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Octavia Butler

Donald Ely

By Adrienne Martini | Posted 12/27/2006

As a 6-foot-tall African-American woman, speculative-fiction writer Octavia Butler always stood out in a roomful of her mostly white and male peers. But the analogy goes deeper. Butler's works made her stand out more than her appearance ever could.

Butler was born in Southern California in 1947, the daughter of a shoeshine man and a maid. Butler's father died when she was an infant, and she grew up in a strict Baptist household run by her mother and grandmother. By age 10, she started writing short stories. At 12, after watching a science-fiction B-movie called Devil Girl From Mars, Butler experienced a life-altering epiphany when she realized that she could tell a better story than that. Eventually, that story would evolve into her first published novel Patternmaster, which hit bookstore shelves in 1976. In the intervening years, Butler received an associate's degree from Pasadena City College, but her work with both the Open Door Workshop of the Writers Guild of America and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop that would prove to be more influential than her formal education.

It was her next book, Kindred, that would make her career, despite the fact that the manuscript spent years being rejected by publishers. Kindred, eventually published in 1979, bent the traditional slave narrative into a dark time-travel tale wherein Butler's main character, an African-American woman from the mid-1970s, is transported to a plantation in antebellum Maryland. In Kindred, Butler explores the themes that would come to define her work--racism, oppression, and slavery.

"What she really conveyed in her writing was the deep pain she felt about the injustices around her," Tananarive Due, a writer and friend of Butler's, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shortly after Butler's death. "All of it was a metaphor for war, poverty, power struggles, and discrimination. All of that hurt her very deeply, but her gift was that she could use words for the pain and make the world better." Butler continued exploring those themes in the Patternist series of novels, her Xenogenesis trilogy, and her Earthseed books.

By the early 1990s, Butler's writing had escaped the narrow confines of the science-fiction field. In 1995, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded her a coveted "genius" grant; Butler also won two Nebula and two Hugo Awards. But in 1999, she moved from Southern California to Seattle and settled into a self-described hermetic lifestyle, based on her love of anonymity and extreme shyness. The move also marked seven years of publishing silence; she acknowledged that she was suffering from writer's block. Quiet did not mean silent, however. Her energies were re-channeled into teaching, most notably at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and into the advisory board for the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

In 2005, what would become Bulter's last novel was published. Fledgling, a vampire novel set against a science-fiction background, seemed to indicate that Butler's block had broken and that there were more novels on their way. But on Feb. 24, at age 58, Butler died as a result of head injuries sustained when she fell on a sidewalk outside of her home. Butler's legacy, however, lives on, and not just in her published works. The Carl Brandon Society, which is devoted to increasing the visibility of genre writers of color, has established a scholarship in her name that will annually fund writers at the Clarion Workshop. While the woman herself may be gone, her memory still hovers head and shoulders above her peers. (Adrienne Martini)

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