On Her Birthday: Octavia E. Butler, Mountain Climber – The Feminist Wire

On Her Birthday: Octavia E. Butler, Mountain Climber

Four days ago, my colleague and I decided to set off on our own, without our host, to explore London—a quick sightseeing and shopping trip in psychological preparation for participation in the Goldsmiths College 6th International Conference of Caribbean Women’s Writing.  As we exited the tube at Covent Garden, the flow of departing passengers swept us toward the staircase.  I saw the sign but did not digest: “There are 193 steps on this staircase with no emergency exit.”  I’ve been on a stairmaster; more recently, I have spent far more than 193-steps-worth of time on an elliptical machine.  Bah–we got this, I thought to myself.  We… where are we? 93?, 94?, 95?… “We” are out of breath and in the middle of this circular staircase and feeling the panic of “emergency.”  The gentlemen behind me huff and complain, expressing the very frustration that I avoid articulating, for fear of losing even more breath.  My friend and I, side by side, silently concentrate our way up the stairs. Her presence, alone, motivates my ascent. When we get to the top (thank ya!), I lean on a wall contemplating my terrible mistake—one that my host will later assure me that I will only make once.  So, catching my breath I contemplate the sign that forewarned me, my crowd-pressured decision and, somehow confusingly, my sense of achievement.

It is all too fitting that in two days, I will give my paper at Goldsmiths, discussing one of my favorite authors: the brilliant and astounding Octavia E. Butler.  Today, her birthday, I am reminded of her conversation with interviewer Joshunda Sanders during her 25th anniversary of Kindred book tour.  The 2004 interview started with Butler’s transition between her native Southern California and the city of Seattle where she would spend her final days.  Butler recounted the vacation that bridged her move between West Coast locations, a month-long Greyhound bus tour of the United States.  She remembered enjoying, particularly, her trip to New York City and climbing up the Empire State building steps with a woman in uncomfortable shoes.

I met this West Indian woman[…]. She was wearing these thick-soled sandals, really uncomfortable shoes. We were both going to go to the top of the Empire State Building. Now, with me, my only excuse is that I’m not in shape, and wasn’t then. And with her, it was her feet. We’d encourage each other back and forth going to the top. And finally made it.

I think climbing mountains or buildings or whatever has been a really good metaphor for finishing my work. Because no matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.

Octavia Butler was a woman with mountainous intelligence, sensitivity and penchant for observation that fueled her writing craft, from as early as age four.  As if predestined for legacy-making, she was named after her mother and, like her protagonist in “The Book of Martha,” growing to almost six feet in height, would spend a career of 12 novels, several short stories and a small battery of essays, creating a critical space for race, gender and class within the traditionally white masculine science fiction genre, enabling those categorized as “raced” readers to interact (finally and willingly) with the genre that nearly ignored their existences. In “Imaginative Encounters,” published in Marleen S. Barr’s 2008 collection Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory, literary theorist and The Feminist Wire Co-Founder, Hortense J. Spillers asserts that,

On the basis of [her] substantial, single-authored canon, Octavia E. Butler most certainly inhabits a central chapter of a revised African-American literary history, alongside a sustained reassessment of the power of the uncanny. (5)

Indeed, our literary world was reshaped by the work and presence of Octavia Butler.  Black women’s science fiction literature, once the proverbial needle buried in a stack of white male authors, continues to expand and reconfigure our understanding of genre, form and convention.  Because of Butler, the works of Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison are now understood as using science fiction, and more broadly, speculative tropes. Well known authors Tananarive Due, Nisi Shawl and Nalo Hopkinson write within her black feminist science fiction (and horror and fantasy) legacy, offering new stories that consider the otherness on Earth as well as above, below and beyond it.

Butler viewed her craft as an opportunity to write herself into the science fiction genre, as she unapologetically reported to Charlie Rose more than a decade before her untimely death in 2006. She told Rose of the many sundry jobs she took in order to maintain her writing schedule—early in her adult career, waking up at two in the morning in order to write before going to her day job.  Her mountain-climbing days not only started when she was young, writing the seed-story of the 1974 novel Patternmaster at age 12 after seeing “Devil Girl from Mars,” but apparently quite early (in the morning).  Her personal stories contextualize the characters she depicts on the page, particularly considering her self-writing, and reminds me of the importance of self, and particularly within the context of community and history, in my own work.

This work I care for so dearly, that which explores my own place in the world—sexed, gendered, raced—and one that I share with countless others, returns me to Wild Seed, Butler’s Patternmaster prequel.  Butler’s 1980 novel of a relationship between two super- and yet essentially-human beings, explores the slippages of gender and sex within a neo-slave narrative form.  As the protagonist in her well-known 1979 novel Kindred, the characters in Wild Seed experience the historical Atlantic Slave Trade in a unique and expressly fictive way.  Butler utilizes the conventions of science fiction, the presence of super-human beings, in Wild Seed which could be categorized as historical fiction, fantasy, speculative or as a hybrid form much akin to Kindred.

Spanning two and a half centuries and two continents, the Adam and Eve of the Patternmaster series, Doro and Anyanwu, meet by chance in West Africa.  Doro, an immortal being who jumps from body to body, displacing the person who previously inhabits the flesh he adopts with each bodily move, senses and is drawn towards the shape-shifting Anyanwu, as if by instinct. In his hunt for other immortals, like himself, and humans with special powers, such as telekinesis and telepathy, Doro uses the existing Atlantic slave trade to buy and transport people to his colonies around the world.  Within his various “seed villages,” Doro controls the coupling and, therefore, procreation of his subjects—he is, thus, not only a version of the slave trading colonizer, but reflects the historical “breeding” and sexual oppression experienced by enslaved black people, particularly in the U.S. south.  Through his self-appointed “breeding project,” Doro desires to create a community of beings much like himself—those who will continue to live, indefinitely.

During one trip to West Africa, Doro senses Anyanwu’s presence, and particularly her special-power otherness.  When Doro finds Anyanwu, she is living in semi-isolation, the trope of the woods-inhabiting conjure woman known throughout Caribbean and African American folklore and literature.  To her own people, those she considers kin and community, Anyanwu is mother, healer and goddess.  She is the most powerful person Doro knows, besides himself, and seems to be, also, immortal.  Doro beckons and then forces (by threat to her children) the goddess-like woman to accompany him to his colony in the United States. Doro and Anyanwu leave Africa by way of the coast, a slave ship, and the Atlantic Ocean—the Middle Passage from interior West Africa to the American South. It is from this beginning, that Butler wrote the story of these two seemingly impossible figures who struggle against and with one another—Doro attempting to control Anyanwu’s movements, and Anyanwu denying Doro’s assumed authority over her.

Wild Seed suggests that the human principal is housed in the flesh, not bound by it.  Before there was Gender Trouble, the differences between sex (the biology) and gender (performance most often associated with the biological but not truly contingent upon it) were at odds in both Doro and Anyanwu’s characters.  Butler explores the idea of what it means for sex to be plastic, malleable–creating characters with ever-potential transsexuality. Gender does not necessarily follow a particular society’s categorizations based in biology–and, particularly in Wild Seed.  Both Doro and Anyanwu slip in and out of sexed bodies; Doro is able to occupy the flesh of any human being, no matter the sex of the body, and while her “default” body appears as that of a youthful Igbo woman, Anyanwu shifts her body’s age, its race and sex, at times completely remapping her DNA.  Further, Anyanwu has a history of fathering children, which she reports to Doro early in their relationship and then, again, when recounting her relationship with Denice, the white woman that Anyanwu takes as a wife after running away to the South and from Doro’s New York colony of Wheatley. Doro, on the other hand, cannot stay in a body long enough to bear a child, while he is able to procreate from within a male body.  So, while Anyanwu has various options for procreation, Doro has only one yet manipulates the “breeding” of all of those in his colonies.

Butler sets up gender to be clearly delineated from the sexed body–albeit, I might argue that Anyanwu seems gendered as a troubling version of “feminine” (maternal, nurturing, healer, community-oriented) in a way most often associated with the sexed body she was born into (baby female), and Doro is gendered “masculine” (patriarchal, profit-driven–albeit personal profit, not traditional economics, destroyer, colony-oriented) in the way most often associated with the sexed body he was born into (baby male).  Yet, I will deny that this dichotomy is so simple.  Instead, while it seems that Anyanwu is the feminine principal, throughout the novel called “she” (as Doro is “he”), it is because Anyanwu is not only her body that she transcends or, in terminology more comforting to me, is unbound by fixed biology, she emerges as the human principal of the novel.  Discussing sex and gender in Wild Seed, Butler’s friend and fellow science fiction writer, Steven Barnes, recently suggested that:

roles of “masculine and feminine” are just that– roles that have advantages and disadvantages for both sides.  I see Anyanwu as operating above the level of the dichotomy that controls most human beings, and we might say that she functions more on the level of a human animal.  An interesting form of enlightenment, one might say.

Barnes also reminded me of the easy ways in which one can read Anyanwu’s “goodness” and Doro’s harshness as part of a gendered dichotomy.  Thus, that which I have labeled “patriarchial” I mean in the historical-critical sense—albeit not strictly.  Butler reminds us of the masculine constructions riddling our historical-critical discourses.  As Kindred challenged the writers of the neo-slave narrative to reconsider their modern selves when constructing historically-based fictions, Wild Seed points to the ease of binary claims, and the fruitlessness therein. Moreover, the novel’s concerns sidestep the confines of (strictly) gender/sex discourse and instead explore the human.

Doro, who also chooses the bodies in which he lives, is the colonizer—the anti-human.  He must kill a person, the thing that sits inside of the flesh, so that he may live—as he must inhabit flesh, although he no longer has a permanent home.  Once he takes over a body, however, the body begins to die.  So, while Anyanwu has a permanent home for herself, and is thus concerned with the longevity and health of a single body, Doro cannot afford to become attached to any physical form.

And yet, Doro’s desire—to find other immortals, his attachments to his favorite progeny and his inability to envision the world without Anyanwu, the only other person he has met who could live with him indefinitely—is the last shred of his humanity.  Doro struggles to hold onto a human self that can emote and desires community, versus his assumption of inevitable loneliness (Western “individuality,” if you will) without Anyanwu.  And so, Wild Seed not only argues that the human is something that inhabits, but that it is both valuing humanity and the uniquely human state of desire that emerges universal.  Sex and gender fall away.

It is messy and complicated, certainly—and yet for each of these characters, the self remains constant.  No matter what the body, each character remains identifiable to everyone with whom they interact.  Throughout the text, Doro’s voice is recognized by any who have previously come into contact with him, while Anyanwu’s adopted family, outside of Doro’s colonies,

Treated her as mother, older sister, teacher, and, when she invited it, lover. Somehow […] they knew her power.  She was who she was, no matter what role she chose. (WS, 235, italics mine)

Anyanwu’s family, those with whom she shared not only genetics, but those with whom she mutually chooses to live and love anchor her to the world and to her values of health and wellness.  Her humanness is as relational as it is intangible—and still, it is recognizable. It is this same sense of community, however previously categorized by him, that reconnects Doro to the humanity from which he has been distanced through his thousands of years roaming the earth and jumping from body to body (thus destroying person after person).

Doro comes to understand the importance of Anyanwu in his life when Anyanwu resolves to take her own life.  After years of struggling against Doro’s wishes to control her, and particularly her sexuality, and her disgust with Doro’s callous interactions with and destructions of the humans  whom she cherishes, Anyanwu insists upon a resolution of her relationship with the spirit-man. Believing that Doro has no humanity left and without the hope of escaping Doro’s oppression, Anyanwu resolves to use her powers to destroy her own body. Faced with the prospect of being truly alone, a life without Anyanwu and as the single immortal on Earth, Doro becomes overwhelmed with grief, the first emotion apart from anger that he demonstrates in the story.  His humanity finds its way back to a life in communion with others—particularly with and by the guidance of Anyanwu, with whom he negotiates a future Anyanwu could not previously envision with the monstrous him.  Anyanwu helps Doro navigate his way through his fear and the distance he traveled away from his human self. As with the aid of companionship, Butler’s out of shape body carries her to the top of the Empire State Building, the bodiless Doro finds his way back to the human.


Nicole A. Spigner is a Ph.D. student in Vanderbilt University’s English program. She received her M.A. and B.A. in English from University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include the intersections of 19th Century African American and Caribbean literature and classical Greek and Roman texts, depictions of conjure women in 19th and 20th Century African American and Caribbean Literature, as well as black feminist theory, New World syncretic religions, Vedic philosophy and African Diasporic folklore.