Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Fiction and NonFiction: Octavia Butler and the Grimkes

While reading The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family by Kerri K Greenidge, I was especially empathetic about the plight of slave women who were forced into sexual bondage by their masters, and who had no way to protect themselves. My blog post last week, "Slavery and its Consequences," detailed my feelings about Greenidge's powerful historic narrative. As I read the unsparing accounts of an enslaved woman, Nancy Weston, and how she was abused, I was thinking about a fictional treatment of the same subject, the novel Kindred by Octavia Butler. A few days after I read The Grimkes, the New York Times published a detailed biography of Butler, a great American author.

From the New York Times: an unusual illustrated article titled "The Vision of Octavia Butler."

Butler died in 2006, but her work speaks to us now maybe more than ever:

"Five adaptations of her fiction are currently in various stages of film and television development, by producers ranging from J.J. Abrams and Issa Rae to Ava DuVernay. 'Kindred,' her now canonical 1979 novel about a Black woman who is yanked back in time to the antebellum South and marooned on a working plantation, will premiere as a TV series from FX in December, adapted by the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins."

The NYT article is presented in a remarkable way, with semi-animated photos behind the text. Also, it's full of insights and background about Butler's creative life and her work. About Kindred:

"Butler always described 'Kindred' not as science fiction but as a 'grim fantasy.' It doesn’t contain the genre’s typical trappings or devices; there is no time machine, no hard science. In a clear, creative sense, Butler saw history itself as an otherworldly landscape to be explored: foreign yet familiar."

Here is what I wrote about Kindred in July 2020:

Butler's Kindred, published 1979.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was the author of several science fiction books and series. She won Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clark awards for several of her accomplishments, as well as a MacArthur fellowship.

This week, I read Butler's novel Kindred, which I think is a masterpiece. The central character and narrator of the novel is a Black woman living in LA in 1976. She uncontrollably travels back in time to a Maryland plantation where her ancestors, both white and black, lived in the early 19th century.

Butler's character, being a Black, is of course treated as a slave by the plantation owners. The slaves, the few free Blacks, and the white masters who live there are obviously puzzled by this anomalous person, who wears trousers, speaks like a white person, knows how to read, understands more about disease than the local doctor, and has highly non-conforming ideas about slavery.

The novel has a suspense-filled plot. What's more important is that the modern consciousness of the narrator enables her to see exactly what was demeaning, inhuman, horrendous, and appalling about the pre-Civil War South. She experiences living as a slave simultaneously from the perspective of a well-educated 20th century person AND from the point of view of one of the 19th century victims. She is brutally beaten, physically and psychologically threatened, and made to suffer with her fellow slaves -- her 20th century consciousness can't protect her from violence. She lives through the horror of seeing people she has learned to know and love tortured, to witness loved-ones sold away from their homes and families, and to share the death and despair of the most abused of her friends. The clarity of this narrative is almost unbearable.

Through the double perspective of the time-traveler, the novel also shows how the institution of slavery corrupted and destroyed the souls of white folks, turning them into monsters. The historic details of the life of both slaves and masters is fascinating, and I believe is very well-researched and accurate. I think it's one of the best books about slavery in the American South that I have ever read.

Blog post © 2020, 2022 mae sander.


Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

All those horrors! What all times preceded these. And to think slavery in some form still exists today.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

And we are still treating many blacks like they are slaves. This is such a sin and we "whites" (Caucasians) are to blame. How I wish we could correct this problem. However, while we have people who spew hatred against blacks, we will never be free of the problem. I am so glad you shared this review with us, Mae. Happy Thanksgiving, dear.