By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
What must it have been like to be Octavia Butler?
There she was, this woman of great intellect, of immense talent, of tremendous passion, and, it seems, so very much alone. Her death on Friday after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle has rattled those who loved her work. She was 58.
There she was, a tall, awkward and shy black girl thinking that she wanted to write science fiction, of all things. A young woman who believed the genre could deal with more than ray guns and transporters, and that she had a right to create fiction that tackled race and class and what it meant to be human in worlds where humanness had all but been obliterated. Publisher after publisher must have been puzzled. How could science fiction be set on a plantation?
Octavia Butler showed them how.
She was an African American woman claiming her space in a literary universe dominated by white men. After years of rejection, she eventually won science fiction's most prestigious awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She picked up other honors along the way, too, including a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
Her following was loving and loyal -- protective even -- for they seemed to know instinctively how precious and powerful and simultaneously tender and fragile a spirit like hers had to be.
"That's terrible, terrible, terrible news," my mother kept saying over and over at word of Butler's death. A die-hard science fiction fan, she is one of those people who gobbled up many of Butler's 11 novels. I was proud of myself for having turned her on to Butler's first work, "Kindred." Soon she was devouring the other works, among them "Dawn" and the highly regarded "Parable of the Sower."
Over the years I had heard Butler speak at literary conferences, listened as she engaged the audiences and patiently indulged those eager young writers with their sometimes doting questions. She was always warm, always gracious. She was easy with people, a strong public presence who seemed so comfortable in her open and direct way.
But that was Octavia Butler's public presence. Those who knew her, as well as anyone could, knew that she was a very private and shy person.
Black science fiction trailblazer Samuel Delaney, 63, remembers teaching Butler as a 23-year-old student at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. She was, he says, incredibly shy, a student who spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent.
It was years later, however, after she had published "Kindred," that he saw what she had become. "It was wonderful to see how she had bloomed and gained so much self-confidence and become a really extraordinary public speaker," Delaney says. She also was a pathblazer in a genre where once you could count the black writers on one hand.
Tananarive Due, a successful novelist, might be described as one of Butler's literary daughters. She and her husband, Steven Barnes -- who was part of that rare original club of black sci-fi writers -- were close to Butler.
The public and private lives of Butler, Due says, were remarkable to watch. "It's almost as if she lived in two worlds."
"I'm very happy alone," Butler once told Post writer David Streitfeld. "If I had to change myself into something else, I'd probably be unhappy."
She grew up poor in Southern California, where her father shined shoes before he died when she was a young girl, and her mother cleaned houses. Butler was a young black woman coming of age at a time when black women were mainly invisible. And when she was noticed, it was with unkind eyes. She was six feet tall by the time she was in her teens, a girl with deep brown skin and short hair. She was sometimes mistaken for a man, she would say. Early as a child, she cocooned herself in a world of books and nurtured audacious ambitions.
"She obviously had spent a tremendous amount of her early life feeling very, very alone," Barnes said. "She had no tribe. She didn't fit in any place. Her own family thought she was nuts . . . because of what she wanted to do with her life."
At one time Barnes lived just six blocks from Butler and they would spend time together, having dinner or just talking. One of the questions she seemed to care greatly about was, "Why is it that we are so cruel to each other?" Barnes says.
"The fact that she was so concerned with that made me think she had faced a lot of that" cruelty in her life, he adds.
She explored the question in a field that was forced, whether it wanted to or not, to acknowledge her talents.
"Women in general were rare in the science fiction field, and black women, ha," Barnes says.
She had to cloak her ideas thickly in metaphor, he says. "She was forced to speak through layers of obsfucation." Those challenges may have ultimately made her a better writer but must have taken their toll.
"It was like trying to drive in the Indy 500 with your brakes on," Barnes says. "You burn up."
Due last spoke with Butler in the summer when Butler was planning to send her last manuscript, "Fledgling," which was recently published to acclaim.
She and Barnes had been worried about Butler, who had been ill and on several medications. The side effects, she told them, made it hard for her to write. It must have been particularly trying for such a perfectionist, they say.
They worried about her, up there alone and probably pushing herself far too much, both in her writing and her travels. But she was drawn to the Pacific Northwest, they say, with its natural beauty and its opportunities for true solitude. Due wanted to call, but worried about interrupting her writing, the words that seemed so hard to come by lately.
I wonder if in all that aloneness, in all her solitude, she knew just how beautiful she was and that she was loved.