Born to a maid and shoeshiner, Octavia Butler won the first $295k MacArthur Fellowship prize

Michael Eli Dokosi July 01, 2020
Octavia Butler via The Huntington Library

How did a girl born to a shoeshiner and a maid have the presence of mind to write and warn about where the US and humanity in general might be heading if socio-political action is not taken in the interest of the masses?

The answer lies in Octavia Estelle Butler’s fertile mind and choosing writing as an avenue of escape. As a child, Butler was tall and fleshy, but curiously shy. Perhaps it was her dyslexia which made her shy away from people and bury herself in books. That dedication led to her penning her thoughts. By 12, she had discovered science fiction, the genre which will become her claim to fame.

“I fantasised living impossible, but interesting lives – magical lives in which I could fly like Superman, communicate with animals, control people’s minds,” she said in 1999.

Butler graduated from Pasadena City College with an Associates of Arts degree in 1968. Then honed her craft as a writer throughout the 1970s. She took a class with the Screen Writers’ Guild Open Door Program and participated in the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop.

Times were rough being a female and in the sci-fi space so Butler supported herself as a telemarketer and dishwasher but her big break came after five years of rejection slips when she sold her first novel, Patternmaster in 1975. Published the following year, critics praised the novel’s well-built plot and refreshingly progressive heroine.

Her works include the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), and Survivor (1978). Then there is the beloved Kindred (1979), as well as Wild Seed (1980) and Clay’s Ark (1984).

“Butler’s rise to prominence began in 1984 when “Speech Sounds” won the Hugo Award for Short Story and, a year later, Bloodchild won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for Best Novelette. In the meantime, Butler traveled to the Amazon rainforest and the Andes to do research for what would become the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). These stories were republished in 2000 as the collection Lilith’s Brood.”

During the 1990s, Butler worked on the novels that solidified her fame as a writer: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). In 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to be awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, an award that came with a prize of $295,000.

By 1978, things were looking up and Butler was finally able to stop working at temporary jobs and live on her writing. She had formed the habit of waking at 2am to write.

The American science fiction author challenged traditional gender identity underlined by a pregnant man in Bloodchild. Then there is shape-shifting and sex-changing characters in Wild Seed. Her interest in hybridity and the adaptation of the human race was also explored in her Xenogenesis trilogy.

The Pasadena, California native helped reshape fantasy and sci-fi, bringing to them naturalism as well as characters like herself.

Describing herself, Butler noted: “Comfortably asocial – a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles – a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, certainty and drive.”

She was inducted into Chicago State University’s international black writers hall of fame in 2005. By the time she died her books have been translated into 10 languages, selling more than one million copies altogether.

Butler died in 2006, following a fall outside her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington aged 58. Her papers are held in the research collection of the Huntington Library.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: July 1, 2020


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