In Octavia Butler's World, Anything Is Possible

"Kindred" endures on paper and now on TV

By Lynell George

Illustrations by Jeff Manning

December 12, 2022

Photo illustration shows two hands coming together in front of a solar eclipse and a galaxy.

Not infrequently, meddlesome thoughts kept Octavia E. Butler up at night—plots to sort out, motivations to untangle, a chorus of voices and scenarios rattling around in her imagination. At this time in her career, in 1978, Butler had just published some novels, part of what became known as the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), and Survivor (1978). Even so, she was struggling to earn enough money from her writing to make ends meet. The new project she was developing didn't fit into a neat category—nor did its writer.

When she was done, Butler had written a gripping, spectral, and genre-defying novel she called Kindred—the story of Dana, a 26-year-old Black woman setting up a household with her new husband, a white man, in 1970s Southern California. Dana, inexplicably, becomes unstuck in time. In an instant, she is transported back to a marshy riverside on a plantation in antebellum Maryland and must blindly feel her way around the territory to root out the extraordinary circumstances that not only landed her there but also continue to pull her across time and space.

Kindred remains the outlier—a book that Butler herself didn't see as a work of science fiction but rather as a "grim fantasy" that dealt squarely with the unhealed wound of chattel slavery.

The book was rejected 15 times before Doubleday finally published it in 1979. "Kindred . . . really gave me trouble," Butler explained in a 2004 interview on National Public Radio. "Nobody wanted to buy it. . . . They said, 'Well, gee, it's well written, but we don't know what it is.'"

Ultimately, the novel proved the doubters wrong. Since its publication, Kindred has become a staple on college syllabi and in One Book, One Community initiatives, and has inspired visual artists, playwrights, and musicians with its themes of kinship, survival, and legacy. A new luxe hardcover edition by Beacon Press was published this fall, and FX premiered its much-anticipated limited series adaptation on TV on December 12.

Butler, who died in 2006 at 58, would for the rest of her career continue to push against narrow-­minded thinking—be it the tensions within the worlds she created on the page or the tricky territory she traversed in the world as a Black woman writer. The author of more than a dozen books, the California-born Butler would go on to become a MacArthur Fellow and win Hugo and Nebula Awards for her trail­blazing work in science fiction—the first Black woman to win both awards. In 1993, she pivoted to climate change as a major theme in Parable of the Sower, a story in which a world suffering from sea level rise, extreme drought, and social inequality eerily predicted our own. However, Kindred remains the outlier—a book that Butler herself didn't see as a work of science fiction but rather as a "grim fantasy" that dealt squarely with the unhealed wound of chattel slavery.

From the project's outset, Butler knew that she didn't want to be didactic. "I wanted to make people feel," she said. The author hoped to pull the institution of slavery out of abstracts and the distance of time to reassess the full scope of what kinsmanship meant. Kindred addresses what would become many of Butler's enduring themes: racial and gender oppression, power hierarchies, strategic alliances, blood and found family, and capable and resourceful Black women thrust into high-stakes, often dangerous situations.

"Kindred was part of my early training in African American scholarship in ways I hadn't anticipated when I first encountered it," says Ayana A.H. Jamieson, founder and director of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, a community dedicated to Butler's work. Jamieson has taught the book for years. Through Butler's repositioned lens, Jamieson notes, students make connections with American history in a way they hadn't before: "Legislation against Dreamers or the hypervisual extrajudicial killings of Black folks on social media, in these ongoing Black Lives Matter scenarios, when nonmarginalized people are saying, 'This is so surprising!' And the rest of us have been, 'It's been like this.'"

Butler frequently repeated the maxim "Writers use everything," and this was especially true for Kindred, which was inspired by a conversation she'd witnessed as a college student in Southern California in the late 1960s. "I was a member of the Black student union along with this guy [who] was considered quite knowledgeable, but his attitude about slavery was very much like the attitude I held when I was 13—he felt that the older generation should have rebelled," she observed. "He once commented, 'I wish I could kill off all these old people who have been holding us back for so long, but I can't because I would have to start with my own parents.'"

His words occupied Butler's consciousness for years—perhaps because they pricked at something personal, some shame she'd nursed about her mother, who worked as a domestic for white families and was sometimes forced to enter their homes through back doors or to speak to them in a deferential manner. While Butler knew that this behavior was in fact a survival strategy, it still vexed, if not shamed, her. Nevertheless, she was clear about the rules of play: "If my mother hadn't put up with humiliation, I wouldn't have eaten very well." With Kindred, Butler aimed to give readers the experience of the fear and horror that Black people endured in the day-to-day and make visible how those ancestral wounds have marked future generations.

"She was writing to bring the reader in confrontation with themselves in their own historical context," says Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the Obie Award–winning playwright (Appropriate) and consulting producer (Watchmen) who adapted the novel for FX. "The whole thing is about how easy it is to feel superior to people in the past. I wanted to honor that conceptual impulse."

Butler did meticulous research for Kindred. With funds from the sale of Survivor, she traveled by bus to Maryland to summon a sense of the landscape into which Dana might have landed. She then went to Washington, DC, to tour the grounds of Mount Vernon and was infuriated when docents she encountered there skimmed over, if not fully erased, crucial facts. There was no mention of slaves, she recalled—rather, they spoke of "servants."

In later years, Butler often talked about the toll the project took on her. She found the book depressing to research, to plot out, to live with. "I realized that I wasn't going to be able to come anywhere near presenting what slavery was. I was going to have to do a cleaned-up version [in order to cope]." Even still, she was determined to push the story into the uncomfortable places it needed to go.

"In some ways," Jacobs-Jenkins observes, "so much of the world is different from what she was writing toward. The questions are still there. They're just in different forms." Considering her themes and her inquiries, he notes, "Ultimately, what she was interested in was the science of genetics. Think about these recent conversations around epigenetics. I think that she was, oddly enough, sort of presaging that notion, that frontier of where speculative sci-fi can go."

Kindred explores what binds us across generations, bloodlines, distance, even our knotty notions of affinity. But it also confronts that open wound—all that has not been healed. What Butler reminds us, Jamieson says, "is that past and present are always creating one another." Persistently looking forward and backward, Butler saw this: How we were, and would be, trapped by and in between those worlds, especially if we didn't address the unfinished business. And while she didn't write the book to be predictive, Jamieson says, Butler inherently understood the gravity of the civil rights–era echo "None of us is free until all of us are free."