This month is not only the first anniversary of the Octavia Lab at the Central Library, a do-it-yourself studio space, but also Octavia E. Butler’s birthday on June 22. During this time we are reflecting on her legacy in the genre of science fiction and speculative fiction and how it will continue to inspire authors and readers for generations to come.
Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, Tananarive Due, and N.K. Jemisin are just a few of the many authors she influenced with her words and ideas.
Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American author of Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism for children and adults. She is the winner of Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Locus and Lodestar Awards and her debut novel Zahrah the Windseeker won the prestigious Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. Okorafor discovered the works of Octavia Butler in the early 2000s while attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at Michigan State University. Since that time she has supported the petition to replace The World Fantasy Award statuette bust of H.P. Lovecraft with a bust of Octavia Butler and in 2018 wrote the introduction to the graphic adaptation of Butler’s Kindred.
Nisi Shawl’s work has been nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards and was the winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Shawl dedicated their first novel, Everfair, to Octavia Butler. In Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler Shawl wrote a posthumous letter to Butler, in which they described Butler’s loss to the writing community and the absence created by her untimely death:
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.
Tananarive Due is an award-winning author who teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. A leading voice in black speculative fiction for more than 20 years, along with her husband, author Steven Barnes—Due actually knew Octavia Butler.
In a 2017 interview, Due described Butler and her work’s continuing relevance:
I knew her as someone who liked to laugh. [She] was very passionate about the world and trying to preserve it in every way she could think of and trying to warn us off our path of destruction with every book in a different way. I think that’s part of the reason why so many readers are embracing her now because more of us are consumed with the questions she was consumed with. I think the rest of us are just catching up with her and realizing how precarious our existence can be.
N.K. Jemisin is an award-winning speculative fiction writer who has also worked as a counseling psychologist. In 2018, her Broken Earth trilogy made Jemisin the only author to have won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for three consecutive years. Jemisin has publicly stated that Butler was an influence for her, but in terms of career and not in terms of content. In a 2008 interview, Jemisin said of Butler:
[I]f she hadn’t become a writer, I’m not sure I would be writing today. It would’ve been all too easy to give in to the little voices in the back of my mind, or the not-so-little voices from doubters among my loved ones, who insisted that my dream was unrealistic at best, laughable at worst. She was my clarion call—the lonely beacon in the wilderness letting me know that I was on the right track, that someone had been along the path before me, and that it was possible to reach the end.
So—thanks, Ms. Butler. If memory is the only true immortality, then may you live forever.