Tuesday, February 28, 2006

'Kindred' Spirit Remembered

Black gay bloggers and science fiction fans are both saddened today by the news of author Octavia Butler's death this weekend in Seattle, WA. Black people and science fiction fans are often not thought of as having any common members, but clearly the death of the first African American female (and lesbian!) science fiction author to achieve widespread acclaim (a 1995 MacArthur Foundation 'genius' grant, Hugo and Nebula awards, et cetera) has affected many different people.

I can still remember almost a dozen years ago when one of my best friends said "Oh, you like science fiction? You have got to read Octavia Butler! Her stuff is freaky but really, really good." And she was right. I quickly devoured the Xenogenesis Trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago) and eagerly moved on to the Patternist Series (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay's Ark and Patternmaster). The books address race, sexuality, alien sex, genetic mutation, telepathy, and familial and societal structures. But none of those books prepared me for Butler's masterwork: Kindred. As blogger (and author) Fred Smith discovered last month, there is a huge silent audience of people who love Octavia Butler and her books.

Octavia Butler grew up in the Pasadena area, which is part of the north east section of Los Angeles where I have been living since 1994. Last month the city of Pasadena chose Kindred as the 2006 book for its One City, One Story program. Amazingly, I and that same friend who introduced me to Octavia Butler's work actually met the author at a reading at Sisterhood Bookstore in West Los Angeles a few years before it closed in 1999. At the end of the reading, my friend and I shyly went up to our idol and discussed aspects of her latest novel (I think it was Parable of the Talents but it might have been Parable of the Sower). Octavia Butler had a very deep voice, was well over six feet tall and physically imposing. As the small audience dissipated we realized that Octavia Butler was planning on taking the bus from Westwood (near UCLA on the west side of town) to Altadena (just North of Pasadena, about 10 minutes drive from where we were going). It would probably take her between 2 to 3 hours to make the trip on public transportation. We looked at each other. "Let's offer her a ride," my friend whispered. "Oh my god, we're gonna drive Octavia Butler home!" I squealed.

Octavia Butler declined the offer of a ride at first (did she think we were besotted fans with visions of repeating the author kidnapping from Stephen King's Misery?) but when we were explained we were both college professors from the local liberal arts college in the town next door to hers, she agreed. In the 30 minute drive from the bookstore to Octavia Butler's house, we discovered that she was a funny, shy person. She said she didn't mind taking the bus around Los Angeles. "It gives me a lot of time to do the thinking required for my books." She also loved to walk. "Oh, we like to take walks, too!" my friend blurted out. "We could walk together, if you like." "I'd like that," Octavia replied. After dropping her off and exganging business cards and contact information (this was before the ubiquity of cellphones) we drove back to Eagle Rock. "I wonder if she'll call us to go for a walk?" She did. We went for two walks with Octavia Butler in the next year or so. I carried Octavia Butler's business card in my wallet for years after that meeting. She will be missed.

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