Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Octavia Butler and All the Realities

Today many people will be writing tributes to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and with good reason.  He was an amazing poet, founder of the Beat movement, founder of City Lights bookstore, publisher.  What an amazing life, and how fortunate that he lived to be 101.

But today I am feeling the deep loss of Octavia Butler, who died 15 years ago today.  I've written about her often, it feels like.  But there's a reason for that--she wrote her most important work decades ago, and it feels more relevant now than it did when I first read it, decades ago.

Consider this passage from Parable of the Talents, published in 1998:

"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery." (p. 167)

I heard Octavia Butler reading it this morning on this Democracy Now interview that was broadcast in November of 2005, and I thought, wait, I don't remember reading this, and I've read these books multiple times.  I haven't read Parable of the Talents as many times as Parable of the Sower, but I've read it several times.  

I went back to the book, which happens to be by my desk side, waiting to be put back on the shelf.  I realize how much I've skimmed over or not read in my haste to find out what happens to the characters--specifically, all the Earthseed passages.  I remember reading the Earthseed passages in Parable of the Sower, and finding them strange and wondrous and almost obvious yet profound.  I don't remember reading any of those passages in the sequel.

Not for the first time, I am reminded of what a sloppy, careless reader I can be.  But let me not get into that circle of self-loathing.

At the end of the Democracy Now episode, the broadcaster mentioned a tribute at Symphony Space tonight, so I went to the website to find this information.  I was happy to find out that it will be at 7 p.m., not later.  I'm not able to stay awake very late these days.  It's not free, but it's fairly cheap, so I bought the $15 ticket.  My spouse will be at choir rehearsal, so I should be free to see it.  And if the technology gods are not looking upon me with favor, I have a few weeks to view the recording.  

It feels good to have something to mark this day, to have the company of others who will be thinking about the power and prophecy of this important writer.  

As I think about the writers whom I have loved, I see two main categories:  writers who document the realities of life and writers who make me think about those realities in a way that I might not have if I hadn't read their work.  And perhaps a third category:  writers who explore a different reality, one which might be rooted in "real life" or perhaps not.

It's the rare writer who can do all of those things well.  Octavia Butler is one of them.

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