1987. Sacramento. I was in eighth grade and my best friend was African-American. And he was a handful of African-Americans in a school comprised almost entirely of whites. This made no difference to me. I was simply relieved to meet someone who dug Full Metal Jacket and Doctor Who as much as I did and who liked to contemplate some of the strange observations around us. The girls we blushed over at recess. (Embarassingly, I still blush around women to this very day and I can’t help thinking of my old friend every time I do.) We’d go crawdad fishing and ride away long weekends on our bikes. We exchanged rap tapes. Kool Moe Dee, Too Short (before the $ sign), Ice-T. He introduced me to his friends and I’d hang out with the posse contemplating Arsenio Hall’s appearance in Amazon Women on the Moon and trying to figure out which girls had the best booties. His mother, who raised my friend on her own, was kind enough to let me stay over and she somehow knew that things weren’t exactly scintillating at home. But no matter.
What I had no way of knowing back then, what indeed was a horrible mystery to me, was when I came home with black eyes and bruises and horrible aches in my pale and skinny limbs simply because this boy was my best friend. I was called “Nigger Lover.” I was punched and beaten, thrown into trash cans and mercilessly taunted between periods. For what crime? Partly because I was poor, but mostly because I hung out with a kid who was not of my race. This was not the South, but suburban California. How could this be? I asked myself. Hadn’t these days passed?
Eventually, my friend had to move away to St. Louis. His mother had found a better-paying job. And I lost track of him. I’ve made several attempts over the years typing his name into search engines, aching to know what happened to him, wanting to make sure that he made out all right. But I’m pretty sure he made out okay. He was a good kid.
Back in those days, I was a heavy reader of science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and Douglas Adams were all names that graced the covers of the books I read. Fantastic worlds reflecting the phantsmagorical awaited me in the library. But when I checked out a mass-market paperback of Kindred from the library, I had no way of knowing that it would be Octavia E. Butler who would tell me, perhaps more substantially than the others, just what speculative fiction was all about and why my schoolmates had beaten the shit out of me more than a century after emancipation. For in Butler’s hands, speculative fiction wasn’t just “speculative.” It was fiction that stood on its own, going well beyond what even my English teachers often dismissed as “flying saucers and bug-eyed monsters.” It unearthed human ambiguity. In one glance from a character, Butler revealed untold decades of subconscioius behavior that our contemporary society had failed to discuss, much less address. And she did so with a clearly written and utterly compelling tale involving time travel and years waiting for one’s lost love to return. It was Kindred which explained to me why I had been hurt and taunted and abused.
That was no small task.
To me, Kindred was one of those key books that told me that literature was about something. Years later, in my late twenties, I reread the book and was astonished by how well it had held up. And with more than decade of life experience accumulated, the chasm between Kevin and Dana hurt even more.
It’s difficult to sum into words just what Octavia E. Butler did for fiction. At the risk of coming across as a jejune generalist, Butler didn’t just demonstrate that science fiction wasn’t the exclusive territory of white male writers, but she proved more adeptly than most writers that issues of race, environment, ideals in a dystopic state, and the like were the stuff of Fiction. Period.
So when Tayari Jones tipped me off this morning with the possibility that Butler had died, before Butler had even had the chance to celebrate her sixtieth birthday, I couldn’t believe it. I had to find out for sure. Surely, the woman who had planned to be an “80-year-old writer” and who had, with Kindred, rediscovered the great joy of writing after the dystopic Parables wasn’t gone. And when I confirmed the news this morning, I was numb and more than a little dumbstruck and really couldn’t do much of damn anything all day.
I’m extremely grateful that I had the chance to talk with her and to thank her. What I can tell you about Octavia Butler from the hour I shared with her is this: I had taken her to a cafe that I thought would be relatively depopulated, but to my great surprise, it was extremely noisy and crowded. I remember buying her a bottle of mineral water, which I had initially misheard as “water.” I remember Butler wincing and raising an eyebrow every time the report of the espresso machine went off. But I also recall her being extremely relaxed and diligent with her answers, even though she didn’t really care much for doing press, much less being in public. Because I knew Ms. Butler had a heart condition, I offered to walk her back from the hotel. But she was a self-sufficient woman and she preceded the walk back to her hotel with an unexpected “It was nice meeting you” and a disappearing act that was so rapid that I rushed out the doors to find no trace of her. I had horrible nightmares that she wouldn’t make it to her City Lights reading that night. But thankfully she did.
In the end, Butler’s work will live on. But there is nobody who can replace her. I can’t imagine any other author who could have helped me understand that I wasn’t alone when the preteen thugs tried to dissuade me from my friendship but completely failed in the process.