Today I saw the movie Selma and thought it was a great film. It shines the spotlight on a moment in the civil rights history. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about for this column, but then I started thinking about writers that have paved the way for me.
Octavia Butler is one of them.
I never really knew what kind of writer I was until I wrote a story about 15 years ago. It was the first time I wrote something that really embodied who I was as a writer. After, I was proud of myself, but didn’t know what to do next. I wasn’t even sure if it was a good story. So I enrolled in a community writing workshop and submitted the story. On the whole, I got a lot of great feedback, but there was one woman (Carol was her name I think), who really explained it to me.
“You write magical realism,” she said looking directly at me.
I had never heard that term before. You have to remember that up until that point in my life I spent four years in college studying literature from pre-1950. The closest I got to current novels was an Amy Tan book I read for a one credit reading class. Terms like magical realism were lost on me. So, to the internet I went and after a few days, a whole new world opened up to me. Not just magical realism, but science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I’ve already posted a few times about books that emerged from my searching. Kindred is another.
Funny enough, plenty of my family already knew and loved Butler’s work. Both my mother and aunts had read her. When I mentioned to my Mom if she had ever heard of Butler, she replied, “Oh yes! She’s great. Here, I have a few.”
I started with Clay’s Ark and Mind of My Mind. They are solidly in the SF world. But it was Kindred and more subtle, controlled urban fantasy story that hooked me as a fan. It deals with social issues like race, gender, and family. It has fantasy elements, but is solidly rooted in the real world. All of Butler’s characters are complex. No one is all bad, or all good. I won’t give the plot away, but it is easy to see why many consider this story to be her best. (Note: If anyone knows Oprah or Brad Pitt, tell them about this story. THIS REALLY NEEDS TO BE A MOVIE.)
In 2004, I was lucky enough to see her speak in person. I remember waiting in line for her to sign my book. I can’t lie. I was starstruck being in front of her. (And Samuel Delany was there too, but I didn’t have any of my books for him to sign. To this day, that bums me out.) She was a true superstar writer and gone too soon. She died about 14 months after I saw her.
I love Tolkien. I love George R.R. Martin. I love Brandon Sanderson and Neil Gaiman. But I think it is important that there be diversity in literature, both characters and the writers themselves. Octavia Butler was not just a great writer, but also added much needed diversity to the speculative writing world. Today there are many writers of color in the speculative field writing and publishing their books. I should know because I collect them and I am one of them.
And we all owe Butler our thanks.