On Octavia Butler

Guest post by Evelyn C. White (Halifax), author Alice Walker: A Life

Born in 1947, Octavia Butler was a contemporary of the late Charles Saunders. As groundbreaking Black writers of science fiction/fantasy, they were rightly hailed as “griots” who continued the spellbinding storytelling traditions of West Africa.

The shy, only child of a devout, widowed mother in California, Butler achieved international acclaim for works such as Kindred (1979) and The Parable of the Sower (1993) that feature Black women protagonists. Indeed, a major critic declared the latter novel “unmatched” in its prescient portrait of the mayhem unleashed by Donald Trump. In 1995, Butler became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Prize, among the most coveted awards in the US.

In A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler (2020), Lynell George delivers a poignant tribute to the author in a book crafted from documents she discovered in Butler’s vast archives (bus passes, shop-ping lists, diaries, utility bills, a receipt from “Tall Girl” Shoes). The statuesque author died unexpectedly, in 2006, after a fall outside of her Seattle-area home. She was 58.

The handsome volume is “not a biography, nor is it a study of [Butler’s] literary legacy,” writes George, a veteran Los Angeles journalist. “It is an examination of [her] … life path, her influences, her rituals, her quirks, and obsessions, and mostly her labor…. Butler made her own rules and stuck to them.”

An early proponent of self-help practices, Butler peppered her journals with affirmations to counter the dismissive response to her literary ambition. “Can’t you write anything normal?” a teacher once asked. In her staunch belief in her voice and vision, she blazed a trail for Afrofuturists such as Jamaican-born Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson, whose powerful works include Brown Girl in The Ring (1998).

In a 1970 journal entry, Butler pledged to secure “free and clear” $100,000 in earnings by January 1, 1975. Her strategy? “Will always write, no matter what,” she declared. “This is a fact of my life. Thus I must always leave time in my day for writing. Four hours at least.”

Among other menial jobs, Butler toiled as a potato chip inspector before her ascent to bestseller lists. She also sacrificed personal relationships. “I am lonely, I need other people now: friends and lovers,” she noted in a diary.

“It [was] a supreme act of self-love,” George writes about Butler’s hard-won success. Meditating on the stellar work of Charles Saunders and Octavia Butler, a time-honoured gospel song comes immediately to mind: “How Excellent is Thy Name.”

On May 19, 2021, as part of WFNS’s recurring Nova Reads series, remembrances of the late Charles Saunders and passages from his fiction and non-fiction works will be shared by David Woods (multidisciplinary artist and arts organization leader), George Elliott Clarke (Canada’s 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate), Judy Kavanagh (editor and Saunders’s Daily News colleague), Bill Turpin (managing editor of The Daily News), Milton Davis (author of 19 books of Black fantastic fiction), and Taaq Kirksey (television producer and developer of Saunders’s Imaro novel series for screen). Hosted by journalist Jon Tattrie (author of Peace by Chocolate), this edition of Nova Reads is co-presented by Halifax Public Libraries and the Delmore “Buddy” Daye Learning Institute.

This virtual event is free to attend, but pre-registration is required.

Charles Saunders (1946 – 2020) was an African-American author and journalist who moved to Ontario in 1969 and then Nova Scotia in 1985. While a copyeditor and writer at Halifax’s The Daily News, where he worked for nearly two decades, Saunders penned numerous columns grappling with difficult racial issues, contributed to The Spirit of Africville (1992), and authored the book-length community profile Black and Bluenose (1999). Saunders also pioneered the “sword and soul” literary genre through his Imaro series of fantasy novels, begun in 1981. His fiction was groundbreaking not merely for its anti-colonial reimagining of figures like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian but also for its worldbuilding centered on Black characters and cultures.

Learn more about Charles Saunders in the feature stories “The extraordinary inner world of Charles R. Saunders, father of Black sword and soul” (Jon Tattrie, CBC Nova Scotia) and “A Black Literary Trailblazer’s Solitary Death: Charles Saunders” (The New York Times).

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