This section contains 3,140 words
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Interview by Octavia Butler with Frances M. Beal
SOURCE: "Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre," in Black Scholar, Vol. 17, No. 2, March/April, 1986, pp. 14-8.
In the following interview, Butler discusses the science fiction genre, her career, and themes in her work.
Octavia Butler is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction writer. One of very few black writers who have selected this genre as their focus, she is a Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop graduate. Her books include, Clays Ark, Kindred, Mind of My Mind, Patternmaster, Wild Seed and Survivor. This interview was conducted by Black Scholar Associate Editor Frances M. Beal on October 29, 1985, in East Lansing, Michigan.
[Beal:] Why did you decide to turn your writing skills to the science fiction genre?
[Butler:] I didn't decide to become a science fiction writer. It just happened. I was writing when I was 10 years old. I was writing my own little stories and when I was 12 I was watching a bad science fiction movie and decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try and I've been writing science fiction ever since.
What interested you about science fiction?
The freedom of it; it's potentially the freest genre in existence. It tends to be limited by what people think should be done with it and by what editors think should be done with it, although less now than in the past. In the past, there were editors who didn't really think that sex or women should be mentioned or at least not used other than as rewards for the hero or terrible villainesses.
Blacks were not mentioned without there being any particular reason. Sex was kept out because science fiction began in this country as a genre for young boys. They were either at their girl-hating stage or they had broken out in pimples and had wonderful brains and terrible bodies so they were not wildly beset by the opposite sex.
Some science fiction writers focus on futuristic technological advances and interplanetary plots. Your works, however, often appear to look at the problems of the current society by projecting an alternative ideal society.
I've actually never projected an ideal society. I don't write utopian science fiction because I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society. I don't really worry about sub-genres or genre really. I write what I have to write and when I finish, I send it off to my publisher and they worry about what genre it falls into.
Now with Kindred that was quite a problem. I sent it off to a number of different publishers because it obviously was not science fiction. There's absolutely no science in it. It was the kind of fantasy that nobody had really thought of as fantasy because after all, it doesn't fall into the sword and sorcery or pseudo-medieval and fantasy that everyone expects with a lot of magic being practiced.
One editor thought that it might possibly be converted into a historical romance type of novel. I got all sorts of reaction to it such as, "Well this is awfully good but we don't know what to do with it." So I wound up going back to Doubleday but not to their science fiction section. I wound up going to their general fiction, their mainstream fiction department and being published by them that way. Unfortunately not with as much publicity as I had expected, but at least I was published by them.
Could you briefly explain the plot and conception of your best seller book, [Kindred]?
[Kindred] is the story of a black woman who is pulled back in time to the antebellum South. She is a woman from the present era who is pulled back and enslaved. She has a long association with a pair of her ancestors—one black and one white.
I wrote this book because I grew up during the sixties—that was the period of my adolescence—and I was involved with the black consciousness raising that was taking place at the time. And I was involved with some people who had gone off the deep end with the generation gap. They would say things like, "I would like to get rid of that older generation that betrayed us. I'm not going to do anything because to start, I would have to kill my parents."
Excesses of the 1960s
My attitude was what the older generations, not just my mother who had gone through enough for heaven's sake, but my grandmother on back had suffered a lot from oppression. They endured experiences that would kill me and would probably kill that guy. He didn't know what he was talking about and there were a great many people who sounded the way he did.
I wanted to deal with my own feelings. My mother was a maid and sometimes she took me to work with her when I was very small and she had no one to stay with me. I used to see her going in back doors, being talked about while she was standing right there and basically being treated like a non-person; something beneath notice, and what was worse, I saw all this.
My mother had almost no education. She was taken out of school at age ten and put to work. Not only that, she had only been in school for a year or two. She was born on a sugar plantation in Louisiana and her mother had no school to send her to. Her mother taught her to read and write, not as well as the school would have but she did the best she could.
So my mother had very little to fall back on. And I could see her later as I grew up. I could see her absorbing more of what she was hearing from the whites than I think even she would have wanted to absorb. I can see from watching her why, for instance, that guy might have thought, "Oh they betrayed us." Without knowing what they had gone through and what it had cost them, some people were making rash judgments.
What are some of the philosophical points that Kindred ends up making?
Oh I think you would have to read it for yourself. I remember going to a conference in San Diego and having someone read a paper about my work and misinterpreting it badly. I got up and said so. I have the feeling now though that what people get out of my work is worth something even if it wasn't what I intended.
Maybe I should rephrase the question. What were you trying to express?
Various kinds of courage. For instance, there is a woman in the novel who was never called mammy but perhaps she could have been. At a certain point, my character becomes angry at her because she is pushing the other slaves to work. My character says, "Well, they're not getting paid; they are going to get knocked around; why should they work hard?" And the woman says, "Well, do you want to do it? Someone will be made to do it. Do you want to do it? It should be shared if we have to do it."
She has absorbed a lot of the garbage but she is still her own person and she's still doing what she can. She has her own forms of resistance but my character really doesn't see this at first and gradually does come to see this. There's a point in the book when she goes back and forth between the two time periods involuntarily.
Whenever her white ancestor is endangered—and he is a very self-destructive person—she pulls back physically and especially when he's a child, she willingly saves him. Because after all, a child drowning or about to burn to death, you would naturally save the child no matter what color it was.
And later when he's a man and a much less savory person, she saves him because her ancestor has not been born yet. She's not quite sure how these things work, but she is a little afraid. She understands that there is a paradox here. How could everything depend on her. But anyway, she goes on saving him. I've had people come up and ask me why doesn't she just kill him as soon as the ancestor is born.
My attitude when I wrote the book was that TV and movies advertise killing as a very easy thing—how simple to blow somebody away. If it is that easy it shouldn't be, and I didn't want my character to be someone who felt the need to murder somebody. Most of us will never be confronted with that need and the few of us who will be, will generally be confronted by something that demands an immediate decision. He's going to kill you or you are going to kill him. You won't have time to think about it which can be a terrible thing under any circumstances.
Why is science fiction a literary form that black and female writers have not sufficiently explored?
I think part of the reason, as I mentioned earlier, is that science fiction began as a boy's genre. So it was white, it was adolescent and it involved a particular kind of adolescent best described as a need. So this did not make it popular with blacks or adults or women for quite a long time.
Later, I think the movies helped advertise it to the kids and helped turn the adults off. For instance, you go to the movies and there are monsters running around. This is science fiction, suitable for someone that is twelve, not to be taken seriously as a literary form.
But slowly people are being drawn in. Some of the bestsellers, I think, have helped to draw people in who otherwise would never touch science fiction. A lot of the science fiction writers have gotten older, a little bit better accepted and some of them still write very well, and their books bring people in. Science fiction writers come from science fiction readers. I think that as more and more blacks begin to read science fiction, then more blacks will take up writing science fiction, and this is already happening to a certain degree.
Why has there been such an expansion of women writers of science fiction in recent years?
I think that was part of the women's movement. Women were finally asserting their right to write it and define themselves. I think they were sick to death of princesses and witches, which is the kind of role women played in the science fiction I remember when I began.
I came into science fiction when things were opening up for women, when it was okay to notice the fact that the universe wasn't just white or male. So I could write about black women, black heroines and not get anybody upset. I got readers who wrote me letters wondering why there always seemed to be a black person in my work, but most people seemed to either accept it or shut up about it.
Do you think that women find that female writers have brought a different type of perspective to the genre?
I think that they have done a lot for characterization in science fiction. But you can't really talk about "women's science fiction" because there are women writing all kinds of science fiction, from the sword and sorcery to the medieval to hard science fiction to soft science fiction. There is no women's genre in science fiction.
A science fiction writer has the freedom to do absolutely anything. The limits are the imagination of the writer. There are always blacks in the novels I write and whites. In Quasar there is a Japanese man and a Mexican woman. In the one I'm working on now there is a Chinese man and a lot of different people are lumped together.
Could you talk a little bit about the work you have in progress now?
I'm working on a trilogy at the present time and the novel that I'm finishing is called The Training Boar. It is a story, post Holocaust, of human beings being changed from one generation to another—not entirely human any longer—but human beings who have survived the Holocaust.
They are captured by aliens and this is why they lasted so long as a species. They don't become overspecialized by some conditions. In a way maybe a form of specialization is killing us off now and we don't generally think of it that way. But size may have been a problem with the dinosaurs and we may be about to be killed off by our greatest advantage. My characters are told that human beings have two characteristics that are fine and conducive to the species survival individually, but are a lethal combination.
The first of those characteristics is intelligence and the other is something that can be projected through history—something that keeps showing up in us that has been doing a great deal of harm: It's hierarchical structure/behavior. The combination, because intelligence tends to serve the hierarchical behavior, is what may eventually wipe us out.
Do you think that hierarchical behavior is inborn?
Absolutely. It's not a matter of thinking about it really. I mean look at our closest animal relatives. Look at everything on earth right down to the algae. Two clones of algae are slowly covering Iraq. Eventually only one clone of algae will survive. I mean it's part of life on this planet. So hierarchical behavior is definitely inborn and intelligence is something new that we've come up with and like I said, I happen to think that the combination is lethal.
I think that it doesn't have to be lethal if we deal with it. But unfortunately, the ways in which we tried to deal with it in the past have not really acknowledged the problem. Too often when people start talking about inborn characteristics, they start talking about who shall we eliminate, who has the negative characteristics. And we get to decide what's negative and we get into the eugenics and the real nasty stuff where people use something that could be and is in fact part of behavior science as a reason to put somebody else down to get rid of your enemies, using science for hierarchical purposes.
Do you believe that black writers and their works will become popular to the point where they will be read by everyone and not primarily by blacks?
I'm not read primarily by blacks now strangely enough. Most of my readers are science fiction readers. I don't know. It depends. In this country being black tends to bring out a lot of negative emotions that don't necessarily have anything to do with us.
It's sort of like being Jewish in Nazi Germany. I don't really know if that is the case. It sounds as though it might be. People who are willing to look at all sorts of materials regarding the holocaust get very upset when they hear anything about what's happened here either during slavery or much more recently during the civil rights movement.
For instance, I think most people don't know or don't realize that at least 10 million blacks were killed just on the way to this country, just during the middle passage. People have a hard enough time believing that. They don't really want to hear it partly because it makes whites feel guilty.
Something that I would like to relate illustrates this. Just an anecdote. Another writer during the first Star Wars movie had done a review of the movie, a three-page review of it. He praised it very highly and said very nice things about it. Near the last paragraph, he said that one thing about this movie was that it shows every kind of alien, but there is only one kind of human—white ones; no black people were shown. There are no non-whites at all and where are they. He says that he got three pounds of hate mail.
A lot of the mail said that blacks make us feel uncomfortable. We want to see movies with no blacks in them. And this goes back to something that I heard at a science fiction convention. I was sitting next to the editor of a magazine that no longer exists and he was also doing some science fiction writing. He said that he didn't think that blacks should be included in science fiction stories because they changed the character of the stories; that if you put in a black, all of a sudden the focus is on this person. He stated that if you were going to write about some sort of racial problem, that would be absolutely the only reason he could see for including a black.
He went on to say that well, perhaps you could use an alien instead and get rid of all this messiness and all those people that we don't want to deal with. It reflected his view of black people as being other. There's another anecdote that points up this problem. Several years ago I was trying to put together an anthology of science fiction by and about black people. In the first place nobody would buy it. Most of the stories that we got (I was working with another man) were about racism, as though that was the sum total of our lives. Especially, and I hate to say it, all the stories we got from white people were about racism because that was all they apparently thought that we dealt with.
How did you finally succeed in actually becoming a professional writer?
I had my first short stories published in 1970 when I was 23. I sold my first novel in 1975 but it wasn't published until 1976. That was Patternmaster. While Patternmaster was out with the publisher, I wrote Mind of My Mind and sent it out to another publisher. And while those two novels were both out, I began revising an old novel that I had begun writing while in my teens called Survivor.
And while I was working on Survivor, I got a rejection from the publisher that I had sent Mind of My Mind to and an acceptance from the publisher that I had sent Patternmaster to.
I was able to find the time for that kind of output during that time because I had been laid off my job and I had unemployment compensation and I was desperate. I was 27 and I felt that nothing was happening in regards to my writing. I was afraid that maybe nothing was going to happen and that perhaps my relatives were right and that I should go and get a civil service job.
I was really grabbing at straws. I don't think that I could have quit writing, but it would have been very bad for me if I had gone on and written those three novels and had no success. It would have been deadly.
This section contains 3,140 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)