I had two choices: I could become a writer or I could die really young” a middle-aged Butler pondered in an interview. “Cause there wasn’t anything else that I wanted.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California and raised in a racially-integrated community by her mother and her grandmother.
Known as Junie when she was growing up, Octavia was a shy, dyslexic child. She recalls looking different, being a 6ft tall teenager, and feeling different. She was bullied at school and took refuge in books: first in the ones her mother brought home from work and then in the Pasadena Public Library.
Butler enjoyed writing as much as reading: at ten she started writing stories about horses, and the following year she moved onto romance, despite knowing nothing about either subject. She was twelve when she started writing science fiction. Her interest in the genre was first piqued when she watched Devil Girl From Mars. The movie, she recalled years later, was so bad that it made her realise she “could write a better story than that” and be paid for it.
And so she started trying: with the help of a teacher at school, she would type her manuscripts and submit them for publication, but it would be ten more years before her work was published.
After graduating from Pasadena City College in 1968, Butler went on to study creative writing at California State University while working a number of menial and alienating jobs, from clerk typist to potato chip inspector, which allowed her to wake up at two or three in the morning and write before heading to work. At the same time, in 1969-1970, she attended the Open Doors programme run by the Screen Writers’ Guild of America. There, she became friends with novelist Harlan Ellison, who suggested she attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, a six-week course that led to the publication of Butler’s story “Crossover” in the 1971 Clarion anthology. This was the first time Butler had any of her work published, but she was to endure five more years of rejections before seeing her novels printed.
Publication finally arrived with the first novel of her Patternist series: Patternmaster, which was published in 1976, Mind of My Mind (1977)and Survivor (1978). Butler was among the first African-American women to publish science fiction, and she was the first Black American woman to become a prominent writer in the genre. Even though she was hesitant to have the label applied to her work because of the stereotypes associated with the genre (it’s best liked by teenagers, it features bug-eyed aliens, it’s Star Trek), Butler turned to science fiction because it allowed her to explore all themes dear to her: power structures, race, sex, politics, and so on.
Kindred, one of her best-known novels, is a case in point: in order to save her life in the present, the protagonist has to travel back in time to save the life of a slave owner so that he can go on and assault her slave ancestor – an act of violence without which the heroine would not be alive. Partly drawing on the memories of the humiliation her mother had to endure while working as a maid for a white family, Butler was moved to write Kindred “to make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
Science fiction was for Butler a means rather than an end, yet her name and literary success are inextricably linked with the genre: her short stories (“Speech Sounds”), novelettes (Bloodchild) and novels (Parable of the Talents) won major science fiction awards such as the Hugo Award and Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award. In 1995 Butler made the headlines for becoming the first writer of science fiction to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
A prolific writer throughout her life, Butler died in 2006, aged 58, following a fall which might have been caused by a stroke. She had been suffering from deteriorating health for a couple of years leading up to her death. A once-shy, dyslexic, reclusive lesbian, Butler left a legacy that encompasses much more than a seminal body of work: she is considered the grandmother of Afrofutursim, she set up bursaries to allow young African Americans to study creative writing and go to college, she has both a mountain on a moon of Pluto and an asteroid named after her. Many of her novels and short stories have been adapted for stage and screen. Dawn, the first book of the Xenogenesis series, is currently being adapted as a TV show produced by Ava du Vernay.
©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Inside my 90-Minute Visit with Octavia Butler by Tananarive Due// Octavia E. Butler, Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 58, New York Times// Octavia Butler Obituary, The Guardian.