What lies in the mind of an author as he or she begins the long task of writing a fiction novel? This question can be answered if the author's life is studied and then compared to the work itself. Octavia E. Butler's life and her novel Kindred have remarkable comparisons. This essay will point out important events of Butler's life and how they link to the mentioned novel.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, California (Voices From 1). She began her life with many hardships as an only child and having her father die when she was very young (Voices From 1). She grew up in a location that had a wide variety of racial backgrounds, however Butler never felt like she lived in a world of segregation (Notable Black 144). She describes the situation best when she states, "I never...lived in a segregated neighborhood nor went to segregated school; the whole community was an economic ghetto" (Notable Black 144). The lack of money sometimes creates a humble atmosphere and that must have been the case with Pasadena throughout her childhood.
Until this point it seems as if Butler had a very unhappy childhood, but the life that she was living was shaping her to become the great author that she is today. Trials can become positive experiences for one to grow and mature and this was definitely her case. Having been an only child, Butler spent most of her time surrounded by an adult crowd, presumably the acquaintances of her mother (Notable Black 144). Thus, she grew up as a "very solitary individual" (Notable Black 144). She was also inflicted with dyslexia, which made it very difficult for her to keep up with the rest of the children her age (Notable Black 144). Having a mixture of adultlike maturity and a learning disability caused an unusual effect in her character. She became bored with the books that were more common for children her age and became interested in fairy tales and horse stories (Black Women 208). She received a card for the public library and as she became more comfortable with reading she discovered that she was very interested in science fiction (Black Women 208). Science fiction became a false reality for Butler, however she was concerned for the lack of Black characters and the stereotypes that women received in the novels that she read (Black Women 208). These important events were the beginning of the process that would shape her into a feministic science fiction writer.
It wasn't until the eighth grade that she realized that she had become a very intelligent young woman (Notable Black 144). She often engaged in competitions with a friend of a different learning disorder to see which of the two could receive better grades. Until that point in her life she considered herself as not being very bright but when she started winning the competitions she described it as "the first time that I'd ever done anything to impress myself" (Notable Black 144). It is interesting to consider that she may have been forced out of her dyslexia by the accompaniment of adults and her strange attraction to science fiction novels. However, the consequences of the dyslexia such as shyness and the difficulty to understand still haunted her throughout high school (Notable Black 144).
There were many amongst the students and the teachers who did not approve of Butler and considered her as a "slacker." However, there were "three junior high and high school teachers who made a critical difference in Butler's development" (Notable Black 144-145). They went out of their way to befriend the young woman that seemed to be an outcast. These teachers seemed to be an inspiration to the young student who had needed a helping hand much of her life. Two of the teachers were white and one was black, and each one of them had a special influence on her adolescence (Notable Black 145).
Butler graduated high school and moved on to her adult life. She attended Pasadena City College and also California State College in Los Angeles (Notable Black 145). As most college students, she worked at many odd jobs, and at the time she worked on her fourth novel Kindred (Notable Black 145). These odd jobs were sufficient for her, as a single woman, to get by on until she was able to have a novel published. After the first novel was published she had more time on her hands to write because she did not have to concentrate so much in working at her odd jobs (Notable Black 145). It may seem that Butler's life became easier after the publication of the novel but there were still many rejections from different publishers and even more so from family and friends. Many people told her "to get a 'real' job" (Black Women 208). Butler followed through with her goals and became part of what is known as the black women's literary movement (Gates 2-4). She became one of the most important writers that made it possible to break down the barrier of not having women and especially African Americans included in science fiction novels (Doerksen 22). Her characters are usually "Black women who find the strength to cope with bigotry, persecution, and pain as well as efforts to keep them in their place" (Black Women 208).
Now the question may be raised as to what degree Butler's life has influenced the novel Kindred. Has her whole life been the influence of this novel? Surely there were many instances that became large factors in the writing of this novel. Notable Black American Women states that "Butler does not see her fiction as having any hidden agenda or advocating any covert political bias;" however, many of the events and characters can be closely tied to the life of Butler (144). The novel Kindred is the only novel of Butler that is not written to a series and is often considered quite successful (Notable Black 146).
Kindred is a novel that is based in southern Los Angeles with a twist of fantasy that transports the main characters Dana and Kevin back into time and across the country to a plantation in Maryland. There they experienced the discrimination of the early 1800's and also struggled to keep a troublesome ancestor of Dana's alive. This ancestor's name was Rufus, the only child of a successful plantation owner.
Butler grew up in southern California so it was comfortable for her to use the setting of Los Angeles as a starting point in her novel. Dana, the heroine of the story, is depicted as a black woman in 1976 who is very bold but yet loving to her white husband, Kevin. Notable Black American Women states that "the fact that Dana is involved in an interracial marriage is a deliberate attempt to illustrate the 'complications' of race relations" (146). This was a very bold statement on the part of Butler to include a situation that even today seems strange to some people. Dana and Kevin also received much rejection from family and friends for their relationship and their position in society as writers (Butler 109-110). Butler also received the same rejection as a writer. At the time that Butler wrote this novel she was single so it can be concluded that Kevin was a figure of her imagination. Kevin was described as being older than Dana, a man that "was a prematurely gray thirty-four" (Butler 57). It can also be considered that Kevin is a symbol of the white teachers that helped Butler in high school. It is possible that Butler had a secret crush on one of them and it came through in this novel as an interracial marriage with a character that fitted the description of Butler herself. Butler's women characters are described as being "always independent, stubborn, difficult, and insistent on trying to control their own lives" (Allison 471).
The main struggle of Dana is being constantly jerked back and forth through time and space to accomplish a goal that almost seems impossible. However, Dana feels the need not only to save the young troublemaker but to assure herself of the birth of an ancestor that would also determine the birth of Dana (Allison 474). Dana is ultimately driven to kill Rufus at the end of the novel because of his aggressive behavior towards her (Butler 260). As she was transported back to 1976 for the last time she found her arm trapped in a wall at the same spot where Rufus had grabbed her before his death. Her arm was trapped in a space and time that was never defined to Dana nor the reader. She lost that arm as she pulled herself free (Butler 261). This event can be looked at in many ways. The loss of the arm could have the significance of losing her relation with Rufus, someone that had become her center of attention. Thus, it was as if part of her had been separated from her. Or the loss of her arm could be the breaking free from the bondage that forced her to keep returning to a time and place that was so distant. These can also be considered as the struggles that Butler faced as a young and growing author in society.
Octavia E. Butler often modified reality with a strange twist to make situations feel more comfortable for her. She stated, "When I wrote Kindred, for instance, I started out writing a lot of slave narratives and I realized quickly that nobody was going to read the real thing. So that meant that I had to soften it a bit -- what I call clean slavery, as opposed to the real thing. That's what I mean. There are limits to what people will put up with when they're reading a novel" (Jackson 4). She made the issue of slavery seem minor in this novel and there was a feeling of science fiction although it is very different from her other novels. Overall it is a good novel, however the suspense is smothered as Dana travels back in time almost every chapter. It was a very difficult task looking for a clue as to why Butler used that repetition in this novel. Many of the above mentioned clues seemed very recognizable when compared with her life; however, there are many instances that have not been mentioned as being tied in with the life of Butler. Dorothy Allison said it best as she stated that, "The circumstances of Butler's life have shaped her fiction" (472).
Doerksen, Teri Ann. Into Darkness Peering : Race and Color in the Fantastic. Ed. Elisabeth Anne Leonard. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Dorothy Allison. Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Meridian Book, 1990.
Jackson, Jerome H. "Sci-fi Tales from Octavia E. Butler." The Crisis 101.3(1994): 4-5,10.
Smith, Jessie Carney, Ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
Stevenson, Rosemary. Black Women in America: an Historical Encyclopedia. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Pub., 1993.
"Voices From the Gaps -- Women Writers of Color." July 31, 1998. October 14, 1998. http://english.cla.umn.edu/Ilkd/vfg/Authors/OctaviaButler.