By May S. Ruiz
Octavia E. Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant and the first African-American woman to win recognition writing in a genre dominated by male authors. For all her literary fame and awards, however, hers is not a household name.
But this is about to change if Natalie Russell, were to have her way. As curator of ‘Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories’ which opened on April 8 and goes on until August 7, 2017 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Russell was charged with organizing this exhibition. On view in the West Hall of the Library in chronological order, the retrospective includes approximately 100 items that reveal the author’s early years and influences, highlighting specific themes that repeatedly commanded her attention.
States Russell, “I hope it introduces Butler to people who may not know her, who may not be familiar with her works; for those who have not read science fiction before but were intrigued about what she has to offer which are a little different from what they thought they were going to be reading. I hope that people who are fans of hers get to know the writer behind these works a little deeper – that through the process they get to know the inner person.”
Butler was born in Pasadena on June 22, 1947 to a maid and a shoeshine man. Her father died when she was very young and she was raised primarily by her mother. A painfully shy, introverted child, she spent her time reading at the Pasadena Public Library where she discovered science fiction.
At age twelve Butler saw a film called ‘Devil Girl from Mars’ and was convinced she could write something better. She later enrolled in every creative writing course at Pasadena City College to her mother’s disappointment, who wanted her to have a more reliable job as a secretary.
In the early 1970s, at a workshop for minority writers, Butler met science fiction author Harlan Ellison, who introduced her to the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. There, among other like-minded writers, she learned to hone her craft and even sold her first story.
Butler’s conviction that she was going to be a successful writer grew stronger after the Clarion workshop. She did not want to find work that would distract from her ultimate goal so she took odd jobs to support herself.
Success proved elusive for a while, until 1975 when Butler sold her first novel, ‘Patternmaster’ to Doubleday, which quickly followed with ‘Mind of My Mind’ and ‘Survivors’. This trio came to be known as her ‘Patternist’ series, which depicts the evolution of humanity into three distinct genetic groups. There is a review in the exhibition that lauds ‘Patternmaster’ for its especially well-constructed plot and progressive heroine, who is ‘a refreshing change of pace from the old days’.
On display in the exhibition are motivational notes Butler would write to pick herself up during bouts of self-doubt – ‘I am a Bestselling Writer. I write Bestselling Books …. Every day in every way I am researching and writing my Award winning Bestselling Books and short stories …. Every one of my books reaches and remains for two or more months at the top of the bestseller lists …. So Be it! See To It!’
Butler’s readership continued to grow and with the publication of ‘Kindred’ in 1979 she was able to make a living on her writing alone. In 1984 she won her first Hugo Award for the short story ‘Speech Sounds’. Her novelette ‘Bloodchild’ won a Hugo, a Nebula, the Locus, as well as an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle, in 1985.
That Butler was a female writer of color informs many of her works. Russell concurs, “I think being a woman and African-American gave her this unique voice. Butler said she never saw herself in any of the stories she read. So she decided to write herself into these books so she could see a woman character in a setting that reflected the diverse world she lived in”.
Beyond race, Butler explored themes between genders and worked to develop strong female characters who resolved problems differently. Russell adds, “Her audience varied – young, old, people of color – anyone who’s interested in science fiction; her themes also covered a diverse range – disease; pharmaceuticals; fears about the environment, drought, and alien contact – the differences that divide us and how we overcome these to become better people and get together as human beings.”
“In 2008 Butler’s papers arrived at The Huntington in two four-drawer file cabinets and 35 large cartons,” states Russell. “She kept nearly everything – from her very first short stories, written at age 12, to book contracts and programs from speaking engagements. The body of materials includes 8,000 individual items and more than 80 boxes of additional items: extensive drafts, notes, and research materials for more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories and essays, as well as correspondence.”
According to Russell more than 40 scholars were asking to get access to the Butler collection by the time she was done processing and cataloguing all the items. In the past two years, it has been used nearly 1,300 times – or roughly 15 times each week, making it one of the most actively researched archives at The Huntington.
“I was not familiar with her beforehand; it’s a shame because she’s so amazing,” confesses Russell. “But I hope that everybody can have the same experience I had while I sorted through all the materials she left behind – that it’s okay to start fresh. Be prepared to be amazed and entertained, to experience something new, and thought-provoking. She was a very shy, private person, but she has a big presence on the page; she has so much to say. Some of those inner thoughts and the struggles she underwent to become the person that she was is a story we can all be inspired by.”
“When I look back at the things I sifted through in the collection, I think of the highlights, themes, and things that were important to Butler and how to share her with the world. That’s what I hope I have done with this exhibit,” concludes Russell.
After having lived in Seattle for several years, Butler had planned on returning to Pasadena. She died suddenly in 2006 before she realized that wish, but her literary archive has come home to reside permanently in The Huntington. Here scholars can come to examine the life and work of this extraordinary woman.
She lived but 58 years but her legacy will endure far longer than her existence on earth. Generations of future writers, and people from all walks of life, will find inspiration from Octavia E. Butler – a woman ahead of her time.