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OEB Day!

OEB Day!

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.

10 comments to OEB Day!

  • nojojojo

    Damn skippy.

    I had the chance to meet Octavia at Readercon a few years ago, and I chickened out — too shy, too awestruck, unsure of what to do other than go up to her and babble something inane and then burst into grateful tears. I told myself I’d wait ’til I had something worth saying — like, “Ms. Butler, I want you to know that I became a science fiction writer because of you, and I just got my first short story published.” Then I would feel worthy of approaching her. But she died before I could see her again, and I’ve been kicking myself for my stupidity ever since.

    I hope she knows that she left a lot of children behind. And we all miss her terribly.

  • Lori S.

    I went to a show, QPocalypse Now! on Saturday night here in San Francisco. Maybe I shouldn’t've been surprised, but I was taken off-guard by the show’s invocation of Octavia as a POC apocalyptic prophet (via the Parable books). There was her face, up on the video screen, two days before her birthday. There was her voice in the background, speaking low and serious and thoughtfully. And suddenly I missed her more fiercely than I think I ever have before. I was in tears last night just recounting it.

    I didn’t know her well, but she was my instructor at Clarion, and that goes deep. She taught me well, and I admired her and felt close to her in a certain way. She was Important to me as a person who is a writer (rather than just as a writer, if that makes sense).

    I was in tears last night, but today I am smiling at how lucky we all were to have had her at all, and how well-loved and well-remembered she is.

  • Hypatia

    I have only read her work, but she is a writer whose voice stays with you once you’ve read her words. I hadn’t realized how young she was. Too young.
    Happy birthday, Ms. Butler. You are missed, but your work is alive.

  • z7evenpetalz

    Octavia Butler changed my life. The first OEB book I read was “Wild Seed” I was 18. By then I had always been an avid reader but reading her books made me feel like I had just learned how to read, lol. She had a beautiful mind and although I didn’t know her personally I loved her and I miss her like you miss an old friend you lost touch with. Her legacy of books is a legacy I make an effort to pass on to whoever I can in hopes their lives can benefit as much as mine has just from reading her work. She is definitely missed.

  • Nojojojo, she was always so gracious when in company. I’m betting she would have put you right at ease. Re-visualize the encounter with that in mind. Maybe make a story of it?

    Yes, she left a lot of children behind. One of the people who was lucky enough to study under her like you did, Lori, called her “Mamatavia.”

    The sorrow can surprise you. I gave out a pendant to one of last year’s Butler scholars during the last party of the Clarion West season, then had to go cry in a back room about how unfair it was that Octavia had died. (The pendant, btw, was created by the mighty Laurie Eddison using a cast she had designed for Octavia.)

    Good on you, z7evenpetalz, for spreading the work re: her work.

  • Katie

    I loan out (and then end up having to re-buy) her books regularly, spreading the OEB gospel, so to speak.

    I met her briefly when she and Samuel Delany did a joint conversation series thing at the Natural History Museum in DC a few years back. I have never been so nervous in my life – I just sort of stood near her while she worked through the line of people waiting for her autograph. I remember her wonderful voice and presence and have always considered anyone who knew her personally to be the luckiest of folk.

    I’m glad she had as good friends as you, Ms. Shawl.

  • ChloeMireille

    I discovered Octavia Butler the year after she died. I’d read her obit in the newspaper, and actually said out loud, “Holy crap, there’s a Black woman who writes sci-fi?!” Just reading about her resonated so much with me because I’d spent my entire adolescence being the only Black kid at my school who liked science fiction, fantasy, and comic books.

    After reading her obit, I went on a mad search for her writings. The book I wound up finding was a combined printing of her Xenogenesis trilogy. I thought it was a brilliant way to combine race, gender, sexuality, love, and acceptance without being preachy or heavy-handed.

    I just wish that she didn’t have to die for me(and other people) to discover her.

  • Nice post. You’re blessed to have met her. Ms. Butler did so much in the literary world and for writers of color.

  • It’s been close to 3 years and I still get watery eyes just thinking about that brilliant woman. Her book Imago, the last book in the Xenogenesis series, spoke to me and allowed me to see my own orientation in words woven and ‘spoken’ beautifully in a way that helped me to find my own voice in writing and in life. I miss her so much and I regret that I never got to hear her speak in a public setting.

    I hope to walk in her footsteps as a writer and move people with my words the way she moved me.

  • [...] Nisi Shawl on “remembering Octavia Butler” [...]