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The Mass Media

A Writing Life

If you have looked at any of the websites that have sprung up since Octavia Butler’s death a month ago you will have come across statements that Kindred was her first novel. In actuality, when it appeared in 1979 it was her fourth novel to be published. For eight years, between the ages of 24 and 32, she had been pouring out book-length manuscripts, most of them written between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., the only time she had to write. She lived in near poverty in South Central Los Angeles and she did her writing on a 75 lb. manual typewriter that she kept chained to the radiator so that whenever her apartment got robbed, which happened several times, she wouldn’t lose the means to continue writing her novels. She didn’t have a literary agent, so she just kept sending her manuscripts out on her own to various publishers, hoping for a breakthrough. Butler was thrilled when a publisher finally agreed to take one of her novel manuscripts titled Mind of My Mind. When she got the page proofs to correct, the editor also sent her a copy of the cover illustration. Butler was totally taken aback, and wrote back to her editor that the protagonist of Mind of My Mind was a black woman-why had the press illustrated the book with a picture of a white woman? The answer she got was that science fiction readers wouldn’t buy a novel with a black face on the dust jacket. And that is the reason, Butler told me, that her first novel ended up with the picture of a green woman on the cover. That was the compromise the publisher was willing to make, because science fiction readers were at least used to green-skinned aliens.

That story may help explain the failure of Kindred when it was first published in 1979. I found my copy in a bookstore in 1981 and at the time I had never heard of Butler. I read Kindred with astonishment. I was teaching science fiction here at UMASS-Boston and had always told my students that time travel only worked for stories about the future; that there was no point in fiction based on backward time travel.

Kindred totally changed my mind. Here was a time travel novel about the past starting from a present in Los Angeles in 1976, the bicentennial year of the founding of the United States. Butler had succeeded in using the conventions of science fiction to produce a meditation on American history and American identity, a science fiction powerfully demonstrating William Faulkner’s famous pronouncement that “The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”

The next year I ordered Kindred for my science fiction course, only to learn that it was already out of print. It was a book that had fallen between all the stools. Science fiction readers weren’t interested in it. Readers of realistic fiction had never heard of Butler. Even her publisher didn’t seem to know how to market the book. A couple of years later I found out that Beacon Press here in Boston had started a series of reprints of fiction by Black Women Writers. In its history, Beacon Press had never published a work of science fiction. Nevertheless, I wanted so much to be able to teach this book that I wrote to the series editor, the African-American literary scholar Deborah McDowell. I sent her my own paperback copy of Kindred and asked her to read it and to consider reissuing it in the Beacon series. And she did. She also invited me to write the introduction to Kindred. The outcome of this effort was that at last Octavia Butler found her audience. Since Beacon republished Kindred it has sold more than a quarter million copies, becoming one of the best-selling volumes in the history of Beacon Press. Butler began to be noticed- not just by science fiction fans but by a wide and increasingly enthusiastic range of readers. In the aftermath of the reissue of Kindred in 1995 Butler was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant. She is still the only science fiction author to be so acknowledged.

Kindred, a story of time travel into the past, is about aliens and alienation-and in that sense it is a lot like a great deal of science fiction, although there isn’t a Martian to be found in Kindred, all of the monsters in this story are very much human beings.

On Wednesday, March 22, 2006, the English Department, the Healey Library, and the Trotter Institute presented a marathon reading of Kindred, a novel by Octavia Butler.