When artists leave us too soon we are reminded of their greatness in the items they left behind. Musicians have libraries of unreleased tracks or compositions, photographers leave behind negatives, contact sheets and undeveloped film, painters have hidden canvases or incomplete work and writers leave behind their words—ideas that weren’t fully developed, concepts that never came to fruition and manuscripts waiting for the right opportunity to go to print.
When writer Octavia Butler passed away in 2006, she left behind a large literary footprint of 12 novels, countless short stories and numerous works in progress. The writer lauded as the first black female science fiction writer, used science fiction and fantasy to deliver poignant and deeply relatable commentaries on politics, race, sexuality and the human condition. She bequeathed her papers, essays, manuscripts and correspondence to the Huntington Library who has for the last 10 years opened up this collection of documentation to writers and scholars.
In the Huntington’s latest exhibition, Telling My Stories, Octavia Butler’s treasured documents are on view to the public, offering a glimpse that only a few were privy to examine. What’s remarkable about this collection of items is that they provide important insights into the writer’s process. Butler, a self-described pack rat, kept everything: childhood renditions of character sketches that would later inform her writing, scientific and technical research, letters to experts that would help her capture authenticity in her plots and diary entries that were prescient, detailed manifestos that documented her crystal clear vision. She was a voracious researcher. One manilla envelope cover was adorned with a color coded series of words that indexed the clippings and articles contained within the envelope.
Butler did not spare her wit in her staunch advocacy for her own work, as some correspondence to Doubleday points out. Butler’s typed letter to her publisher in 1978 outlined her concerns over the proposed title of one of her latest novels whose working title was, “To Keep Thee in All Thy Ways”. The publisher wanted to name it “Dana” (Butler fans no doubt already know the book by now) and Butler wanted no part of it and convincingly persuaded the publisher to continue the dialog on alternative titles-she eventually negotiated the options down to two: one titled “Next of Kin” and the other? Kindred.
The exhibition is filled with handwritten notes, affirmations, announcements and proclamations that fueled her creative practice. There’s also an impressive array of awards, acknowledgment letters (including her MacArthur Fellow Award letter from 1995), photos and other items that solidified how vital writing was in Butler’s life. Of these, the most meaningful items were her journal entries. One detailed an encounter Butler had with an aspiring black writer who was sandbagging her own potential. The woman wanted to level set her low expectations on writer’s compensation, commenting to Butler that she simply wanted to make just enough “to subsist”. This struck a nerve in Butler who was incensed by the woman’s notion that she should settle. In her 1990 journal she recounted her frustration, as she directed her ire toward the woman’s defeatist thinking admonishing the budding writer to dream bigger. The entry concluded with a line boldly highlighted in pink:
“No person who has absorbed that bit of corrosive philosophy needs an oppressor to keep her down.”
Boom. The power of her conviction on the page was palpable. It also reinforced the importance of the daily mantras and affirmations that she regularly wrote to herself. Butler commanded respect for herself first–that was the only way she could demand it from others. That journal entry reminded me of a 1990 interview with Dr. Maya Angelou on a Bay Area talk show. An audience member who was a young woman around my age at the time approached the microphone and casually addressed Ms. Angelou as “Maya” and proceeded to ask her question. Those who are from the south may see where this was going…Ms. Angelou stopped her abruptly and said, “I’m not Maya. I’m 62 years old. I’ve lived so long and I’ve tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, has no license to come up to me and call me by my first name.” I vividly remember watching that moment when it originally aired and I will never forget it. At the time I was blown away by the harshness of her reaction and in my memory the girl started to tear up (which was what I would have done)– the young woman corrected herself and called her Ms. Angelou.
After thinking about Dr. Angelou’s reaction, I understood where it was coming from and it was such a powerful lesson: the respect we receive from others is a reflection of the respect we command for ourselves, and oftentimes we have to remind folks of that. I can only imagine the woman who caught the tempered ire of Octavia Butler that summer day in 1990 shared a similar reaction of that young woman in San Francisco with Dr. Angelou, and I hope she realized the gift in that valuable lesson.I’ve read two of Butler’s books, one last year and the other in January, and they both had a profound impact on me because they came into my life at precisely the right time.
Her Parable series has taken on a renewed interest and has captured the imaginations of new readers as storylines bear an eerie dystopian resemblance to today’s social climate. The day I visited “Telling My Stories” at the Huntington, I took some time to watch visitors peruse the items in the exhibition, making mental notes on their reactions. Some had never heard of Butler, others marveled at the scientific research she collected and many were moved by her deeply personal journal entries. You don’t have to be a fan of her work to appreciate the story of her journey, but as I left the show I was jealous of those who had never heard of Butler who will become inspired to pick up one of her novels. I hope her work finds them the same way Butler’s work found me.