Octavia Butler Blazes Sci-Fi Trail

November 1, 1998

Bill Sasser

Tulane students and faculty had a chance to meet one of science fiction's brightest stars, as novelist Octavia Butler visited for five days as the 14th Zale Writer-in-Residence at Newcomb College. A 1995 recipient of the MacArthur Fellows "genius grant," Butler is a winner of science fiction's highest honors, including the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards.

In a talk sponsored by the Center for Research on Women on Nov. 3, Butler spoke to about 60 Tulane faculty and students in the Anna E. Many Lounge. An informal interview conducted by Cynthia Lowenthal, associate professor of English, centered in part on Butler's role as an African-American woman who writes science fiction, an occupation that she said "violates multiple social categories."

Butler told of growing up in Pasadena, Calif., and devouring such pulp magazines of the era as Amazing Stories and Science Fiction and Fantasy. She began writing science fiction at age 12 after watching a B movie on television, "Devil Girls from Mars." "I saw this movie and thought, 'Gee, I can write a better story than that--anyone can.' Then a light went on in my head: 'People get paid to write these bad stories.'"

Butler's work includes her Patternmaster and Xenogenesis series, praised for their innovative explorations of gender, race and culture. In 1979, she crossed over into mainstream fiction with Kindred, which tells the story of a black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South, where she must ensure that a white plantation owner lives to father her great-grandmother, ensuring her own birth.

Butler, who published her first story at age 23 and her first novel at 28, said that writing is all she ever wanted to do. While she doesn't believe race has affected her career, she has been aware of her role as a trailblazer.

"The only way race affected me is that I couldn't find myself in the science fiction that I read--so I wrote myself in," she said. "It never occurred to me that I was one of the only black females trying to write science fiction--I didn't know who the other writers were. I had my first three books accepted before I met my editor, who did a double take when she met me."

For early editions of her work, however, publishers often chose to show white characters on her book jackets, even when her protagonists were black. "Otherwise, they didn't think it would sell," said Butler. "One artist did make a moral stand, though--instead of drawing white characters, he made them green."

Butler said her work succeeds by using fantasy to deal with modern human themes such as hierarchical power and its abuses, multiplicity of identities, and characters often forced to build new communities from scratch.

"The great thing about science fiction is that it's wide open--you need to be accurate about the science, and internally consistent, but otherwise there are no rules--you don't have to write about spaceships," said Butler.

Butler's MacArthur Fellowship followed publication of Parable of the Sower, her most praised work that features a character loosely based on her grandmother, a Louisiana native who at age 12 married a man more than 30 years her senior. As a young widow she moved to California during the Great Depression in search of work that could feed the children she had left at home.

Eventually, she started a business, made enough money to move all her children to California, and saved enough to buy her own house.

"She did more with her life than anyone would ever have imagined," said Butler. "All she had were her children and her God--an amazing woman who was an inspiration."

Butler also gave a public reading and lecture at the Dixon Performing Arts Center, which included readings from her latest novel, Parable of the Talents. The Zale Writer-in-Residence program at Newcomb College was established in 1985 in part to bring more women writers to the Tulane campus. In a mix of formal and informal events, fellows guest lecture in classes, meet with students to discuss writing and students' work, give public readings and lead writing workshops.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000