Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Octavia Butler | Biography


Octavia Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her father worked as a shoeshine man and died when she was very young. Butler's mother raised her alone, working as a maid for white families. Butler turned to reading and writing, immersing herself in the science fiction genre. The "what if" question of the genre brought on limitless possibilities for a girl with an imagination.

Butler's first science-fiction novel, The Patternmaster, was published in 1976. As a black woman writing in a white, male-dominated genre, Butler was aware of the challenges she faced. In a 2000 New York Times interview, Butler commented that she was determined to insert strong, black characters into the genre: "The only black people you found [in science fiction] were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing." Butler knew she could draw upon her own experiences as a black woman better than anyone else, so she created strong African American characters, like the protagonist of Kindred, whom Butler based loosely on herself.

When writing Kindred, Butler drew from her observations of her mother and read many slave narratives. She often witnessed her mother going through the back doors of the homes of the white families for whom she worked. Watching her mother being ignored or put down by her white employers informed Butler's writing. Butler said, "If my mother hadn't put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure." Kindred's antebellum timeline takes readers to the past. In a 2004 interview for the San Francisco Chronicle, Butler commented on the violence she wanted to convey in the novel's depiction of slavery: "I read some unbelievably ghastly accounts of punishments. I mean that weren't even punishments—people were simply tortured to death."

Butler was the winner of multiple literary awards, including a Hugo Award for her short story "Speech Sounds" (1983) and a Nebula Award for her collection Bloodchild (1995). She was also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, awarded to those who have shown exceptional creativity in their work. She died on February 24, 2006, in Lake Forest Park, Washington.

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