10 Years Gone But Change Goes On: Octavia E. Butler’s Public Legacy
While Butler’s work is a familiar source of inquiry in the academy, it has gained momentum among organizers, artists, activists not just for its narrative competencies, but for its paradigmatic efficacy. For instance, Tarshia Stanley, an Associate Professor of English at Spelman College and one of the founders of the Octavia E. Butler Literary Society recently piloted an interdisciplinary course on leadership based on Butler’s work. As the organizer of the panel, Stanley will share an essay titled: “A Road/Star Map to the Future: Butler’s Public Legacy,” based on her research for the course. Stanley examines Octavia’s Brood, a 2014 collection of short speculative stories by social justice advocates who use the ideological tenets of Butler’s work as their muse. The advocates in Octavia’s Brood draw from Butler’s consummate skill of world building and her deep interrogation of humanistic habitude to develop alternate and practical means of community service work. According to the book’s editors, Adrienne Marie Brown and Walidah Imarish, “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction.” It is the “exercise” of speculative fiction as guided by Butler that is at issue in Stanley’s paper as it seeks to identify and critique the role of what the editors term “visionary fiction” and the accompanying praxis that has spawned as a result of emulating Butler’s Weltanschauung.
A Ph.D. candidate in English at Duke University, Rebecca Evans’s work examines the ecological impacts of humans on the planet via the work of speculative authors. She has an article forthcoming in Women’s Studies Quarterly entitled “’James Tiptree, Jr.’: The Nature of Gender and the Gender of Nature.” Her paper for this panel explores the texts produced by and about two religious movements that explicitly cite Earthseed as a foundational influence: SolSeed, which draws on Butler’s dual interests in space travel and ecological sustainability; and Terasem, a spiritual framework for technological transhumanism. In “Earthseed Taking Root,” Evans analyzes these movements’ self-articulations as well as their cultural reception, and pays particular attention to how they frame their relationships to Butler’s work. Though Butler’s legacy within SF and Afrofuturist discourse is indisputable, these movements also allow a foregrounding of the unexpected extraliterary impacts of Butler’s writings. Noting the stark differences between SolSeed’s and Terasem’s tenets, Evans examines the three Parables books in order to explore the paradoxes and ambiguities that enabled such distinctive interpretations (and, she suggests, misreadings) of Butler’s work.
Joshua Yu Barnett is an Assistant Professor of English at North South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is currently working on a manuscript entitled My Left Arm, Her Twin Blades: Narratives of Resistance in Black Speculative Fiction. He will present an excerpt titled, “My Left Arm”: Allies and Complicity in Octavia Butler’s Kindred to round out the presentation, He conducts a more traditional textual analysis in order to speculate the real world application of Butler’s work for reframing and reinvigorating social justice allies. Barnett contends that while critics have generally praised Kevin, the white husband of the black protagonist Dana, for embodying the role of the “ally”, these readings ignore darker undercurrents that lead to questions about the viability of the “ally” as a model for antiracist work. Barnett places in conversation his assessment of Kevin and the recent controversies surrounding the behavior and attitudes of “allies” such as Tim Wise, to ask whether or not the white antiracist ally can actually be a meaningful force for social justice, or whether an entirely new model of activism is needed.