How do you celebrate a writer who shook the ground beneath her feet? Who created worlds, manipulated space and time, and walked boldly into unchartered territory?
Author of 14 novels, a multitude of science and fantasy short stories, and a crop of critical essays, Octavia Butler’s voice resounds posthumously in the midst of today’s social and political unrest, mounting environmental issues, and pervasive violence. The writer had a mind and vision beyond her time. Gone too soon, Octavia Butler would have been 70 years young today.
Butler was a groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed writer when few Black writers achieved success in the science fiction genre. She was the winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards for her short fiction and the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant.” Her ability to create multidimensional and moving characters, as well as futuristic and fantastic landscapes is unmatched as exemplified in what is perhaps her best-known work, Kindred (1979). This novel about a Black woman who time travels involuntarily to save her many-times great-grandparent illustrates the intersection of Blackness, memory, and trauma. Butler’s ideas about writing were clear: it should challenge the status quo. She was once quoted saying, “I wrote about power because I had so little.” But she was much more powerful than she perhaps imagined. Although she is no longer with us, her work still impacts and inspires writers, scholars, readers, and thinkers alike. The growing Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), a flourishing of literary and artistic work centering Black voices in fantasy and science fiction, is a testament of the ground she tilled and seeds she’s sown. Today’s writers of Black speculative fiction are the harvest.
Certainly, the burgeoning BSAM is peopled by her children. The outstanding success of Nnedi Okorafor (whose novella Binti also won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2016), Nalo Hopkinson, Ytasha Womack, Colson Whitehead (recent winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and other Black writers of speculative fiction are indebted to Octavia Butler. Even artists of Afrofuturism, an ideology that considers the intersection of science fiction with Black culture and history purposed to bring marginalized voices to the fore, stand on her shoulders. Artists of all walks of life, from John Jennings to Ingrid LaFleur and Missy Elliot to Janelle Monae, stand on the shoulders of Afrofuturist ancestors like Octavia Butler. Hence, it is only fitting we take the time to celebrate and reflect on her legacy. I will honor her this week by reading a variety of her works starting with her novel Fledgling (2005) about a vampire woman’s journey to find her family. I invite you to join me by reading from one her novel series or short stories found here.
Anthony Boynton is a scholarly blerd and PhD student in English at the University of Kansas who writes about race, representation, pop culture and Afrofuturism.