Celebrating Octavia Butler

Posted on January 27, 2016 by Kevin Durkin | Comments (10)

Detail of photograph of Octavia E. Butler, photographer unknown, 2001. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the great science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s untimely death; next year marks what would have been her 70th birthday. Butler created a body of work that helped launch a new genre called Afro-Futurism, which has become the focus of a remarkable amount of scholarly activity of late. After her death, The Huntington became the recipient of her papers, which arrived in 2008 in two four-drawer file cabinets and about 35 large cartons. Butler’s papers required intense processing over the next three years. “She kept nearly everything, from her very first short stories, written at the age of 12, to book contracts and programs from speaking engagements,” says Natalie Russell, assistant curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington. The phenomenal body of materials includes 8,000 individually cataloged items and more than 80 boxes of additional items: extensive drafts, notes, and research materials for more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, and essays, as well as correspondence, ephemera, and commonplace books. By the time Russell had finished the monumental task of processing the collection, an unprecedented 40 scholars were lined up to take a look. Today, it’s one of the most actively used archives at the Library. “Since May 2014, the archive has been used nearly 1,300 times—or roughly 15 times per week, on average,” says Russell. And things are about to get even livelier.

Working draft of Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred (formerly titled To Keep thee in All Thy Ways) with handwritten notes by Butler, ca. 1977. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Clockshop, a Los Angeles-based arts organization, is partnering with several other local organizations and institutions—including The Huntington, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ ALOUD series, and the Armory Center for the Arts, to name a few—on a yearlong series of events celebrating Butler’s life and work. The project, called “Radio Imagination,”was announced today. At the core of the project is a series of artist and writer commissions to create new works based on The Huntington’s Butler archive. Associated talks, performances, and literary events will take place at various venues throughout the year. One of these events—a panel discussion with philosopher Amy Kind and scholar Shelley Streeby—will take place at The Huntington this fall. Looking ahead to 2017, Russell will curate an Octavia Butler exhibition in the West Hall of the Library, and The Huntington will host a scholarly conference about Butler and her work. Get ready to celebrate this legendary writer in the not-too-distant future.

Handwritten notes on inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

You can learn more about "Radio Imagination" on the Clockshop website.

You can learn more about the Octavia E. Butler collection here.

Kevin Durkin is editor of Verso and managing editor in the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.  



I love her, may she rest in perfect piece xxx

Reading Dawn in college as part of an introductory writing course changed my life in a way. The works we read were all sci-fi. I was ignorant and hadn't heard of African-American sci-fi writers before, let alone an African-American woman. Though our writing instructor was a white man, I so appreciated the opportunity to read Octavia Butler's book. It opened my eyes to the possibilities, and more generally, to the lack of Black voices in this and many other genres. Thank you, Ms. Butler.

I recall when Octavia Butler passed away. It was so sad and disturbing to read online that she died alone in front of her home. Whatever the additional facts about her life and end of life, I found this fact particularly disturbing and extremely sad. Had there been someone living with her, family or partner or spouse, she might have lived, but with no one there, she had no chance for survival. She was so young, and with so much more to give the literary world and all of her fans. The world has suffered the loss, but grateful for her volumes of ephemera and personal writings etc. she has left behind. Farewell, lovely author. God bless you and thank you for your literary works.

I highly recommend her "Xenogenesis" trilogy (or as it is called now, "Lillith's Brood) to start. You will find that she possessed an unbelievable imagination. She has easily become one of my hands-down favorite authors to date, and her stories are some of the best that I have had the privilege to read.

Sure would've been nice to have all that attention during her life but what does one expect of our absent culture. I don't care to be part of the 1% that cares. I want the 99% to care. But that is not to be. We need the money to make more weapons of mass destruction... don't look for them anywhere else but here in the good old USA!

Hi, Suzanne. We don't have any audio to include in this post (there are a couple of audio interviews in the archives here that are not in an online format), but I encourage you to head over to Clockshop's Vimeo page to check out their Radio Imagination trailers, which do include video (with audio!) of Octavia Butler speaking. You might also do a quick search on YouTube—there are lots of interviews and such posted there. It really is wonderful to get to hear her speak.

Kate Lain
New Media Developer

Seeing her picture makes me want to hear her voice. Any chance you might attach an audio clip to this Verso posting?

WOW, love her! I've never read one of her books but I will pick one or two or three up at the library this weekend. What an inspiring woman. I got chills reading the page from her journal above. It's amazing what determination and positive thoughts can accomplish.

Hi, Candace. This is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing this with us. We're thrilled to hear about your show and its genesis in Butler's words. Congratulations on the show — we wish we could see it!

Kate Lain
New Media Developer

I was returning from London, having taken my daughter there for her Sweet Sixteenth birthday celebration when I first saw the post and the images from Ms. Butler's journals. "So be it. See to it." hit me like a ton of bricks, a mandate from Butler on what I needed to do. I had just been awarded the opportunity of creating a solo show in Milwaukee for winning the "Popular Vote" in the Pfister Artist in Residence Program. I decided then and there that I wanted/needed/would create a body of work that illustrated the works of Butler.
The show, SO BE IT. SEE TO IT. opens August 14th in the Gallerie M in the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Patternmaster, Kindred, both Parables, Fledgling and the Xenogenesis series are represented.

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