Resisting and Persisting: An interview with the contributors to “Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler”
The Hugo-nominated and Locus award-winning anthology Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler contains essays and letters to the beloved pioneer of science fiction, many of which were written in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
The timing of this collection is particularly poignant; many of the contributors made direct reference to recent events and the contemporary political climate, drawing parallels with Butler’s work. Her influence is keenly felt.
Miriam Rune invited a selection of the anthology’s contributors—Connie Samaras, Ben Winters, Christopher Caldwell, Indrapramit Das, Brenda Tyrrell, Paul Weimer and Gerry Canavan—to offer their thoughts on Butler’s apparent prescience, what we can learn from Butler’s writing, and how their views have changed since writing their letters. Enjoy!
Many of the contributors to Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler reference Butler’s great talent for extrapolation. How do you think Butler was so successful in extrapolating from contemporary politics to predict social and political trends of the future?
CONNIE SAMARAS: As Butler’s papers, archived at the Huntington Library, show, she was a researcher of the first order and studied a range of topics over the course of her lifetime. For example, her notes alone on climate change studies span almost a forty-year period. Although she devoted herself early in life to being a writer, her degree emphasis at Pasadena Community College was in history. For me, her political prescience comes, in part, from an historian’s understanding that social problems like white supremacy, gender discrimination, class inequality etc. are baked into the political system and thus remain a repeatedly contested terrain no matter the shifts in social change.
In tandem, as a fiction writer, she was unbound by an historian’s disciplinary constraints that the past one writes about must not overlap with the present. So throughout Butler’s papers you find numerous real-time retorts to those in power attempting to pave down official history through daily news feeds. As an artist, intellectual, and self-aware vernacular historian, Butler knew how to bend and layer time in ways that upended dominant narratives about the future as a singular probability and offer up instead the future as forever being a series of multiple possibilities no matter the circumstances.
INDRA DAS: Because she was a black woman in America, working within a medium that feeds off contemporary social and political zeitgeists to fabricate other futures and worlds.
Being black and a woman, living through the civil rights movement in the US, witnessing the Korean and Vietnam wars and all their cultural fallout, witnessing the counter-cultural movement and the beginnings of modern feminism (and how rooted its western academic conception was in whiteness), the Aids crisis and the beginning of modern LGBQT activism; these things are conducive to a writer thinking very long and hard about how the politics of oppression and resistance mutate with the times while staying essentially, primally the same.
When you’re a member of a marginalized population (on multiple axes of oppression), you can’t help but be acutely aware of social change and the cyclical nature of politics. I think this is what made Butler, an intelligent and astute writer, so good at ‘predicting’ the social and political futures that we’re living now. Because they’re cyclical repeats of historical moments that Butler saw happen, and reflected on.
GERRY CANAVAN: I think, as important as Butler’s talent for extrapolation was, her keen appreciation of the cycles of history, so many of her “predictions” (and so much of what has actually happened) are about the uncanny, unhappy return of historical forms we allowed ourselves to think of as belonging forever to the past. When she wrote about the fascist who would ‘Make America Great Again’, after all, she was thinking of a toxic tendency in American thought that had last risen to the surface in the Reagan presidency.
Dangerous religious fundamentalism, wealth inequality, corporate greed, and climate change are just some of the aspects afflicting the world in Butler’s Parable novels that paint a picture eerily similar to our present, but what would you consider to be the closest parallel that can be drawn between the two?
BEN WINTERS: Sadly, I think the answer is probably wealth inequality, only because it underlies and is mixed up with all the other ills you mention, both in Butler’s world and the one we now inhabit. The weather events and high waters caused by climate change, for example, is a crisis for all of us, but it is a crisis that will be much more manageable and mitigable for those with the resources and options afforded by great wealth.
PAUL WEIMER: Even more basic than those four themes in the Parable novels, I think the strongest parallel is the rise of, and America turning to, demagoguery that Butler really hit the mark. The form of that demagoguery is expression in religious fundamentalism that provides the backbone of the fictional administration, something that is not quite in our world (as yet, anyway).
But the toxic power to sway the worst instincts of Americans? That’s dead-on for today’s America.
As you suggest in your letter, CONNIE SAMARAS, do you still feel like we could be living in a prequel to the Parable of the Sower, or in Parable of the Talents? Are we still in the prequel?
CONNIE SAMARAS: Over the last year and a half, I have found myself increasingly flashing on parts of both Parables. It’s as though the novels have shattered together into hallucinatory fragments, bending any sort of linear narrative. Living in Los Angeles the overlay of Butler’s imagined worlds onto the real world is especially vivid e.g., exponentially growing homeless populations spilling everywhere, raging fires everywhere, ICE trapping and arresting people everywhere. Often I feel bounced between competing sentiments and conjectures. One minute I’m convinced (and grateful) that Mueller will be the winner. That he’s pulling out all stops including having requested the ending of the popular TV series about Russian spies, The Americans, so that he could hire their writers to produce a well-crafted and suspenseful unfolding of his findings, thus trumping Trump’s tired reality TV show.
Simultaneously, as many on the left have expressed disbelief over, I wonder what this, previously unfathomable situation of rooting for the FBI to “save” us, ultimately means. I still find deeply encouraging the continuation of nationwide grassroots organizing, including the recent outcry over the government’s ripping away of children from parents legally seeking asylum at the southern border. Despite similarities to the raid on Talent’s Earthseed, even Butler couldn’t conjure up the idea of baby jails where caretakers can’t touch the children and scenarios where criminalized immigrant toddles are dragged before judges to pre-verbally state their cases.
And as I watched this horror unfold with a queer eye, I flashed on whether if this was a prequel to stripping away children from US citizens, specifically LGBTQ parents. And sure enough, in preparation for a Pence presidency and the end of Roe v. Wade, the religious right is currently drafting legislation to propose this, yet another, unthinkable and inhumane travesty. Like Butler’s characters, I still look up at stars when things seem darkest on earth. But, for now, unlike Olamina, my heart and mind drift not to outer space but to the possibilities of earth’s futures.
What lessons can we learn from Butler’s work to inform our reaction to current events?
CONNIE SAMARAS: Survival is a collective endeavor, even if one personally does not end up surviving.
That powerful resistance can start small at the bottom, from those sectors of the population routinely dismissed and disregarded, like African American teenage girls, such as Parable of the Sower’s Olamina.
And that shaping visionary and heterogeneous collective futures (versus blindly following daddy billionaires to Mars or Russian annexation) is a messy process that requires listening in ways you haven’t before, study and critical thinking, unfixed egos, faith however you define it, and the right to deploy one’s own imagination.
CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL: There’s a tough sort of optimism that runs through Butler’s work. Many of her books are about what it takes to survive in a world that’s actively hostile, but her characters manage this with resilience, camaraderie, and love. Anyanwu, Shori, Olamina, and Lilith all do the hard work of community building, and rebuilding when events or other people conspire to destroy their hard work. I think the central lesson of all Butler’s work—not just her fiction, but essays too—is persistence.
GERRY CANAVAN: Aside from the complex interrelationship between hope, (mere) survival, and suicide that seems to drive so much of her fiction, I think Butler’s anticipation of the Trump era really helps us see how normal he is, despite the way we choose to think about him. He is much less of a deviation from the ordinary logic of American political life than we would like to think or admit, something that her work has always shown (and now more than ever).
BRENDA TYRRELL: Ms. Butler’s work is so vast and diverse that I believe you could pick any one of her novels or short stories and find some way to tie her narrative to our current events. Ableism, racism, sexism, and gender discrimination all make significant appearances in Ms. Butler’s oeuvre; I truly believe that was the intent behind her work. For example, in my own work I am currently using Clay’s Ark and Kindred to talk about the AIDS epidemic, “Speech Sounds” to discuss what it might be like if you could not speak (disability studies), and, of course, both Parables to talk about intersectionality.
Many of the contributors have drawn parallels between Butler’s Parable novels and our political present, citing Butler’s talent for extrapolation. INDRA DAS, what lessons can we learn from the Xenogenesis trilogy, Kindred or Fledgling, for example, that would offer us hope and guidance today?
INDRA DAS: The thing about Butler’s work (what I’ve read of it) is that it’s not necessarily very obviously hopeful. Kindred and Lilith’s Brood are incredibly dark, and recognize that human cultures are hardwired to certain forms of violence—to hoarding power at the expense of other humans, to mark out others as weak and brutalize them. But Butler was also aware that we have the capacity to override that hardwiring. Her work is messy, ambiguous, like social reality.
Kindred, for example, is a story that immerses the reader into the experience and universality of racism within America in harrowing fashion, but one of the consistent sources of hope for that novel’s black protagonist Dana is her compassionate, progressive white husband Kevin, who provides a counterpoint to that relentless horror. Their love transcends the repeating imprint of hatred on their shared national history. In one character, Butler botches the fallacious characterization of narratives that point out the blatant racism of settler nations and their history as themselves racist to white people. No, Butler is well aware that white people are capable of freeing themselves of the toxic narratives of white supremacy, and she makes her reader aware of that fact.
Kevin stays true to Dana even as she falls through time, drowning in the horrific history that scars the nation she was born into. Kevin and Dana, in the end, are modern Americans, a hope for the future. What is heartbreaking, of course, is that Kindred was published in 1979 and, but for a few elements dating it to that era, remains absolutely relevant to the present. Kevin and Dana free themselves of the past to move forward. Their country, in 2018, has yet to do the same. The world has yet to do the same. Kindred as a text recognizes that we—people and nations—need to come to terms with the crimes our cultures and nations have committed in the past, to be able to grapple with the injustices of the present. And modern nationalism breeds contempt for that recognition of complicity—it revels in pride above all else, in erasing the truth of our brutality and thus normalizing that brutality.
Lilith’s Brood, similarly, sees humans as proliferating despite their own literal self-destruction, surviving apocalypses in a manner similar to various marginalized cultures and people around the world who’ve gone through their own apocalypses (and continue to go through them) and dystopias because of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, and now global capitalism. For human beings, even the end of the world isn’t the end, and no one knows that better than people who carry the historical scars of brutal oppression and genocidal violence. Survival is imperative, and possible.
How do you think she might extrapolate from our present?
BEN WINTERS: Oh, Lord. You know, my great fear about our present—which I suspect she would share—is that we haven’t hit bottom. Like when you read about Ancient Rome, and there’s some monstrously self-enriching, grotesque emperor, and then that guy dies and the next guy who comes along is yet more monstrous and self-enriching and to think about how it might be yet more shocking and appalling.
INDRA DAS: I think she’d extrapolate that she warned our asses, and we didn’t listen close enough.
CONNIE SAMARAS: Perhaps she would illuminate the political inequities that have forever plagued those at the margins as having now metastasized to the very center.
GERRY CANAVAN: I think she would be focused on the next step. The nightmare of the Pox was just the backdrop for a possibly utopian transformation of culture in the Earthseeders; I think she’d be looking for the possibilities revealed by the crisis, as well as the miserable human toll. She’d also understand just how badly we had dithered, especially with regard to the environment, and how close we are coming to the point of no return.
Having read her papers, I’m certain she’d loathe Trump. It would have been a fiery and righteous hate. I think it would have inspired her.
How has your perspective about our political state, and Butler’s apparent prediction, changed since writing your letter?
CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL: It hasn’t.
I was depressed and horrified after Trump’s victory, but I wasn’t surprised. I wrote my letter only a few days away from the inauguration, and it was about six months out from the Brexit vote. I had already resigned myself to the world becoming a harsher, more unkind place for a time. I knew it was going to resemble some of Octavia Butler’s imaginations of the future. But I didn’t then, and I don’t now, consider her prophetic. I don’t think the divine was revealed to her. I think she was an astute observer of the human condition, and she had a keen understanding of the kind of contradictory emotions and dissonant thoughts that drive people to act in ways that are ultimately destructive, not just to others, but themselves.
So for me, the perspective is the same. People who are afraid and angry and judgmental are capable of a lot of cruelty, and there are those who would take advantage of that fear and anger who are capable of much greater cruelty. As much as you can, you’ve got to resist, and to do that you must persist.
PAUL WEIMER: My view of what American politics has become is a view that it has been even more corrosive and difficult than I imagined when I wrote that letter.
America has turned darker, faster than I ever thought. Immigrant children in cages is something I couldn’t have imagined then, not even in my worst fears of what politics would bring. And I, as a white, heterosexual guy, am very much removed from the worst of this toxicity. But since I am a human being, and see what this administration is doing to immigrants, to women, to people of colour, at a rate I did not imagine, I fear that even a one-term Trump presidency will do damage that will take years to repair. But repair and going forward and changing for the future is something we must do, as Butler taught us.
BEN WINTERS: No good or happy answer for this one. I said in my letter that “we could have used you” and I still feel that way—we need more thoughtful, smart writers with varying perspectives, reacting thoughtfully and with hope and imagination to what is happening. But what we also need, perhaps more than anything, are readers, real readers, people willing to do the hard work of paying attention and doing more than just reacting — in that instant, rapid-fire, shallow, satisfying-and-it’s-gone way we’ve all been taught to react now.
Two years on from writing your letter, are you still hopeful, and do you still have confidence in art’s ability to inspire people?
INDRA DAS: I feel like entire eras have passed since I wrote that letter because of our relentless news cycles. Since writing that letter, fascism has further solidified its ascendant position, not just in the US but also in my own country (India), as well as in several other countries all over the world.
But I hold on to the fact that the voices of the marginalized and oppressed have only grown stronger and angrier even in the face of this all-out assault on human rights and sustainable cultures.
The powerful in this patriarchal global capitalist world order are scared enough to admit now that they’re essentially Nazis, or, at the least, have always secretly believed that ol’ Hitler had a point about culling the populations you don’t want around polluting your own preferred mythic, beloved and glorious national cultures. The virus mutates, adapts, but whether it’s white supremacy or Hindu and upper-caste supremacy, it’s all part of the same evil.
And if anything has become crystal clear in these truly dark times, it’s that art and media are crucially connected to the rise and fall of social evils and social justice. I mean, we’ve seen, with Gamergate and the proliferation of ‘fanboy’ cultures and right-wing ‘free speech’ advocates waging a culture war against progressive movement within the various mediums of art (and within the media), that art is not a quiet side project of humanity.
Because everything, including art, is trapped within that violent system so beloved of bigots; artists who aren’t on the side of bigots need to be as invested in this culture war. The good part is, we don’t have to kill anyone to fight this war. We—the marginalized and our true allies—just need to tell our stories. The bad news is, we do have to fight (not necessarily physically, if we’re lucky) to keep doing that.
BRENDA TYRRELL, in your essay you write about teaching Parable of the Sower to your class. Has your approach changed in the nearly two years since writing the letter?
BRENDA TYRRELL: It’s safe to say, I think, that my approach to teaching has changed significantly in the last two years. Before Trump, political conversations never entered my classroom. However, after the 2016 elections, I had a complete reversal of thought.
Critical thinking and writing have always been the overarching theme of my classes but, now, I feel that it’s even more crucial to expose younger folks to the rhetorical decisions people in power are utilizing to get their support and their vote. It is not always clear to them when they only see one side of the issue.
In the last two years, I have witnessed people from such diverse backgrounds mobilize and protest the actions of Trump—people who, before the election, would have not done so. People like me.
Revolution is hard and it’s messy but, at some point, deceptive and discriminatory actions must be stopped. The late Harlan Ellison’s words push me forward: “we are frequently flawed and meretricious…but we are perfect in our courage, and transcendent in our nobility: both aspects exist in each of us, and we have the free will to choose which we want to dominate our actions, and thus our destinies.”
We have the free will, but are we ready to fully exercise it? That is a question not only for our students, but also for ourselves.
Connie Samaras is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. The monograph Connie Samaras: Tales of Tomorrow, Amory Press, Pasadena (2013) and exhibition catalogue Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, New Museum, NYC (2018) include both her art and writing. The book Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler, Clockshop, Los Angeles (2018) includes the first section of her photographic series “The Past is Another Planet,” based on archival research of OEB’s papers. And a recent interview with journalist Lynell George about George’s written project for “Radio Imagination” can be accessed at https://bombmagazine.org/articles/lynell-george-interviewed/
Ben H. Winters is the New York Times bestselling author of Underground Airlines and the three novels of the Last Policeman series. He has once won, and been nominated three times for, the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and has also been given the Philip K. Dick Award for excellence in science fiction. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children.
Christopher Caldwell is a queer Black American living in Glasgow, Scotland with his partner Alice. He was the 2007 recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship to Clarion West. His work has appeared in Fiyah, Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars, and Strange Horizons.
Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is a writer and editor from Kolkata, India. He is a Lambda Literary Award-winner for his debut novel The Devourers (Penguin India / Del Rey), and has been a finalist for the Crawford, Tiptree and Shirley Jackson Awards. His short fiction has appeared in publications including Tor.com, Clarkesworld and Asimov’s, and has been widely anthologized. He is an Octavia E. Butler Scholar and a grateful graduate of Clarion West 2012. He has lived in India, the United States, and Canada, where he completed his MFA at the University of British Columbia and wore a variety of hats, including dog hotel night shift attendant, TV background performer, and video game tester.
Brenda Tyrrell is a PhD student in English Literature student at Miami University, Ohio. Her research interests intersect at disability studies, intersectionality, and science fiction. She has published three articles, focused on disability studies, intersectionality, and H.G. Wells, as well as her “Letter to Ms. Butler” which appears in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler. She is also active at the intersection of accessibility and writing centers. Her current projects include a book-length project involving Wells, disability studies, and his early scientific romances, revising an article discussing disability in Game of Thrones, as well writing about AIDS representation in science fiction, specifically cyber-/postcyberpunk.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over thirty five years. An avid blogger, reviewer, and sometimes writer of fiction as well, he also podcasts, especially at the Skiffy and Fanty Show and SFF Audio. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his reviews, blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).
Gerry Canavan is an associate professor of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature at Marquette University, specializing in science fiction. He is the co-editor of Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction and The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, as well as co-editor of the academic journals Extrapolation and Science Fiction Film and Television. His first book, Octavia E. Butler, is available now from the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series at University of Illinois Press.