My First Encounter with Octavia Butler

Brace yourself. That’s what someone should have told me when I mentioned that I was going to be studying Octavia Butler this semester. Her use of alien otherness in Dawn made me re-evaluate not only how wonderful it is to be human but also how wonderful it has to have choices. She also touches on agricultural preservation in Parable of the Sower, co-habitation in “Bloodchild” and historical understanding in Kindred. I soon realized that Octavia Butler’s works are intended to make readers question the way they view the world and understand that they have power to make change. With her in-your-face approach to prevalent issues combined with a buffer of speculative fiction situations, I was able to finally get the message–and get started.

Niaya Little reflecting on her independent study on Octavia E. Butler at Spelman College,

Winds of Change: Recognizing Octavia In My Short Film

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Spelman is full of traditions: There is an arch that no one is to walk under until they graduate or they will be cursed to spend more than four years pursuing their degree; All Spelman Women must wear a pure white dress with sleeves and a hem that falls past one’s knees for momentous traditional events, such as your first Founder’s Day; There is an age-old preconceived notion of how a “Spelman Woman” should dress, talk, and act that is prominent on our campus.

Spelman is also full of opposition to those traditions: People dismiss the arch lore as merely superstitious. Many argue that the white dress represents dated ideals of femininity and purity that contradict with the progressiveness of the school. Pushback against the traditional “Spelman Woman” is also prominent on our campus.

Faced with such either/or situations, I am often tempted to choose a side when it comes to the complexities of Spelman. But if there is one thing Octavia Butler has helped me come to grips with this semester, it is truly embracing the idea of nuance. None of her novels allow you a black and white, good and evil interpretation of anything. She gives an almost inordinate amount of care with her gray spaces, lavishing in them, whether it be through the exploration of the relationship between Nikanj and Lillith in Dawn or in the evaluation of consent between Shori and Wright in Fledgling. Octavia doesn’t allow you to pick a side by quickly pointing out that the sides are not as easy to define as we would like to believe. What she is more concerned with is how we navigate the space we are given, how the choices we make influence our realities.

As the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activism Short-Film Festival approached I found myself immersed in a story of disappearing time and disappearing women and that was all behind the scenes. After plans for one short film fell through, I set to work on another, writing the script in a few days and cobbling together a makeshift crew and cast. I had my DSLR camera, a borrowed tripod, and some enthusiastic volunteers: I was ready to go. Of course, like most well laid (if somewhat last minute) plans, I found my film schedule falling apart as I faced my deadline. Two separate actresses casted for the lead ended up backing out of the project last minute and so I had to take on the role myself. One of the big scenes I planned on filming needed too many people and I had to rewrite. And then, perfectionist that I am, I spent all of my free time leading up to the festival editing. The morning of the event I fell asleep at my computer as I waited for it to upload and woke to a tweet from Professor Tananarive Due asking for my link. In the end, things fell into place and Winds of Change debuted as the first film in the festival and the only student film.

Winds of Change revolves around Cassandra, a gifted psychic who, at fourteen, was approached by the being Oya to be a warrior of change and bear the responsibility of changing the world for the better. Cassandra, however, could not bear the burden of this responsibility. Years later, Oya, recognizing that a single human couldn’t accomplish her goal, begins collecting a variety of world-changers to merge with her and become one super-warrior. The film focuses on this process, called “The Claiming”. It begins with two girls who dare to walk through the arch and are absorbed by Oya. The climax is a face off between Cassandra and Oya after Oya claims Cassandra’s best friend, Talibeh. At the heart of the story is Cassandra’s horror at the thought of Oya’s super warrior, a conglomerate of young women who lose their free will in pursuit of Oya’s “healing”. But Oya argues that the woman who are claimed share the same will, to make the world a better place, and that their merging will allow that on a scale never seen before. In a way these issues mirror the issues I find myself confronted with on my campus, the issues of being a “Spelman Woman” without losing my identity. To what point is the adherence and love of our school and tradition a betrayal of my free will? To what point does “A Choice to Change the World” become a choice to stop making choices? And the ultimate question: Is it worth it?

Winds of Change doesn’t answer any of these questions. It was written in three days and filmed in two but more than that, it is embedded with an Octavia Butler ethos, her rejection of simplicity finding its way into my five minute short without much conscious effort on my part. Instead of allowing a simple good/evil dynamic between Cassandra and Oya, I presented two beings who are equally flawed, Cassandra by such a desperate desire to keep her life as her own that she is unable to sacrifice anything to fulfill her destiny, and Oya who requires such a complete sacrifice of self, individuality is completely lost.  But Cassandra and Oya are also equally strong, Cassandra loyal and freethinking, Oya determined and full of good intentions. The ending of the film still unsettles me because though it implies “The Claiming” is inevitable, it refuses to confirm whether this is good or bad, because it doesn’t acknowledge if Oya is right or wrong. After a semester with the Oankali and the Ina, I find this discomfort familiar if not enjoyable.

At first, as I reminisced about the film, I thought that with more time I might have ferreted out some kind of middle ground between Cassandra and Oya that truly captures what it means to be a Spelmanite who adorns both her white dress and free will with pride. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that both Oya and Cassandra have the capacity to fill that role, to choose differently, to shape their reality in a way that allows this nuance. For me that is my next step, to not only write a gray area, but to also allow my characters to dive into it headfirst.

The Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activist was full of brilliant activists and storytellers from Dream Hampton to Junot Diaz who discussed how Octavia had shaped the way they saw their worlds, both fictional and physical. Winds of Change has many flaws, the worst of which being my acting, but I know that I will always prize it, not only because it is my first truly eerie wor, or because the sound wasn’t as horrible as I feared it would be, but because it is a crucial part of my Octavia Butler story.

And it just makes sense that that story is inextricably linked with my Spelman story as well.

Reason Doesn’t Live Here: Octavia Butler’s Fledgling

So much of our world and society is divided into systems and categories. Beneficial? Sure, sometimes, but more often than not, these categories are used to divide us and highlight our differences. Today, it’s easy to think about how many categories we have, and surrounding my immediate world and existence there are a myriad of them; within the natural hair world, there is hair-typing, colleges have ranks and divisions, and within communities of color, there is often tension between those who are lighter and those who are darker. With so many systems and people so quick to categorize, I try to keep myself out of anyone’s box. Hair type? Mine. College? Expensive. Light or dark? Neither. The same applies in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. Shori is a fifty-three-year-old vampire who appears to be eleven or twelve to humans. She is different, because she is the product of an experiment that made her darker than the traditional pale-skinned vampires through the use of melanin. Because of this melanin, she is able to go out into the sun, whereas those without melanin are restricted to going out only at night and sleeping during the day. Although this genetic change enhances Shori’s quality of life and can do the same for other vampires, other Ina have begun to attack her community and her family because of her dark(er) skin. Butler, through Shori and her symbionts and enemies, tells a story that we all know too well. This isn’t the first narrative of someone being attacked for the color of his/her skin. During the Civil Rights Era, the Ku Klux Klan were prominent in their attacks on African-Americans. Segregation was found in schools all over the country until the Brown v. Board of Education deemed that separate but equal was inherently unequal–and even then, not all schools were integrated. What Butler best highlights in Fledgling is that bigotry is not rooted in reason. The logical step for the Silks (lighter Inas) who cannot go into the sun would be to undergo the same treatment that Shori did; instead, they act maliciously. The Silks efforts backfire, as they have now lost all of their sons, meaning their family name will die. Their is no reward in categorization and bigotry. Though the punishment may not be immediate, it is imminent.

Intellectual Property for Sale

“OMG I was just thinking that!” “I was just about to say that!” “GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”…How many times have you found yourself in a conversation with a close friend, colleague, or sibling and found yourself saying something like this in jest? The idea that two people can have so synchronous a thought that one actually says what the other is thinking is a phenomenon that is neither new nor unique. But while most of us can attest to saying at least one of these commonly used phrases, what if the person finishing your sentence wasn’t simply in a moment of synchronous thought, but was actually in your mind? What if the person finishing your sentence knew of their power but decided to hide the truth from you? From everyone? Virginia Hamilton addressed this very scenario in the novel Justice and Her Brothers. As I was reading the novel I couldn’t help but wonder about (and feel sympathy for) the character Levi, who was the most effected by the mind-reading abilities of his siblings and friend. The sympathy I felt for Levi as I read the novel not only comes from the artful way in which Hamilton presented Levi’s situation, but also from my own feelings of intellectual intrusion.

Intellectual intrusion, it feels exactly how it sounds: to have your private thoughts invaded by an unwelcome visitor, an unwanted being, an uninvited adversary. Thinking about Dawn and Justice, I can’t help but wonder if both Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton drew inspiration from the military intelligence scares in the US during the cold war. Considering how frightened people may have been by the idea of the ‘evil’ communist forces listening in and encroaching upon their private lives, I can’t help but think about the degrees of willingness that we today give up our intellectual privacy and freedom. I know this seems far-fetched (as is the idea that pre-teens can read and control minds) but follow me here:

Today we willingly give our intellectual property to anything/anyone; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Blogs (oh my!). However, we never fully think about how quickly an action as simple as taking a picture of a breath-taking sunset and sharing it with our “friends” and “followers” becomes the means by which we all but summon an intellectual intrusion—an assault of our privacy and private thoughts. I wonder how the heroines in black speculative fiction would regard our willfully giving up of our intellectual property, what advice would Lilith or Justice give to us from the future? At the end of it all I’m left wondering: can humankind really become “slaves” if our freedom was never actually taken?

Make Change Not to-do Lists

MUAM-2014-TO-DO_LISTWe are already a week into the new year. For many academics this also means the new semester is beginning–despite the polar vortex–this week and next. As I look at all the things that I didn’t get to check off my to-do list in 2013, I’m very proud to say launching the OEB Society is not one of them!

I’m so glad to finally have connected with a group of people who see not only the importance of Butler’s work but the value of organizing a society around it. I am especially glad to have allowed myself to move in this direction in my scholarship. I spent so many years admiring Butler’s work, but not incorporating it into my scholarship because I am a “film and visual media” person. I didn’t think I had the background in speculative fiction or the time to really study her work in a professional way. Then came OEB’s untimely passing in 2006 and I deeply regretted that I did not get to meet her. Wait–let me change that. I regretted that I did not make the time to meet her. I kept thinking it would happen–one day. I kept moving it to my new year’s to-do list.

As I looked at this year’s list of things I really want to accomplish, I asked myself what would Lauren or Lilith or Dana put on their “things to do in 2014” list. While I’m still thinking about what Lilith and Dana would say, I’m sure that Lauren would write: Make Change–Not to-do lists! I’m also sure  Ms. Butler would concur.

What would your favorite character from a Butler novel put on their to-do list this year?

She Had Me at Uhura

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A few years ago I got a phone call from the president of a prominent women’s organization. She was familiar with my work on images of women in the media and invited me to suggest a book for her group to read. I was poised to tell her she had the wrong person because her group was composed of business women and I thought I had very little to offer bankers and insurance executives. However as we continued to chat,  she brought up the (at the time) new Star Trek film. When she said that a Black woman’s voice was the first thing those who encountered the Enterprise (in the 1960’s television show) heard I got really excited and I agreed to come to her national meeting. Then I suggested Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as the book everyone should read.

I prepared to meet these titans of the business world and I developed a lecture that discussed how the protagonist of Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, was a model for corporate and civic leadership. I had an extraordinary time at the conference and my theory was well received. I developed relationships that are ongoing and I expanded my scholarship. In fact, I will be teaching a course in the spring on models of leadership in Black speculative fiction and I’ll post a call for papers on how Black Speculative fiction imagines or re-imagines leadership.

Who knew my favorite after school tv show when I was kid would combine with JJ Abram’s revision, a business executive’s phone call, and Octavia Butler’s wisdom to lead me where I had not dared to go before–corporate America.