Remembering Octavia Butler: Black Sci-Fi Writer Shares Cautionary Tales in Unearthed 2005 Interview
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
To mark Black History Month once again, as well as the 25th anniversary of Democracy Now!, we turn now to one of the last television interviews given by the visionary Black science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. In November 2005, she came into Democracy Now!’s old firehouse studio. Just three months later, Butler died, on February 24th, 2006, after she fell outside her home outside of Seattle, Washington. She was 58 years old.
Butler was the first Black woman to win the Hugo and Nebula awards for science-fiction writing. She was also the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Butler’s best-known books include the classics Kindred, as well as Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents — two-thirds of a trilogy that was never finished. Published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is set in the 2020s in California — that’s right, the 2020s, now, in California — amidst a global climate and economic crisis. Octavia Butler described them as cautionary tales.
OCTAVIA BUTLER: They were what I call cautionary tales: If we keep misbehaving ourselves, ignoring what we’ve been ignoring, doing what we’ve been doing to the environment, for instance, here’s what we’re liable to wind up with.
AMY GOODMAN: In her books, Octavia Butler also wrote about slavery, about fascism, about religious fundamentalism and so much more. Her work inspired a new generation of Black science-fiction writers. She’s been called “the Mother of Afrofuturism.” And Octavia Butler’s audience has continued to grow. In September, she made The New York Times best-seller list for the first time — 50 years after she began writing and nearly 15 years after her death.
Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I interviewed Octavia Butler in November of 2005. It was shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. President George W. Bush, the former governor of Texas, was in the White House overseeing the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of this interview aired live, but some of it has never been broadcast before.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How did you first start writing science fiction? You grew up in Pasadena?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Mm-hmm.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how did you first become attracted to that type of writing?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Oh, I think I loved it because — well, I fell into writing it because I saw a bad movie, a movie called Devil Girl from Mars, and went into competition with it. But I think I stayed with it because it was so wide open. It gave me the chance to comment on every aspect of humanity. People tend to think of science fiction as, oh, Star Wars or Star Trek. And the truth is, there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Octavia Butler. Her latest book is Fledgling, wrote the Parable series. As Katrina was happening, in the aftermath of Katrina, a lot of people were talking about Octavia Butler and how the Parable series made them think about that. Explain.
OCTAVIA BUTLER: I wrote the two Parable books back in the ’90s. And they are books about, as I said, what happens because we don’t trouble to correct some of the problems that we’re brewing for ourselves right now. Global warming is one of those problems. And I was aware of it back in the ’80s. I was reading books about it. And a lot of people were seeing it as politics, as something very iffy, as something they could ignore because nothing was going to come of it tomorrow.
That and the fact that I think I was paying a lot of attention to education because a lot of my friends were teachers, and the politics of education was getting scarier, it seemed to me. We were getting to that point where we were thinking more about the building of prisons than of schools and libraries. And I remember while I was working on the novels, my hometown, Pasadena, had a bond issue that they passed to aid libraries, and I was so happy that it passed, because so often these things don’t. And they had closed a lot of branch libraries and were able to reopen them. So, not everybody was going in the wrong direction, but a lot of the country still was. And what I wanted to write was a novel of someone who was coming up with solutions of a sort.
My main character’s solution is — well, grows from another religion that she comes up with. Religion is everywhere. There are no human societies without it, whether they acknowledge it as a religion or not. So I thought religion might be an answer, as well as, in some cases, a problem. And in, for instance, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, it’s both. So I have people who are bringing America to a kind of fascism, because their religion is the only one they’re willing to tolerate. On the other hand, I have people who are saying, “Well, here is another religion, and here are some verses that can help us think in a different way, and here is a destination that isn’t something that we have to wait for after we die.”
AMY GOODMAN: Octavia Butler, could you read a little from Parable of the Talents.
OCTAVIA BUTLER: I’m going to read a verse or two. And keep in mind these were written early in the ’90s. But I think they apply forever, actually. This first one, I have a character in the books who is, well, someone who is taking the country fascist and who manages to get elected president and who, oddly enough, comes from Texas. And here is one of the things that my character is inspired to write about this sort of situation. She says:
Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
And there’s one other that I thought I should read, because I see it happening so much. I got the idea for it when I heard someone answer a political question with a political slogan. And he didn’t seem to realize that he was quoting somebody. He seemed to have thought that he had a creative thought there. And I wrote this verse:
All too often,
What we hear others say.
What we’re told that we think.
What we’re permitted to see.
We see what we’re told that we see.
Repetition and pride are the keys to this.
To hear and to see
Even an obvious lie
And again and again
May be to say it,
Almost by reflex
And then to defend it
Because we’ve said it
And at last to embrace it
Because we’ve defended it
And because we cannot admit
That we’ve embraced and defended
An obvious lie.
Thus, without thought,
Of ourselves —
And we say
What we hear other say.
Just one more comment on the human condition, I guess.
AMY GOODMAN: Octavia Butler, a lot of the themes of your books are about being an outsider. Talk about that. And talk about what it means to be — I mean, here you are a science-fiction writer. It is rare, the way you weave in issues of race, issues of power, religion. I mean, it’s rare to be a Black woman science-fiction writer.
OCTAVIA BUTLER: That’s true. When I was getting started, there was one other man, Samuel R. Delany. And he was one of my teachers. And we were having a panel discussion at a library one day, and somebody asked, “Well, how many of you are there?” And we looked at each other? And we said, “We’re two-thirds.” There was one other man up in Canada who was writing, who has since gone a different direction. So, things are better now. But there was a time when there was almost nobody.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think that is?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: I think part of it is just because people do what they see other people doing. I had a student come up to me at Michigan State University — and this was a young Black woman — many years ago and say, “You know, I always loved science fiction. I’ve always wanted to write it. But I didn’t think we did that.” And she was afraid that if she got into it, there would be closed doors. And life is short. So, sometimes people don’t want to take the risk of running into closed doors. My friend said to me, “You’re doing all this, and we thought you were so brave. And after a while, we decided that you just didn’t have any sense.” So, I have never really wanted to do anything else.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you tour around — and, obviously, the people who come to the readings are the fans who regularly follow you — what is your sense of your readers, in terms of what they’re most attracted to in your writing?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: I’ve always had at least three groups, identifiable groups, of readers. And I remember trying to convince my publishers of this early on and having no success, until I went with a smaller publisher. But the groups — and they used to have their own independent bookstores. There are still a few independents left. But they were science fiction, Black and feminist. And they still are. And, of course, now some mainstream. So, I’m always glad that there are more readers, that people find out about me. People keep telling me, “Oh, I would have read you before, but I’ve never heard of you.”
AMY GOODMAN: What about the power of fundamentalist religion?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Oh, I was raised in a fundamentalist church. I was raised Baptist. One of my grandfathers was a Baptist preacher. And I’m actually grateful for one thing specifically: had that conscience installed early. And it’s a monster of a conscience. I can’t really get away with things. I’m not worried about being caught by other people. My own conscience is going to get me.
It’s when people begin using their religion as just a way of getting power over other people that scares me. And I’m afraid that’s what’s going on in a lot of cases right now. I mean, when people deliberately tell lies — creationism, for instance — and pretend, oh, it’s not really religion, I mean, they know they’re lying. And yet they’re the religious people. Something wrong there. When people use their religion to hurt other people, to say, “Oh, well, no, you have to embrace this means of sex education and not that one, because our religion says so,” it’s a misuse. But I guess religion is such a powerful thing, it’s bound to be misused.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up this interview, for young people, as you said, that you think perhaps there are few Black women science-fiction writers because they haven’t seen them before.
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Well, there are more now. The anecdote I told you was several years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: But when you were a kid —
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: — there —
OCTAVIA BUTLER: There were none.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you go into it?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: With my eyes tightly shut. I assumed that I could do it. I wasn’t being brave or even thoughtful. I wanted it. And I assumed I could have it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what advice do you have for young people today?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Who want to write? Oh, definitely, that they should. It’s difficult and sometimes impossible. I mean, here I am coming off a very long writer’s block, so I can acknowledge the difficulty.
AMY GOODMAN: How long?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Seven years. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t writing. Writer’s block is not when I’m not writing. It’s when I’m not writing anything worthwhile.
AMY GOODMAN: And for people who suffer from writer’s block, your advice?
OCTAVIA BUTLER: Keep writing. Keep writing. It’s the old idea that behavior that gets rewarded tends to get repeated. If you stop writing, then you’re kind of rewarding yourself with not writing. If you keep writing, after a while your brain maybe gets the idea. I’m not sure I said that very clearly, but I hope you know what I mean. Just that if you are a writer, you can’t stop writing. I used to have a teacher who said, “If anything can prevent you being a writer, don’t be one.”
AMY GOODMAN: The visionary feminist Black science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, speaking on Democracy Now! in November 2005 in one of her final television interviews. She died on February 24th, 2006 — 15 years ago this week — after a fall outside her home outside Seattle, Washington.