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Today’s guest is Wendy from The BiblioSanctum! She—along with her co-bloggers Mogsy and Tiara—runs an excellent site mainly focused on speculative fiction and graphic novels. There are a lot of great reviews, interviews, and discussions at The BiblioSanctum, and I especially appreciate the list of most anticipated books by women they put together both this year and last. Wendy can also be found at Nightxade.com and Women Write About Comics.

The BiblioSanctum

Mind of Her Mind

Octavia E. Butler
Photo Credit: Joshua Trujillo/Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Source)

Disturbing. This is how I would describe Octavia E. Butler’s work – nay her mind – best. Perhaps I could even use the word “horrifying,” but I don’t mean it in the way you might think. Butler’s work isn’t something I could easily recommend to just anyone, and yet, I do. I feel that everyone should read at least one of her books.

She was recommended to me by a friend who sang her praises, and so I picked up the Lilith’s Brood trilogy first. In it, a small group of humans are saved from the destruction of earth by a race of aliens called the Oankali, who are genetic collectors, able to manipulate their human compatriots for the purposes of continuing both species. But not all of the rescued humans are pleased with the process, and the offspring that result suffer for it.

For a girl that grew up believing Star Wars and Star Trek to be the epitome of science fiction, where the good guys always win, and the world is black and white, this was something entirely new. Her work addresses topics like incest, slavery, racism, sexism, rape, pedophilia, religious fanaticism, addiction, hierarchy, genetic engineering, violence. Her protagonists’ experiences often made me feel uncomfortable, to say the least, not merely because she so openly broached such taboo topics, but because Butler showed me a frightening world where the scariest person was me. Butler’s writing feels as if she is holding a mirror up in front of the reader, revealing humanity at its best and at its worst and questioning your place within it. What we consider good and evil, right and wrong, is all called into question as Butler peers into our souls with her words.

I’ve read several more of her books since then and love them all. That’s not to say that none have disappointed me. Some, such as Clay’s Ark, didn’t work quite so well with me, but I don’t feel that reading it was a loss. Every book by Butler that I have read simply confirms her skill, her bravery for daring–within an industry filled with white male writers writing about white male heroes–to write stories that venture beyond the galaxies far, far away, and yet hit so close to home.

The more I read, the more I wanted to get inside this woman’s head just to see where these ideas came from. I was so pleased to find that I was not the only one when I picked up a copy of Conversations with Octavia Butler. The collection of interviews reveals an author who was passionate about writing and about exploring our society and its many, many prejudices. She was a woman who understood the value of labels and the human need to categorize everything, even though she herself was not fond of the labels that were pasted on her work. Her target audience is considered to be blacks, feminists, and science fiction fans, but even when the obvious elements of these categories are present, it is clear how far the woman transcended beyond them.

In my hunger for more insight into Butler, I read I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison, an author Butler considered her mentor. In the introduction to his short story collection, Ted Sturgeon writes that some people “live out their lives, with a consciousness more aware, more comprehending, more—well, expanded—than the rest of us.” Though he was speaking of Ellison, I can easily include Butler in this description.

Through Ellison, through interviews with others, and articles from authors she’s influenced, I gained some insight into the mind I have come to admire so, but it was not until I went back to the beginning that I truly understood what Butler’s writing was about. Bloodchild and Other Stories is a collection of short stories and essays by Butler that earned both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Most often, writers offer an introduction to their stories, explaining their intent, but Butler deliberately left her comments to the end of each tale to avoid colouring the reader’s views. It is in these brief thoughts that I finally got to see who she was and why she loved to write.

That’s not true. I’ve always known why she loved to write. She loved to write because she loved to write. She had stories to tell and so she told them. She obviously didn’t try to sugar coat any of her themes, and while money was a necessity, I have never gotten the feeling that it was ever a priority when she sat down in front of her typewriter and set to work. Writing was her passion. And that is a beautiful thing.

But what Bloodchild’s afterwords revealed to me was that she was never writing for me. The mirror that I see when I read her work isn’t for me.

Octavia Butler wrote for herself. This was her therapy, if you will. It was her way of exploring herself and a world that she saw through pessimistic eyes. And yet, even as her protagonists struggle with all the pain and horror released from Pandora’s Box, hope still remains. When Butler couldn’t cope with a friend’s pending mortality, she wrote about it. When her mother died, she wrote about it. When she was afraid of bot flies, she wrote about it.

Now, when I read her work, I still see myself in the mirror, but I also see the author using her words to explore her own mind and the society she lived in. All this time, I’d been wishing I could look into this woman’s mind and understand how she thinks; lamenting the fact that her death stole her away from us far too soon.

But she was always there, right in front of me.