Octavia E. Butler harnessed her boundless curiosity, forging a new vision


In 2021, Alyssa Collins received a one-year Octavia E. Butler Fellowship from the Huntington Library, Museum of Art and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

Butler, whose papers are housed at the Huntington, was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. A pioneering writer in a genre long dominated by white men, her work has explored power structures, shifting definitions of humanity, and alternative societies.

In an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Collins explains how Butler’s boundless curiosity inspired the author’s work, and how Butler’s experiences as a black woman drew her to “humans who have to face the limits or extremities of humanity”.

Butler, who died in 2006, would have turned 75 on June 22, 2022.

How did you become interested in Octavia E. Butler?

I first read Butler’s work in a graduate course on feminist literature and theory. We are reading “Parable of the Sower”, an apocalyptic novel published in 1993 but set in 21st century America. I was really intrigued by the prescient nature of the novel. But I wanted to know if she had something weirder on her backlist.

I managed to get my hands on “Bloodchild,” an award-winning 1984 short story about aliens and male pregnancy. After reading this story, I was pretty hooked.

Can you give us an idea of ​​the extent of this collection, in terms of volume and value, and how much you were able to read during your internship?

The Octavia E. Butler collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, photos, research papers, and ephemera. It is housed in 386 boxes, one volume, two binders and 18 lined folders.

Octavia E. Butler’s short story “Bloodchild” appeared in a 1984 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. Folder 770

As you can imagine this is a large amount of material collected, so much so that when I started my fellowship the curator who handled the collection told me that I would not be able to see it all .

I spent most of my time working on Butler’s research papers, his correspondence with authors, and his writing materials, including his note cards and notebooks. I found the contents of these notebooks to be an invaluable window into Butler’s scientific thinking.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned about Butler in the collection?

Even given what I knew of Butler as a famous writer and scholar, each day I spent in his archives only increased my esteem for him. I was continually surprised not only by the breadth of her interests and the depth of her knowledge, but also by the way she was able to synthesize seemingly disparate topics.

His interest in topics like slime mold, cancer, and biotechnology comes through in his stories in ways readers might not expect. Take Butler’s interest in symbiogenesis, a theory of evolution based on cooperation rather than Darwinian competition. In “Bloodchild,” in which humans help procreate insect-like aliens, readers can watch Butler probe that theory by imagining different ways humans might interact and evolve with other species.

Your project is called “Cellular Blackness: Octavia E. Butler’s Posthuman Ontologies”. What is posthumanism and how does it relate to Butler’s work?

My book project grew out of a project I started in graduate school that looked at how 20th-century black speculative writers imagined and interacted with an area of ​​thought called posthumanism. Posthumanism scholars ponder the limits of what makes us human — or how we define humanity — and whether there are any couplings with technology that might make us posthuman now or in the future.

I wanted to know how black writers engage with the idea or concept of posthumanism when blackness has historically been imagined as inhuman – in, for example, justifications for the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow segregation and continued state violence against black people.

What interested me in Butler’s work is that his writing consistently depicts humans having to come to terms with the edges or extremities of humanity. She also places important decisions about humanity in the hands of black female characters – individuals who have been dehumanized or erased. My book project examines how Butler imagines these defining moments and how she sees humanity defined and realized in her novels.

What about this idea of ​​“cellular darkness”?

It seems that Butler’s own speculative investigation of humanity is not on the scale of bodies, but rather on the scale of cells.

In Butler’s 1987 novel “Dawn,” a black woman named Lilith plans to help a group of aliens interested in interbreeding with humans in a way that would “end” the human race. Lilith, who has a history of cancer in her family and a tumor the aliens removed, has what the aliens call “cancer talent.” They are interested in the possibilities that could arise from the regulation of cell growth.

Turns out Butler was interested in the story of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black cancer patient whose tumor cells were taken without her knowledge at Johns Hopkins in 1951. Unlike the other samples that had been taken from the lab over the years, Lacks quickly bred and remained alive even after Lacks died the same year. To this day, his prolific cell line, called HeLa cells, is used around the world to study cancer cells and the effects of various treatments.

Sepia portrait photography of young woman on a coat.
Octavia E. Butler was fascinated by the story of Henrietta Lacks and her famous cell line. Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In his unpublished notes, Butler imagines what HeLa cells, with their endless replication, could offer apart from the death of a person. In works like “Dawn,” you can see Butler thinking about cell replication as a concept that expands humanity, whether in symbiosis with other species or through human evolution.

The “Parable” books, which were written in the 1990s and set in the 2020s, have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Butler’s vision of the near future in these works – with a society teetering on the brink of impending environmental catastrophe, unchecked corporate greed and worsening economic inequality – seems prescient. Has your time in the collection given you new insights into their enduring relevance?

At Butler, the issues of extreme climate change, income inequality, capitalist exploitation, housing shortages, racial prejudice, and education funding are nothing new.

She read a lot—newspapers, science textbooks, anthropological works, novels, self-help books—and thought deeply about what she read. I think Butler just took what she learned from those sources, which indicated where things were heading, and imagined what the not so distant future would look like if nothing was set.

Well, as Butler shows us, those issues haven’t been resolved, and they’ve only gotten worse in the 30-plus years since she wrote the books.

The protagonist of the first “Parable” novel, Lauren, creates a belief system called “Earthseed”. It contains mottos of change – for example, “God is change” and “Whatever you change, changes you” – and I think Butler hoped Earthseed could inspire people to change the world in a meaningful way. These books seem relevant because there are still a lot of people who are interested in pushing, imagining and making things happen.

Laura Erskine contributed to this interview.The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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