Octavia E. Butler in Community, Then and Now

Posted on Tue., May 21, 2024 by andré carrington
Octavia E. Butler standing by a tree

Octavia E. Butler standing by a tree. Photographer unknown, August 2002. Octavia E. Butler Correspondence and Photographs, HM 80701. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Octavia E. Butler was one of the foremost writers of speculative fiction—a category that includes the genres of science fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her work and the story of her life compel us to reckon with power, leadership, creativity, human relationships, and the unknown possibilities that await us in the stars.

Butler also had a deep and abiding interest in the Earth’s natural environment, and, as the photo above attests, a particular affinity for trees. If you search The Huntington’s finding aid for the Octavia E. Butler Papers, you’ll find the word “trees” dozens of times. There’s a collection of items in one box labeled “Coastal Scenes and big trees,” with photos from the evergreen forests of Washington, where Butler spent the final years of her life. She also documented innumerable trees along the banks of the Tambopata River in Peru when she visited the rainforest in the 1980s.

In her Xenogenesis trilogy of novels, Butler set some formative scenes in the Amazon rainforest, transforming it though her writing into a new Garden of Eden, where humans struggle to reconnect with nature after nomadic aliens rescue them from nuclear Armageddon. In Kindred, her time-travel novel that depicts a modern woman transported to antebellum Maryland, Butler describes the Wye Oak, a tree that was already hundreds of years old, massive, and memorable when the protagonist’s enslaved ancestors encountered it.

Like the trees in her fiction, Butler’s intellect is poised to bear fruit for participants convening on May 23–24 at The Huntington for “Futurity as Praxis: Learning from Octavia E. Butler,” a conference focused on Butler’s work and its impact. Departing from the usual conference format of scholarly papers delivered before a largely academic audience, this event will bring together writers, artists, community activists, scholars, teachers, and students to celebrate and discuss Butler’s legacy and find community for her ideas.

A group of people stand together for a photo.

Jay Kay Klein, Clarion Writers Workshop participants at a science fiction convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1970. Octavia E. Butler Papers, OEB 7215. Seated: Harlan Ellison. First row (from left): Vonda N. McIntyre, Lucy Seaman, Lynn Marron, Debbie Goldstein, Jeanie Sullivan, Mel Gilden, and Steve Herbst. Back row (from left): Alan Edward Rubin, David Skal, Tom Slattery, Ralph Benko, Gerry Conway, Jean Mark Gawron, Russell Bates, Joe Manfredini, unidentified person, and Octavia E. Butler. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Displayed with permission from Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.

Butler herself traveled a long way, both figuratively and literally, to find community. When I teach Butler’s works in courses on science fiction and African American literature at the University of California, Riverside, I like to show my students two photographs that feature Butler in group settings. In the first, taken at a 1970 science fiction convention in Pittsburgh, Butler stands on the outer edge of a group of young writers with their mentor, the notable science fiction author Harlan Ellison, seated in front. Butler and her fellow students had just participated in a science fiction workshop at Clarion State College under Ellison’s guidance. The other students notably included Vonda McIntyre, a feminist science fiction pioneer who would become a lifelong friend to Butler; French linguist and science fiction writer Jean Mark Gawron; and Russell Bates, a Native American author from Oklahoma who would go on to write for television and film. Butler was the only Black participant in the workshop.

Years later, when Butler and author Samuel R. Delany were asked how many other Black science fiction writers there were, they responded, “We’re two-thirds.” The other forerunner was Charles Saunders, who pioneered the sword and soul subgenre, setting fantasy adventure stories in mythical settings drawn from African cultures. Having people like Delany, McIntyre, and Ellison as mentors and friends encouraged Butler to write meticulously researched, wildly imaginative, captivating novels that eventually made her the first science fiction author to win the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant.”

A black-and-white photo of a group of people in a courtyard.

Essence Writers’ Retreat group. Photographer unknown, 1988. Octavia E. Butler Papers, OEB 7279. Seated (from left): Julianne Malveaux, Betty Winston Bayé, Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Sonia Sanchez, Thulani Davis, Ntozake Shange, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Bebe Moore Campbell. Second row (from left): Toni Cade Bambara, Elsie Washington, Barbara Smith, Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Bonnie Allen, Sherley Anne Williams, Cheryll Y. Greene, Ayesha Grice, Phyl Garland, Ivy Young, and Elaine Brown. Back row (from left): Susan L. Taylor, Lena G. Sherrod, Renita Weems, Jean Wiley, Audrey Edwards, Jill Nelson, Vertamae Grosvenor, Octavia E. Butler, and Lucille Clifton. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The other image I like to share with my students tells the rest of Butler’s story. In the photo above, she is by no means isolated: Her company consists of 28 Black women writers who attended a retreat convened by Essence magazine in 1988. Before the internet became the main source of news and entertainment, Essence—along with Ebony and Jet magazines—was a household name in 20th-century Black America. You couldn’t walk through a supermarket checkout line in a Black neighborhood without seeing its iconic covers. Black women have always been the target audience for Essence. Growing up, Butler saw women like herself and those far removed from her working-poor circumstances in its pages: celebrities, role models, and leaders. She saw that, as a Black woman, she could be one of them. And then, in 1988, there she was, appearing in Essence alongside economist Julianne Malveaux, playwright Ntozake Shange, and law professor Elaine Brown, former chair of the Black Panther Party.

Seeing Butler in these 1970 and 1988 photos in the company of different peers helps us understand how much we can learn from her example. She was unique, but she was never singular, the way we often think about intellectuals. She contained, as the poet Walt Whitman would have put it, “multitudes.”

While Butler was one of very few Black women to achieve success writing speculative fiction during her lifetime, her work made it possible for other talents to flourish. She has been cited as influential by many contemporary writers, including N. K. Jemisin, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards from the community of science fiction readers and writers, and Walter Mosley, recognized as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. Philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva based her 2022 book Unpayable Debt on the ending of Butler’s Kindred. Butler’s fiction has been translated into more than a dozen languages and is poised to become even more widely known as it is adapted for television, film, and comics.

The year 2024 marks the beginning of the critical dystopian future that Butler envisioned in her groundbreaking novel Parable of the Sower. At the “Futurity as Praxis” conference, intellectuals from different communities will ask what we have learned from Butler’s writing and what her archive at The Huntington—a short distance from where the author spent her formative years in Pasadena—can help future generations discover.

Close-up view of a group of people in a courtyard.

Detail from Essence Writers’ Retreat group. Photographer unknown, 1988. Octavia E. Butler Papers, OEB 7279. Front row (from left): Cheryll Y. Greene, Ayesha Grice, Phyl Garland, and Ivy Young. Back row (from left): Jill Nelson, Vertamae Grosvenor, Octavia E. Butler, and Lucille Clifton. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Read more about the conference and register to attend.

Funding for this conference has been provided by the E. P. Mauk/D. B. Nunis Research Endowment.

andré carrington is associate professor of English and director of the graduate emphasis in Speculative Fictions and Cultures of Science at the University of California, Riverside.