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Art & Culture

Celebrating 25 Years of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”

  • Craig Miller
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  • April 14, 2023
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  • 4 minute read
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Celebrating 25 Years of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”
Key Takeaways
  • Transcending genre: Although often categorized as science fiction, "Kindred" defies this label due to its focus on a modern-day Black woman navigating the antebellum South and the horrors of slavery.
  • Personal connection: Butler's family stories and experiences provided valuable insight into the historical context of "Kindred," enabling her to authentically portray the time period in her novel.
  • Significance of protagonist's missing arm: The character's missing arm symbolizes the lasting impact of slavery on Black people in America and the protagonist's struggle to write about her experiences.
  • Octavia Butler's lasting influence: Sixteen years after her death, Butler's work continues to resonate with new readers, inspire various forms of art, and be included in academic syllabuses.
  • Themes and ideas remain relevant: Butler's themes of the climate crisis, political and societal upheaval, and power hierarchies are sobering and prescient, inspiring readers to seek a way forward in today's world.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking novel “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, first published in 1979.

The novel has made a significant impact on readers and has even been adopted by cities as part of their reading programs.

Recently, Rochester chose “Kindred” as their city read, similar to Los Angeles selecting Fahrenheit 451.

Beyond the Label of Science Fiction

Although both “Kindred” and “Fahrenheit 451” are often categorized as science fiction, Butler’s work defies this classification.

In fact, the author herself clarified that “Kindred” is not a science fiction novel due to its lack of scientific elements.

Rather, it focuses on a modern-day Black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South and must struggle to survive the horrors of slavery.

The Journey to Writing “Kindred”

Butler started writing at the age of ten, finding solace in the craft and eventually realizing that it could be a way to make a living.

Her first three novels were published under the science fiction label, with Doubleday publishers taking a chance on her as an unknown author.

However, these early works did not achieve the same level of success as “Kindred.”

To research her novel, Butler initially turned to libraries, specifically the history room of the Los Angeles public library.

However, she soon realized that she did not know how to properly research a historical novel, struggling to find details about daily life in the antebellum South.

It was only after talking to older family members, including her mother, that she discovered how close history truly was.

Her family’s stories and experiences provided valuable insight into the time period she wanted to portray in her novel.

A Greyhound Bus Trip to Maryland

To further immerse herself in the world of “Kindred,” Butler used the money she received from selling her third novel, “Survivor,” to take a three-and-a-half-day Greyhound bus trip to Maryland.

This journey allowed her to walk the roads and absorb the atmosphere of the region, inspiring her writing.

In fact, she wrote what would become the first and last chapters of the novel during a layover at a bus station in Maryland.

“Kindred,” remains a portal through which many readers first encounter Butler’s work and continues to shape discussions about the untended wound of slavery and its influence on our present-day environment, connections, and communities.

The Significance of the Missing Arm

One of the most striking aspects of “Kindred” is the protagonist’s missing arm, which she loses upon her final return from the past.

Butler explains that the character could not come back from the brutal experience of slavery unmarked and whole.

The loss of the arm symbolizes the lasting impact of slavery on Black people in America, as well as the protagonist’s struggle to write about her experiences.

A Lasting Legacy

“Kindred” remains an influential and powerful novel that transcends genre and offers a unique exploration of the African American experience in the United States.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of its publication, it is clear that Octavia Butler’s work continues to resonate with readers and inspire discussions about identity, heritage, and the power of storytelling.

Sixteen years after her death, science fiction writer Octavia Butler is experiencing a renaissance, as her work continues to resonate with new readers.

Her imaginative stories have been recognized with the highest honors in science fiction, including the MacArthur “genius” grant in 1995.

Butler’s personal journals reveal her aspirations to buy a beautiful home, help poor Black youngsters, travel the world, and have her books read by millions of people.

She was also a prominent influence in the Afrofuturist movement before the term even existed.

Today, her novels have inspired various forms of art and are included in university syllabuses and high school reading lists.

Five adaptations of her fiction are currently in development for film and television, with producers like J.J. Abrams, Issa Rae, and Ava DuVernay attached.

In 2020, during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, her 1993 novel “Parable of the Sower” became a New York Times best-seller, fulfilling her lifelong dream 14 years after her death.

Throughout her career, Butler demolished walls as a Black woman and writer, focusing on themes that seemed uncategorizable.

Her work is celebrated for its predictive qualities, as her vision of the climate crisis, political and societal upheaval, and power hierarchies is both sobering and prescient.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of her birth, and her themes, ideas, and characters continue to inspire readers seeking a map for a way forward.

“Kindred,” remains a portal through which many readers first encounter Butler’s work and continues to shape discussions about the untended wound of slavery and its influence on our present-day environment, connections, and communities.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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