In lieu of the usual editorial ramblings, we are honored to bring you this remembrance of Octavia Butler by her friend and peer, Steven Barnes.
On Friday the 24th of February 2006, Octavia Butler fell outside her house during what neighbors thought was a stroke. A neighbor kid found her outside her house. They rushed her to the hospital, and found blood had pooled in her brain, they operated but she passed away. She had been in poor health for years, and in recent months could barely take a dozen steps without pausing to rest.
During the '80s, we lived within walking distance of each other, and often got together for dinner. I sensed a deep loneliness in Octavia, but also humor, vast intelligence, and a level of investment in her craft that was simply phenomenal. For years Samuel Delany, Octavia, and I were the only black science fiction writers. Now, Octavia is gone, and I feel a sense of loss so incredibly deep that I have no words.
She was perhaps the purest writer I've ever known, investing more of herself in her work than any other sane person I've ever met, and she was deeply sane. She remains the only science fiction writer to receive one of the vaunted "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a $295,000 public acknowledgement of what those of us who knew her understood: she was truly one of a kind, in the very best sense of the term.
Her father was a shoeshine man who died when she was a child, her mother a maid who brought her along on jobs. She lived in relative poverty before that MacArthur grant, and was roiled by personal and professional doubts. I suspect that early rejections by her peers (she was six feet tall in her early teens, with a slight speech impediment, and children can be terribly cruel) drove her deep into the recesses of her own heart and mind. There, she lived in fantasy. When she looked for fantasy worlds in the books and movies outside herself, they never positively reflected her own ethnicity, so she began to write.
I think we all take some similar journey—we have something that we wish to communicate within us, and are stifled. In Octavia's case, it was her beauty, intelligence, her warmth and courage. She could not communicate these things directly: when she wrote of slavery, publishers rejected it. When she wrote of blackness, publishers put green people on the covers of her books. She had to learn to speak in metaphor, or risk starvation.
I believe that her challenges took a terrible toll on her, one that often happens to artists: They stuff their pain, and while they achieve greatness in certain areas of their lives, remain damaged in others. It is like driving in the Indy 500 with your brakes on. My God, she had a powerful engine. But the psychic trauma was incalculable.
Octavia's most popular work is Kindred, a time-travel novel in which a contemporary black woman from 1976 Southern California is transported back into slave times. Initially rejected by publisher after publisher, the 1979 novel is now a standard work in high schools and colleges, with over a quarter million copies in print.
After her Parable of the Talents, winner of one of her two Nebula Awards in science fiction, Octavia found it difficult to complete or invest in projects, and seven years passed before the publication of her final novel, Fledgling, a vampire novel that deals, as is typical of her work, with racial and gender identity, as well as social power issues.
What do I remember most about her? It happened at a book signing about ten years ago. Her contempt of "trickle-down economics" and what she considered its grotesque disregard for the needs of the underclass triggered one of the very few angry outbursts I had ever seen from her. To see this immense, brilliant, passionate, painstakingly courteous woman momentarily lose her cool in public was really quite something. And immediately after she made her opinion unmistakably clear, that anger vanished back behind a curtain. Her eyes relaxed, her voice was modulated again, laughter returned to the room. But for just a moment the anger and pain that fueled her work was in plain view.
She drew much from that wellspring, focused it with intelligence and obscured her intent with metaphor. She was an Artist with a capital "A," and in my mind, the most important female science fiction writer since Mary Shelley.
Octavia is survived by two elderly aunts, many cousins in Southern California, and a legion of readers who adored her. She is gone, but her work remains. Those of you who have yet to discover it, I envy you ... a bit. Because those who know who she was—who were fortunate enough to actually experience her as a friend, role model and supreme artist while she walked among us, however haltingly—we were the lucky ones.