Rasha: So last time we talked dystopian context in Octavia Butler’s Parables. One thing I neglected to talk about about were the parallels many folks drew between the escape narratives in Parable of the Sower and real-life escapes from urban disaster areas like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. As we come up on 10 years since Katrina, it feels important to mark. Butler talked about taking no pride in any correspondence between her book and future events, even if they were well-predicted.
Gemma: I hadn’t thought about that. I can see it not being something you’d take pride in, per se.
R: When Butler talked about her writing, she was definitely writing against prescience, in the sense that much of her writing feels like warning: If this goes on…I don’t think she wanted to be right.
G: I wouldn’t think so, but I can also see it feeling somewhat inevitable from where she was standing. In that it still kind of feels that way to me.
R: Yeah. There have been plenty of communities and historical moments when people have felt either abandoned by public infrastructure that was supposed to protect them, or else directly targeted by that very infrastructure. Olamina would not have found the police response to #BlackLivesMatter actions surprising. And yet, the book goes in a really different direction. I get the sense that Marcus might be more likely to be a protestor than Olamina.
G: Ooh, that’s interesting to think about. I could see Marc moving towards liberation theology. He was with Christian America for some time, but I could see him changing if it meant that he was defying Lauren’s success.
R: I’d forgotten before rereading that Marc was gay! That’s why he’s so handsome and beautiful, I guess. Sigh. Is there something we have to say about Butler’s queerness in here somewhere? Switching gears, Olamina is a survivor, and that’s a hard model to read about sometimes when what you yearn for and are fighting for are reforms or restitution or reparations.
G: Well, Marc is a survivor too. He’s looking to be saved, and what saved him as a young man was preaching, so therefore he’s linked to Christian America. But I could see him becoming linked as a preacher to something much more like the BlackLivesMatter movement, if his life had gone a different way in his thirties. Everyone who passes through Acorn is a survivor, in one way or another. But I’m thinking about how Asha says that if Lauren had created Acorn and not Earthseed she would have been a wholly admirable person, and what that means about the difference between Acorn and her goals for the religion.
R: Yes. I was struck by that line in rereading it too. How do her goals for Earthseed cost something to her goals for Acorn? These issues are, again, what make the sequel so successful, not just in relationship to the first book, but also as a model for what sequels can do — Butler draws both Olamina and Marcus as extensions of the same family life, deeply religious people whose faiths form all of their choices in life and community, and Asha, who has this almost outsider-insider perspective on all of them. At the same time that she’s trying to get to know these people that she’s in some way so close to.
G: Yes. And we know by the end of the book that Asha’s inclined to cast her mother in a more negative light because of her relationship to her uncle, but that lens is what we have been using as a frame for the entire book before we recognize that.
R: And we get to see the contradictions, the edges or limits of these characters because we get to see them through each other’s eyes.
R: What do the Parables have to say about religion and community? I found myself thinking about Lauren’s conversations with her father early on in Sower, about how you can’t educate people effectively or change their mind if they’re too scared. And you have to give them something to do.
G: Well, one of the things that stands out in the description of Acorn at the beginning of Talents is the roles: the way they’ve structured an educational system, the apprenticeship models, work both functional and entertainment-based developed according to ability and desire but put in the service of the community as a whole.
R: It’s interesting to me that joining Earthseed as a faith was a requirement to being a voting member in the community. Given that Talents starts 5 years on from where Sower ended, we don’t see how that requirement came about.
G: Also, there’s this question of raising children in it. The image of finding Justin Gilchrist is so potent because he still retained the teachings of the religion but it’s almost as if for Earthseed to become a successful capital-R Religion as it is by the end of the book, there can’t be this same sense of insular community support and development that seemed to exist at Acorn.
R: Which is interesting, because I think so many readers (me included!) are drawn powerfully to the vision of Acorn as a possibility for escape/survival/resilience/renewal, and in Talents, Butler both draws out more completely what that community could look like and also how that community was not really the fullness of Olamina’s vision. It’s interesting to me in rereading the books that something that was so precious to me from them—this vision of community survival—was actually a by-product and not the goal for the main character.
G: Well, it wasn’t a by-product per se. In the early parts of Talents she envisions it continuing to exist, and just replicating it. But by the end of the book, the way she actually ends up evangelizing, it can’t work out that way. These rest communities like the one where Asha meets her near the end are simply waystations, not permanent fixtures for their residents as Acorn was aiming to be. But even in Sower—in some ways, especially in Sower—she’s a visionary prophet, practically in the Joseph Smith vein. She sees this changing, being a force in, the world and she can’t stop until it is, however that comes.
R: You’re right, and I remember from even my first reading of the books how that contradiction or change in Olamina’s roles felt truthful, somehow, to one version of what happens to visionary leaders. Interesting side note: I gave Parable of the Sower to a friend of mine who was ready to change jobs, and a couple of months later, he started working for SpaceX.
G: Ha! Well, there’s a way in which I read the books as saying that the growth of religion and the growth of supportive community are antithetical, almost at cross purposes. I’m not sure that’s the only thing Butler’s saying—she might be making a contradictory statement simultaneously—but I definitely see it in the book. The people who remain Olamina’s community as Earthseed grows, according to the end, are still primarily her Acorn people, but she doesn’t settle in any one place. Marc sought a home in Christian America, but he couldn’t be the gay man Asha is confident he is in that space, and so he leads this lonely life as a famous preacher, would be completely alone if not for Asha.
R: Also side note: dude, I would go to space.
G: You’ve said you would go to space. I think I would if it were just handed to me, but I don’t think I’d work very hard for it. I know someone else who works for SpaceX. They’re trying to land a rocket on a barge.
R: Yep, they are. I do appreciate the attempt to reuse equipment. Acorn would probably approve of recycling materials for the Destiny.
G: I believe that, yes.
R: Do we have something to say about the Destiny?
G: I have very little to say about the Destiny, except that it seems to speak to the seemingly inevitable destruction of the planet in the world of the books, and possibly in the world we live in. It makes Earthseed followers different kinds of survivors.
R: I want to have something to say about queerness, but it’s tricky in Butler’s fiction. She was pretty clear in her interviews that she wasn’t interested in talking about sexuality as a political issue, and didn’t appreciate folks speculating about sexuality in her writing. And yet, there’s SO MUCH going on about sexuality and identity in her writing! If we were talking about Fledgling, I’d have more to say, but then, if we were talking about Fledgling, I’d want to cite the as-yet-forthcoming scholarship of Theri Pickens.
G: As to queerness: I find a lot of Butler’s work to be somewhat biologically essentialist about the relationship between desire and reproduction, but in Parable of the Talents we have two distinct instances of queerness being set against the Church of Christian America: the horror of what happens to Allie and Mary, and Marc’s life in the closet. That felt noteworthy, particularly upon reread when I’d read more of Butler’s work.
R: There’s also May and Allie making a family of orphans. I would also offer Lauren dressing as a man on the road as a crypto-gloss on queerness, and who she “outs” herself to as they gather more folks in their group. Then she smiles at Bankole, remembers she’s supposed to be a young man, and then she and Bankole never have a talk about her being a woman. I don’t think it’s just essentialism, given that plenty of Lauren’s effort goes into *not* getting pregnant until she’s ready. And then we have her experience as a sharer while she’s close to other people having sex. And at the end, there’s her relationship with their early supporter that she backs away from and a kiss! I think it’s more complicated, but somehow never shows up as fully as it might.
G: Those are all good points. I hadn’t thought about the hyperempathy sex as queer, but you’re totally right, it’s in there. But no, it isn’t brought to the surface.
R: On space travel, Butler identified interplanetary space travel as a project big enough and hard enough that it might have the potential to keep people cooperating rather than asserting dominance. I’ve had political science theorists basically make the same argument, that what would solve human conflict is a unified global project/global threat. It’s interesting in Butler’s other space novels that getting to space or fending off/living with aliens isn’t enough to keep people from fighting each other.
G: That’s true, especially given that these were written later than most of her other space novels.
R: Do we have closing thoughts?
G: In terms of the mother-daughter relationship, it interested me that Lauren felt so potently biologically connected to Asha, whereas Asha either denies it vehemently or genuinely doesn’t feel it. This woman looks like her, big deal; she’s connected to Marc, the person who’s protected her. Whereas Lauren felt this physical drive the instant she saw Asha.
R: What’s tucked up inside of that in your reading? To me, it read as tragedy on Lauren Olamina’s side, and both a longing and wounded hesitation on Asha’s part. I mean, Lauren has longed for a connection with her own mother, and dreams about her. There’s some intergenerational legacy there.
G: I’m not sure exactly, except that to Lauren, all things are ESSENTIAL and HUGE, and Asha’s just trying to create some space in the world that she can call her own. She doesn’t do symbolic dimensions, and that seems the ultimate conflict between the two of them, almost, symbols versus the everyday.
R: That’s very pragmatic of her, or as she calls Marc: realistic. Or even: Asha is a survivor too, and she’s been making do with what she had, just like Lauren. Still, Asha’s a writer for Dreamasks. I think Butler shows us that these women who seem/feel different–from each other, from the parent figures in their lives– are more alike than they might admit to themselves.
In closing, I want to offer appreciation for the technical achievements of Butler’s writing. I think the structure of both books is both ambitious and also canny. Rereading them as a writer, I see all these opportunities that come from the diary/journal form. I think Butler may not be getting enough appreciation for the structural qualities of her work. Content wise, the Parables are books that keep coming back to me, and different pieces of these books, as with all Butler’s writing, blossom up like little revelations even years after I’ve read them.