News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pioneering writer Octavia Butler on writing Black people and women into sci-fi

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the new TV series "Kindred," a young Black woman gets transported back in time from the present day to the era of slavery. The series, which is now on Hulu, is based on the novel by the acclaimed late science fiction writer Octavia Butler. We'll hear an interview with her from our archive. But first, we have a review of the new series, which our critic-at-large, John Powers, says nicely captures Butler's knack for juggling painful realities and hope.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: One of the most familiar scenarios in science fiction is the time travel plot, from H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick to those episodes of "Star Trek," in which the vainglorious captain James T. Kirk gets shunted into the past and can't resist trying to change history. Time loops have been used in so many stories that you need real talent to make them original. One person who had the talent was the late Octavia Butler, the Black speculative fiction writer who, although she received a MacArthur Genius grant in 1995, has only recently begun to be fully appreciated as the visionary she was. In her most popular novel, the 1979 "Kindred," she put a searing spin on the time travel story, shuttling her heroine back and forth between 1970s la and a pre-Civil War plantation.

The book has now been turned into an ambitious new FX series by another MacArthur fellow, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who gives Butler's tale a twirl of his own. The appealing newcomer Mallori Johnson stars as Dana James, a 26-year-old Black writer who's just moved to 2016 LA in hopes of writing for TV. She quickly meets up with Kevin Franklin, a hipster-ish white waiter played by Micah Stock, who sometimes appears to be channeling Bill Murray. The two are just beginning a romance when, poof, Dana drops through a temporal trapdoor. She winds up in what we will learn is 1815 Maryland, where she saves a boy named Rufus from drowning and then is surrounded by menacing white folks. And then, poof, again, she's back in LA, trying to explain to Kevin what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KINDRED")

MALLORI JOHNSON: (As Dana James) I got up to get a glass of water, and I was here, and I was drinking it. And then suddenly, I wasn't here. I was somewhere else.

MICAH STOCK: (As Kevin Franklin) Where?

JOHNSON: (As Dana James) I don't know, by a river. There was this boy there and this woman, this woman who was in this dream that I had the night before with my mother.

STOCK: (As Kevin Franklin) So you fell asleep...

JOHNSON: (As Dana James) I don't know what - doesn't feel like it. Am I crazy? I sound crazy, but it happened. It just happened. I wasn't here.

POWERS: The craziness is just beginning. Not only does Dana keep falling into the past for longer and longer periods, she pulls Kevin along with her. They find themselves in a plantation owned by Rufus's father, the vicious Thomas Weylin - that's Ryan Kwanten - and his nasty wife, Margaret, played by Gale Rankin from "GLOW." As Dana and Kevin wade ever deeper into the treacherous currents of the antebellum South, she grasps that this plantation may be central to her family's history. And she realizes that she must try to help those trapped by slavery.

In adapting a modern classic, Jacobs-Jenkins has not shied away from making changes. Some of them help the show, like updating the contemporary sequences by 40 years, so that the line between past and present stays clean. We're not dealing with two periods that both feel historical. And where the novel's Kevin is Dana's sturdy, principled husband, the show's Kevin is less obviously noble and more steeped in today's irony drenched mannerisms. Since "Kindred" is a pithy novel driven by ideas, to work as a TV series, it needs to flesh out the characters and expand the action to create dramatic scenes. In the expansion, though, the show often loses its edge. Like too many series, it feels drawn out, especially in episodes that lacked the directorial snap of Janicza Bravo's pilot.

Season 1, which runs nearly 6 hours, covers only about half of the 288-page book. When Butler's novel first came out, it, like the 1977 TV sensation "Roots," was groundbreaking in its portrait of slavery. Decades on, such portraits have become more familiar from films like "12 Years A Slave" or TV series like "The Underground Railroad," which make clear its brutality. Although the show doesn't whitewash the emotional and physical violence of slavery, it doesn't dwell on trauma. Its theme is how today's America is inextricably bound to its 1815 version. Black people and white people are bound to a shared history, bound to a social structure that still favors white people and bound genetically in the millions of men and women with Black and white blood. It's not for nothing that the story is called "Kindred."

Weaving together the personal and the political, Butler always took care not to give in to despair. The series captures the core of hopefulness in Dana's story, both in her heroic willingness to risk herself to help others and in her emerging romance with Kevin. Their relationship suggests that despite the terrible divisions of race in our history, a Black woman and a white man can be kindred spirits.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new series "Kindred," which is now streaming on Hulu. It was adapted from a novel by Octavia Butler, who died in 2006 at the age of 58, but now seems even more popular than ever. We're going to hear the interview I recorded with her in 1993, after the publication of her novel "Parable Of The Sower," which made it onto the New York Times bestseller list in 2020. That's 27 years after its original publication. She won the genre's highest honors, two Hugo Awards and two Nebula Awards. She was a feminist and used science fiction to write about racial conflict, power, sexual and gender identity and climate change. In The New York Times, she was described as having laid the groundwork for the Afrofuturist movement before the term even existed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You're one of the few African Americans and one of the fewer African American women writing in the genre of science fiction. What speaks to you about the genre?

OCTAVIA BUTLER: I write science fiction because, first of all, I like it. I always liked it. When I was a kid, I read it and enjoyed it. And it was one of the first things that I began writing. I also write it because it offers me such freedom. There isn't anything that I can't do in science fiction - past, present, future, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, whatever, I can get away with all sorts of things in science fiction and fantasy, I should say, that might not be that possible in trade fiction.

GROSS: As a woman and as an African American, are there things that bothered you about the science fiction books that you read when you were first starting to read them?

BUTLER: Yes, I wasn't in them.

GROSS: Yeah, right. Right. And I don't know if this is just true of a certain type of science fiction movie and TV show, but it always seemed that when a lot of - when a type of male writer looked into the future, what he saw was women wearing a lot less with a lot more cleavage.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTLER: Right. Yeah. I read a lot of science fiction as a kid. And, of course, that meant reading boys books because that's what kids' science fiction was. I made up my own stories to put myself in them. I wound up writing science fiction from the point of view of girls and women, just because I was a girl and I am a woman. I wound up writing science fiction from the point of view of Black people because I am Black. But I've also explored and I, in a strange sense, I suppose, found out what it might be like to be a white male or whatever, you know. One of the things writing does is, is allow you to be other people without actually being locked up for it.

GROSS: We're talking empathy here, right?

BUTLER: Yes.

GROSS: When you entered the science fiction genre, were there a lot of women? Were there a lot of African Americans reading science fiction? And did your publisher worry about your books finding an actual market?

BUTLER: When I got into science fiction, I sold my first three books without an agent and with no particular connections. I just mailed them in over the transom So nobody knew who I was and nobody knew I was Black. And no - apparently, there wasn't any worrying. I didn't have any difficulty selling my first three novels. When I wrote "Kindred," which is unmistakably of special interest to Black people, I had a lot of trouble. All of a sudden, 15 publishers couldn't find a place for it. They didn't know how to sell it. And I have letters saying, oh, we really like it. It's wonderful. We just don't know what to do with it. Maybe you could make it a romance. Or maybe you could make it a juvenile. They just had no idea how to sell it as what it was.

GROSS: So how was it finally sold?

BUTLER: It was sold as a trade book, mainstream fiction and pretty much ignored for a while, I guess. When Beacon Press brought it back, it all of a sudden began to get a lot of the attention that I'd hoped it would get originally.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Octavia Butler in 1993 after the publication of her novel "Parable Of The Sower." That novel is set in Southern California and begins in the year 2024. That seemed like a long time ago when we spoke. Butler envisioned a dystopian future society ravaged by climate change and economic inequality. Here's how she described the world she portrayed in the novel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BUTLER: It's grim. All the things that I can see going wrong now - well, not all of them, but a good many of them have continued to go wrong. In 2025, for instance, the things that work best are the tax system. I mean, everybody still has to pay their taxes. A lot of people don't have jobs and are living on the street. Even though they work very hard, they're not able to earn enough to both live in a house and eat food. That sounds familiar, but in this case, it's more like India. It's Los Angeles, it's more like India, with whole families living camped out on the street. And it's so ordinary, so unremarkable that nobody pays any attention. It's not unusual to see horribly wounded people on the street because of whatever happened the night before. It's just a society that's just just about ready to collapse.

GROSS: There's a lot of arsonists in this society that you've created.

BUTLER: One of the things I've done is create a drug that makes people watch fire and get a sexual high from it. And naturally, this causes a lot of arson.

GROSS: There's a paragraph about arson that I'd like to read - I'd like you to read from your novel.

BUTLER: (Reading) It's Christmas Eve. Last night, someone set fire to the Payne-Parrish house. While the community tried to put out the fire and then tried to keep it from spreading, three other houses were robbed. Ours was one of the three. Thieves broke in, took all our store-bought food - wheat flour, sugar, canned goods, packaged goods. They took our radio, too, our last one. The crazy thing is, before we went to bed, we had been listening to a half-hour news feature about increasing arson. People are setting more fires to cover crimes, although why they bother these days I don't know. The police are no threat to criminals. People are setting fires to do what our arsonist did last night - to get the neighbors of the arson victim to leave their homes unguarded. People are setting fires to get rid of whomever they dislike, from personal enemies to anyone who looks or sounds foreign or racially different. People are setting fires because they're frustrated, angry, hopeless. They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it.

GROSS: People create fires in your novel, in part to get people out of their homes so the arsonist can steal everything from the home while the people have run out. How did you...

BUTLER: Of the neighboring homes, in particular.

GROSS: In the neighboring homes, right. Yes. So how did you get this idea of arson?

BUTLER: Well, I suspect you're asking if it came from the riots. Is that what you were thinking about?

GROSS: I wasn't, but that's not a bad question.

BUTLER: OK. Yeah, because I've been asked that several times. And the truth is, I've been working on this novel for about four years. I worked at it for three years trying to write it. And finally, during 1992, I did write it and was just about done with the basic draft of it when the riots came along. So the idea didn't come out of that. But people were - people have set fires for odd reasons, have done a great deal of harm for odd reasons. And one of the things I have noticed about people is that if they have a little bit of power, the only way they can, as I said in the book, prove they have it is to use it.

GROSS: The main character in your novel has what you've called hyper-empathy. In other words, she experiences other people's pain...

BUTLER: As though it were her own.

GROSS: As though it were her own. So in this very violent society, every time she's in proximity to somebody who has a gunshot wound or a stabbing wound, she feels that pain as if she had been shot or stabbed.

BUTLER: But what - I wanted to make sure that I wrote a novel in which everything that happened actually could happen. So none of this is parapsychological. There's no telepathy or anything involved. It's delusional. So it's - I mean, it doesn't help her that it's delusional, that she only thinks she feel this - that she feels these things. But it is delusional on her part. It's a result of her mother having taken a drug.

GROSS: I think part of what you're trying to say with this hyper-empathy is that if people really felt other people's pain, we couldn't possibly live in a violent society. It would hurt too much.

BUTLER: I thought so. When I began writing the book, I honestly thought that was what I was going to wind up doing. I thought hyper-empathy was something that I would find some way to spread to other people. But somewhere in the book, I realized - in writing the book, I realized that, no, people would find ways. They would find ways to carry on violence. For one thing, the hyper-empaths are very vulnerable. They are, as my character's brother says, almost natural slaves. It's much easier to abuse them than to abuse other people.

GROSS: My interview with Octavia Butler was recorded in 1993. Her novel "Kindred" has been adapted into a miniseries, which is streaming on Hulu. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with the late science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Her novel "Kindred" has been adapted into a miniseries that's now streaming on Hulu. I spoke with her in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You once said that you needed your fantasies when you were young to shield you from the world. What was especially bad about the world when you were growing up?

BUTLER: I think because my mother and her brothers and sisters grew up during the Depression and actually did know times when there was no food and when they were just about on the street, they had the idea that life - well, I suppose it's not that unusual an idea - that not only was life hard, but any job you could get, any work you could do, you should stick with it no matter how unpleasant it was. You should put up with any amount of tiresome behavior on the part of your employer. Life is hell, and you have to put up with it. And then, after you've put up with it for a while, you get to go to heaven. This didn't seem like anything I really wanted to grow up to.

GROSS: That's sometimes a hard pattern to change.

BUTLER: I was an only child, and I was, I guess, you could say, very much my own person. I kind of constructed my own world as I went along. I'd never really - I accepted the idea that you had to work for a living. But I didn't accept the idea that you had to do something you hated just because it paid.

GROSS: But, you know, writing must have seemed like a real long shot because...

BUTLER: Oh, gosh. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BUTLER: Everybody in the family said, oh, you can write in your spare time, and you can, you know, write as a hobby, whatever. But the idea of writing for a living was completely alien.

GROSS: When you were young and started writing stories, were the adults ever worried about you because of the kinds of stories you were caught up in? Did they seem unhealthy for a child?

BUTLER: We - my mother, at one point, took in elderly roomers. And I can remember telling them stories. And one of them in particular, my favorite old woman, she used to be a carnival mentalist. And I kind of...

GROSS: Oh, wow (laughter).

BUTLER: Yeah, I adopted her as a kind of stepgrandmother even though we were not related at all. My mother took in older people who weren't quite ready for the nursing home but who didn't want to live alone any longer and had them as paying - as roomers. She told my mother that maybe I was going a little far and maybe - you know, she seemed to think that I didn't know that I was telling stories, that they were fiction, and that maybe I actually believed them and maybe I needed a little help. So she was the main one who thought that maybe it was unhealthy for me to be doing that.

GROSS: Well, tell me more about this carnival mentalist. Did she use a lot of trickery?

BUTLER: She was a wonderful old lady. She used to scare the heck out of me. She could do - no, I never knew her to use any trickery at all. She was just - she knew people. She'd been alive for a long time. She was an observer of humanity. And you accepted her word for things. And if she told you something frightening, you worried about it. You definitely worried about it.

GROSS: Did she give you things to worry about?

BUTLER: Only if I annoyed her, which I tended to do 'cause I liked her, and I would kind of hang around and talk too much.

GROSS: Now, she was the one who thought that you were maybe too taken up with the stories, right?

BUTLER: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Did that scare you? Did you think maybe you were?

BUTLER: No. No. No, not at all. No, I probably shouldn't have had - I didn't have confidence in myself in social situations. But I was confident within myself that I knew what was real, which is probably an arrogant thing for anybody to feel. But I did feel that I knew what was real, and I wasn't having any problems with my fantasies.

GROSS: My interview with Octavia Butler was recorded in 1993. We'll hear an interview from our archive with a pioneer of lesbian fiction who died last month, Marijane Meaker, after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUN RA'S "SUNRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.