Time travel and slavery: Octavia Butler’s Kindred

The immediate effect of reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred is to make every other time travel book in the world look as if it’s wimping out. The Black Death in Doomsday Book? Wandering about your own life naked in Time Traveller’s Wife? Pikers. Only Days of Cain and The Devil’s Arithmetic can possibly compete. In Kindred, Dana finds herself repeatedly going back from her own happy life in Los Angeles in 1976 to a plantation in Maryland in 1815. And she’s black, a fact given away by every cover and blurb I’ve ever seen about the book but actually cleverly concealed by the text for quite a time, so that if you’d managed to read it with nothing between you and the words it would be something you’d be worried about until it is confirmed.

In 1815, without papers, a black woman is automatically assumed to be a slave, and treated as a slave.

This is a brilliant book, utterly absorbing, very well written, and deeply distressing. It’s very hard to read, not because it’s not good but because it’s so good. By wrenching a sheltered modern character like Dana back to the time of slavery you get to see it all fresh, as if it’s happening to you. You don’t get the acceptance of characters who are used to it, though we see plenty of them and their ways of coping, through Dana’s eyes. There’s no getting away from the vivid reality of the patrollers, the whip, the woman whose children are sold away. Horrible things happen to Dana, and yet she is the lucky one, she has 1976 to go back to, everyone else has to just keep on living there going forward one day at a time.

This is fantasy time travel, not science-fictional. There’s no time machine, no escape mechanism, very little recovery time. Dana figures out that she’s being pulled through time by Rufus, who when she first meets him is just a little boy, but she learns that he is her ancestor and that she’s going through time to save his life. But there’s no real explanation, we all have ancestors, and that doesn’t happen to everyone. I think the book is stronger for not trying to explain, for letting that be axiomatic. Once it is accepted that Rufus is calling her through time, the other things, the rate at which time passes in 1815 as against 1976, the things that make Dana transfer between them, the link, all work science-fictionally with precise reliable extrapolation.

Most genre stories about time travel are about people who change things. But we’re a long way from Martin Padway here. Dana doesn’t even try. She has an unlimited ability to bring things she can hold from 1976, aspirins and antiseptic and a book on slavery that gets burned, and her husband Kevin, who gets stuck in the past for five years and brutalised by it. Kevin doesn’t try to change the past either, and with less excuse, as he doesn’t have the inherent disadvantage of being mistaken for a slave. Kevin acts as a safe house for escaping slaves, but that’s something people of that time did. He doesn’t try to invent penicillin or even railroads. But this is a thought after the book—the reality of the book is sufficiently compelling that you don’t question it while you’re in it. The details of the early nineteenth century plantation are so well researched they feel unquestionably real, in all their awful immediacy.

I think Butler idealises 1976 quite a bit, to make it a better contrast for 1815. The thing that really made me notice this was Dana’s inability to code-switch. She acts, in 1815, as if she’s never met anyone before who has a problem with black people talking in formal English, which surprised me. She’s led a fairly sheltered life, and she’s married to a white man,  but you’d think that doing the kind of temp jobs she does to make a living while she writes she’d have run into more kinds of prejudice than are mentioned. On this reading, I wondered if Butler had deliberately made Dana a kind of Hari Kumar, a character who is white in all but appearance who is then suddenly forced to confront the reality of being judged by that appearance and forced into a very unwelcome box by it. If that was Butler’s choice—and the concealment of Dana’s skin color for the first thirty pages of the book seems to be another piece of evidence for this—I wonder if she might have done it to make it an easier identification for white readers, not to stir up present day issues but to get right to what she wanted to talk about.


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