Five Years Since…

Octavia E. Butler’s transition.

I once stalked her. Sometime in May of 2000, she was doing a reading of Parable of the Talents at the now defunct Nkiru Books owned by Talib Kweli and Mos Def. I sat in the front, of course, stood in line and had my book signed like everybody else. But I hung around until all other fans were out the way, then got in my car and casually drove to the front of bookstore where she was standing with Betsy Mitchell, her editor at the time, waiting for a cab. So I did what any other self-respecting stalker fan would do—forego heading back home in the opposite direction to Queens and brave the weekend Midtown traffic to drop her off at her hotel.

Yes, the Octavia Butler was in my passenger seat. I had imagined a long conversation about the secrets of the universe, alien life form, human evolution, the fall of the American empire—she’d be my Morpheus and I her Neo. I had prayed for slow traffic so I could ask her all sorts of questions about her books—but I only managed to ask if she had any children. Eleven, she had said. Books, that is. She shared a story about a drugstore incident when she was younger—something about asking to buy condoms that were behind the counter and the salesgirl announcing it to the whole store. She laughed, I laughed. And before we knew it, we had reached the hotel. No traffic, no redpill revelations, no insider tips to publishing.

Later that evening, she won the Nebula Award, science fiction and fantasy’s highest honor, for Parable of the Talents—the first black woman to do so.

Eleven years later, two black women are up for the same award for Best Novel—N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. Her legacy lives on in their work—her commitment to the genres of science fiction and fantasy, her courage and audacity to tell the stories she wanted to tell and the way she wanted them told.

My first encounter with Octavia Butler was at the first Yari Yari Conference at NYU in 1997. I read the Parable series, then devoured everything else she wrote. In college, I took a Feminist Science Fiction course where Butler’s Dawn was on the syllabus. The white-washed cover copies were still available at that time and I soon discovered that most everyone in the class did not know she was black.

In 2001, I met Butler again at Clarion West where she was the instructor for the first week. She immediately remembered me. Betsy Mitchell had sent me a note from her and an autographed copy of her collection, Lilith’s Brood, and she asked if I had received it. I had the note with me, I told her, and I still carry it around to this day. It just so happened that the last day of her class was her 54th birthday and my 24th. Part of my obsession with all things Octavia is that we have the same birthday, June 22, 30 years apart.

So there I was, having been accepted into Clarion West (which was an emotional rollercoaster in itself), slicing through a carrot cake alongside Octavia Butler on our shared birthday. I remember vowing to myself from that point on that I’d fuel this furor scribendi at all costs. “Persist,” is the last word in her collection, Bloodchild.

I think that celebrating an elder’s passing is just as relevant as honoring the day they were born. Butler’s life and work were indeed remarkable, but it is now as an ancestor—without the constraints of time, place, or body—that she is doing some serious good. Just a mere glance at this year’s Nebula Award line-up, imprints like Tu Books, and the various online discussions about diversity in the genre reveals that the pots are being stirred by some invisible hand. There is still more work to be done, but she’s only five years in.

Octavia Butler, sci-fi/fantasy, Writing

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