Wednesday, March 01, 2006

All You Touch You Change

I've been slowly working on this post, too sad to talk or post about Octavia Butler's passing until now, though I did discuss a letter writing campaign with friends Ogechi, Fabian and Aisha yesterday. The letters were to go to the New York Times (which, until today, had not written of Butler's death), and were to consist of one sentence: What's up with that?

I first became acquainted with Octavia Butler when my friend Alyson Jones used her poetry as her answering machine greeting back in college: "All you touch you change, all you change changes you." I loved these words, and later loved them even more as I thought about the place of poetry in the mind of visionary Lauren Olamina, Butler's protagonist from Parable of the Sower.

I've had a number of opportunities to hear Octavia Butler read and speak. I've always found the honesty with which she addressed the difficulty of writing to be amazingly inspiring. I've also always appreciated her narratives, which are straight forward and seemingly simple, but also richly written and full of questions it both challenges me and pleases me to ponder.

In 1997, I was supposed to hear her 9 am talk at the College Language Association in Atlanta but had stayed up all night talking with 5 other nerdly, sci-fi-reading black women all night. Waking at about 10 am, the six of us (who were sharing one bathroom) hurriedly rushed into and out of the shower and ran down the hotel's hallways in varied states of dress & hair-didness, clutching our dogeared copies of her books, in hopes of getting them signed. When we got to her room, only a few people were still there, but she not only signed our books, she also invited us to sit down and talk. We sat, wide-eyed, in a circle at her feet and she talked to us about feminism, writing, and our friendship, which was of particular interest to Ms. Butler. Although we were all greatly appreciative of our own friendship, I don't think we'd thought about what it would be like to have a bunch of out-of-breath, nerdy black girls roll up to your conference talk, begging you to autograph their books. I guess we thought it happened all of the time, and I actually do imagine it was a somewhat common experience, but Butler was interested in the fact that despite our obvious love and admiration for her, our own conversations had kept us from her talk. She wanted to know how we knew each other and how long it had been since we'd seen one another. We were amazed to see her take such an interest in us. What a gift it was to have her attention and to watch her mind process everyday things, the cover of a magazine I was holding, the way people characterized her work, the friendships of a few random fans.

Later, before we composed The Sour Thunder, Keith and I began to write an opera based on Parable of the Sower. Three songs into the narrative, we decided that so much of the work depended on our interpretations of character and plot that we ought to go ahead and tell our own story. I altered one of the songs from the Parable project and published it as the poem "Sharer" in Armor and Flesh. So Butler planted many seeds for our work and our turn to science fiction in a big way. Goodnight, Octavia Butler, we'll miss you.

Here is some love from others:

love from J's Theater
love from Exittheapple
love from Amardeep Singh
testimony from Butler friend Stephen Barnes
blogosphere mourning from Tayari Jones
Butler's site
a Butler bio
a Butler bibliography
Butler on Wikipedia


Anonymous audiologo said...

Thanks for your ruminations and sharing the love from others sites. I'm sorry to say I never did get to hear Butler read. I was stunned to read on e-drum of her passing. I hoped it was some kind of sick hoax, even though Kalamu ya Salaam is excellent at catching those. I can't imagine that she won't write again. Reading people writing about her made me aware again of how profound her work was. And I thought about how brave and committed she was as a writer. And shame shame NYT; but Butler is not limited by their meager vision, nor are we. Ojala que sus palabras viven para siempre...

10:04 PM, March 01, 2006  
Blogger Mendi O. said...

Yes. Though I'm very sad that she died at such a young age, I'm so happy to know how many people feel the loss. I've been feeling very much in community hearing and reading people's testimonies. I only wish she had seen more of the love and honor. I know she has been praised, but I think people thought they had more time to honor her.

6:35 AM, March 03, 2006  

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