Nisi Shawl's letter comes from Australian publisher and champion of underrepresented voices in fiction, Twelfth Planet Press, and is published in their upcoming collection of essays and letters dedicated to SFF pioneer Octavia Butler, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Edited by award-winning Senior Editor Alexandra Pierce and Editor Mimi Mondal, Luminescent Threads is now available from the Twelfth Planet Press website.
My one-and-only Octavia,
I did it. You knew I would. You knew right: I wrote and sold a novel—not in that order—and it has been printed and widely read and almost universally admired. Aren’t you glad? I dedicated Everfair to you. If only you were alive to appreciate that. But you died nearly eleven years ago.
I know you were an atheist; I know I’m a bit presumptive in addressing you as if some non-material element of Octavia Estelle Butler survives your death to be addressed. Fine. I’ll continue to presume for the length of this letter. How else will I be able to write you without crying endlessly?
Even the good news makes me miss you. My success, sweet as it is, tastes slightly of ashes. Your ashes.
You were right that I’d publish a novel one day, yes. I bet you wish you weren’t right about other things, though. About the callow hatred of the self-aggrandizing exclusionist US President-Elect whose campaign you appear to have predicted in your Parable books, for instance. Sometimes it’s nicer to be wrong.
In 2007, as soon after your fatal fall as I could bear to talk about you publicly, I organized a panel at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention whose Guest of Honor you once were. The panel’s title was “Genre Tokenism Today: The New Octavia Butler.” Here’s the description:
After the untimely death of the great writer Octavia E. Butler, some have asked who will take her place. A panel of African-descended women currently writing genre fiction addresses this question, talking about Octavia’s oeuvre and their own: similarities, differences, market forces, and the pressures to model their contributions to the field on hers. How many ways is this question just plain wrong? Who has a vested interest in there being “an Octavia,” new or old? What would a “new Octavia” look like? How does her literary legacy affect the field today, and how might it do so in the future? And how does this legacy relate to this disturbing question? 1
N. K. Jemisin, K. Tempest Bradford, Candra K. Gill, Nnedi Okorafor, and I started by telling our audience why each of us was in no way your replacement. Never could be. Never would want to.
But now, despite that, despite the endearment with which I opened this letter, it looks like we’re all going to have to be Octavias. All of us: women, and men, and every other gender as well; African Americans, Native Americans, and every other race—all of us. At least in this sense: we’re going to have to write change-the-world fiction, like you. We’re also going to have to bake change-the-world cookies and ride change-the-world horses and vote in change-the-world elections. We’re going to have to change the world. We’re going to have to do everything we can to maintain life on this planet.
We don’t have weapons but we do have numbers. And we have the memory of you, your pessimism and persistence. We have the path you were walking when you died.
Especially for science fiction authors of color, that path is easier to see now that you’ve walked it. Easier to see means easier to take. Also, taking it is way less lonely for people of color these days than it was when you first set out. As I said, we have numbers.
We still have obstacles, too, of course, including obstructive people, those who we would expect to be our fellow travelers. Just as when you first set out. Not everyone expects to see women on this path. Not everyone expects to see “the blacks” or “Mexicans” or “Orientals” or whatever other names we are (mis) given by those we surprise with our presence.
As we’ve found new ways to express our differences and new terms for the variety implicit in human existence, these have been used as new names for methods of discrimination. So sometimes when we write about characters with a desire for lovers of their own gender, they react badly: they taunt us and call us faggots, dykes, etc. Sometimes when we write about characters who desire no one and nothing, or everyone and everything, they think up fresh epithets for us, like cuck. Or they repurpose old ones: slut, prude. They lampoon our work, employing heavy hands to heap supposedly humorous abuse on our heads. (I’m not laughing. Neither would you—I can hear your sigh, see you glance heavenward.) They complain that we’re crowding the path, blocking their progress with our own. They want us out of their way. Either we walk the path like they do, they say, or we’re gone.
What would you do in those sorts of circumstances? I’m sure you would, like most of us you’ve left behind, persist.
I know from glimpses others have given me of your notes and journals that you used affirmations to bootstrap yourself up from obscurity to fame and fortune, Octavia. “I write bestselling novels...So be it. See to it.” We’re going to need affirmations as well, to get through the opposition we face, both from other writers and, more broadly, from the political climate of the incoming administration. I offer these:
“We are beautiful, and we have every right to glory in our beauty.”
“We belong where we’re going. We’re getting there.”
“We have important stories to tell, and important ways of telling them.”
“We live in love.”
As I write this letter to you, I’m on a train, riding home from the last stop on my Everfair publicity tour. Listening to Lee Morgan, warm and cozy and connected, admiring the long pale grass lying down in the fields we run through, the white-filled hollows where water froze in the night, the dried mullein spears standing sentinel by the dully gleaming tracks, the determined flights of ducks over open bays and wide streams. In the carriage around me other passengers chat, play cards, quilt, stroke the faces of their phones, drink cranberry juice, nap, adjust their glasses, dream. The world is dear and full of life.
Empty of you, though. How I wish you were still with us on this journey.
1. For a full report on this panel, those reading over Octavia’s shoulder should visit
https://thehathorlegacy.com/genre-tokenism- today-the- new-octaviabutler- panel-report/