qtd. in Darity Jr. & Mullen 148) 

The intent of this speech is to reinforce inferiority and superiority, crush any arguments that state otherwise. It perpetuates the idea that black bodies are worthless except for enabling white bodies to gain more wealth/status/privilege in society, regardless of other people’s opinions. Alexander Stephens would rather continue with slavery and racism as opposed to ending it and reflecting on his individual role in perpetuating slavery and racism. Most of all, harm excludes the possibility that the recipient needs care. Even dressed up in the most patronizing, condescending package, harm ultimately assumes that additional care should be ignored, or that care should be taken away from the recipient.

While Stephens’ speech details a whole philosophy behind harm and has perpetuated harm for a very long time, in Lilith’s Blood, acts of harm often appear in interpersonal interactions. Lilith is initially very lonely on the ship and is only surrounded by Oankali. After much prodding, the Oankali place her in a room with Paul Titus, a human who has been with the Oankali longer than Lilith has. Lilith notices how physically powerful Paul Titus is, especially compared to her smaller stature. Eventually, after a heated and emotional conversation, Paul Titus sexually imposes on Lilith: “He tore her jacket off then fumbled with her pants. She threw her weight against him suddenly and managed to shove him away.” (Butler 95)  Paul Titus has a similar intent to Stephens: to have his way with Lilith, regardless of Lilith’s feelings, and to put his feelings on Lilith, as opposed to dealing with the ramifications of his own experience as a human in the clutches of the Oankali. Paul Titus has been harmed by the Oankali and by his own twisted narrative of his own life, and he continues to perpetuate harm by sexually imposing on Lilith. 

Care, on the other hand, requires no such malevolent intent. In Adulthood Rites, Akin and Tiikuchahk have a hard time getting along. Ayre, in desperation, calls upon them to get along: “‘You know you must help each other,’ Ayre said. Akin and Tiikuchahk drew back reflexively. ‘You can’t be what you should have been, but you can help each other.’ Akin could not miss the certainty Ayre felt. ‘You’re both alone. You’ll both be strangers. And you’re like one pea cut in half. Let yourselves depend on each other a little.'” (Butler 435) In the process of appealing to Akin and Tiikuchahk, Ayre intends to bring two beings together, acknowledging counter-arguments and differences without shutting them down. This action perpetuates trust and recognition while giving Akin and Tiikuchahk the opportunity to consent. Most importantly, this action does not perpetuate harm. 

In Dawn, Lilith feels traumatized after her encounter with Paul Titus, and retreats away from the Oankali. As a gesture of reconciliation, Kahguyaht, one of the ooloi, surprises her: “It relieved her boredom, and, to her surprise, it brought gifts: a block of tough, thin, white paper––more than a ream––and a handful of pens that said Paper Mate, Parker, and Bic.” (108) This gesture is a really moving and selfless act of care, not expecting anything from Lilith in return. In the bigger picture, this gesture allows for Lilith to take care of herself, express herself, recognize her own personhood and value outside of the Oankali value system. Care expands, while harm contracts. 

Within the chaos of caring and harming, over independence, of the turmoil that we call life, I find myself examining other metamorphoses in an effort to understand my own. In each of the metamorphoses I examined, I found three roles: the transformer, the questioner, and the supporter. One of the most profound metamorphoses I found in Dawn was after the Oankali and the humans encounter one another. Lilith and Joseph, one of the humans she has awakened, strike up a relationship. Eventually, she decides to introduce Joseph to Nikanj, and Joseph is initially questioning, frightened of Nikanj’s appearance and especially of his sensory arms and their abilities. Nikanj carefully explains what it is and what it is capable of while reiterating that metamorphosis, and the ability to manipulate the human senses when they are joined together, is something innate within it. Lilith encourages Joseph to open up and be trusting to Nikanj’s sensory arms, and the three of them experience a metamorphosis: “Now their delight in one another ignited and burned. They moved together, sustaining an impossible intensity, both of them tireless, perfectly matched, ablaze in sensation, lost in one another.” (Butler 162) In this orgasmic state, the three of them experience a transformation together. Afterward, Joseph feels angry while denying his pleasure over the experience, and Lilith realizes that Nikanj chose Joseph for her (164.) This throws Lilith into shock, and instead of fully accepting her transformation, she suddenly questions her reality, and why Nikanj’s intervention has to occur. 

In Adulthood Rites, Tino, Lilith’s new partner after Joseph’s death, witnesses Nikanj’s transformation, despite him feeling like a third wheel in their relationship. After Tino wishes that Nikanj were not there, “Nikanj’s body tentacles seemed to tremble, then solidify into discolored lumps. They sank into themselves the way the soft bodies of slugs seemed to when they drew themselves up to rest…There it sat down and seemed almost to turn itself off.” (Butler 293) Stillness in the midst of transformation is shocking, and this stillness highlights Nikanj’s acceptance of its transformation. Tino takes on the role of the questioner, repulsed by and afraid of the change occurring right in front of his eyes. Lilith takes on the role of the supporter, loving both Tino and Nikanj in their vulnerable states. Her act of vulnerability helps connect those two beings together. 

Lastly, in Imago, Jodahs has been traveling with Jesusa and Tomás, and living off of the land. Jodahs recognizes within itself that it needs to transform, and comforts Tomás and Jesusa, who are each questioning of and accepting of a future transformation. Jodahs states, “Second metamorphosis, I had been told, was not one long sleep as the first one had been. It was a series of shorter sleeps––sleeps several days long. I frightened them. Jesusa thought first that I was faking, then that I was dead.” (Butler 648) The interesting part of this transformation is that it comes from the perspective of the transformer, not from the third-person. Jodahs ultimately goes along with its transformation. Jesusa, frightened by the transformation, is so emotionally invested in its transformation that she thinks it is dead. 

This past semester, I have found myself in a transitional phase of my life. I am a senior in college, soon to be student teaching, and life outside of college is months, instead of years away. What has been frustrating is that this transitional phase is in a pandemic, where it has forced me and everyone I know to bunker down and completely alter their own lives. It has completely altered the course of my life, my own character, and my outlook on the world. Lately, since my mental and emotional resources have been depleted or altered, I find myself in the roles of the questioners and of the accepters when it comes to change. On my better days, I find myself accepting change as inevitable, like the ebb and flow of the tides. On my worse days, I find myself raging at the past, present, and future, questioning why the circumstances of my life have to exist. Transformation, and change, sound less like an inevitability and more like teeth pulling at best, a car wreck at worst. The acceptance of change, and the love for change, expressed by Lilith and Jesusa, is something that I have not reached yet. I look forward to that happening, but I am realistic about my ability to cope with change in my present circumstances. This self-reflection is a process I wasn’t ready to embrace before the pandemic. The pandemic revealed that there were a lot of preconceived narratives and behaviors that I needed to address. In this phase of my own life, I find Octavia Butler’s willingness to shatter, or at least test, the preconceived narratives, and behaviors, comforting. In a tumultuous world, seeking out the self-assured, as well as seeking out the experiences that emotionally resonate, becomes a beacon in the swirling fog. The beacon continues to glow, for the sake of the lives, and the acts of creation, we continue to have in this world. Continued creation of independent life, even in grim circumstances, depends on us reflecting on care and harm. It depends on examining what binds us together. It depends on us embracing our roles, both assigned and chosen, in order to sustain not only independent life, but thriving life. (2411)

Works Cited:

Butler, Octavia E., et al. Lilith’s Brood. Grand Central Publishing, 2007.

Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.