Octavia Butler landed on Mars this month. Well, not really. It was NASA’s latest rover called Perseverance that landed on the Red Planet, and the organization named the place where it landed after this awesome creative sistah: Octavia E. Butler Landing.
I stumbled across this little tidbit of news while looking for a new blog topic. Seeing her name linked with NASA evoked strong memories of the first time I encountered her work, and then the first time I encountered her. Both moments impacted me in ways that I am still creatively uncovering.
It was the summer of 1991. I was a rising collegiate senior. A friend of a friend knew I loved sci-fi. She asked one day if I had ever read Octavia Butler. I hadn’t. Then, she proceeded to tell me that this author was the only African American female science-fiction writer of our day. Intrigued. I rushed to the library and checked out “Kindred” and “Wild Seed”. Her work blew my mind! Hitting up the library once more, I devoured the rest of her work that summer.
Here were stories whose backdrops included my history as an African American woman. I saw characters who looked like me with powers I had only slightly encountered through “Star Trek”, “Star Wars” and superhero comic books later turned into movies. Sistah Octavia created complex characters whose adventures traveled
time and space, yet they held on to their African roots. She allowed her stories to discover answers to the “What if...” questions she often posed in her work: What if you were immortal? What if you were snatched back in time during slavery? What if you were a telepath? What if, what if, what if...?
Her work arrested me creatively. For the first time in my young years, I felt I had the depth of imagination to finally conceptualize my life as an African American beyond the confines of time and space. In Sistah Octavia’s work, Black people lived beyond the 20th century. We lived on other planets. We lived in other ways. We lived post-apocalyptic lives with generations still yet to be born. The possibilities of our existence were endless in her work. She understood my deepest longings for legacy that extended beyond my last name.
Incredible. I had found a writer who told stories my soul longed to read. Having grown up on “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, I enjoyed Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, a communications specialist on “Star Trek”, Billy D. Williams as Lando Calrissian, a gambler turned freedom rebel in “Star Wars”, and James Earl Jones as the iconic voice of Darth Vader. However, I longed for images and storylines in sci-fi that included those who looked like me. Sistah Octavia was that answer for me then.
Never would I have imagined that I would one day meet this woman who cracked open my creative soul introducing me to Afrofuturism before there was such a word.
She was 6’1 or close to it. Broad shouldered. Long legs. Strong presence that exuded confidence. She was a force to be reckoned with in the literary arena — and knew it. But, it was her smile that softened everything and allowed you to come in her presence feeling welcomed.
I was graduate student at NYU studying dramatic writing. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I wanted to tell stories that looked like the characters Sistah Octavia introduced me to in her work. Here she was giving a talk at the school. I, along with hundreds of other young women who looked like me, crowded into the hall waiting to glean storytelling nuggets from the woman who allowed us to see ourselves in a future long after our own literary footprints in the sand had blown away.
I clutched her latest work, “Blood Child and other Stories” in my hands hoping she’d sign the book. Sitting in the hall, I listened as she expounded upon her writing journey, daily writing discipline, and need to always ask her characters why their stories must be told “right now”.
She later opened the forum up for questions. Hands flew in the air. Fellow artists asked questions about themes and symbolism in her work. They asked why she felt it important to write about a future we’ll never see. They asked how her personal beliefs of gender, sexuality, and race leaked in her work. Then, the questions landed on whether she would want to see her work in film. She did. She could imagine that happening.
I don’t remember raising my hand, but I do remember her calling on me to speak. I stood up, and in the best theatre voice I had, I told her I loved her work and if she ever decided to take it to the screen, I wanted to be the one to write the screenplay. Silence. My statement sucked all the air out of the room. What was I thinking?! Here I was, all of 26 years old, and had the opportunity to let my favorite author know just how much she
impacted me. The best compliment I could give was to tell her I wanted to be the one to take her voice to the screen. Really?!
She paused, and then smiled. “Well...we’ll have to see,” she said graciously. I sat down screaming inside because I felt like I messed up an opportunity to make good impression. I felt foolish for even letting such thoughts slip through my lips. However, the women around me told me I was bold and loved it. I put myself out there as a
creative letting her know that I took her work seriously enough to think about how to make it transfer on the screen. They gave me high-fives and “atta-girls”.
When it was time to get our books signed, I stood in line with everyone else. When my turn came, Sistah Octavia looked at me — really looked at me — and a hint of amusement graced her lips. A thought crossed her mind, but she didn’t share it. She only studied my face, signed my book, and thanked me for coming.
I chatted with some of the women in the hall. We shared our love for her work and our love of storytelling. We also encouraged each other to keep writing, creating, and weaving tales in which we are the ancestors to generations yet to come.
Since then, I have tried my hand at penning my own sci-fi stories. Work that imagines Black people in a time and space where ancestry, spirituality, and the supernatural converge. The stories steadily evolve, and soon, they will see the light of day.
Remembering that moment and seeing Sistah Octavia’s name connected with a place on Mars is fitting. She believed in other worlds both in space and within that humanity still needed to travel. A traveler herself who wasn’t afraid of the unknown, she carved a path in science fiction that Black women had not gone. Here she does it again, posthumously, giving her readers another space to call our own.