[FEATURED] BLACK FEMINISTS IN SPECULATIVE FICTION: OCTAVIA BUTLER & SAMI SCHALK

Writers of color in recent years have demonstrated the science fiction genre’s usefulness in exploring issues relevant to minorities of all kinds.

In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, we at DIS/MEMBER are highlighting some extraordinary Black people, characters, books, movies, etc. throughout history. In this piece, Muriel highlights two Black feminist writers as part of our ongoing features.



“I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.” —Octavia E. Butler

It may still be common to think of science fiction as a genre in the domain of white men. However, writers of color in recent years have demonstrated the genre’s usefulness in exploring issues relevant to minorities of all kinds. Octavia Butler and Sami Schalk are two such writers. As one of the most prominent American science fiction writers of the last century, Butler’s stories examine the social and political issues surrounding race. As a philosopher, Schalk is renowned for her critical analysis of Black women’s speculative fiction and relied heavily on Butler’s work in developing her own ideas. Let’s take a closer look.


OCTAVIA BUTLER

Octavia Butler, also known as the “Grand Dame of Science Fiction,” was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California. She earned an Associate of Arts Degree from Pasadena Community College in 1968 and also studied at California State University in Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles. Between 1979 and 1970, Butler studied with science fiction writer Harlan Ellison – who would later become her mentor – at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop.

As a science fiction writer, Butler came to thrive in this genre typically dominated by white men. After selling several science fiction stories, Butler published her breakthrough novel, Kindred, in 1979. Kindred tells the story of a young black woman who travels through time to meet her ancestors in the antebellum South. It is a powerful novel that uses science fiction to examine the consequences of slavery, racism, family legacies, and transgenerational trauma. With the publication of Kindred, Butler was able to support herself in a full-time writing career.

Throughout her life, Butler published additional works, including the four-volume Patternist series (1976 – 1980), the Xenogenesis Trilogy (1984 – 1989), and the Earthseed series (1993 – 1998). In 1995, Butler earned the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship, becoming the first science fiction writer to do so. Butler died of health complications at the age of 58, on February 24, 2006, in Seattle, Washington.


SAMI SCHALK

Dr. Sami Schalk is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Schalk’s first book, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, contains critical interpretations of works in speculative fiction as a way to deconstruct social categories of disability, race, and gender. Schalk conducts her argument primarily through the analysis of black women’s speculative fiction, particularly neo-slave narratives, as a means of addressing intersectional concerns. By using speculative fiction to analyze disability, race, and gender, Schalk is able to deconstruct these categories as dictated by real-life society.

I find Schalk’s analysis of Butler’s Earthseed series an especially useful reading to aid in the way we think of disability. In this series, a young woman named Lauren experiences a condition of “hyperempathy.” With varying symptoms and limitations, she can feel exactly what others are feeling. According to Schalk, the futuristic fictional setting of the series allows Butler to remove an instance of disability from the real-world context to better create a narrative for it. Furthermore, Butler never explicitly portrays Lauren’s condition as good or bad. Schalk uses the Parable series, to critique the “totalizing” approach, which is an approach that removes disability in literature from context and leads to judgment values of the quality of disability.

Samischalk.com

In readings of literature, the totalizing approach ignores the context of a fictional world and consequently misses the theoretical and political concerns that could be addressed by suspending these preconceptions. For instance, positive totalizing readings of the Parable series portray Lauren’s hyper empathy as a gift or a unique leadership trait. More negative readings interpret hyper empathy as a pathology, affliction, or trait of martyrdom. Schalks points out that Butler’s portrayal of Lauren’s condition engages in neither tendency.

Schalk’s readings of Butler have been a strong influence on my own approach to reading speculative fiction. I had always known that science fiction stories are nearly always commentary on the “real world.” However, Schalk and Butler have both introduced the potential within speculative fiction for incisively defining and depicting issues that can be challenging to delineate in the real world. It is thanks to the influence of these two authors that I have begun my own attempts at writing on speculative fiction (if amateurly).


IN SUMMARY:

Stories are universally the most powerful means of communicating truth. The narratives we tell ourselves takes hold of our psychology more than the most widely distributed rhetoric and propaganda. As such, it follows that the best writers have the best understanding of the human condition. When other types of arguments fail to make a difference in the fight for racial equality, perhaps the works of insightful black authors can help to bring about the change we need.



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