#FridayReads: Kindred by Octavia Butler

 

cover for Kindred, showing a Black woman with short hair

If you read science fiction but aren’t acquainted with the fantastic work of Octavia Butler, please take yourself to a library RIGHT NOW and check out a few of her books. Hell, even if you don’t normally read sci-fi, read Octavia Butler.

Kindred tells the story of a modern Black woman, Dana, who is pulled back in time to the South by one of her ancestors. There, Dana has to confront the reality of slavery.  Dana serves as a sort of translator-avatar for the reader—neither she nor any of us have ever experienced slavery first hand. She quickly realizes that if she behaves as a Black woman from the 1970s normally behaves, she’ll get herself killed. Her only real safety net in this strange world is her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a slaveholder and the reason she keeps traveling through time.

Rufus calls Dana to the past—not consciously or purposefully—every time his life is in danger. Dana saves him over and over again, knowing that if she does not, she may never be born. On her second trip, she meets the Black woman Rufus impregnates with her direct ancestor, and knows instinctively that the union between Rufus and Alice can’t by its nature be consensual. As she watches Rufus grow into a cruel man who shows occasional flashes of kindness, Dana contemplates letting him die, but knows that if she does, she may never exist. Even when her worst fears are confirmed and Rufus rapes Alice, she saves his life the next time he’s in danger.

While Kindred is somewhat of a time-travel thriller, its real genius lies in Butler’s characterizations and excellent world building. No character is simply evil or simply good. Even Rufus, who begins life as a kind boy scared of his father and grows into someone just as cruel as the man he once feared, has sympathetic moments. Despite his flaws, Dana cares for him the way a mother might care for a troubled child. He is a product of his time, but Butler doesn’t use that as an excuse to let him off the hook from consequences (and boy, are there consequences).

The way Butler characterizes the slaves Dana meets on Rufus’s plantation is equally important, if not more so. She shows us heartbreaking moments, such as Black children playing “slave trader,” runaways being mauled by dogs, vicious beatings, and families being torn apart when spouses or children are sold. Because Dana has gotten to know these families and these individuals, we mourn with her when tragedy strikes. It’s not all depressing, though. Butler also shows us moments of tenderness and love, and the many many ways slaves resisted their circumstances and found dignity and purpose in their lives outside of their owners’ desires.

Dana goes into the past thinking she could never be a slave, only to learn that she will do what it takes to survive, even if that means swallowing her pride and sacrificing some of her dignity. As she gets to know the slaves, she sees how strong they are. She realizes that they, too, are a product of their time, though their time doesn’t define who they are as individuals. Through Dana’s eyes, the reader is able to see the complex social dynamics and entrenched patriarchal and racist values and structure involved in slavery. As Dana experiences what it’s like to be a slave, so too does the reader—and therein is Kindred’s real power.

It’s impossible to read Kindred and not recognize the echoes of slavery that we, in the year 2018, live with today: entrenched racism that’s built into the very structure of our society. The book begins with a scene of Dana in the hospital, having lost her arm after her last trip to the past. The lost arm is the physical embodiment of the mental and emotional losses Dana has suffered throughout her journey. And like Dana, the reader will come away from the book having lost any illusion of what they may or may not have done during slavery. The loss of that illusion, hopefully, will shed light on the work that still needs to be done in dismantling racism here in the present.

 

Adventures in writing conferences: AWP 2018

Last week I went to Tampa for the 2018 AWP Conference. For those of you who aren’t familiar with AWP, it’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and each year they hold a huge conference in a different city (next year is Portland!).

It’s an exhausting three days full of craft talks, discussion panels, many offsite readings and parties, and a huge book fair (almost as big as the exhibit hall at a Star Wars Celebration, if you take out the giant AT-AT and X-Wing models). Writers, publishers, and editors from all over the US and Canada convene to talk books and writing and collectively drink all the alcohol in whatever city we’re visiting.

A stack of books.

My book and literary journal haul from AWP.

In years past, especially when I was an MFA student and felt that I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO FIND A PUBLISHER FOR MY BOOK RIGHT THE FUCK NOW, I spent a lot of time wandering the book fair talking up publishers and trying to sell them on my manuscript. Let me just say that is not the best approach to enjoying AWP, not to mention ineffective. But it’s what all the writing advice articles say, so that’s what I did.

Here’s the thing, though: I write weird books, and even selling a normal book is hard. I believe in my work and I believe it will find the perfect home as long as I keep putting in the leg work. So this year I decided to take everything a lot less seriously.

And unsurprisingly, the conference was a lot more enjoyable without all that self-imposed pressure. I stayed with a friend from Chatham, and we may have drank an entire box of wine. Maybe. And we may have also dyed our hair purple (which has sadly mostly washed out already).

Because I stepped up as a coordinator for the VIDA Count, I worked directly with more of our team, and had the pleasure of meeting many of them in person for the first time. I also had a blast catching up with some of my professors and former classmates from Chatham at a private reception with an incredibly serious bartender who was probably wondering if all writers are over-excited alcoholics (we’re not).

I also spent more time in the book fair just talking to people. I discovered a few new journals that I’m excited to submit to, caught up with my friends at various presses and mags, and hopefully made some new friends! My favorite part was meeting the editorial staff at journals who’ve published my work. Plus I came away with a huge haul of journals and a few books that I’m incredibly excited about reading. Look for reviews of those in upcoming posts!

The downside to all this excitement at all is that I’ve had a migraine for the past five days (Pittsburgh weather isn’t helping). I’m starting to feel better today (and perhaps some coffee before work will help), but I haven’t even tried to work on my novel this week. Oh well! It’ll be there next week, and I’m excited to get back to it when my temples aren’t throbbing.

Relaxing and having fun is notoriously hard for me (just ask my partner, who complained to me last night that I always want to do productive things after dinner when he wants to relax and you know, spend time with me). I consider it quite an accomplishment that I had so much fun I triggered a week-long migraine cycle.

And hey—I even learned a few things, too.

#FridayReads: The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

cover for The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

Today I’ve a got a book review of Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover up at the Ploughshares blog! I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this delightfully weird short story collection, which comes out this Tuesday (but I wasn’t paid or given anything else by the author or publisher to write this review). Check it out!

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is the debut short story collection from Michael Andreasen. Through a mix of absurdism, hyperbole, science fiction, history, and fantasy, the author draws a map of washed-up American dreams and fears. His stories chart the plains of abandonment, the futility of love, and vague hopes that never solidify. From the titular lonely sea monster to the King of Retired Amusements to time-traveling third graders, Andreasen’s characters explore this map of disappointment and hardship, learning again and again what we already know but are too afraid to speak aloud: Everything comes to an end. Everything.

Keep reading at Ploughshares!