Thursday, August 28, 2008
BLACK HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: OCTAVIA E. BUTLER
Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was the first black woman to gain popularity and critical acclaim as a major science fiction writer.
Born in Pasadena, California, Butler was the only living child her mother, Octavia M. Butler, was able to carry to term out of five pregnancies. Her father, Laurice, a shoe shiner, died when she was just a baby and her mother and grandmother raised her in a racially mixed neighborhood where her mother worked to support the family as a maid.
Butler was very shy in school, a daydreamer, and that made school very difficult for her—as did her dyslexia, which she later overcame. Nicknamed Junie, Butler began writing at 10 to escape boredom and loneliness. A couple of years later, she had become interested in science fiction. She told the Black Scholar, “I was writing my own little stories and when I was 12, I was watching a bad science fiction movie called Devil Girl from Mars and decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try, and I’ve been writing science fiction ever since.”
In 1968, she received an associate degree from Pasadena City College and then enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles and UCLA. Much of her success came about because of the Open Door Program of the Screenwriters Guild of America and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop. Butler also spent time researching developments in biology, the physical sciences and genetics. While attending school, she held down a number of odd jobs, and her work experiences come through in the character of Dana in her novel Kindred.
Her first published story, “Crossover,” appeared in Clarion’s 1971 anthology. In her short fiction collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, Butler wrote “I thought I was on my way as a writer…In fact, I had five more years of rejections slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.” In 1976, she published her first book, Patternmaster, though it became the fifth in the Patternist series. Most of the Patternmaster novels were written and published out of sequence.
Butler won her first award in 1980, a creative arts award from the Los Angeles YWCA. In 1984, she won a Hugo Award for her short story, “Speech Sounds”. The following year, she won another Hugo for her novella Bloodchild. It also won the 1984 Nebula Award. Other science fiction writers and fans decide on the Hugo and Nebula Awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, which “is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential”.
Her novel, Parable of the Sower, was nominated for a Nebula in 1994 and five years later, she won the award for the sequel, Parable of the Talents. Butler had originally planned to write a third Parable novel, tentatively titled Parable of the Trickster, but encountered writer’s block and went seven years without publishing a new novel.
For her 2005 novel, Fledgling, she shifted her focus, and although Butler passed it off as a lark, the novel is connected to her other works through its exploration of race, sexuality and what it means to be a member of a community. Moreover, the novel continues the theme, raised explicitly in Parable of the Sower, that diversity is a biological imperative.
Butler has been quoted saying: “Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow…. Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.”
She died outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on February 24, 2006, at the age of 58. Some have stated she died of head injuries after falling and hitting her head on her sidewalk, while others report she suffered a stroke as a result of those injuries.
The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship was established in Butler’s memory in 2006 by the Carl Brandon Society. The scholarship enables writers of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops where Butler got her start.