Black History Month: Octavia Butler's Visionary Fiction And Afrofuturism : Throughline Octavia Butler's alternate realities and 'speculative fiction' reveal striking, and often devastating parallels to the world we live in today. She was a deep observer of the human condition, perplexed and inspired by our propensity towards self-destruction. Butler was also fascinated by the cyclical nature of history, and often looked to the past when writing about the future. Along with her warnings is her message of hope - a hope conjured by centuries of survival and persistence. For every society that perished in her books, came a story of rebuilding, of repair.

How Octavia Butler's Sci-Fi Dystopia Became A Constant In A Man's Evolution

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DAN SIMON: Does it ever seem to you that there are people among us who hold up the sky and make the rivers flow, people who are just like other people, just like the rest of us, only different? They're the structural beams in the house we all share, the house that has a sky for a roof. And usually they don't want to call attention to themselves. They just want to be who they are, do what they do with as little interference as possible. Octavia comes to my mind as first among that group of people. In her books, she showed us the horrors and the great good that humans can create, and the choices that she made in her books and in her life always gave us new ways of seeing. She was a beacon of hope, sometimes even when she wasn't trying.


OCTAVIA BUTLER: These novels are not prophetic. These novels are cautionary tales. These novels are, if we are not careful, you know, if we carry on as we have been, this is what we might wind up with. You have to think about what kind of world you want to live in, and I don't think there's a person alive who would want to live in the world that I've written about. But we can arrange it. The problems that I write about are problems that we can do something about. That's why I write about them.


BUTLER: All that you touch, you change.


You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...


BUTLER: All that you change changes you.


...Where we go back in time...


BUTLER: The only lasting truth is change.

ABDELFATAH: ...To understand the present.


BUTLER: God is change.


ABDELFATAH: Today - Octavia Butler's world.

ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN: All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.

I found myself over the years returning to this quote over and over. It helps me so much when change comes and it's unexpected and especially when change comes and it's undesired.


BROWN: My name is adrienne maree brown, and I am a writer who lives in Detroit and an Octavia Butler scholar.

ARABLOUEI: adrienne maree brown is one of a growing group of Octavia's, quote-unquote, "children" - writers, thinkers, scholars, activists who see themselves as her spiritual descendants in a way and who look to Octavia Butler as a leader, a guide. In that vein, adrienne maree brown co-edited a book called "Octavia's Brood," and she co-hosts a podcast called "Octavia's Parables."

BROWN: I am actually so enthralled with Butler's thinking that I have a tattoo that runs down my left arm, starts up on my shoulder. And it's just my own handwriting. I wrote out this quote.

ARABLOUEI: That quote - "all that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change." These lines appear in Octavia Butler's dystopian and, some would say, prophetic novel "Parable Of The Sower." They also appear on adrienne's arm.

BROWN: How do I affect change in ways that allow for change to touch me and help me to improve, help me to become more human, more human and more human?

ARABLOUEI: Much of adrienne's work, ink and worldview is inspired by Octavia Butler, the science fiction author who wrote what adrienne calls visionary fiction.

BROWN: Visionary fiction-writing is a practice we can use to imagine and prepare for the future together, to generate the ideas that we want to see more of in the world. She gives us the practice, and then she gives us case study after case study after case study of our imaginary futures and how we will behave.

ABDELFATAH: Her case studies being her many novels, novels like "Kindred," a story about a young Black woman living in California in the 1970s who's pulled back in time to antebellum Maryland and forced to reckon with a life of slavery.

ARABLOUEI: Or "Wild Seed," a story about two African immortals who can shapeshift and travel across centuries and continents.

ABDELFATAH: And then there's "Parable Of The Sower," the story of a young woman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world set in the near future, which happens to now be, well, our present.

BROWN: The approach that she used of looking at the world around her and projecting into the future, what happens if this state continues? What happens if we don't address the things that matter? What happens if we don't turn our attention to the climate crisis? What happens if we don't really, really contend with our comfort with inequality, with hierarchy? What happens?


ABDELFATAH: Octavia Butler stays with you. Once you've experienced one of her written worlds, she's always showing up in your own, hiding out in your periphery, saying, see? I told you. And she did. She saw things, turned them into stories and, in doing so, built new worlds from the old. As her former editor Dan Simon said at the very top, Octavia held up the sky and made the rivers flow.

ARABLOUEI: And forged new paths. Octavia was among a small group of Black science fiction writers to get published, causing some to call her the mother of Afrofuturism, an open-ended genre combining science fiction, fantasy and history to imagine a liberated future through a Black lens.

ABDELFATAH: She wrote more than a dozen books, essays and short stories. She was the first Black woman to receive both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, the highest honors in the science fiction and fantasy genres. And she was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur genius grant. She was prolific from the 1970s up until her untimely death in 2006.

ARABLOUEI: But Octavia is having another moment right now. She made it to The New York Times Best Seller list for the first time in 2020. She's being published by the Library of America in 2021. There are multiple TV and film adaptations of her books in the works. And the last time our editor went to Trader Joe's, there was a chalkboard drawing of Octavia's face saying one of her many quotable one-liners.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Yeah, it was in the checkout line. And the sign said, there is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns. And that was right above a display of organic beef jerky.

ABDELFATAH: This star power is rooted in her ability to weave in and out of the past, present and future to reveal striking and often devastating parallels to the world we live in today.

BROWN: There's nothing terrifying that Octavia writes about that we're not experiencing right now, at least when she's writing about things happening on Earth.


BUTLER: Well, I think of the '60s as the decade of attempting to come together. '90s is the decade of disintegration, I'm sad to say. And the 2020s is the decade of - I call it the burn. This does not mean that it's the end of the world or even the end of the U.S. Things are just a lot worse.


ARABLOUEI: But Octavia Butler's work wasn't all doom and gloom. For every society that perished in her books came a story of survival, of repair. And with each dire warning came a signal of hope, a reason to keep going and something to believe in so strongly you might as well tattoo it on your arm.

ABDELFATAH: In turn, she gave us a new kind of science fiction not only for being one of the first writers to use history to talk about the future and not only for being one of the first Black women to do it, but for writing herself in.


BUTLER: I made up my own stories to put myself in them.

ABDELFATAH: In this episode of our Imagining New Worlds series, we dive into the mind of Octavia Butler, how she used the past to predict the future and why her insights might be more relevant than ever. Producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson takes it from here after the break.


DEIDRE WHITE: I'm Deidre White (ph). I'm calling from Lexington, Ky. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE at NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part one - time traveler.


BROWN: (Reading) I felt sweat on my face, mingling with silent tears of frustration and anger. My back had already begun to ache dully, and I felt dully ashamed. Slavery was a long, slow process of dulling - "Kindred."


BUTLER: I'm an only child, and I had no idea how to get along with other children. And also, I was a strange kid who learned to stay by yourself and make things up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do you get along better with people now?

BUTLER: I can fake it (laughter).

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Octavia E. Butler was a loner.

AYANA JAMIESON: She had a really interesting, solitary existence as an only child. She spent a lot of time alone. She was super, super shy, very introverted.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: She was tall. She was awkward. She was quiet.

JAMIESON: And she was very, very poor. Her mom would have to decide, like, what kind of shoes she would buy her child. Like, she one time, I think, bought her church shoes, and she would have to wear her church shoes all the time. So she was, I think, kind of traumatized by that poverty.


JAMIESON: My name is Ayana Jamieson. I am the founder and director of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network. I teach ethnic studies at Cal Poly Pomona, and I live in Southern California. And I am an expert in Octavia E. Butler's life, and I work to try to highlight those who are upholding her legacy.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Octavia Butler was also from Southern California. She was born in Pasadena in 1947.

JAMIESON: Her own family migrated from Louisiana to California in 1930.


BUTLER: These were people who survived the Depression, who went hungry because of the Depression, who left Louisiana and came to California and lived on very little because of the Depression.

JAMIESON: Her father passed away when she was a toddler. Her mother was a maid. And so she said, like, she saw her mother going into back doors or people talking about her as if she weren't there and that it really made an impression on her.


BUTLER: She cleaned houses most of her life. And she said, unless you want to be what I am, you better get that education. And I would take a look at her life and dive back in.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Ayana and Octavia were born a generation apart but have similar backgrounds.

JAMIESON: My mom is the same age as Ruby Bridges, and there were segregated schools in California much later than Brown v. Board of Education. And that's the California that my grandparents came to, and this is the California that Octavia grew up in.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And so when Ayana discovered Octavia while in grad school, she had the experience of reading things she'd never read before, things that had to do with her. Octavia's books felt way more relevant than what she was being assigned in school - Freud, Jung, or, as Ayana puts it...

JAMIESON: Old, dead white men. It was like putting those authors to be the epitome of what's universal. And I really chafed at that, and I really felt that it didn't reflect my experience and it was a really false dichotomy. I was like, OK, I need to read something by someone who includes me in their understanding of universal. I need to read something that helps to soothe all of the trauma that I'm experiencing.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Some of that trauma was coming from Ayana's day job she had at the same time she was getting her degree - working in a middle school.

JAMIESON: Like, I was just a long-term substitute teacher. But, like, students were bringing weapons to my class. Students' brothers were gunned down by police, and then they came to school the next day. And so I was dealing with things that were, like, way above my pay grade.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So where did she go to decompress? Borders.

JAMIESON: This is how old I am. I'm Borders years old. Like, I used to go on dates in Borders, and there was the bargain section.


JAMIESON: I know. You're laughing, but you know that it is a thing.


JAMIESON: I mean, I weep when I pass by the one in Old Town Pasadena. So in any case, I picked up this book, and I ended up reading one of her short stories. And I was like, wow, this woman is really brilliant. That story really stayed with me.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And lead her down the Octavia rabbit hole. The more of Octavia's fiction she read, the more she could apply to her life, her reality.

JAMIESON: I used her books, like, even more than I was using the things I learned in psychology in order to just help my students get by. And I grew up in the same neighborhood as them, and I walked the same streets. I was, you know, street harassed in the same ways. So a lot of my own trauma got ignited, right? I was, like, time traveling. Like, this is the definition of Afrofuturism, I feel like. I was a teacher with teachers I had been taught by, but I was an adult. And so I was, like, myself as a 12-year-old, myself as a 20-something, and myself, like, reliving my trauma and realizing that I was there on that campus trying to go back and save myself.


JAMIESON: And I feel like when I started learning more about Octavia's life, her books are also about saving herself and transforming herself and healing herself, healing herself and the world at the same time. And that's, like, what really snatched me into this work. And it's taken over my entire life in the best possible way.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Octavia became Ayana's positive obsession, a term Octavia coined herself.

JAMIESON: She says that a positive obsession is, like, a compulsion that you cannot stop. It's something that you keep doing, that you're driven to do even though you know it's not reasonable for you to continue to do it, and that an obsession could be positive.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And Octavia's positive obsession was writing.


BUTLER: It's pretty much my religion, I think. I didn't really know how to get along with other kids, but I knew how to make little worlds of my own. And that's what I did for my amusement. I told myself stories. I've been telling myself stories since I was four years old. When I was 10, I began writing them down.

JAMIESON: Well, the famous story is that she was watching television and she saw "Devil Girl From Mars."

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A British sci-fi film from the '50s.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) A frightening, strange shape descending from outer space with relentless purpose. Where did it come from, and what did it want of us?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hello, Hello. Hello, Hello, there's an aircraft...

JAMIESON: And then she turned off the television and thought, like...


BUTLER: Jeez, I can write a better story than that.


JAMIESON: And then she started trying.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Octavia published her first novel, "Patternmaster," in 1976, shortly before her 30th birthday. It takes place in the distant future and involves telepaths, human mutation and an alien pandemic. She sold the first book pretty quickly, and it got good press, albeit some of it condescending.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Well, you're a hell of a writer, kiddo.

BUTLER: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There are not many people...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But that foolery didn't stop her. "Patternmaster" was the first book in her five-part "Patternist" series, and she quickly pumped out the second and third volumes. But then in 1979, she broke from the series to write something incredibly different - so different that publishers didn't know what to do with it.


BUTLER: And when I tried to sell "Kindred," that really gave me trouble because nobody wanted to buy it. I had about 15 rejections.

JAMIESON: She calls "Kindred" a grim fantasy. It's not even really science fiction. It takes place in the present - in what was the present at the time. And it's going between 1976 and antebellum Maryland.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A slight turn from a world ravaged by an alien virus, "Kindred" centers around a young woman named Dana.

JAMIESON: And Dana's snatched back in time in order to save the white ancestor who would rape her many-times-removed great-grandmother in order for her to exist. And so it was based on the lives of her mother and grandmother and the lives that they lived in Louisiana, like, on a sugar plantation, I think as sharecroppers. And it was based on knowing what they suffered and the things that they had to go through in order for her to even exist in the present.


BUTLER: It's something that I got an idea for when I was in college. A friend who - he was kind of our historian because he knew so much about Black history - said something that I thought indicated that he didn't know as much as I had believed. He said, I wish I could kill all these old people who have - old Black people who have held us back for so long, but I can't because I'd have to start with my own parents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, my goodness.

BUTLER: And I thought, well, gee, he knows a lot of facts and figures, but he doesn't really understand or feel the realities of history.

JAMIESON: She knew that there were things that you would have to do to compromise, but as long as you survived, that there was something to be gained from surviving for future generations. And so she - you know, I don't know how much she argued with him, but she wrote out that anger and that humiliation and frustration and ignorance of what he said in an entire book.


BUTLER: I wrote "Kindred" to make people, I hoped, feel history as opposed merely to knowing facts of history. It seemed important to me to get that kind of emotion, the extra feeling, the awareness of what it might have been like to be a slave, to feel it on your own skin, so to speak, and to - you know, to understand the lack of control of your own fate that a slave suffers.

BROWN: (Reading) I closed my eyes and saw the children playing their game again. The ease seems so frightening, I said. Now I see why. What? The ease - us, the children. I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.


JAMIESON: She's talking about, like, how it's much worse than anything she read about in history books. That was one of the things that she was trying to demonstrate to that classmate of hers. It's like, you don't know what you're saying by saying you would kill your parents.


BUTLER: I was really going not so much for factual understanding but for emotional understanding.

BROWN: (Reading) I went down the hall and toward the stairs slowly, wondering why I hadn't tried to defend myself - at least tried. Was I getting so used to being submissive?

JAMIESON: She used to feel ashamed of her mother being a maid. But then she also realized that her mother suffered those humiliations in order for her to eat. Their existence and their - the things that they did in order to survive were very much present in who she was, who she was becoming.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: I read something about how that was one of the most painful books for her to write because it dealt with this history that was so directly connected to her own family.

JAMIESON: Oh, absolutely. And I think Octavia felt that her mother and her grandmother were really the archetypal heroines or heroes that were not being written about, that they had real heroics and real survival because they were still here. She's saying, I think, that the past is not past, that it's present. And everything happening in the present is simultaneously rooted in the past. It's not like you can erase one. She knew that she needed to write it, and there was something really pressing on her soul to get it done. She's writing things that haven't been written before.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Just three years into her career, Octavia made it clear that she didn't fit into any one genre, that she wasn't interested in playing by the rules and that she had a lot more to say. Her next book would only break more boundaries, challenging the limits of who and what we can become.


TONY: Hi. This is Tony (ph) in Montreux, Switzerland. Thanks for helping me understand the present by opening my eyes to the past.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - shapeshifter.


BROWN: (Reading) Anyanwu's ears and eyes were far sharper than those of other people. She had increased their sensitivity deliberately after the first time men came stalking her, their machetes ready, their intentions clear. She had had to kill seven times on that terrible day, seven frightened men who could have been spared. And she had nearly died herself, all because she let people come upon her unnoticed - never again. "Wild Seed."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Why science fiction?

BUTLER: Because there are no closed doors, no walls. You can look at, examine, play with anything, absolutely anything.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That is, if you could get in the door in the first place. Octavia was trying to break onto the scene in the 1970s, when most sci fi writers were...

NNEDI OKORAFOR: Cold, white and male, to put it bluntly.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Nnedi Okorafor.

OKORAFOR: I am a science fiction and fantasy writer of the African Futurist and African Jujuist strain.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: African Futurism is a subcategory of sci fi. It's similar to Afrofuturism, but it's more deeply rooted in African culture, history and perspective.

OKORAFOR: It's concerned with visions of the future, it's interested in technology, and it's centered on and predominantly written by people of African descent - Black people. It is about future visions and imaginings of Africa, but it's very connected to the past, the culture, the history, all of that.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And African Jujuism...

OKORAFOR: ...Is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true, existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative. So it understands that some of these things may be real. Some of these things are believed by people. They are part of people's worldviews. And those things - and the reason why I wanted to come up with this word was because of this idea that African spiritualities and cosmologies have historically been looked down upon, viewed as less than. I mean, you look at colonialism and what that has done to African spiritualities and cosmologies, and it's highly problematic.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So you invented that term.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That's amazing.

OKORAFOR: (Laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: These strains of sci fi and fantasy that Nnedi created are a far cry from the quote, unquote, "classic" science fiction strains she grew up with - authors like...

OKORAFOR: Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Think "2001: A Space Odyssey," "I, Robot," "Star Trek," all that.

OKORAFOR: It wasn't just about, like, being white and male. But, like, there was, like, an element of colonialism and imperialism that just went - like, that thread would run through the themes of the story. And I found it very difficult to relate to that. When you're reading about worlds that are set in the future where you feel like you wouldn't even exist, you know, like you couldn't exist in that world, that's a different feeling.


TERRY GROSS: Are there things that bothered you about the science fiction books that you read when you were first starting to read them?

BUTLER: Yes. I wasn't in them.

GROSS: Yeah, right. Right.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That's what Octavia read growing up, and that's what, for the most part, her contemporaries were still writing.

OKORAFOR: But there was also Samuel Delany.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Samuel Delany, a Black science fiction writer who published his first novel, "The Jewels Of Aptor," in 1962, a time when it came to Black sci fi writers...

OKORAFOR: There was only Samuel Delany (laughter). There was really only Samuel Delany. And that was what Octavia was coming into.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Why do you suppose there aren't more Black female science fiction writers?

BUTLER: Probably because there aren't more. People do what they see other people doing. And if you look around and you don't see very many people who look like you doing something, you worry that maybe there's a good reason for that, and you go and do something else. I don't have any sense. I didn't do that. I looked around and saw that there weren't very many people doing what I wanted to do, and it didn't matter. I still wanted to do it.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Nnedi could relate.

OKORAFOR: You know, a lot of artists come into their art through some kind of trauma. And for me, that's what it was.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Nnedi was a star athlete - tennis and track and field. She had 22 medals, she had a state championship, and she also had scoliosis.

OKORAFOR: And it got progressively worse, and I had to have the surgery. And there was a small percent chance of paralysis with this, and I was in that small percent. So when they did the surgery, I woke up paralyzed. So I was a paralyzed athlete.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was 1993. She spent the whole summer after her freshman year of college literally relearning how to walk.

OKORAFOR: So it was like night and day.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A few years later, still on the long recovery path, her parents took her on a trip to their homeland, Nigeria.

OKORAFOR: We'd spend part of our time in Lagos, which is very modern, fast, big city. And then we'd spend the other half in the southeast, which was more rural. So when cellphones showed up, I started seeing them showing up in these very rural places where you would see very traditional images like, you know, women carrying water, all those things with cellphones present. Like, I would see palm wine tappers. That's a practice of tapping the sap to make palm wine. They'd be in the tree, you know, sticking the straw in there and then leaning back on their harness to answer their cellphone. And I was like, this is nuts. You know, this is, like, the past and the present and the future all together. And it wasn't, like, conflicting. It was like it was in harmony.


OKORAFOR: So it's like, all of these things - you know, while I was going through all of that, we still traveled to Nigeria, and I still had those experiences while I was recovering, you know, while I was getting back. So it all - in my mind, it's all, like, part of the same thing.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Yeah. And just - it sounds like that you were an athlete, like you said. And then you lose that part of yourself, and it's like, what's left? And then in that same moment, to go back and, like, dig into your roots, that's really powerful.

OKORAFOR: Yeah. It's a lot of identity shifting. And the way that I kept myself sane was to start writing stories. And from that point, I haven't stopped writing since.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That was roughly 20 years ago. And that feeling that she was simultaneously time traveling throughout her own body and her own culture got her interested in sci fi and Afrofuturism and her own strains of African Futurism and Jujuism. So she started writing it even though she had never read anything like it by anyone else. Then, in 2001, she got into a well-known sci-fi workshop, the Clarion Writers Workshop - in fact, the same workshop Octavia Butler had once attended and even taught at. But Nnedi didn't know that. She had never heard of Octavia Butler, until one day, when the workshop took a field trip to a local bookstore. Spoiler alert - it may or may not have been Borders.

OKORAFOR: Of course, we all went to the science fiction and fantasy section. And as we were going through that section, I stopped because I saw something that I had never seen before. And it was a book that was turned face out, and on the cover was a Black woman. And that's what stopped me because up until that day, I had never gone through the science fiction and fantasy section and seen a cover with a Black person on the cover. It caught my eye immediately. I'm like, what is this? And I immediately just picked it up and bought it. I didn't even look at what it was about or anything. I just picked it up and bought it. I'm like, I just want this book. And that book turned out to be "Wild Seed" by Octavia Butler.


BROWN: (Reading) You exist, and you are different. That was enough to attract me. Now tell me who you are. You must be the only man in this country who has not heard of me. I am Anyanwu. He repeated her name and glanced upward, understanding. Sun, her name meant. Anyanwu - the sun.


OKORAFOR: And so that night, I opened it up and read it. I started reading, and my mind was even blown even further because it was like, suddenly I'm reading this book, and I see the name Anyanwu. And I know what Anyanwu means. I know how to pronounce Anyanwu. It's an Igbo name. It means eye of the sun. And I'm Igbo.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: One of Nigeria's indigenous groups.

OKORAFOR: And so this was about an Igbo woman in precolonial Nigeria, before it was Nigeria, who doesn't die, who is immortal, has these mystical abilities, moves through the transatlantic slave trade, like, Middle Passage to the United States, while she's alive. You know, and she - and this is a character who carries who she is all the way across the timeline. And I'm like, what? This is a book that I picked up in the science fiction and fantasy section with an Igbo woman's name in it, and it's the beginning of the book. I was like, oh, my God. Like, that feeling - I just never - I had never experienced it before. I'd been waiting to read something like that for how long? It was just - it was cathartic to me. It was just being at that moment in my writing career where I'm just trying to figure out - and it's not even trying to figure out. I knew what I was, you know? I knew what it is that I was writing. I knew it. I just needed something, you know? I needed something. And discovering Octavia in that moment was exactly what I needed.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Nnedi was excited. So what did she do with all that excitement after finding her new favorite author? She called her.

OKORAFOR: The first thing I thought was, oh, if she taught here, then I could talk to her. I could talk to her. So I went to the organizers of Clarion and was like, can you - can I talk to Octavia? And next thing you know, I was on the phone with Octavia.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And she basically blacked out.

OKORAFOR: I don't even remember what we talked about. I just remember thinking, what am I doing? (Laughter) Like, I'm talking to Octavia. I don't remember anything I said. I remember, though, the impact. Like, hearing her voice, I'm like, oh, this is a powerful person. That was it. Her voice was low and, like, commanding. But she's not commanding, you know? Like, it's like - you know people who have, like, this - you know, they're a commanding presence, but they don't try to be, they just are?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Like, she's talking, and she doesn't need to raise her voice, but you're listening.

OKORAFOR: Exactly. Exactly.


BUTLER: I think I had more fun writing "Wild Seed" than I had writing anything else. And I think it was partly because I was so relieved to have written "Kindred."

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: "Wild Seed" was the next book Octavia wrote after "Kindred" as a return to her "Patternist" series and, in some ways, as a gift to herself.

JAMIESON: It's about these immortal Africans who end up coming to the new world, and they have these different qualities and abilities that are really out of this world.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The two immortals are named Anyanwu and Doro.

JAMIESON: Anyanwu is a scientist who can control her own body and heal herself and heal other people. She controls her fertility. She creates medicines in her body to inject into other people and who can literally change shape into any other living thing. It's so hot.


BROWN: (Reading) She could remember being bullied as a female animal, being pursued by persistent males, but only in her true woman shape could she remember being seriously hurt by males, men. Swimming with the dolphins was like being with another people, a friendly people. No slavers with brands and chains here.

JAMIESON: She can transform into a bird and fly or into a dolphin and swim or into another person. She can transform her body into the body of a male person. And she can experience desire and love and sex in whatever kind of gender, as whatever race, but still always defaults back to her Black woman self, her African woman self, Anyanwu.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And then there's Doro.

JAMIESON: Doro is a mad scientist. He's breeding certain kinds of people together because he wants to basically generate children who won't die. And this is something Anyanwu wants. And they end up sort of being a couple, but they're adversaries. She's always trying to create family and home and community and nurture the people around her, and he's always trying to control them and manipulate them and push them and threaten them. And she will not stand for that. So Octavia has split these very distinct parts of a whole.


BUTLER: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I don't write about good and evil with this enormous dichotomy. I write about people. I write about people doing the kinds of things that people do. And, I mean, I think even the worst of us doesn't just set out to be evil.

JAMIESON: So when you're reading it, you're like, oh, but it's so appealing to be able to have the ultimate control over people and intimidate them into doing what you want. It's so complicated. It's not like good guys and bad guys. She really rejects binaries in so many ways.


BUTLER: People set out to get something. They set out to defend themselves from something. They are frightened, perhaps. They set out because they believe their way is the best way to perhaps enforce their way on other people. But no, I don't write about good and evil.

OKORAFOR: She was definitely talking about gender. I think she was definitely talking about structures, structures of sex and gender and complicating them and asking, what is it to be male? What is it to be female? Are some of those definitions a little rigid?


BUTLER: My characters, who are often Black and female, behave as though they have no limitations.

JAMIESON: She rejected racial inferiority or gender norms that would have restricted her, that didn't fit whatever the so-called universal or, like, what the dominant culture was doing.


OKORAFOR: The whole story kind of gets you to really question a lot of our assumptions about gender, about identity, about sex, about hierarchy.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Remember; "Wild Seed" was written in 1980, so ideas around gender fluidity and queer sex were far from mainstream. This was bold stuff. And if you read it and you dug it, you probably started thinking about the world in new ways, thinking about yourself in new ways.

JAMIESON: You end up being in the mind and the bodies of those characters, and you experience change, transformation and healing from the inside because that's what Anyanwu's doing. And so she got to explore that in her writing.

OKORAFOR: It wasn't just "Wild Seed." It's, like, almost all of her works had that - this ability to leave you changed, you know? You read it, and you're like, OK, I don't think the same way that I thought before. Like, for me, I needed that process, especially in my late 20s. There were just issues that I was interested in, but I didn't have the - I didn't have the tools to unpack them and properly interrogate them. I did not have the tools. And Octavia Butler gave me those tools in so many ways to interrogate those things and in a comfortable way because it was through literature. And so I didn't have to, like, talk to anybody. It was like the book and I talking together and then me just having my crisis by myself, you know? And yeah, her work did that. I would walk away from almost every single one of her novels and short stories just changed.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Now, two decades after first discovering Octavia, Nnedi is giving "Wild Seed" new life. She's co-writing the screenplay for a new Amazon series based on the book. And she's pinching herself.

OKORAFOR: Of all of Octavia's books, "Wild Seed" is the one that I feel I could adapt.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And why is that? I mean, I know it's the first one you discovered and love, but it's got to be more than that, right?

OKORAFOR: And also, I mean, naming my daughter after the main character (laughter).

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Oh, my God. What is your daughter's name?

OKORAFOR: Her name is Anyaugo, but the name that I chose was Anyanwu. And the reason why it's not Anyanwu was because when I brought it to the family, they were all like, oh, that's a boy's name. You can't name her that because that's for boys. And I stupidly listened. But whatever. That's all water under the bridge. A long time ago, I would not listen, no. On a more practical level, you know, for me, being Nigerian-American, I think that I come at it with a point of view that I think suits the character. So, like, this idea of blending of the past, present and future all coexisting, that's a theme that I've always been interested in and that I always, like, look at the world through, as you know by the conversation we've had. So it just all - you know, it just - it was very clear that this was a - it was the right fit.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And there's another reason. It comes from another conversation Nnedi had with Octavia years after that first time that she called her up all starry-eyed. In this conversation, she wanted to know what it was like for Octavia to write about the Igbo people in Nigeria.

OKORAFOR: She said that she didn't want to spend too much time there because she had never been to Nigeria. And she didn't feel like she knew the culture well enough. And so now flash-forward years later, where I'm adapting it, I can remember that conversation and how she said she had wished she could have delved deeper into all of that, but she just didn't feel like she could. And so now while we're adapting it, I'm just like, OK, well, let's do that.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That's incredible. It was like this moment of giving you her blessing essentially to expand upon something where she knew her own limitations.

OKORAFOR: Yeah. It's - that's a good feeling. That's a good feeling.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: "Wild Seed" doesn't pigeonhole itself by making absolute claims. Instead, it gets you to question things that society pigeonholes and puts us binaries - man and woman, good and evil, darkness and light.

OKORAFOR: But the darkness is really dark. And it goes there. It goes where it needs to go. But there's joy and there's hope as well, which is - I think - which is that balance is really important.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: A balance Octavia wrestled with in her own work and in her own life.


BUTLER: I don't know how we're going to end up. Well, the odd thing about my books is even though there is a lot of pessimism and bad feeling, there is always hope at the end.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: When we come back, Octavia writes the "Parable" series and puts that resilience to the ultimate test.


MATT POPE: Hi, my name is Matt Pope (ph) from Brighton in England, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - Power Seeker.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule? Who will lead? Who will define, refine, confine, design? Who will dominate? All struggles are essentially power struggles, and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together. "Parable Of The Sower."


BUTLER: I don't recall ever having wanted desperately to be a Black woman science fiction writer. I wanted to be a writer. And my attitude was, I am a Black woman, and if it doesn't come out in the stories, I can't imagine why. It's there. So it's not something I'm focusing on. It's just there. It's part of - it's me.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the early 1990s, Octavia Butler had cemented a place for herself in the white-straight-dude-dominated genre. She had received both Hugo and Nebula Awards, the highest honors in the sci fi and fantasy world. But she was resistant to the labels that were starting to stick.


BUTLER: Labels bore the heck out of me. I realized that if I wrote a biography of my mother, somebody would put the word science fiction on it or at least put it in that section of the store.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And she wasn't just called a science fiction writer. She was being called a Black science fiction writer.


CHARLIE ROSE: Are you trying to create a new Black mythology?


ROSE: You're not?


ROSE: What then is central to what you want to say about race?

BUTLER: Do I want to say something central about race aside from, hey, we're here?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But while she was dodging these titles, Black, feminist and queer audiences were embracing her edgy explorations of race, sex and gender. She was complicating traditional power structures and centering marginalized voices. So the labels persisted. She was Octavia the feminist, Octavia the Afrofuturist, Octavia the radical. And then her newest book brought her a whole new reputation on a whole nother level - Octavia the prophet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change. "Earthseed," "The Book Of The Living," verse 1, "Parable Of The Sower."

JAMIESON: So "Parable Of The Sower" is actually a book that was written where the protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, is this girl who lives in this place called Robledo, which is a stand-in for Pasadena. And she is about 15 years old, turning 16 in this book. So it's a coming-of-age novel.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But this isn't your "Catcher In The Rye" or "To Kill A Mockingbird" type of coming-of-age story. "Parable Of The Sower" is your the-apocalypse-is-right-now, coming-of-age story. And this time, there were no aliens. There was no time travel. There were no women turning into dolphins. There was merely a teenage girl in the year 2024 watching society crumble before her very eyes and desperate to find a way to survive. And what was Octavia's inspiration for the story? The news.


RONALD REAGAN: Welfare is another of our major problems. We are a humane and...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Octavia lived in California for most of her life and had watched the state's political course lean more and more conservative. In the '70s, when she was starting her career, Ronald Reagan was governor...


REAGAN: We accept without reservation our obligation to help the disabled, the aged...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...A man who, even before he was president, was pretty open about being against the idea of people funding the government, aka taxes, and government funding the people.


REAGAN: But we are not going to perpetuate poverty by substituting a permanent dole for a paycheck.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Reagan would go on to become president in 1981 and repeated his - yes, his - famous campaign slogan when he accepted the nomination as the Republican candidate...


REAGAN: For those who've abandoned hope, we'll restore hope and we'll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...Which, by the way, is also the slogan of the president in the "Parable" series. Behind her typewriter, Octavia was paying close attention to where the country was headed and what the government was and wasn't willing to pay for.


BUTLER: We were getting to that point where we were more - were thinking more about the building of prisons than of schools and libraries.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This was around the time when Prop 187 passed, a California law that Octavia later called fantastically stupid.

JAMIESON: That was going through the legislature to bar undocumented folks from, like, accessing health care and education.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: It was an effort to save taxpayer dollars by denying public services to undocumented immigrants.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: This fall, we can send a message to Washington to stop illegal immigration by passing Proposition 187, the SOS initiative.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: SOS - the Save Our State initiative.

JAMIESON: She said, oh, you want a bunch of, like, uneducated, sick people who can't go to the emergency room because they're undocumented? And she's like, OK, let's extrapolate from there.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: What happens when another group in society gets cut off and then another group and another? Who survives?

JAMIESON: What if there was no garbage collection? What if the fire department didn't come when your house started to burn down? What if the police only took bribes to look for your loved ones when they got snatched? What if you couldn't go to the hospital? What if there was no gasoline? What if water became scarce?

She showed the way of using the news and current events and meticulous research and coming up with something that's so-called fictional, but apocalypse has already happened to someone in this timeline. Like, she asked, what if? And then she showed us how. And that's what "Parable Of The Sower" is.


BUTLER: Things have just carried on and slowly run down. There's no particular hideous disaster to account for it, a little like the Soviet Union. But since we have farther to fall, it hurts more when we hit bottom. And in "Parable Of The Sower," we hit bottom.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the year 2024, Southern California and much of the nation has become a wasteland.


BUTLER: Society is pretty much broken. People are living in walled communities and risking their lives whenever they go out. There are a lot of reasons for this - drugs, of course, and deterioration of public education. They're problems now. They become disasters because they're not attended to.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Everyone has guns. No one has jobs. And things like TV, computers, phones - those are luxuries of the past.


BUTLER: In "Parable Of The Sower," there is an even greater rich-poor gap than we've got now, for instance. And that does seem to be - the gap does seem to be widening. And there are one more and more poor people, and there are the few rich people who are richer than ever. And so in the novel, there are people who work as hard as they can but have to choose between living in a house and eating. And they live on the sidewalk.

JAMIESON: And to top it all off, global warming is basically a character. She was researching and writing about global warming before people were talking about it in public. And she was like, it's going to have consequences. And those consequences are demonstrated in this book.


BUTLER: I want to talk about what's going to happen if we keep doing what we've been doing - if we keep recklessly endangering the environment, if we keep paying no attention to economic realities, if we keep paying no attention to educational needs, if we keep doing a lot of the things that are hurting us now. And that's what I wound up writing about. And everything else just kind of fell into place.


BROWN: (Reading) People are setting fires to get rid of whomever they dislike, from personal enemies to anyone who looks or sounds foreign or racially different. People are setting fires because they are frustrated, angry, hopeless. They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: According to Octavia, all of these issues, all of these ignorances, came from one fundamental human paradox.


BUTLER: That human beings are intelligent, but also that they are hierarchical. And that their hierarchical tendencies are a lot older than their intelligence, and the hierarchical tendencies are sometimes in charge. We do seem sometimes much more interested in one-upping each other, one-upping one country over the other, than in doing ourselves some long-term good.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In other words, it's all about power.


BUTLER: One of the reasons I got into writing about power was because I grew up feeling that I didn't have any.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And neither did 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, the protagonist in the story. But she quickly realized that no one in power was going to protect her. If she was going to survive, she'd have to step into her own.


BUTLER: "Parable Of The Sower" was difficult because I didn't much like my character originally because she had to be a power-seeker. I had gotten the idea from some of the politicians I'd run across that people who wanted power should perhaps not have it...


BUTLER: ...Couldn't really be trusted with it. And I had a character here who wanted power. And I had to bring myself to realize that power, like money, like education, like technology, like any number of other things, is just a tool. And what you do with it is what matters.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Octavia's character Lauren knew that because she needed power, she needed people. There's power in numbers, power in community. She was a preacher's daughter and saw her father's ability to bring people together through religion. So she began to preach - not her father's religion, but her own - a new religion she called...

BROWN: (Reading) Earthseed. I am Earthseed. Anyone can be. Someday, I think there will be a lot of us. And I think we'll have to seed ourselves farther and farther from this dying place.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Earthseed is based on the idea that to survive in a changing, uncertain world, you need to be able to adapt. You need to be resilient. Lauren wrote her convictions into verse and realized that in these verses were lessons that people could live by. She realized she had found a leader - herself.


BUTLER: When I got through "Parable of The Sower," I got to the point where I liked my character far too much.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Lauren Olamina became the first power-seeker Butler could finally trust and others did, too. She slowly grew a following of people willing to join her in the pursuit for a new life, a new beginning.

JAMIESON: Lauren Oya Olamina, this adolescent young adult - it's really, I think, Butler's belief system and the things that she lived by. And she's writing them out, and she's offering them to us.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Offerings on how to sustain yourself in an unsustainable world - how to survive fascist governments, how to survive wildfires, how to survive drug epidemics, how to survive police brutality, how to survive poverty, how to survive.

JAMIESON: You know, the world that she's depicting in "Parable Of The Sower" feels so much like that's what we're experiencing now.

OKORAFOR: I still can't read "Parable Of The Sower." I mean, like, "Parable" - I can't read it. Like, even just looking at the title, it just makes me nervous - it's nervous. It's set around now. We've got, like, corporate greed. We've got climate change. We've got, you know, the government falling apart. I mean, do I need to go there? Oh, God, it's just so - it's too familiar. It's too familiar.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Do you think she saw herself as prophetic?

JAMIESON: Oh, absolutely not. She did not predict the future. She observed what was happening around her, and then she extrapolated from what she knew.


BUTLER: I hope they're not prophecy because I don't want to live in that world.

OKORAFOR: But (laughter) I also think that some writers are onto something, and they've tapped into something. And I believe in mystical aspects. So I wouldn't call anyone a prophet, per se, but I do think that Octavia was tapping into something. She was tapping into something, and she was channeling it. And I think that it's OK to acknowledge that and to hear that.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: At the end of the day, it might not really matter if Octavia was all-knowing or just paying attention. The point is that as dire as her imagined futures could be and as much as her work can feel a little too real, especially right now, both Ayana and Nnedi also see Octavia's work as a beacon of hope.

JAMIESON: She says she was a pessimist, but I think she was really a pragmatist. I think she was so pragmatic that people called her pessimistic. But there are always these little kernels of hope in her writing. There are always this open-ended possibility that even if things look bleak right where we're standing, it's not magically all going to get better, but we're still going to be together, and we can still choose our family and our loved ones. We can still choose to do things that will add to our collective survival instead of just whatever is supposed to be our individual bounty of the things we've acquired and the things we've amassed, that there is another way to be in this world. And that's what I find so healing and so transformational.

BROWN: (Reading) The world is full of painful stories. Sometimes it seems as though there aren't any other kind. And yet I found myself thinking how beautiful that glint of water was through the trees.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: "Parable Of The Sower" made Octavia Butler the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur genius grant. A decade later, while working on her third novel for the "Parable" series, she fell outside her home and died. She was only 58 years old.

OKORAFOR: The moment that she passed, there was so much that was lost. And I know that hurt. What does it mean to those who come after her? You know, it means so much. It means, like, she - just her doing what she did just kind of, like, alerted to others of the existence of a whole, you know, plethora of stories, which really shouldn't be the case. But that is the case. That is the case - is, like, it signaled the existence of all this, of so much, you know? And she ushered that in.

JAMIESON: And that's how she really upended science fiction. She was there. She was present, and she pretty much opened doors for the rest of us. It makes me feel like I'm part of history, I'm part of the future, and I am my ancestors' wildest dreams. She dreamed me up in a way, you know? She's allowed me to do work that even my grandparents couldn't have envisioned for one of their relatives.

Octavia E. Butler once wrote, I'm a 53-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm also comfortably asocial, a hermit in the middle of Seattle, a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive.


BUTLER: I have to do the thing that it's important for me to do. I'm basically a storyteller, and I have things that seem important to me. I mentioned the emotional reality of history. I mentioned the news items that we seem to be ignoring so completely. These are the things that reach me. And whatever else happens happens.


ABDELFATAH: On the next episode of our series Imagining New Worlds...

NORMAN HILL: Two hundred fifty thousand people, Black and white, marched on the nation's capital.

JOYCE LADNER: It nationalized the Southern freedom struggle.

RACHELLE HOROWITZ: It was really glorious.

ABDELFATAH: August 28, 1963 - the March on Washington - lives in many of our minds as a single moment, a single voice, a single dream.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream that one day...

ARABLOUEI: But what you probably don't know is there's a man standing behind Dr. King as he's making the speech just a few feet to his right. He's tall, thin, wearing thick, black-framed glasses. And this moment would have never happened without him.









ABDELFATAH: The leadership and legacy of Bayard Rustin.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...



KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

CAINE: Julie Caine.



ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to adrienne maree brown for reading all the passages from Octavia's books that you heard throughout the episode. adrienne has two podcasts - "Octavia's Parables," which she co-hosts with Toshi Reagan, and "How To Survive the End Of The World," which she co-hosts with her sister, Autumn. Check them out.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks to WHYY's Fresh Air with Terry Gross for the use of the interview with Octavia Butler. Thanks also to Nisi Shaw and Steve Barnes, both sci fi writers and friends of Octavia's who shared their insights and memories with us that helped shape this episode. And thanks also to Beth Donovan, Yolanda Sangweni and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: As always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, email us at, or hit us up on Twitter at @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: A special thanks to the estate of Samir Naguib for helping to support this podcast.

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