Teaching Octavia Butler: In Her Own Words

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler passed away seven years ago last month. Her most famous book,Kindred, tells the story of Dana, a black woman who time travels from 1976 to the pre-Civil War South. She meets a young white boy named Rufus, who also happens to be Dana’s ancestor.

octavia_butler

I just started Kindred with my ninth graders. Octavia Butler is the only writer of color, and one of two women writers, in our curriculum this year.

So it was important to me that she have a legitimate space in my class, and that we face the subject of Kindred — the legacy of slavery — explicitly.

To start, we read her obituary in The New York Times, which quotes from various interviews with Butler.

To the LA Times in 1998, she said:

I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider.

One student admired Butler’s openness and ownership of her differences. Another student said Butler calling herself  “an outsider” even in 1998 made him “depressed” that she would still be made to feel this way so recently.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2000, Butler noted:

“The only black people you found [in science fiction] were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in because I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m writing.”

Several students saw this as Butler working deliberately to fix a problem she saw, and said that they too, had noticed the lack of diversity not just in their reading, but also in the TV shows and movies they watched.

I think her saying, “I’m me, and I’m here, and I’m writing,” shows such a strong affirmation of her own existence — a refusal to be an invisible minority.

Finally, we talked about the observation that ends the article:

“We are a naturally hierarchical species. When I say these things in my novels, sure I make up the aliens…but I don’t make up the essential human character.”

We discussed what it means to be “hierarchical,” and whether humans are naturally competitive, or predisposed to oppress anyone who doesn’t conform to the majority group. Some students who weren’t sci-fi fans also said Butler made them want to discover how she used the genre to make statements about the real world.

I can’t say that I’m a sci-fi fan either, but I’m loving the discussions we’re having. Reading Butler’s reflections  turned out to be a great way to start the unit — she got us talking and thinking critically about race, class and gender before reading a word of her book!

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Octavia Butler: In Her Own Words

  1. Hello–was the use of the word “nigger” an issue for the students and parents? We are thinking of adopting this for our junior English class and would appreciate any advice! Thank you!

    • Hi Kim,

      The use of the word “nigger” definitely came up, but I didn’t get any complaints from parents. In class, we discussed why Butler might have chosen to incorporate the word into her story, and the difference between quoting the text and using the word as a slur.

      A few students still felt it shouldn’t be read out loud even if it was quoting the text, but the majority were strongly in favor of not censoring Butler’s writing — including my one black student.

      My job was made easier because the students had already discussed the issue the previous year while reading Huck Finn.

      In any case, I think it’s important to have an open discussion before reading. I recommend the “60 Minutes” piece on censoring Huck Finn (available on YouTube), and Gloria Naylor’s essay, “The Meanings of a Word” as good places to start.

  2. Hello — I want to incorporate Kindred into my 9th grade curriculum this year, but am worried about timing. I will have about 5 weeks to teach Kindred to my 9th graders. Do you think this will be enough time as you have already taught this unit? My students are highly motivated and will read outside of class.

    • Hi Lindsay,

      Yes, I think five weeks is enough time — it took me about that long, in fact. Assigning a chapter a night was perfectly doable. And compared to Great Expectations, which we had just finished, the students found reading Kindred a breeze.

      Good luck!

  3. Pingback: Life After Teaching, Part Six: Five Things I Learned in Year Two | Those Who Teach

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