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Kindred | Study Guide

Octavia Butler

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Kindred | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Octavia Butler was just 12 years old when she was watching a bad science-fiction TV movie and decided she could write a better story herself. So she turned off the television and started to write.

Persisting with her writing through a series of unsatisfying jobs, Butler became one of the first and best-known black American writers of science fiction and fantasy. Her most popular novel, Kindred, published in 1979, tells the story of a young black woman who finds herself traveling back in time from her 1976 California home to a Maryland slave plantation. While most of Butler's work is science fiction, Kindred is more difficult to pin down: it has been described as a fusion of fantasy, slave narrative, and literary and historical fiction. The novel has been consistently praised by reviewers and frequently studied in high school and college literature courses.

In 1995 Butler was the first science-fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship. She was also awarded the City College of New York's Langston Hughes Medal in 2005.

1. Kindred initially had a male protagonist.

When Octavia Butler began writing Kindred, her main character was a man. She soon realized that she "couldn't realistically keep him alive" as a slave. She explained, "He wouldn't even have time to learn the rules—the rules of submission, I guess you could call them—before he was killed for not knowing them because he would be perceived as dangerous." A woman, she said, would be less likely to be killed because she wouldn't be considered a threat.

2. Butler was inspired by her mother to write Kindred.

She explained in an interview that many of her relatives had led very difficult lives—her own mother worked as a maid and had to enter her employer's house through the back door. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said, "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."

3. Butler disliked how black characters were portrayed in science fiction and wanted to see them in a different light.

In an interview with the New York Times, Butler said, "When I began writing science fiction ... heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read ... The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway." She said she "wrote [herself] in since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing."

4. Butler attended a science-fiction boot camp.

After Butler attended a class taught by the famous science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, Ellison encouraged her to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop in Pennsylvania. It was called a "boot camp" for writers of science fiction. Some time after this experience, she began writing novel-length works.

5. Butler suffered from dyslexia.

Butler was dyslexic, but despite her disorder she read every book she could get her hands on. She recalls:

When I was six ... I asked my mother for a library card. I remember the surprised look on her face. She looked surprised and happy. She immediately took me to the library and got me a card. From then on the library was my second home."

6. Butler visited George Washington's slave plantation while doing research for Kindred.

Butler visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, in Virginia to present slave plantations accurately. She commented about her research, which also included reading slave narratives, "I was not going to be able to come anywhere near presenting slavery as it was."

7. Butler has repeatedly said Kindred is not science fiction.

Butler denied that Kindred was a work of science fiction. She observed, "there's no science in it. It's a kind of grim fantasy."

8. Butler lived on beans and potatoes with the advance she received from her publisher.

Kindred was rejected numerous times because many publishers could not fathom a science-fiction novel set on a plantation in the antebellum South. She finally found a publisher who was willing to pay her a $5,000 advance for the book, which was enough to live on, but not to live well.

9. Butler set the novel in one of the few states where her characters could feasibly escape.

In an interview, Butler said, "People who were born there [in Maryland] did escape ... In Maryland [Dana] was less than 100 miles from freedom." The Border States, of which Maryland was one, were slave states that shared a border with free states to the north. She also pointed out that two famous escaped former slaves, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, had been enslaved in Maryland.

10. Butler preferred using an old manual typewriter to write her novels.

In a 1996 interview, Butler stated "My mother bought me my first manual when I was 10. It was old and decrepit when she bought it, and I wrote my first five novels on it." The author went on to explain the difference between computerized word processors and manual typewriters: "With a manual, you can rest your fingers on it, you can rest your hands on it. You can rest your head on it when you're really blocking."

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