Octavia Estelle Butler, we speak your name.
This morning, I read this review of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents; the review was posted by Feministing.com editor Courtney Martin. I try, usually, to keep my blog comments to a minimum, as I know that
arguing respectfully debating in cyberspace can quickly become an exercise in futility; however, out of a profound respect for and connection to the legacy of the great Octavia Butler, I had to comment on Courtney’s attempt to evaluate Butler’s work. As I was writing, however, I realized that my words had morphed into a blog post of their own; hence, my “Open Letter to Courtney Martin, an Editor at Feministing.com”:
Perhaps my devotion to Octavia Butler’s body of work as a radical, love-filled presentation of the queerness of black women and as a framework for social change won’t allow me to be satisfied with three paragraphs that ostensibly reduce Butler’s work to a shallow comparison to the tenuous relationship between Alice and Rebecca Walker. As much as I appreciate your attempt to offer readers a glimpse of the brilliance of Octavia Butler, I have say, respectfully, that this “review” is short-sighted, and it falls flat.
To offer a “review” on a feminist Web site of Octavia Butler’s work without discussing, in depth, her contribution to feminism in general and black feminism specifically is to do the legacy of Octavia Butler a tremendous disservice. To write about Butler without discussing how she, a black woman science fiction writer, challenges (even today) our notions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and even humanity, can be read as an attempt to dismiss her relevance and erase her story.
In your review, you do not discuss why Parable of the Talents is such a game/genre-changer in terms of the ways in which we are taught to view black women’s voices and agency in both fact and fiction; consequently, you neither discuss the importance of the protagonist’s race/gender, and any reluctance to do so is to perform and present an incomplete reading of the text.
Lauren Olamina’s journey to herself and Earthseed is detailed in Book One, Parable of the Sower; as such, it is near-blasphemous to present a reading of Parable of the Talents and not note that it is the second of Butler’s Parable books. In the first of the Parable books, Parable of the Sower, readers learn that Lauren Olamina, a black girl-child, suffers from hyperempathy syndrome; Lauren’s perceived empath (one who feels the pain/pleasure of others upon observation) status positions her as the biological conscience of both of Butler’s Parable books. As a child, Lauren commits herself to Earthseed (a religion she creates) as a way of “changing human attitudes about the treatment of the Earth and of each other.”  As an adult, she (Lauren) uses religion as a tool—a tool to create community and change.
Relatedly, Parable of the Talents is an incredibly important political text; in it, Butler explores how nations are destroyed by Fascist thinking/policies and how communities are built in the midst of violence; leading one such community-building effort is, of course, Lauren Olamina, a black woman at the novel’s center who is devoted to the survival of humanity (read: the ways in which we are human to ourselves and to each other). In Parable of the Talents, Butler explores the ways in which women are made safe through collaboration and story-sharing; she explores how women sometimes use their/our bodies as instruments of survival in a world destroyed by capitalist patriarchy.
I have to ask: Why, Courtney, was none of this mentioned in your review?
Please consider this an invitation to read all of Octavia Butler’s books—beginning with Parable of the Sower (since you have read Parable of the Talents), and please, during your reading, consider how Octavia Butler contributes to the discourse of black feminist theory and afro-futurist thought. Please also consider how the stories of black/brown women are represented in speculative fiction, and when/if you seek to neutralize and/or trivialize race/gender while reading works (especially) by women of color, you contribute to a dominant discourse that seeks to silence/diminish/ignore/deny the power of the black female narrative.
Peace to you and everyone you love.
© June 2011 E. Zora Hamsa