Today is Octavia E. Butler’s birthday. If she were still alive, she’d be 62 and awesome. She wrote science fiction and fantasy, and one of her aims was to change the world with it. I think she did. I think she still does.
I was privileged to be Octavia’s friend, to know her and hang with her during the last years of her life. I went shopping with her, ate at (vegetarian) restaurants with her, attended stage performances with her, sat on author panels with her. I got me a lot of Octavia E., though of course not enough to make up for her being gone now.
Octavia was pure-D gorgeous, beautiful in every way, inside and out. “No, I wasn’t,” I can hear her saying in my head. “You didn’t know!” But I did know, and so did so many other people. At the memorial service held for her in 2006, another science fiction author who had met her and been in her presence for only one short hour was in tears as he spoke about how deeply she had affected him. Another man who knew her in connection with her video interviews there at the Science Fiction Museum walked up to the podium, looked out at the people gathered together, said “Thank you” in a trembling voice, and walked unsteadily back to his seat.
People often ask me how Octavia influenced me as a writer. I tell them that aesthetically I’m much closer to Samuel R. Delany when it comes to what I try to do. But Octavia did affect me in two ways. First, she emphasized how important it is for writers to tell the truth. To find it, figure it out, dig for it if you have to, climb for it, fly for it. Go where it is and get it and bring it back whole for your readers. Second, she gave me money. Over $1000. And if you don’t think that has something to do with what I write and what I’ve been able to get written, you are not an author or any kind of artist yourself. And if you are an artist or author of some kind, you understand the connection intimately.
At Octavia’s memorial service in Seattle in 2006, I lit a candle in her name and poured a libation for her spirit, as is traditional in my spiritual practice. I brought out the Christmas cards she’d sent me: a mother tiger and two cubs in the snow; Mount Rainier towering above the clouds, just the way she did. I spoke about her early membership in the Carl Brandon Society, a nonprofit organization that supports increased representation of people of color in the fantastic genres. And I repeated her directive, what she’d told me about her membership: “Use me,” Octavia had said. “Use my name.”
Soon after the memorial service, some of the many people who she had affected put together a scholarship fund in her name and gave the fund’s administration to the Carl Brandon Society. The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund has just sent off its fifth full payment for a student of color to attend a Clarion or Clarion West Writers Workshop. Five writers of color have been able to attend Clarion or Clarion West, the workshops where Octavia got her start as a professional science fiction author and where she taught several times. She’s having an influence. She’s changing the world, and I’m using her name, exactly the way she wanted me to.
If you loved Octavia, if you still love her, no matter how brief or distant your encounters with her, no matter if you knew her, rode the bus with her once, or only (“only!”) read her work, celebrate the passing of her birthday today with a smile of thanks. And if you’re able to donate to her scholarship fund, either by sponsoring Tempest in the Clarion West Write-a-thon so that part of your contribution goes to Clarion West and part to the fund, or by donating directly via the Carl Brandon Society’s website at www.carlbrandon.org, well, so much the better.
If you haven’t read any Octavia E. Butler yet, now’s a good time to start. Though she’s best remembered for her novels, I adore her short story collection, Bloodchild. If you’d really prefer a novel, I recommend you start with the last one she finished. That’s Fledgling.
Let me know what you think.