Friday, June 22, 2018

Happy Birthday, Octavia Butler!

Today when I went to the Chrome browser, I was delighted to find a Google doodle that celebrates Octavia Butler's birthday.  Ah, Octavia Butler.  If I could bring back one writer who left us to soon, she would make the short list.

I don't reread her works often--but I'm not rereading many works these days.  So many books, so little time.  But she's one of the writers who formed me.

The first book of hers that I read was Parable of the Sower, which I read shortly after it was published.  It was a powerful book.  I'd say that I couldn't put it down, but I had to periodically to remind myself that I didn't live in the dystopian world depicted.

I was happy to discover that she'd written other books, that I wouldn't have to wait to read more.  And what a wide variety of books!

One of my colleagues at work remarked that Kindred was her favorite, so I read that one shortly after Parable of the Sower.  In this novel, a black, female writer gets sucked back to antebellum Virginia. It wasn't until reading this novel that I fully understood the horrors of slavery, the various threats of that time period. To make the plot more interesting, she quickly realizes that she's being transported back to her ancestors, which limits some of her choices: she can't just kill those people who threaten her; if her ancestors die, what will happen to her? It's not one of my favorites of all the books she wrote, but it is one that I'm glad that I read--several times.

In 2001, I read Wild Seed, one of the most inventive books I've ever read. At first, I thought I was reading about a different world, but eventually I figured out that I was reading about the earliest years of the slave trade. What interesting wording--the slave trade, as if there was only one. I mean the slave trade which brought Africans to the North American continent and the outlying islands. It's an amazing book which deals with gender, race, and history in such amazing ways that it's impossible to look at those subjects the same way again.

Butler's life as a writer has also been an inspiration and a comfort.  I was so happy when she won the MacArthur award. I read an interview with her in Poets and Writers shortly after she won that award. She talked about the value of money to a writer, how having a funding source freed her to write all the books she'd been storing up but couldn't write because she had to work. And in her early years, that work was often menial labor, the kind that leaves one too tired to write.

Butler was a writer who writers could love. Like many of my favorite writers, she stresses habit and persistence over talent and inspiration. Here's a typical quote (found on GoodReads): "First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice."

Good advice in any number of areas--persistence and habit will get us much further than talent or luck.

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