Detail of photograph of Octavia E. Butler, photographer unknown, 2001. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the great science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s untimely death; next year marks what would have been her 70th birthday. Butler created a body of work that helped launch a new genre called Afro-Futurism, which has become the focus of a remarkable amount of scholarly activity of late.
After her death, The Huntington became the recipient of her papers, which arrived in 2008 in two four-drawer file cabinets and about 35 large cartons. Butler’s papers required intense processing over the next three years. “She kept nearly everything, from her very first short stories, written at the age of 12, to book contracts and programs from speaking engagements,” says Natalie Russell, assistant curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington.
The phenomenal body of materials includes 8,000 individually cataloged items and more than 80 boxes of additional items: extensive drafts, notes, and research materials for more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, and essays, as well as correspondence, ephemera, and commonplace books. By the time Russell had finished the monumental task of processing the collection, an unprecedented 40 scholars were lined up to take a look. Today, it’s one of the most actively used archives at the Library. “Since May 2014, the archive has been used nearly 1,300 times—or roughly 15 times per week, on average,” says Russell. And things are about to get even livelier.
Working draft of Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred (formerly titled To Keep thee in All Thy Ways) with handwritten notes by Butler, ca. 1977. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Clockshop, a Los Angeles-based arts organization, is partnering with several other local organizations and institutions—including The Huntington, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD series, and the Armory Center for the Arts, to name a few—on a yearlong series of events celebrating Butler’s life and work. The project, called “Radio Imagination,” was announced today.
At the core of the project is a series of artist and writer commissions to create new works based on The Huntington’s Butler archive. Associated talks, performances, and literary events will take place at various venues throughout the year. One of these events—a panel discussion with philosopher Amy Kind and scholar Shelley Streeby—will take place at The Huntington this fall. Looking ahead to 2017, Russell will curate an Octavia Butler exhibition in the West Hall of the Library, and The Huntington will host a scholarly conference about Butler and her work.
Get ready to celebrate this legendary writer in the not-too-distant future.
Handwritten notes on inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
You can learn more about "Radio Imagination" on the Clockshop website.
You can learn more about the Octavia E. Butler collection here.
Kevin Durkin is editor of Verso and managing editor in the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.