Those of us who revere Octavia Butler’s work and have never stopped mourning her passing do so in part, I suspect, because we know that no matter what happens in this Universe there will never be anyone like Butler again—not as a person and certainly not as an artist. Like Toni Morrison, Butler was a literary eucatastrophe, (a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur), a literary Kwisatz Haderach (Butler loved Dune) that occurs so very rarely in a culture and only if it is lucky.
For those who do not know her (and apparently there are still plenty who don’t): Octavia Estelle Butler is one of our greatest writers, though in the larger culture she is described as the first Black woman to write science fiction professionally. That biographeme—Black Woman Science Fiction Writer—defined Butler her entire career in spite of the fact that her extraordinary and most well-known novel, Kindred (1979), was not science fiction at all, but a neo-slave narrative that Butler herself described as “grim fantasy.” Butler died in 2006, at the age of fifty-eight, far, far too young, publishing fourteen books (fifteen if we count the posthumous collection, Unexpected Stories). They radically transformed multiple canons—U.S. literature, African diasporic literature, feminist literature, science fiction, speculative fiction—but also radically altered the imaginaries of generations of readers and artists. Now with Kindred on television, in an eight-part series by FX on Hulu, a different set of audiences will have the opportunity to discover Butler for themselves.
A self-described hermit who suffered all her life from crippling shyness, Butler never fit easily into the world she found herself in; she didn’t come from money, had a habitus that did not correspond to any hegemonic formula (Butler was often confused for a man), and had a passion for genre writing that baffled her Black family and her white teachers alike.
You think making it as a writer of color is hard now—try making it as a Black woman writing speculative fiction in the ’70s and ’80s. Add to that the fact that Butler wrote very slowly, read very slowly, and suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. But Butler’s devotion to her calling was deep. She came from a long line of overcomers who made a way when there was no way. (She often credited her mother, a housecleaner, and her grandmother for inspiring her resilience.)
In the face of enormous challenges Butler persevered and, in the end, became the writer she had long dreamed of becoming. She sold her first story at the age of twenty-three, published her first novel at twenty-nine, and continued to write for the remainder of her short life, producing thousands upon thousands of manuscript pages.
Fourteen books, and of the thirteen that are available—Butler refused to allow her novel Survivor to be republished in her lifetime, believing it to be an unfinished embarrassment—there is not a whiff among them. Nine, Kindred included, are masterpieces. Even her “lesser” efforts are wonders of craft and the imagination. Everything Butler wrote—story, novel, science fiction, fantasy—is marked by her interest in racial politics, in the history of the African diaspora, in the ability for an individual, usually a woman, to survive bondage. It all hums with an unbending will, muted ferocity, and clear-eyed pessimism that is as close as Butler came to autobiography. Hers is a prophetic literature that is equal parts revelation and terror—what Maxine Hong Kingston once called stories “to grow up on.” Before Wakanda become part of the idiolect, Butler was writing Wakandas. Unlike so much of the larger culture in those days (Marvel included), Butler never had problems imagining Black people with Wakanda-like superpowers; she just couldn’t imagine that Black people with Wakanda-like superpowers would ever be benevolent.
Butler won a MacArthur Fellowship and a number of Nebula and Hugo Awards, but she never received the success or financial stability she longed for. During her lifetime all her books went out of print at one time or another. I can remember as late as 2000, at a gathering of African diasporic faculty, being asked to recommend a Black writer, and when I named Butler, only two of the dozen professors had ever heard of her, and only one had read her books. At the end of her life, when her reputation had grown, Butler was still worried about her finances, convinced that she would need to write another two novels in order to retire. She died before she could write those novels or enjoy her retirement.
Fortunately for readers everywhere, Butler’s reputation has only grown since her untimely passing. She has inspired essays, anthologies, dissertations, monographs, scholarships, prizes and, of course, legions of readers and artists. For many of us in the African diaspora, Butler is as much a founding mother—Butler wrote a lot about founding mothers—as she is an Eshu figure who opened the way. Many of the young writers of color kicking ass in speculative fiction today are Octavia’s brood, whether they know it or not.
Kindred has benefited the most from the Butler boom. The book is one of Beacon Press’s best sellers, and in 2017 a graphic novel adaptation rocketed to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Now it has reached TV. For years Butler fans debated how her novels would play on the screen, how “the studios” would translate or dilute, realize or corrupt, Butler’s uniquely unflinching (to put it mildly) worldview. Hulu has given us one answer, but hopefully there will be many more to come.
The novel has a simple, horrifying conceit. In mid-seventies Los Angeles, Dana, a struggling Black writer, finds herself being repeatedly hurled back in time—sometimes with her white husband, Kevin, sometimes alone (she drags along anything she’s touching). Every single time she time-jumps, Dana ends up in the antebellum South: to the very plantation her ancestors were enslaved. In other words, Dana is hurled through time straight into the maw of American slavery, with nothing to protect her but her wits, her fierce will to live, and, occasionally, her husband’s white skin (he has to pretend to be her master). Each trip to the past increases Dana’s peril, until at last, before she can escape for good, her slave ancestors nearly kill her.
Kindred is thus simultaneously a time-travel story and a neo-slave narrative. Butler literalizes what’s implicit in the genre—after all, isn’t every neo-slave narrative a time-travel story? But don’t let the temporal hijinks confuse you: this is no Terminator fantasy; even 1962’s La Jetée seems downright cheery by comparison. Kindred, for my money, is second only to Morrison’s Beloved (1987) in approximating the insane everyday nightmare that was American slavery. How it ate flesh, how it ate souls, how it ate presents, how it ate futures. In Butler’s deft hands every moment that Dana spends in the past is torqued with dread, with the imminence of arbitrary annihilation. The real question is not whether the violation will come—it will—or if it will kill you (always a possibility), but whether it will shatter your humanity forever.
Kindred, you see, is also a horror novel. (Then again, what neo-slave narrative isn’t?) But it is a horror novel of a very particular kind. What gets quickly revealed is that Dana is summoned to the past every time her white ancestor’s life is in peril. At any of these crux moments Dana could choose to let the young slaver die, kill-whitey style, but then Dana’s ancestor Hagar would not have been born, and neither would have Dana. In other words: a Black woman has to keep a white slaver alive long enough for him to rape her ancestor into existence. As Canavan aptly describes it, “Dana, is alive after slavery and despite slavery, but also because of slavery, a compromised and morally fraught position that forces her to make deeply unpleasant choices in the name of preserving the circumstances that led to her own birth.”
It is this impossibly vile “compromise” that is Kindred’s true heart of darkness. It demonstrates why Butler has many imitators, but no equals. The novel takes aim at the consolatory reflex among many in the African diaspora who insist that white supremacy is Other, is whitey (and friends)—reminding us, emphatically, gruesomely, that white supremacy is us too.
As a devotee of Butler, who longs for the whole world to read her, I was rooting for the TV adaptation of Kindred. I figured that the producers would have to tone down the more radical edges of Butler’s novel—because, Hollywood—but with brilliant playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins heading the development, there was a real chance they could preserve the core of Butler’s vision, do something nervy and off-kilter. What I didn’t expect is that they would undo so much of what made the novel unique and powerful.
The most obvious and perhaps the most unavoidable change is that the show has been set in the Now. Gone are the novel’s Bicentennial critiques, its depiction of the era’s aggressive racism. (Butler’s ’70s would cause That ’70s Show to implode on contact.) Gone, too, are Dana’s working-class struggles. In the novel Dana works at a low-skill job agency and is so broke she cannot afford to eat; in the show Dana is flush. We find out in the first episode that she has sold the Manhattan brownstone she inherited from her grandmother for a tidy sum and bought herself a bungalow in Silver Lake.
That is not to say the Dana of the show doesn’t have her challenges (besides, you know, the time traveling). Her new house brings with it a pair of villainous white neighbors who are Super Karens. Then there’s her aunt Sarah, who reacts to Dana’s time travel tales by trying to have her thrown into a psych ward, perhaps in an effort to seize the brownstone inheritance she believes is rightfully hers. And we haven’t even talked about the show’s strangest twist: it turns out that Dana’s long dead mother is alive; she just time-traveled back to the plantation and got stuck there.
If this all seems overstuffed, that’s because it is. Overstuffed and distracting. But all the departures wouldn’t be so bad, would even be tolerable, had the show landed the slavery half of the story. After all, Kindred, like Dana herself, lives or dies by what happens on the Weylin plantation. Unfortunately for the viewer and the series itself, TV Kindred’s take on slavery is so desultory and diffused that Dana’s troubles as an LA homeowner often end up coming off as more perilous than the brutality of the peculiar institution.
In the novel, no sooner does Dana land in the South than she has to fight for her very life; no matter how she prepares, what she brings with her, or Kevin’s best efforts, Dana is always one misstep from annihilation—or worse. The show, however, presents the Southern plantation as a more forgiving place; the show lets Dana, and later Kevin, get away with all types of slips and impertinences that would have gotten Novel Dana slain. There are a few notable stabs at historical verisimilitude—enslaved children scrambling on the floor for oranges, a white child threatening Dana with smug impunity—but these moments pass quickly or are resolved in Dana’s favor. We don’t get any real sense of the hell that was plantation life; we barely spend any time with the enslaved people Butler took such pains to humanize. The show seems more interested in Kevin’s relationship with Rufus’s father Tom than in any of the half-dozen enslaved people it introduces. In the novel, Tom is a brutal slaver, but the show transforms him into a foolish bad father who speaks in a pseudo-courtly register and seems unable to register Kevin or Dana’s strangeness, a fact the series sometimes plays up for yuks. By the time Tom bares his fangs, we’re at the end of the season and it’s far too little, too late.
The show seems to misunderstand—or, worse, reject—Butler’s implacable rendition of the plantation as site of soul-ravaging precarity. Nothing is more emblematic of this rejection than Dana’s mother—a character, mind you, the scriptwriters invented whole cloth for the series. Dana’s mother has been stuck on the plantation for years, and yet when Dana is at last reunited with her and offers her a shot at finally getting back to her real life, Mom doesn’t seem all that pressed to leave. She has to be convinced—not to leave, but to consider leaving. Which is just nuts.
The show ultimately does not live up to the premise and challenge of the novel. All the stuff happening in the present, the inertness of the plantation scenes, the glib conflation of today’s injustices with yesterday’s harms, should have tipped me off that while Dana ostensibly travels back in time, the show in the end doesn’t. Not fully.
The novel is prescient in this regard, too. Dana herself points out how difficult it would be for television to capture the hell she is experiencing: “most of the people around Rufus know more about real violence than the screenwriters of today will ever know.” Butler was no doubt speaking of herself, of all who try to commune with the alterity of slavery, who try to plumb that depthless abyss. We who are not time travelers will never fully grasp the horror horror horror of slavery, but Butler and Kindred insist we must never stop trying. How else can we ever hope to put an end to all the nightmares slavery unleashed, or value these incredible, precious African-descended lives of ours, if we don’t try?
But our trying, like Dana of the novel, must be complex and fearsome and yes, impossibly compromised. To reckon with a past like slavery we must be willing like Dana to entertain blasphemous solidarities with the very thing that sought to destroy us and seeks to destroy us still. For it is Dana’s solidaritous imaginary, her willingness to engage the worst of the worst, that saves her from that evil past and gives her a future.
In the end, that’s the wisdom of the novel—that unless we are willing to tolerate radical solidarities with what is abominate in ourselves and others we will never really understand the complex oppressions that made us, and that continue to afflict us today.
While it looks like Hulu’s Kindred will not receive a second season, I am not completely discouraged. I have faith that others will attempt to adapt this book again, along with the other thirteen behind it. Some will be drawn to the task because they love Butler; others will come specifically because they understand that in this age of endless precarity and extreme social fragmentation, when all are encouraged to indulge in anti-solidaritous thinking, we need Butler more than ever: on the page, on the screen, everywhere.
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