The following article appeared in the Black Issues Book Review Magazine


The following news item appeared in the March 20, 2006 issue of Jet Magazine


Octavia Butler, A Lonely, Bright Star Of the Sci-Fi Universe

By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer

What must it have been like to be Octavia Butler?

There she was, this woman of great intellect, of immense talent, of tremendous passion, and, it seems, so very much alone. Her death on Friday after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle has rattled those who loved her work. She was 58.

There she was, a tall, awkward and shy black girl thinking that she wanted to write science fiction, of all things. A young woman who believed the genre could deal with more than ray guns and transporters, and that she had a right to create fiction that tackled race and class and what it meant to be human in worlds where humanness had all but been obliterated. Publisher after publisher must have been puzzled. How could science fiction be set on a plantation?

Octavia Butler showed them how.

She was an African American woman claiming her space in a literary universe dominated by white men. After years of rejection, she eventually won science fiction's most prestigious awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She picked up other honors along the way, too, including a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

Her following was loving and loyal -- protective even -- for they seemed to know instinctively how precious and powerful and simultaneously tender and fragile a spirit like hers had to be.

"That's terrible, terrible, terrible news," my mother kept saying over and over at word of Butler's death. A die-hard science fiction fan, she is one of those people who gobbled up many of Butler's 11 novels. I was proud of myself for having turned her on to Butler's first work, "Kindred." Soon she was devouring the other works, among them "Dawn" and the highly regarded "Parable of the Sower."

Over the years I had heard Butler speak at literary conferences, listened as she engaged the audiences and patiently indulged those eager young writers with their sometimes doting questions. She was always warm, always gracious. She was easy with people, a strong public presence who seemed so comfortable in her open and direct way.

But that was Octavia Butler's public presence. Those who knew her, as well as anyone could, knew that she was a very private and shy person.

Black science fiction trailblazer Samuel Delaney, 63, remembers teaching Butler as a 23-year-old student at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. She was, he says, incredibly shy, a student who spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent.

It was years later, however, after she had published "Kindred," that he saw what she had become. "It was wonderful to see how she had bloomed and gained so much self-confidence and become a really extraordinary public speaker," Delaney says. She also was a pathblazer in a genre where once you could count the black writers on one hand.

Tananarive Due, a successful novelist, might be described as one of Butler's literary daughters. She and her husband, Steven Barnes -- who was part of that rare original club of black sci-fi writers -- were close to Butler.

The public and private lives of Butler, Due says, were remarkable to watch. "It's almost as if she lived in two worlds."

"I'm very happy alone," Butler once told Post writer David Streitfeld. "If I had to change myself into something else, I'd probably be unhappy."

She grew up poor in Southern California, where her father shined shoes before he died when she was a young girl, and her mother cleaned houses. Butler was a young black woman coming of age at a time when black women were mainly invisible. And when she was noticed, it was with unkind eyes. She was six feet tall by the time she was in her teens, a girl with deep brown skin and short hair. She was sometimes mistaken for a man, she would say. Early as a child, she cocooned herself in a world of books and nurtured audacious ambitions.

"She obviously had spent a tremendous amount of her early life feeling very, very alone," Barnes said. "She had no tribe. She didn't fit in any place. Her own family thought she was nuts . . . because of what she wanted to do with her life."

At one time Barnes lived just six blocks from Butler and they would spend time together, having dinner or just talking. One of the questions she seemed to care greatly about was, "Why is it that we are so cruel to each other?" Barnes says.

"The fact that she was so concerned with that made me think she had faced a lot of that" cruelty in her life, he adds.

She explored the question in a field that was forced, whether it wanted to or not, to acknowledge her talents.

"Women in general were rare in the science fiction field, and black women, ha," Barnes says.

She had to cloak her ideas thickly in metaphor, he says. "She was forced to speak through layers of obsfucation." Those challenges may have ultimately made her a better writer but must have taken their toll.

"It was like trying to drive in the Indy 500 with your brakes on," Barnes says. "You burn up."

Due last spoke with Butler in the summer when Butler was planning to send her last manuscript, "Fledgling," which was recently published to acclaim.

She and Barnes had been worried about Butler, who had been ill and on several medications. The side effects, she told them, made it hard for her to write. It must have been particularly trying for such a perfectionist, they say.

They worried about her, up there alone and probably pushing herself far too much, both in her writing and her travels. But she was drawn to the Pacific Northwest, they say, with its natural beauty and its opportunities for true solitude. Due wanted to call, but worried about interrupting her writing, the words that seemed so hard to come by lately.

I wonder if in all that aloneness, in all her solitude, she knew just how beautiful she was and that she was loved.

Science Fiction Writer Octavia Butler, 58

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer

Octavia Butler, 58, one of the country's leading science fiction writers who as an African American woman brought themes of race, gender and power to the genre, died of an apparent stroke Feb. 24 at her home in Seattle.

Ms. Butler, who had lived in Seattle since 1999, wrote 11 novels and a collection of short stories and had published stories in anthologies and magazines. She was an award-winning storyteller whose writings defied the boundaries of one genre. The first black woman to make inroads in the mostly white and male science fiction sphere, Ms. Butler appreciated the genre's literary freedom, and she used it to tell cautionary tales about what could happen to our world.

Leslie Howle, a longtime friend and a senior manager at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, said Ms. Butler was "bigger than just being a science fiction writer."

"One of the things that made Octavia special was how deeply she cared. She wanted to make the world a better place, to make humanity better able to survive its own misbehavior," Howle said. "Her work took an unflinching look at poverty, race, gender, religion, the environment, politics and what it means to be human."

Ms. Butler, who knew she wanted to be a writer at age 10, received numerous rejections before "Kindred," her first novel and most popular work, was published in 1979. The story, based on slave narratives that she had researched, was about a black woman named Dana who traveled back in time to save the life of her white, slave-owning ancestor. "Kindred" has been used widely in college classes.

Subsequent work brought her high honors in her field. Her short story "Speech Sounds" won a Hugo Award for the best short story of 1984. That year, her novelette "Bloodchild" won the Nebula -- science fiction's highest award -- and in 1985, it received a Hugo.

In 1995, Ms. Butler became the first science fiction writer to be awarded a coveted "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She received the PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

Ms. Butler was once described as "one of the finest voices in fiction -- period" by The Washington Post. An astute observer of human behavior, she was known for her depiction of strong female characters. She was a writer, one critic said, with "a fine hand with lean, well-paced prose."

Six feet tall and a self-described happy hermit, Ms. Butler escaped easy definition. "I'm comfortably asocial," she once wrote, "a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Calif., the only child that her mother carried to full term; four other children died before her birth. Her mother, also named Octavia, did domestic work, often taking her daughter with her. She knew her father, Laurice Butler, who died when she was young, only through the stories told by her mother and grandmother. After her father's death, her mother took in boarders to bring in extra money.

As a painfully shy child, she kept to herself and spent a great deal of time reading whatever she could find. She also had dyslexia, although it was not known at the time, and performed poorly in grade school. But by the time she was 10, she had written her first story, about horses, and by 11 she was penning romance stories. She produced her first science fiction story at 12 after seeing the film "Devil Girl From Mars" and believing that she could write a better story.

She received an associate degree from Pasadena City College in 1968 and studied at California State University at Los Angeles and the University of California at Los Angeles. She took classes with Harlan Ellison, an influential science fiction writer, at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where she later taught.

Determined to make it as a writer, she worked a number of menial jobs while maintaining a rigid early-morning writing schedule. After "Kindred" sold, she was able to write full time.

Her other novels include "Patternmaster" (1976), "Mind of My Mind" (1977), "Survivor" (1978) and "Wild Seed" (1980). She had a seven-year period during which she could not finish anything that she attempted. Then she wrote her last novel, "Fledgling" (2005), about the Dracula legend.

In an interview with Essence magazine in October, she talked about the difference between "Fledgling" and other books she had written, such as "Parable of the Sower" (1993) and "Wild Seed."

"I had a long period of writing what I think of as 'save the world' novels," she said. " 'Fledgling' was a chance to play."

Her mother died in 1999, and she leaves no immediate survivors.

"The lovely thing about writing is, well, two things," Ms. Butler once said. "One, writing fiction allows us to bring an order to our lives that doesn't exist in real life. And two, it allows us to create human characters that we know better than we will ever know anyone in real life."