Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood Were Ready for a Trump World

skyscape fog

“After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid’s Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it’s definitely in Octavia’s work.”

That’s what speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor had to say about what book to reach for in the age of Trump.

Having read Parable of the Sower, I recognized some reasons why Okorafor would point readers to Butler’s work. There’s the portrayal of a world where climate change has progressed enough to cause major problems to habitability and economies. There’s the way that people have split off into walled off communities. How countries have shuttered their borders to other nations.

But I was particularly struck by Okorafor’s reference to a character in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, whose stated goal is to “make America great again.” As a feminist, I was also interested in reading Atwood’s famous The Handmaid’s Tale. So I picked up both.

Ultimately, I agree that Butler’s works seem to resonate more fully with the current times. The unexpected political success of presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret in Talents struck a pretty eerie chord with Trump’s win while using the same tagline. It’s an incredibly layered novel with strong themes of power, purpose, community, and religion all coming together in one story.

But I think The Handmaid’s Tale is worth a read too for different reasons. It’s a meditation on gender roles and a purposeful exaggeration of society’s obsession with commenting on and controlling women’s reproductive choices. The world of Atwood’s story feels much tighter to the protagonist as you navigate her fearful and constrained reality alongside frequent flashbacks to the way things were “before.”

The full video from Al Jazeera on dystopian literature in the modern age is definitely worth a watch if you have time:


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Living Alternate Histories with Underground Airlines

Angela Davis

My grandmother once told me a story that stretched the limits of my understandings of racial fear. Years ago she was relocating with her family for my grandfather’s job. They planned to drive to their new home and considered taking a detour through the South as an add-on to their trip.

At this time however, Angela Davis had just been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the entire country was focused on the story. My grandmother, who is a light-skinned black woman that used to wear her hair in an Afro, was afraid of being mistaken for Davis, particularly in the South, where they perceived greater hostility. So after some deliberation, she and my grandfather decided not to travel through the South after all, bypassing it on their journey.

Now, aside from being light-skinned, I personally don’t think my grandmother looks anything like Angela Davis. When I first heard the story I had a hard time understanding what it would feel like to be alive and black during that period in time. Because of the relatively safer and calmer context I grew up in, it is almost impossible for me to fully relate to that generalized sense of racial fear. To really understand my grandmother’s story, I had to imagine a completely different world from the one in which I came of age. (Though as #BlackLivesMatter shows, racial fear is still alive and well in the world. Unlike my experience, all too many young black people grow up quite aware of it.)

Underground AirlinesReading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters reminded me of my grandmother’s story because it is also about using the imagination to understand another world. It’s about using the tool of speculative fiction to cultivate empathy for what it can be like as a black person living in a geography of racial fear. The particular context here is slavery.

Underground Airlines is told from the perspective of the main character, who goes by Victor. Victor lives in the modern-day U.S. with one big difference — slavery still exists in four states. He’s a black man who works for the U.S. Marshall Service to help find and return escaped slaves from the slave states. As the story goes along you learn more and more about seedy things that have been going on in the background of reputable organizations on all sides. Victor has to face his own past and what he’s willing to do to keep his personal freedom.

Underground Airlines, though a thriller at its core, explores deep moral questions. Winters leads you to think about what you would do to preserve your own safety in such a compromised society. The people you would betray. Those you would manipulate. Just as interesting is the exploration of corruption among modern-day abolitionists. Winters plays with what the desire to be a “savior” can do to the psyche, and how it can corrupt. He suggests that individual people can begin to matter much less than the cause as a whole. The book is a fascinating look at what happens when who we are collides with who we imagine ourselves to be.

I’d be remiss not to mention Octavia Butler’s Kindred in reviewing Underground Airlines. In Kindred, a black woman is involuntarily trapped in a cycle of going back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. The book explores the very real and painful ways in which the institution of slavery corrupts all morals and good intentions. Kindred was a groundbreaking mashup of the modern world and the old establishment of slavery, and Winters’ work follows in that tradition. Constance Grady’s article in Vox captures some important ways that Winters draws upon Butler’s cannon.

I am white, and I wrote this book because I think it is incumbent on white people, white authors very much included, to think about racism, to grapple with racism, and to engage with it.
Ben H. Winters

One of the great strengths of speculative fiction, is that the literal worlds it forces you to consider are often based on real world “what if” questions with current day implications. Just as the world of my grandmother’s story pushed me to expand my understandings of what her life experiences encompass, speculative fiction can take you to a new mental place, to a new body. It can play with your world in subtle ways to make you consider new possibilities and perspectives. We have to leave our entrenched beliefs behind a little when reality gets slightly warped. We don’t always know who we would be in the story.


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Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Image Source: About.com

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Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the SowerIn order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix
First
Must
Burn.

-Octavia Butler

I’d seen the above quote before in a number of places around the web, and I remember bookmarking it (back when people bookmarked things) to return to later. I’ve always felt the quote succinctly captures the fact that positive change cannot happen in a vacuum, and that change itself is one of the toughest things in life to accept. I’ve long been curious about the book that these wise words had come from.

Enter Parable of the Sower, the first book in the Earthseed series that Butler unfortunately wasn’t able to finish before she passed away (though she did leave behind one sequel, Parable of the Talents). In Sower, Butler creates a world where mankind is headed toward demise. Climate change has ruined much of the environment and economy, and people are left to eke out a life with relatively little support from any sort of formal government.

The protagonist, Lauren, lives in a gated community of several families that have banded together for safety. The families in the community are poor and always struggling to get by, but outside the walls is an even more grim environment, where violent drug addicts and the very poor roam the streets and live in abandoned houses, stealing from everyone else. All in all, it’s a pretty terrifying stage, especially since Butler chose to set the novel only a few decades in the future from where we are today.

Lauren is intriguing because she suffers from something called “hyperempathy syndrome,” where supposedly she experiences other people’s pain and pleasure. The condition makes it challenging for her to be around people who are hurt — and usually someone is hurting in this post-apocalyptic world — making the syndrome a threat to her being able to survive. Butler is always playing around with these interesting scenarios and factors in her novels.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the fragile balance of Lauren’s world gets upset and she’s forced to completely rethink how she’ll move forward with her life. And throughout the book she begins to shape her own religion, called Earthseed. The initial quote, for instance, is one piece of her new religion’s writings.

I really enjoyed the way Butler challenged me to think about the U.S. as a third-world country and what it would be like to live in a world of rapidly dwindling resources. Children who grow up in America are taught that they live in the most powerful and influential country in the world, and this book made me reflect on what we lose through that kind of thinking — perhaps a shared sense of humanity and a deep appreciation for the natural resources that keep us alive.

I’m really interested at some point in reading Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of short stories that use this science fiction idea of renvisioning the world, but particularly for the means of social justice. Butler’s works seem to have inspired a lot of this kind of big thinking.

I do have to admit, the plot does move a little slow sometimes, and there are a lot of different characters to keep track of throughout the book. So the reading itself wasn’t as all-engrossing as I hoped it would be. But I do plan on reading the next book in the series though at some point, since Butler leaves you with a bit of a cliffhanger.

I’d also encourage anyone interested in Octavia Butler to read Kindred, which also plays around with the idea of alternate realities and draws in more explicitly themes of race.

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Favorite Reads of 2014

I can’t believe 2014 is already coming to a close. It’s been a year of much change and tumult, particularly in the word of racial justice organizing. I’m happy to have been a small part of what’s going on through attending protests, and I’m particularly thankful to all the people who have given so much more than I have to activism and advocating for change.

In the world of books I read through a lot. Since 2014 was also the year I started this blog, please forgive that not all the links to my favorite books go to one of my own blog posts. Regardless, here are some of the best books I read in 2014:

Half-2Bof-2Ba-2BYellow-2BSun

Half of a Yellow Sun (Literary Fiction)
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What don’t I love by this woman? If I were double counting authors I probably would have stuck Americanah on this list too. But this one edged out a little ahead for me because the history of the war over Biafra, which was formerly unknown to me, was so fascinating to read about. The characters are exquisite. Complex, human, and utterly intriguing.

Lovingkindness

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Spirituality/Self-Help)
by Sharon Salzberg

I never would have thought that a spirituality book would make my top list for 2014, but I have to say that Salzberg’s book is pretty transformative. There is a deeply powerful truth to intentionally cultivating wishes of well-being for both oneself and others that I’ve been contemplating and practicing all year since reading the book.

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Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Poetry)
by Patricia Smith

I found Patricia Smith when looking into the VONA workshop teachers, and I can’t believe she’s not more famous. The memoir poems that she put together for Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah are simply brilliant in their rhythm and word choice, and tell a powerful tale about race, class, and growing up. I will definitely be checking out more of her work in 2015.

Kindred

Kindred (Scifi/Historical fiction)
by Octavia Butler

This is the kind of book that socks you and keeps on socking you until you’ve put it down at the end. There is so much here about pain and oppression, but also love and resilience. Skillfully using time travel as a tool, Butler breaks down the notion that we would have really acted any different than our ancestors if alive during the times of slavery. Chilling.

Redefining-Realness

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (Memoir)
by Janet Mock

I know I’ve already raved about this memoir in a previous post or two, but if I’m going to be honest about what really moved me in the writing world this year, Mock’s book has to be on the list. I loved the way she wove together culture, geography, family, gender identity, and class. Plus she’s such a rising star right now, who wouldn’t want to read about her?

Warmth of Other Suns_

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Nonfiction)
by Isabel Wilkerson

Again, yes a book I’ve talked about before, and yes, still worth reading. It’s rare for me to read nonfiction these days, but Wilkerson’s book felt uncannily like fiction, given how smoothly it reads. I’m absolutely floored by the amount of research she must have done to pull this book together.

Why I Can Only Read So Many Slavery Narratives

slave shackles
National Museum of American History via Flickr

I read Kindred a few months ago and had a hard time functioning normally for a couple of days afterward. The book followed Dana, a black woman from the late 1900s who is involuntarily drawn back to time travel onto an American slave plantation. On the plantation she experiences or witnesses all manner of indignities and injustice – she must contort her spirit to a back-breaking system to stay alive.

I had a similarly strong reaction reading An Untamed State, which, while not about slavery in the 1800s sense, was about modern day sex slavery of a woman kidnapped in Haiti.

Many people have recommend to me A Known World by Edward P. Jones, which does look like a fantastic book and I happen to own it now, but at the same time I’m finding myself reluctant to actually pick it up and read it. Why? Because, the setting of the novel is slavery, and sometimes I just don’t feel up to the emotional toll of reading another book about slaves.

When I was a kid, I lived in a city of very few black people. Most folks were white, some were Asian or Latino, and just a couple were black. I remember in class when we’d talk about slavery and all of the kids would turn to look at me, to see… I don’t even know what they wanted to see, maybe how I was handling it or to try and imagine what it would have been like if I were a slave. The word “slave” was thrown around on the playground as a joke to any other kid, regardless of color. I’m going to make you my slave! The point is, as a young person it was pretty traumatizing to talk about slavery, which meant that I didn’t really decide to think about it or process my thoughts about slavery until I was much older.

As I grew up I came to think about slavery in the Ta-Nehisi Coates sense, of how this one period of intense oppression, of physical and mental hurt has lead to systemic poverty and perpetual criminalization and marginalization of black bodies. Books and movies like Kindred reminded me of the intense servility and subservience that slavery forced upon African Americans. While we’ve now had decades of black pride and racial justice movements to try and recoup some of what we lost, during the time of slavery’s peak and Jim Crow you didn’t have a choice – you had to be obedient and obsequious to whites. Living in Oakland, with the strong history of the Black Panthers grounding my feet, this past is sometimes hard to reconcile with. Quite simply, sometimes, I just don’t want to visualize that subservience.

It’s not that I want to ignore my history or that I don’t think slavery narratives should exist. To the contrary, they are ABSOLUTELY important and I firmly believe in studying the history of oppressed communities. White people in particular need to understand slavery and the legacies it wrought. But for myself as a black woman, there is a point where I’m not sure what more I get out of slavery media. Do I need to see a man getting whipped naked in front of his children one more time? To read about another black woman being raped by her white master? When these scenes and moments are literally a part of my family tree, at what point do I get to look away for a moment to catch my breath? There are times when I just need a little space before I’m ready to go through the trauma of re-visualizing my ancestry. Never ever to forget, only to keep moving.