Jane Q. Freezing-Rain (pasajera) wrote in octaviabutler,
Jane Q. Freezing-Rain

Notes from Butler lecture: “Gifts, Directives, and Gothic Trips: The Legacy of Octavia Butler.”

Sandra Govan, Professor of English at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, gave a talk at the Huntington Library tonight for a crowd of about 60 people. She started off with a list of Butler's works on overhead projector, calling it a "low-tech powerpoint." Govan said that she'd been tempted to change the first word of the title to "grits" since Butler had the audactiry, courage, nerve, and patience that characterizes "true grit" (and also because grits are tasty!), but decided that the concept of gifts was a little more accurate because Butler's writings were really a gift to us--the author had a high regard for her audience and wanted to live up to her reader's respect.

Before the lecture actually started, I was eavesdropping on the conversations around me and I heard many comments like "She's my favorite author and I was so upset when she died," and "I just feel like sometimes she wasn't fully appreciated." Govan mentioned at the start of her talk that "with her death, as all too often happens, her literary star soared" and predicted that the ever-increasing number of critical references to Butler's work is going to promptly double. Since Butler's writings touch on science fiction, feminism, biology, theology, and so much more, they are a treasure trove for scholars and readers alike. It was also interesting to note that Butler's personal papers are most likely going to end up archived in the collection of the Huntington Library once her affairs are all sorted out. Govan mentioned that the documents would likely stay sealed for a while just in case there are sensitive personal issues in there, so we'll have to wait a few decades before any comprehensive biographies can draw on this material, and along similar lines the unfinished text of Parable of the Trickster is not likely to be hitting the shelves any time soon. But we can cross our fingers for the future!

Govan's talk was a mixture of biography, literary analysis, introducing the outlines of Butler's major works to those in the audience still unfamiliar with it, and some personal anecdotes of her as a "sister outsider."

Govan had a great time deconstructing the names of many of Butler's characters for us: Mary "gave birth" to the Patternists; Dana derived from Daniel and the lion's den, and Franklin a reference to the genius/inventor; Lauren was a religious martyr; President Donner was a reference to the historic cannibal incidents in the Donner Party; etc. Govan also showed a map on which she traced the route which the characters in Parable of the Sower walked, from southern to northern California: "That's a long walk...But slaves did that kind of walk all the time. What you have in Parable of the Sower is a modern-day slave narrative."

The speaker also took care to point out that she thinks the novel Survivor, that hard-to-find member of the Patternist series that Butler was dissatisfied with, is really quite excellent and that she's sorely disappointed that it was omitted from the new Seed to Harvest compilation.

During the questions that followed the talk, it was established that Butler was very much a self-taught writer who studied at the public library and by watching Nova, but who never finished a formal college degree. Another audience member asked if she had ever taught at a university, and Govan very passionately declared that the overwhelming advantage that Butler had in working outside of the university environment is that she never had to grade hundreds of papers and sit through endless faculty meetings! Butler's notoriously unglamorous manual-labor jobs were a blessing in disguise, because rather than being haunted with worry about how some poor kid was going to react to getting a D on the test, Butler's brain only had to be concerned with not getting her fingers caught in the machinery while she was on the job, thus freeing up plenty of mental energy to focus on her writing.

Butler's directives that she left us in her writing were talent, persistence, determination, and positive obsession. She wanted us to value family, value our allies, and to be responsible humans. Her gifts to us are a gallery of competent, determined characters--largely female--that the "left out" can identify with. She left us the gift of an ethical imagination, long before Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth started winning prizes.
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