Grandmother Paradox: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey article “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here and here). Since then, Tor.com has published thirty-two in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and a thirty-third essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. In this column I’m looking at Kindred, a time-travel novel by that giant of African American speculative fiction Octavia E. Butler.

WHAT IT IS

Back when I used to fly around the world at least once a month, I was often asked by other airline passengers what I did for a living.  After hearing me explain that I wrote and edited feminist science fiction and fantasy, they’d ask what “feminist science fiction and fantasy” was. The shortest answer I ever satisfied anybody with was, “It’s Octavia Butler.” Because that evoked instant recognition. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them had at least heard of Octavia Butler, and many had even read her astounding work.

And if they had read anything by Butler, it was almost always Kindred. Kindred is a required text in high school and college classes around the world. It is the usual Butler gateway book, and it plunges readers right into the difficult territory Butler cultivates from its opening lines: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.” Maiming, rape, torture, and murder fill Kindred’s pages like shadows in a nightmare version of Plato’s cave. As the book’s heroine Dana experiences the violence and misery of chattel slavery firsthand, we share her simultaneous acclimatization to and alienation from the antebellum South. A twentieth-century Black woman dragged repeatedly into the past to rescue an accident-prone white ancestor, Dana suffers through the beatings and hunger inflicted on her in service of a simple goal: existence. She’ll endure anything if she can guarantee that Rufus Weylin will survive long enough to father her grandmother, Hagar.

WHAT IT ISN’T

As Butler once informed her colleague Walter Mosley (whose book of collected stories Futureland I wrote about in an earlier column), Kindred is not science fiction. Why? When Mosley tells this anecdote he perfectly reproduces Butler’s measured response to his query: a smile and a look down her nose at him, half haughty, half embarrassed: “There’s no science in it!”

When she wrote the novel she often referred to as a “grim fantasy.” Butler avoided several other classifications as well—for example, Kindred is not a romance. Ship them all you want, there’s no tender, throbbing love vibe passing between Dana and Rufus, or between Rufus and the enslaved woman he impregnates. In 1976 Dana is married to Kevin Franklin; the book covers their courtship in just a few brief pages. Kevin gets transported to the past along with Dana and is stranded there for years. But unlike another famous fictional depiction of time travel, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the point is not the characters’ togetherness or separation. Butler wrote Kindred to recount Dana’s adventures, and though Dana longs for Kevin when they’re apart, she’s first and foremost focused on freedom.

Nor is Kindred one of those sexualized, Mandingo-esque titillation fests some chroniclers of the trans-Atlantic slave trade have written.  Depictions of the period’s cruelties are plausible; they’re the sorts of moral crimes a typical plantation owner would have thought reasonable, and though Butler never shrinks from portraying them, neither does she fetishize them with a forced or lingering gaze.

WHERE IT CAME FROM

Butler often said she’d written Kindred in response to boasts by college students of her acquaintance that they would never have stood for the treatment their enslaved ancestors underwent. During the 1970s (the decade in which Kindred was written), we wore dashikis and combed our naturals with picks and saluted one another with clenched fists and changed our names to reflect our African heritage. We were all about our glorious heritage and historic ancestry—but not so much about our actual ancestors and living elders. With the arrogance of youth—so many of us were young—we mocked the servile attitudes we assumed they must have adopted.

But from the perch Butler offers her readers in the viewpoint of Dana, whipped, starved, and worked half to death, we see the harsh impossibility of rebellion and even, at times, its counterproductiveness. Survival is the paramount value in Kindred for both hero and villain. The need to survive drives Rufus to reach through time and find a black descendant to act as his savior. It drives Dana to pander to his lust for her great-grandmother and accept the brutalization of her friends. Nothing in the lives of those who came before us was easy, as this novel so pointedly and vividly shows us. Choices will sometimes be made under pressure, in fear of annihilation and memory of assault. That’s only to be expected. It’s wrong to mock or shame those who had to make them.

WHERE IT’S GOTTEN TO

At this point Kindred is well on its way to enshrinement in the nation’s literary canon.  A Library of America edition of Butler’s work is planned, with Kindred to be included in the series’ first volume. Soon its fame will be even more widespread.

The film Antebellum, slated for release on April 24, 2020, is supposed to have been heavily inspired by Kindred, though there’s no word yet of an actual Kindred movie.

There is, however, a graphic novel version. Adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, the Kindred graphic novel appeared in January 2017 and became a New York Times Best Seller and a winner of the coveted Will Eisner Award.

WHAT YOU OUGHTA DO ABOUT IT

Read Kindred. And/or reread it. Listen to its questions and try not to drown them out with answers. Get comfortable with its uncomfortableness. Accept its pragmatism and enjoy its paradoxes. In fact, do more than that—revere them. Because they’re what put us where we are: here, alive, in the neverending now.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, and the editor of the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.

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