Thursday, 19 May 2011

Octavia Butler

“You can psychoanalyse yourself and be paid for it”

Nibir K. Ghosh
My heart missed a beat when I received an e-mail from my friend Ethelbert Miller telling me about the tragic untimely demise of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) at Seattle, USA. I learnt that Octavia Butler, who was only 58, fell and hit her head on the sidewalk outside her Lake Forest Park home in Seattle and died. It just seemed like a Camus or Becket story ending. In the science-fiction world, death doesn’t necessarily mean The End. At the University of Washington when I expressed my desire to interview Octavia Butler, I was told that she shunned publicity and preferred to live the life of a recluse. I refused to be discouraged. I located her telephone number in the directory, held my breath, dialled the ten magic digits and asked, "May I speak to Octavia Butler?" A metallic voice affectionately confirmed that I was talking to the celebrity herself. I introduced myself as a visitor from the city of the Taj Mahal and sought her permission to interview her. She didn’t take a second to say "yes."

The interview was a memorable experience because it brought to the forefront her many-sided genius. She narrated how she had overcome the twin obstacles of being a woman and a Black to carve a niche for herself with science fiction novels like Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Survivor, Kindred, Wild Seed, Clay’s Ark, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.

Butler grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Her father died while she was very young, and her mother worked as a maid to support the two of them. Butler has written memoirs of her mother’s sacrifices: buying her a typewriter of her own when she was 10, and to paying a large fee to an unscrupulous agent so Butler’s stories could be read. Enduring years of hardship, she was happy to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant that brought her a hard-earned $295,000 windfall in 1995 along with international recognition. Butler remains the only science fiction writer to receive one of the vaunted "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Butler’s interest in science fiction began at the age of 12 after she saw a bad movie called Devil Girl From Mars. Confident of being able to write a better story, she set out on her journey and never looked back. She attributed her success as a science fiction writer to the two workshops that she had attended: the first given by the screenwriters’ guild of America, West, and the other the Clarion Science Fiction writer’s workshop.When asked what she felt about discrimination on lines of colour and gender in the United States, she remarked: "My race and sex had a great deal more to do with what people believed I could do than with what I actually could do." When asked how it felt being termed a "recluse," she smiled and remarked, "I am comfortably asocial—a hermit living in a large city—a pessimist if I’m not careful; a student, endlessly curious; a feminist; an African American; a former Baptist; and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive." Writing, for Butler, always remained a passion. In her own words: is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyze yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it."

Butler confessed she had no fixed formula for her science fiction stories. "Each novel is different. Some begin with a character, some with a situation, some with a scientific or medical idea, some with a remark someone makes or a news story." Butler was aware of the fact that science fiction suffers from its reputation for "trashiness and immaturity" because of a disproportionate blending of science and wild imagination which takes the reader far away from reality. She thought it was rather unfortunate that for many the only contact with science fiction is "through (often bad) movies" as a result of which they assume that science fiction is inevitably immature and silly. According to her a good story is a good story no matter what genre label is put on it.

Butler brought enormous respectability to the science fiction genre. Unlike many writers in the field who remained preoccupied with robots and ray guns, Butler used the genre’s artistic freedom to explore race, poverty, politics, religion and human nature. Endowed with courage, persistence and positive passion, Butler succeeded in stripping away the myths to shed light on real problems faced by human race and society. What she really conveyed in her writing was the deep pain she felt about the injustices around her. All of it was a metaphor for war, poverty, power struggles and discrimination. But she overcame the pain and agony of it all with the gift of words that enabled her to start healing fountains in the deserts of the human heart. Her characters do express faith in religion because, according to her, things get truly terrible, adults`A0need religion in the same way young children need their parents." Butler, like her characters, believes in a philosophy she terms "Earthseed." The creed of Earthseed is ‘God is Change’; the Destiny of Earthseed is take root among the stars’. She frankly stated, "My characters hope for better lives.They struggle to do things they believe will make their lives better, make our species more likely to survive its own mistakes."

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