Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Kindred by Octavia Butler

I spent the weekend embroiled in Kindred. This spectacular book by the late Octavia Butler was first published in 1977. It tells the story of Dana, an African-American woman married to a white man, Kevin, in 1976 who is transported back across space and time to first 1815 in rural Maryland. She is called by her ancestor, Rufus, a white man whose father is a slaveowner and lives on the family plantation. Each time Rufus needs help, literally assistance to keep his life, he “calls” to Dana and rips her from her world in 1976 to his world. This happens over only a brief period of time in her life, but the entire course of Rufus’ life from his childhood until his death. At one point, Dana’s husband, Kevin, comes with her back into the early part of the 19th century. She returns to 1976, but without him, leaving him for what is five years in early 19th century time, though only a few days in 1976 time. By the conclusion of the book, Dana returns to Rufus and the plantation and ensures that her ancestors, a child by Rufus and a slave, Alice, is born. I won’t give away the conclusion, but it is incredibly powerful.

There are a few things that struck me about this book. First, the pure imaginativeness of the book in terms of how Butler weaves the narrative to imagine life during slavery and make connections between the world today (or in 1976) and the antebellum south. It is really stunning to witness her imagination at work in the book. Second, I was very interested in how interracial relationships work in the book. The “relationship” between Rufus, the white male slave owner, and Alice, one of the slaves on the plantation is counterpointed with Dana and Kevin’s relationship which allows an examination of the different ways cross-racial relationships are produced and sustained by the historical moment. (I will write about this more in thinking about Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, which also uses interracial relationships to stand in for a variety of reflections, observations, and indictments.) The third thing that struck me about the book is related to the second and that is the nature of relationships in the book more broadly. History (and I am simultaneously reading Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s book Unequal Freedom) flattens out human lives with facts and statistics as a way to construct its narratives. Butler brings to life those relationships and explores them in incredibly compelling and disturbing ways. There is intellectual power in the history. I have spent a good part of the weekend frightened about Barack Obama’s chances at the Presidency in light of the United States history of racism, especially the plotting of its continued resurgency. In fiction, however, there is emotional power. Butler looks at these emotions directly, exploring both the hatred and pain between and among black people and white people in the antebellum south and also the moments of kindness, caring, and affection, even if they are not mutual affection. This, to me, is Kindred’s real achievement. It brings an imagined human understanding to a historical moment and an economic and social system that are in many ways incomprehensible.

I wonder though at what point the introduction of the fictive artifact, in this case Butler’s fictive artifact about slavery, becomes most meaningful. For instance, if there were not thorough accounts of history from the perspective of the slaves, not just from the perspective of white people, would the book serve the same function? Does fiction, that is in this case historical science fiction, have to have the support of history and perhaps sociology and political science behind it? I think about Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (which I’ve not read in twenty years) as well. Would that book have the same power without the feminist movement? Without feminist history? Or do we need fictive artifacts to act first, to imagine themselves from a time when there is nothing to empower historians to do their work? What are the interdisciplinary relationships here?

These are compelling questions for me and my own work. I want both to create those creative artifacts, but also to ensure that there is a thorough and rigorous history about where we have been. I feel peevish at the moment because I can’t find good ways of thinking about how lesbians thought about themselves in the 1910s and 1920s and even 1930s. There were lesbians. How did they understand their lesbianism? Imagining it creatively seems unsatisfying to me, but perhaps that is what I should be doing. Though, intellectually, what I think I should be doing is figuring out the archive where it exists and researching it there. Tumultuous times, certainly. And it is only the first day of classes.

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