The fantastical world of Octavia Butler

The Cauldron, April 15, 2002
By Patrick J. Salem

CSU’s First College and Femspec hosted science fiction author Octavia Butler last Thursday as part of "Envisioning the Future: Utopia, Dystopia, & Beyond." The three-day event featured discussions with Butler, a performance of an original play by a former CU student, and a multimedia concert directed by CSU alumnus.

Butler appeared at two of English professor Dr. Batya Weinbaum’s classes during the day Thursday, and spoke to a capacity crowd at the Mather Mansion that evening.

"Octavia Butler serves on the advisory board of Femspec," Weinabaum told the Cauldron. "We were excited to have her come to speak on campus. The Femspec interns wrote a proposal and asked [the Office of Minority Affairs and Community Relations] for a grant to have her speak on campus. Austen [Allen, interim director of First College] matched the grant, and First College helped put together the rest of the program."

Femspec is an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to critical and creative works in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, myth, folklore, and other supernatural genres that Weinabaum edits. Weinabaum is an assistant professor in the department of English and First College.

Butler engaged all the of her campus audiences with personal anecdotes and advice to writers. Many students suggested that her work had political and social messages critical of the dominant society.

"I don’t decide to write about somebody for political reasons," Butler said. "They’re just people. I like to explore different ways of being human.

Butler’s interest in Science Fiction developed her early teens, when she discovered the genre when she literally outgrew the children’s room at her local library.

"By age twelve I was taller than most of the mothers of the other children," Butler said. "I discovered Science Fiction at the grocery store because I was too embarrassed to walk into the Peter Pan Room."

Butler said that much of the material she read as a young woman was written by, and for, white males.

"I didn’t see myself [in the science fiction stories]," Butler said. "I saw the movie ‘Devil Girl from Mars (1954)’ It was so bad. I knew I could do better. I realized someone got paid to write this."

Butler told the students in Weinabaum’s class that naivete led her to begin to write in the genre. She wrote extensively even before attending college at Pasadena City College in California. Her acceptance into the science fiction community didn’t come until after she attended the Clarion workshop in Pennsylvania. Until Butler, African-Americans were not included as characters in the genre.

"When blacks appeared in sci-fi, they didn’t work very well as people," Butler said.

Butler spoke to the students at length about the writing process.

"I don’t really worry that much about inspiration," Butler said. "I used to live next to my landlord. She was my inspiration."

"If you feel uninspired and you reward yourself by not writing, you get into the habit of not writing. Good habits are just as hard to break as bad ones," Butler said.

"While working on the Parable of the Talents, I saw Les Miserables," Butler said. "I went out and bought a copy of the cast soundtrack. I played the soundtrack the rest of the time I worked on the book."

Her story ideas come from various places. She said that what she is really influenced by is the daily news.

"I went to a corner grocery store with a hundred dollar bill," she told the audience. "I brought my purchases to the counter and tried to pay with it. I wound up being carted off to the police station because the store assumed that it was counterfeit. It checked out ok and the police even gave me the money back. When my character has to go through some bad things, I used the emotions I felt and grew them into something.

Butler beguiled the hundred-plus in attendance with a discussion about the process that led to the novel Kindred, a story of a modern-day black woman who travels back to the antebellum South. The story came from her days in college. She said that she read extensive volumes slave narratives, biographies of the time, and even visited the area.

"I needed to understand the little details of the life of slavery," Butler said. "I remember extensively researching the way they did laundry back then. Had washboards been invented yet, or did they still go down to the river and beat the clothes on rocks? What I learned was that they used a large tub filled with boiling water and lye soap. They stirred the clothes constantly with large paddles.

"After a day of research I came home and my mother telephoned," Butler said. "She asked what I had been doing, and I explained what I had learned. She said that she remembered doing the wash like that on her mother’s kitchen ranch."

Butler advised the audience to speak to the elders in their families and ask them about their memories. She said that these living pieces of the history would not always be around.

Butler spoke for an hour Thursday and answered audience questions for another half hour as well. She signed books and posed for pictures with a long line of admirers.

"We were very proud to have her," Allen told The Cauldron after the program. "We hope to sponsor other writers in the future."