Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kindred

I'd read a bit of Kindred before, but recently I sat down with it again and read the whole thing. Very glad I did. It confirms yet again how marvelous I think Octavia Butler is/was.

I've said it before, but I think what I'm still most struck by is the feeling of empathy she seems to convey for all her characters. White or black, slave or free, noble or wicked or a complicated variation of both: no matter what I believe she grasps her characters humanity at it's core, and still manages to show them as living and breathing flawed individuals shaped by personal inclination and societal forces that make it impossible for those cores to remain unaltered.

(Just to warn you, I'm going to mention some plot details here.)

In this case, we have the story of a modern African-American woman, Dana, (who happens to be married to a white man) who gets mysteriously transported back in time to the American South in the early 1800's. She quickly learns that she's been brought back to save the life of a child that will eventually become her ancestor.

Complications? Well, there are many. For one, the ancestor is a white boy from a slave owning family. As a black woman the main character immediately has no rights that any white person needs to respect. It's a wonderful way to juxtapose modern perceptions with Antebellum realities. It doesn't matter how smart she is, how much history she knows, how well she can read: none of it is accepted at face value and all of it puts her in danger as much as it helps her.

I won't say too much more about the specific plot points, but I will aid this – that I love the way Butler's complicated characters defy the type of narrative progressions that we've come to expect in popular literature and film. Frankly, I can see this characteristic of her writing putting some people off. Does Dana's intelligence and insight and all the many things she offers change the perspective of her slave owning masters (and relatives)? Not by a long shot. Does her 20th Century smarts allow her to thrive? Not exactly.

And that's why I treasure Octavia Butler. She humbles me with the breadth of her intelligence and the clear-eye generosity with which she writes about human foibles. I wish she was around to write more, but at least I know I have many more titles of hers yet to read.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Joe Sherry said...

Kindred is the reason why I read everything Butler published. It was a heartbreaking introduction and a book I couldn't put down.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Strength/Courage/Wisdom said...

It is a great book! I read it again not too long ago, and picked up on some things that I hadn't noticed before. I've read several of her books and I'm always blown away.

12:10 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Joe,

You read "everything" she ever published? Cool.

SCW,

Yep. That's the thing. There's a complexity to what's going on in her work that rewards careful (or multiple) readings.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Joe Sherry said...

David,

That I'm aware of, anyway. All of the Bloodchild stories (including the two Scifiction stories from the second edition), and her twelve novels (counting the disowned Survivor).

I kind of wish / hope that I missed something so there was a new Butler story or novel to discover.

Don't know if she published any nonfiction.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Stephe said...

Discovering Kindred led to my great admiration for Octavia.

I still can't believe she is gone.

11:45 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I feel the same way.

12:36 PM  

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