Yada yada

If you know Seinfeld, you’ll likely know of the episode in which much is made of the practice of yada-yada-ing over important details of a set of circumstances. Parable of the Talents feels like a very big yada-yada to me. In Parable of the Sower and at times in Talents, we get lots of details. But then we jump ahead suddenly to Olamina dead at 81 after a brief, tepid meeting with Larkin some 25 years earlier. Add this to all the sort of inconsistencies in the world building that I mentioned in a recent post, and this book really just did not do it for me.

This bugs me because I figure the book must be good and I must just be blind to it. It won the Nebula award, after all, which I take to be sort of the Pulitzer of speculative fiction. Other books nominated for the Nebula? Gravity’s Rainbow. Slaughterhouse-Five. Various and sundry books by Le Guin, including one of the marvelous Earthsea books. Gene Wolf’s The Urth of the New Sun (I didn’t love this whole set of books all around, but the world is certainly well imagined). Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Dhalgren. Dune (which I happen to be rereading right now and enjoying a lot). Several of George R. R. Martin’s books, which aren’t perfect but which hold up much better as fully-realized stories and worlds than Butler’s parables. Gaiman’s lovely The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Cloud Atlas. VanderMeer’s Annihilation (the follow-ups are weak, but I thought this one was really good). And then of course several of Jemisin’s books, which in my view are all stronger than Talents. Few of the ones I’ve listed here won the Nebula, but still, they show the sort of company the winners keep.

In the reader’s guide in my edition of Talents, Butler says in an interview that she really struggled to write the book and in fact rewrote and rewrote the first 150 pages without feeling satisfied. The death of her mother, she said, was the spark that changed her perspective and led her to make the story less about Olamina than about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. I like what Jeff said a little while ago about the story being sort of a set of gospels about Olamina, and I think that format makes sense and is even pretty compelling filtered through an estranged daughter’s perspective. But the book really just didn’t live up to that potential for me.

Putting aside my disappointment for a moment, I’ll note a couple of things that stood out to me as I read this last portion of the book.

I wondered if Marc and Olamina represented sort of a Cain and Abel story. Certainly there is enmity between them. Olamina is a sort of a farmer while Marc is sort of a shepherd (of his Christian America flock). I hadn’t really thought of it until, on page 307 of my edition (early in chapter 18), Larkin says that Marc’s time as a slave had marked him. God marked Cain to protect him when throwing him out of the Garden of Eden. The parallels aren’t entirely parallel, and it may be a stretch, but this is where my brain went.

On 366 and 377 (early in chapter 21), Larkin reflects on what she has learned about Earthseed over the years. It has grown rich and powerful, expects its members to teach and serve, and embraces a sort of self-will (“shape change”). It is a cult with charismatic (or “seductive”) leadership. It doesn’t have an actual god. And, of particular note to me:

I found that Earthseed was a wealthy sect that welcomed everyone and was willing to make use of everyone. It owned land, schools, farms, factories, stores, banks, several whole towns. And it seemed to own a lot of well-known people — lawyers, physicians, journalists, scientists, politicians, even members of Congress.

page 377

This sounds like at least an echo of what Scientology represents, and I wondered whether and what Butler would’ve thought of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics. He was, after all, a science fiction author too (he was not ever nominated for a Nebula award).

There’s more, but I’ve run out of steam. I guess I’ll yada-yada over it and say that I really wanted to like these books. I did like Parable of the Sower well enough. There was so much that Butler could have done with Talents — including, oh, writing actual science fictiony stuff about the technologies she mentions and the Mars mission that’s just getting ready to occur as the book ends — and I found the book disappointing. I’m really puzzled that the book won the big science fiction prize, and honestly I don’t know whether my puzzlement is a result of my being a bad reader of this book, my misunderstanding of the prestige of the award, or something else altogether.

Moses

Early in chapter 18 from this week’s reading (page 307 in my edition of the book), Larkin writes about her uncle Marc, saying, among other things, “What Uncle Marc had been through as a slave marked him.” Had Butler not shortened his name to “Marc,” this might not have stood out to me, but she did, and it did. Marc is marked. Marc is also jealous of his sibling. The Cain and Abel story isn’t a direct template for this relationship, but there are echoes, as God marked Cain before sending him wandering.

Thinking about that wandering put me in mind too of another Biblical story. Moses, you may recall, had an adoptive mother, saw a burning bush, revealed the word of God by writing down the ten commandments, and eventually led the Israelites out of slavery, sending them out to wander the land for 40 years.

Lauren also has an adoptive mother. Early in Parable of the Sower, she has dreams (visions?) of fire, and of course fire is in no short supply throughout that book (people worship it, even). She says again and again that she’s merely writing down, in her Earthseed verses, the truth she’s discovering, not a religion she’s making up. And in this week’s reading, she leads her people out of slavery. If one wants to stretch things a bit, one might even liken the saving mudslide to the parting of the Red Sea. Finally, she breaks her rescued people into smaller groups that wander off in different directions. There’s at least a slant rhyme here with the Moses story, no?

Harriet Tubman too came to be called the Moses of her people. And though Butler’s story doesn’t limit enslavement to African Americans, it’s hard not to think at least a little bit about Tubman when reading the group of Butler’s books we’ve read this year.

I have no stunning point or incisive literary criticism to offer here. I’m just noting an association that came to mind while I read. I’ll offer two further associations in the form of worthwhile books by living authors. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad gives a sort of embodiment to the historical underground railroad. Ta-Nehesi Coates is well known for his nonfiction, but his first novel, The Water Dancer, is well worth a read too. Set in 19th-century America, the book confronts slavery directly. Its magical realism elements didn’t always work for me, but I liked the book on the whole, and it was neat to see Coates writing lyrical prose fiction; I’d gladly read any straight-up realist fiction he published.

What if Butler Were White?

I have not read Harold Bloom,, but I understand loosely that his notion of the anxiety of influence describes the proposition that authors are sort of tied to their predecessors and can never really escape their influence. So, Wallace is frequently compared to Pynchon and Gaddis and is in turn cited as an inescapable influence on Levin. Jemisin may have some difficulty escaping the influence of Butler in the reception of her work. I wonder if there’s a name, though, for the phenomenon wherein something (the history or personal traits, say) of a book’s author influences how the book is received by the reader.

I think of David Mitchell, for example. I read all of his early novels and found Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet especially virtuosic. When I got to The Bone Clocks, I expected more of the same and was disappointed to find it a much less accomplished work. Like, it was bad within the broader context of Mitchell’s capabilities. My expectations based on what I knew of Mitchell’s prior work made it hard for me to read The Bone Clocks on its own terms.

In these books of Butler’s, I have so far kept right in the very front of my mind the fact that she is a widely read and respected Black woman author of speculative fiction. So of course her books will include a lot about racial injustice, right? Since this real heavy stuff seems sort of a given, I find myself picking other nits rather than spending much time thinking about and applauding the obvious.

And there are nits to pick. I like my fiction to hew pretty closely to the reality it presents. It’s ok if that reality is wacky as long as it’s fairly consistent. There are a fair few things that’ve stuck out to me in Parable of the Talents that do not seem consistent with the reality Butler is presenting. Paul mentioned a few of these in his post from week one: Would systems like taxation and copyright really be upheld in this lawless country? Compulsory voting seemed far-fetched to me too, given that there are so many squatters scattered around the country in settlements lacking real infrastructure. Butler’s description of the housetruck is of a very formidable military-grade weapon, to my mind. Such a thing would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — likely more given the inflated value of money in this world — and it beggars belief that the Noyer family could really have afforded such a thing. Maintenance on such a vehicle would require specialized knowledge and materials unlikely to be available to the Acorn community and yet they manage to keep the housetruck in fairly good shape. Later we learn of the maggot vehicles, which seem like souped up versions of housetrucks. Who is manufacturing and distributing these? And how can Dreamasks and slave collars possibly be widely available in an impoverished society? Who is mass producing such things in these times? And how does Bankole keep medical supplies in stock? There are carefully guarded shops out there, sure, but are they really likely to carry more than the basics in terms of medical supplies? Have they suddenly stopped requiring prescriptions for the more potent medications? In other medical marvels, Bankole seems to be able to determine that his child will be a girl long before she’s born and without the benefit (presumably) of any sonogram machine. There’s a lot of this sort of fracturing of the reality Butler presents, and it’s been very distracting to me.

I wonder if I’m being fair, though. If, for example, a white man had written this book, might I find myself focusing on the themes of racism and feminism in the book instead, and thinking the author pretty woke for bringing them up, and excusing a little more freely these nits? Is it fair that Butler, by virtue of the marginalizations she cannot escape, should have to do the work both of highlighting these marginalizations and of writing an air-tight speculative fiction narrative?

I think the very best work manages to do both of these things. Le Guin wrote great speculative fiction (at least the bits I’ve read) and also wrote about gender. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy both presents a marvelous, consistent world and pokes at the cruel use of Black bodies to serve the populace.

Still, I wonder if my expectations here have been fair. Am I holding Butler to a higher standard than I might a white writer because, in a way, she gets the anti-racist stuff for “free” or as a given? Hold that thought for a moment while I provide a less fraught example. Say a former professional baseball player who lived a long baseball life took up novel writing and indeed wrote a baseball novel. I think I would expect that the baseball parts of the novel would be flawless and also less effortful for him, given that he lived them. So I would really want the other parts of the novel to shine. That’s what I’m getting at when I say that Butler gets the race and feminism stuff for “free.”

Only of course she doesn’t get it for “free.” In fact it’s a greater burden to exist as a Black person in America and perhaps a hardship or an annoyance to feel that one must write about it as well.

So that’s what I’m chewing on as we head into the last half of the book and the final in this series. If I’m finding some of Butler’s work to be less to my liking than work that maintains a consistent (even if wacky) reality, is that fair? Would I feel the same if Butler had been white?

Who should I trust?

I had sort of a lightning bolt moment when reading Gulliver’s Travels in high school. I found the book kind of interesting but also tedious at times. And I took everything pretty much at face value. It didn’t occur to me that I might dislike or distrust a character who wasn’t, at face value, a capital-B, capital G Bad Guy. I mean, stories have clear archetypes, right? The Bad Guy wears a black hat and has a sneer, right? I forget whether it was Gulliver himself or one of the haughty houyhnhnms who attracted the lightning bolt, but I remember that my mind was blown when my teacher, in effect, gave me permission to read sort of outside the boundaries of the archetypes. It was ok, she taught me, to countenance ambiguous characters, to perform independent interpretive acts while reading. It sounds simple, but it really was a formative moment for me.

I’ve read a lot since then, and I’m often still pretty dim and literal in my reading, but I’ve learned to read with a little more nuance. Still, the early part of Parable of the Talents has my head spinning a little. We hear from several people:

  • The daughter of Olamina and Bankole
  • Olamina
  • Bankole
  • Olamina’s brother Marcus (or Marc? or Marcos?)

And they all have different points of view. We’re pretty well used to Olamina’s voice by now. Her religion seems reasonably level-headed even if it’s not clear (to us, to Marcus, to Bankole, to Dan Noyer…) why she’s babbling on about change as a god. I haven’t fully understood her, but I’ve felt inclined enough to trust her as an agent for good.

But her daughter calls her a zealot and a weapon. Her daughter’s view of Olamina so far seems lukewarm at very best.

The daughter writes more warmly of Bankole. And I like Bankole. But I have some ambivalent feelings about him too. After all, he hooked up with someone very much his junior (just barely an adult) and didn’t think to feel weird about it until afterward. And he’s putting Olamina in kind of a weird position by pressuring her to move to a settlement when he knows her mind is set on making something of Earthseed at Acorn, though his intentions are positive enough. I can’t really fault him for this, and in fact he’s really probably right about it, if a little old-fashioned (but then, he’s kind of old). I feel a little ambivalent about him is where I’m landing here.

I don’t know yet what to think about Marcus. His niece says that he’s likely a worse zealot than Olamina. He abhors chaos while Olamina embraces change. He’s certainly had a hard few years and has plenty of reason to be complicated.

I sure don’t know yet what to make of the daughter. Does she have an agenda? Is she going to wind up being the voice of Butler who helps us see what’s problematic about too easily trusting a messiah figure, or that figure’s opposite, or a kind but old-fashioned man who is all to ready to run arms open into something that seems a little like a sort of gentrification? Or will the daughter turn out to function essentially like a Greek chorus? Or will she become a key player as we get deeper into the book?

So we’ve got these four viewpoints, each at least a little different from the others, and I haven’t yet figured out whose to weigh the most heavily, or how to consider them all together. And of course there’s no saying I have to. But it’s on my mind as I read, this multiplicity of perspectives, and the commentary on the part of the daughter that brings them all together.

Sculptor and Clay

Having finished Parable of the Sower, I still have no idea how to receive the character and the teachings of Lauren Olamina. Looking back at the foreword by N.K. Jemisin after finishing the book, I was a little heartened to read this:

Lauren Olamina no longer felt anachronistically know-it-all to me, as she had when I’d first sampled the novel. (She always read to me as an older woman’s idea of what a smart teenager should be, rather than a realistic rendering of what smart teenagers are actually like.)

This doesn’t precisely capture my feelings about Lauren, though it comes close to capturing what bugs me about the epigraphs, which is that they feel kind of half-baked or faux-prophetic, so that I don’t know whether to receive them as if they’re a sort of scripture to revere or whether to receive them as if they’re a kid’s attempt to write a scripture to be revered. That is, I’m not clear on whether the crummy writing is Lauren’s or Butler’s. I’ve had similar thoughts about other books before — “is this a case of an unreliable narrator or does the author just not know how to write consistently from the speaker’s point of view?”

Jemisin writes in the foreword about reading Butler’s parable books at different times in her life and getting different things from them at each time. She certainly values Butler’s work, and her foreword makes me want to revisit the books a decade or two in my future. Meanwhile, I think I’ll content myself with putting aside further attempts to puzzle out intent vs. effect of the epigraphs.

I’ll go one step further and identify something positive I gained from the epigraphs. There is a quote from the epigraph at the top of chapter 22 that stood out to me in this week’s reading:

God
Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Sculptor and clay.

Reading this was sort of a record-scratch moment for me, as it brought to mind two lines of poetry I’ve tumbled around together in my mind in association with one another for twenty-some years. The first is the closing line of Yeats’s “Among School Children“:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The other is a line from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?

This notion of art and artist inseparable, articulated beautifully in these rhythmic questions, has always stuck with me, and I must’ve repeated these lines to myself a few hundred times over the years if only for the comfort of pronouncing the syllables.

I have no great revelation to share about these quotes. Butler’s phrase just stood out to me and made satisfying connections to some other things I had read.

As for the book as a whole? I liked it. It’s grim, but I like grim. And there’s hope, but I don’t think it’s wide-eyed, unbridled hope. There’s also a lot left on the table. What more might we learn about sharers in Parable of the Talents? Will Acorn turn into an oasis and counterpoint to Olivar or will it be scavenged and burned again? Will more be made of Olivar? Will Earthseed take hold? Will Lauren wind up among the stars? I haven’t read Parable of the Talents and am eager to begin.

Intersectionality

Probably you’ve heard of intersectionality. But maybe you haven’t. I hadn’t until the past few years. It’s a metaphor coined by law professor and anti-racist activist Kimberlé Crenshaw that helps describe compounded disadvantages. You could find far worse ways to spend 7 minutes than to listen to her explain the metaphor and its origin here. Go watch it if you haven’t run across the term before. I’ll wait. (I started trying to briefly explain it, but Crenshaw is so eloquent on it that my ham-fisted attempt to render it in my own words seemed folly.)

Photo by Joey Lu from Pexels

We see lots of compounded disadvantage in The Parable of the Sower. There’s sexism, classism, racism, and other bigotry on display. People who can’t read are further disadvantaged. Lauren is especially interesting, as she is a Black woman (there’s a familiar intersection there), but she’s also a sharer. This compounds her disadvantage by making it very difficult for her to even defend herself effectively, since if she does so, she’ll knock herself down with empathetic pain when she knocks down any assailant. It’s a particularly nasty disadvantage that reminded me of Dana’s double bind in Kindred; if Dana didn’t rescue Rufus, she would be undoing herself, recall.

We see some other little glimpses of intersectionality when Lauren and Zahra and Harry leave their neighborhood. Lauren disguises herself as a man to rid herself of the disadvantage of clearly being a woman. They joke about Harry getting a tan so that he can rid himself of the disadvantage of being a member of a mixed-race party.

There are of course actual paved intersections in the book. On page 197 in my edition (early in chapter 17), Lauren and company move from the 118 to the 23 freeway. There’s a big fire nearby, and there’s also the danger of a water station as they transition, approximately through this intersection. These dangers are in play all along their route, but it struck me that Butler brought these two elemental opposite dangers together as these freeways converged.

Just a few pages later (same section, page 203 in my edition), the party comes to the beach and has moved from the 23 to the 101, which runs all the way through California heading north and which they’ll follow as far as they can. It’s at approximately this intersection that they team up with the small family — a Black man, a Latina, and their child who have their own disadvantages. And it’s at about the time these groups come together in spite of their shared caution that things really start clicking with Lauren’s Earthseed ideas. She gets, she thinks, her first convert in Travis Charles Douglas, the father in their group of new companions. It was at the one intersection that Lauren helped the family and after banding together at about the time of the second freeway intersection that sharing their struggle made the whole group stronger.

My impression is that Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality was mostly limited to legal circles in its first few years, which would have coincided with Butler’s work on Parable of the Sower. So I don’t mean to suggest that Butler is picking up what Crenshaw was putting down and dramatizing it. Intersections have been symbols going way back before Crenshaw and Butler ever put pen to paper. Still, it’s a neat convergence, especially in a chapter whose epigraph reads, in part, “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”

There’s a lot more going on in this section than this tenuous connection to critical race theory. We’re learning more about Lauren’s belief system. The stuff about entropy was pretty neat to run across. Lauren acknowledges that it’s weird to personify a belief system as a deity and explains why she chose to do so (it’s pragmatic, basically). I had been wondering, so I’m glad she answered. We see a budding romance and some attendant tension, and we see Harry betray Lauren’s pronouns (is this a sort of thoughtless microaggression, I wonder?), and I sure wonder how that’s going to come back later. And we learn more about Lauren’s vision for Earthseed, which is, somehow, “to take root among the stars,” which connects back to the Mars mission she thinks about early in the book. So we’re seeing, perhaps, a turn away from apocalypse fiction and toward science fiction, which is beginning to whet my appetite for Parable of the Talents.

The Devil is in the Details

For me, it feels early yet to say much of substance about Parable of the Sower. It’s dystopian. It seems prescient, as Paul has noted. I think it’s not so far from our current reality, perhaps, as Paul suggests, though certainly it’s not quite our reality. I thought for example about “the talk” that Black children are given and wondered if the story didn’t offer a way into trying to understand what it might feel like if all kids (all people) had to live with that pervasive fear. That is, maybe the world does feel this dangerous, or nearly this dangerous, to Black people who are doing things as audacious as driving while Black, walking while Black, etc. The book was published in 1993; Rodney King was beaten by police in 1991. The police in Parable of the Sower seem little more inclined to administer justice than the L.A. police of 1991, or the Minneapolis police of 2020.

But I feel a little uneasy about presuming to say much more than that about the topic. It just feels a little weird for a reason I’m having trouble sussing out for myself, much less writing about coherently for you.

So, as is my way, I’m going to zoom in on a weird little detail and make much out of nothing.

I came to this detail by way of thinking about the epigraphs, which I sort of hate. Lots of sci-fi and fantasy books have these sorts of epigraphs — things that give little slices of the world that don’t exist precisely within the story. They add texture and a sense of sort of deep time and weight to the books when done well. But here they seem to me like so much nonsense — perhaps like the “deep thoughts” of a child trying to articulate a tolerable worldview in bleak times. I’ve wondered if Lauren is indeed some sort of philosopher or sage or whether she’s just a kid making up nonsense and calling it poetry. She expresses some doubts about this herself, and her father characterizes her as arrogant. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve taken a liking to Lauren. But the epigraphs really aren’t working for me so far.

Noodling on this brought me around to thinking about form or genre in general, which is one of my tics. This is a parable. So what is a parable exactly? It’s a simple story told to teach a lesson. Butler’s parable happens to build on and be named after the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13, which I won’t here attempt to interpret (though perhaps there’s some self-reflection I could do based on the parable given my thorny reception of Lauren’s verses). No, I’ll leave the hermeneutics here to fitter minds and turn my attention to word origins.

Parable. It’s a weird little word, short in length for its three lovely syllables. Sometimes I can pretty confidently figure out the approximate origin of a word based on its roots, but this one I wasn’t sure about. The words “parabola” and “palaver” came to mind, and as it turns out, the three are related. In geometry, a parabola is a comparison of a line relative to a fixed point, resulting in the familiar curve (I wonder, suddenly, how many parables we might find in Gravity’s Rainbow?). In story-telling, I suppose we’re looking at the comparison between the essentially straight line of the surface story relative to the fixed point of the lesson it aims to purvey. Maybe that’s too fanciful.

Going back a little farther in the origin of the word, we get to the Greek parabállein — meaning “to cast before” — of which the bállein part means “to reach by throwing, let fly, strike, put, place.” Ok, neat enough. Thinking of both math and story-telling put me in mind too of the hyperbola and of hyperbole, which seemed similarly fashioned. And it turns out that the bol part of all of these words comes from that same Greek root bállein. Given that a sower is one who casts seeds, then, the parable of the sower is, in a way, a casting before one who casts, which is not significant but is oddly satisfying.

The final word connection I’ll make here is one that surprised me — these words are all tangentially related to the word “devil.” It makes more sense when you think of the Spanish “diablo” or of “diabolical.” See that “bol” root again? The word comes ultimately from the same bállein plus dia, meaning “across.” The devil is the one who tries to sort of throw some obstacle across your path. This sidebar has nothing at all to do with the book but was a fun thing to discover.

I will, at last, make one observation about the book itself, which is that the Biblical parable of the sower is much more about the reaper than the sower. Where the sower’s seeds fall has an impact on how the seeds will grow, but Jesus connects the growth of the seeds to the recipient of scripture, so that the sower has little to do with the story at all. Butler seems so far to be doing something rather different, as the story is very much about Lauren as the sower of Earthseed. Of course in the end, it may turn out to be about the recipients of Lauren’s (and Butler’s?) scripture after all. We don’t yet know what will come of Lauren’s world, but as Paul points out, we’re already seeing how some of Butler’s warnings about our recent past and near future seem to be coming at least partially true. Maybe Butler’s book is ultimately about the recipient too.

Odds and Ends

Kindred strikes me as sort of an easy read. Well, it’s a very tough read in that it describes graphically some horrendous stuff. But it is not difficult in the way that something like Ulysses is. You can just sort of cruise along and not stumble over much about the technique or the structure of the story. It’s not exactly a beach read, but it maybe could be if not for the awful subject matter. I think what I mean (though I feel weird saying it) is that it is not especially complex or difficult to follow.

The last read we did here, Bubblegum, comes to mind as I think about this issue of difficulty and complexity. Bubblegum also had horrifying stuff in it that was unpleasant to think about. Aside from that, it wasn’t a Ulysses-hard read. It went down pretty easily. I didn’t plod through it as I’ve plodded through some of the big difficult books. But it had complexity and heft (literally and figuratively) in a way that, for me, Kindred does not. Bubblegum required that I keep many characters and ideas and even modes of reading in my mind all at once, even while the act of reading it was pretty easy. But I had so much more to say about Bubblegum. It pulled so many more things together and sparked a lot of speculation and ideas as I read.

Kindred sort of doesn’t. I’m having difficulty trying to come up with any particularly interesting things to say about it that aren’t obvious. Perhaps this is a strength of the book: If the thread is pretty easy to find, any message the book is designed to convey is likely to come across more clearly than if the thread is tangled up amid a bunch of unspooled yarn. Still, the book feels a little thin to me, and I’ve found it hard to say much here at the end that seems very interesting.

Rather than torture you with my effort to do some big meaningful synthesis, I’ll leave you with some questions and notes I jotted down after finishing the book, while trying to figure out what I wanted to write about. Maybe y’all will have something more meaningful to say about one or two of these things in the comments. Or maybe you’ll have something to share that’s altogether different, in which case please speak up!

Abandonment and Acquisition

We see a lot of abandonment in the book. Rufus is terrified that Dana will abandon him. Kevin is accidentally abandoned for five years in the past. Kevin and Dana’s families sort of shut them out. Rufus’s mom leaves the family behind. Plantation owners force abandonment on enslaved people by tearing families apart. I don’t have a thesis here; it’s just something I noticed that seemed interesting in a book that is in large part about the acquisition and holding of people.

The Arm

I feel a little dim, but I felt like there must be some very heavy significance to Dana’s leaving her arm behind. The book starts out with this detail, and the removal of the arm as Rufus clutches it seems important as the climactic moment of Dana’s final return home. Yet to me, that scene felt sort of clumsy and vague. And the best explanations I can come up with for the significance of the arm thing are trite things about embodiment, or Dana literally and figuratively leaving a part of herself in the past (taken from her by a white man), or Dana’s returning to the present diminished or broken by her experiences in the past. What big significant thing am I missing?

External References

There are a few references to external sources. I didn’t write them all down, but there are slave narratives and history books. There’s a fake external reference to Kevin’s first successful novel. We don’t learn what Kevin’s novel is about, but the title is a Biblical reference to Moses and Aaron in Meribah (striking the rock to produce water — which by the way may be another example of abandonment in a way, as Moses here may have sort of left God behind). Then of course there’s the Bible itself. And then there’s a reference to Robinson Crusoe, a slaver lost to the world he knows (that’s about all I remember; it’s been ~30 years since I read this one). Were I more industrious, I might try to make some elaborate set of connections among these various sources.

Stereotypes

Is there something about stereotypes to poke at here? The overseers are stereotypically bad. Dana is painted (by Alice, at least) as sort of an Uncle Tom type character. Kevin at times seems a bit like the white savior type. Dana and Kevin’s families behave about as you’d expect when they learn that the two are in a relationship. Stereotypes (or perhaps archetypes) can be useful in literature that seeks to make a point. Reliance on them in lieu of more complex characterization can also make characters seem sort of flat. Is Butler relying on stereotypes here, and if so, does it suit her purpose or does it subtract from the complexity and beauty of the book?

Father and Son

Does Rufus become his father, as Dana had wondered about back on page 68? Which of the two of them is worse? I’m not sure what to make of Rufus’s insistence that Tom is fair and has a sort of honor (granting as much requires a little cognitive dissonance at any rate). Tom’s cruelty is at least in the service of profit and enterprise, whereas Rufus’s is oddly based in a sort of perverse personal greed. He hurts Alice and Dana because he wants to exert some personal claim over them. Maybe the whys and wherefores of the cruelty are beside the point. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to compare and contrast the two men when the result is cruelty toward a whole group of people. Still, I found myself noodling on it a little.

Weird Things

I often focus on weird things when I read, like how authors use random (or purposeful?) marks on the page. Last week, I gave some thought to names. As I wrapped up the reading, I thought about chapter names. We have the river, the fire, the fall, the fight, the storm, and the rope. It’s an interesting variety of names. They’re all basic words. Fire, storm, and river are sort of elemental. Fall, fight, and storm might point metaphorically to some greater force or set of events or circumstances (i.e. a sort of fall from grace, or the greater fight/storm against racism). Fall may also do double-duty (or triple-duty) given that it can represent a season of dying. Rope is sort of the outlier here, in a couple of ways. For one, it’s the most concrete of the names. A rope is a thing you can hold in your hand. All the chapters but “The Rope” also refer to the things that put Rufus’s life in immediate danger and called Dana to him. But the rope — presumably the rope by which Alice hanged herself — is much less directly the cause of Rufus’s mortal peril. I might’ve expected that Dana would return to find Rufus himself hanging by his neck. Indirectly, I suppose the rope did bring about Rufus’s death, as it is Alice’s death that sends him over the edge, but the connection here seems much more tenuous. I wonder if there’s something to be made of this. I’ve got the germ of an idea about how enslavement and racism indirectly hurt white people too, as the rope (even as late as Butler’s lifetime used for lynchings of Black people) indirectly led to Rufus’s undoing, but it hasn’t quite crystallized for me as an argument yet and feels like a bit of a stretch.

On Fairness

I’ve got a few things on my mind from this week’s reading.

One is the strife between enslaved women. Liza discloses Dana’s departure to win some sort of favor, but then Dana’s allies give her a beating in retribution. More interesting is the conflict between Alice and Dana once Alice recalls the truth of her enslavement. Alice lashes out at Dana but later catches herself (starting on page 167 in my edition):

“What’s the matter with you” she said wearily. “Why you let me run you down like that? You done everything you could for me, maybe even saved my life. I seen people get lockjaw and die from way less than I had wrong with me. Why you let me talk about you so bad?”

“Why do you do it?” …

“Because I get so mad… I get so mad I can taste it in my mouth. And you’re the only one I can take it out on — the only one I can hurt and not be hurt back.”

“Don’t keep doing it,” I said. “I have feelings just like you do.”

I have nothing profound to say about this strife, but it stood out to me. In a section titled “The Fight,” I wondered whether Butler meant to call attention to the physical fight that summoned Dana to the past or whether she might also mean to call attention to the infighting she portrays among the women (also perhaps to, you know, the fight for civil rights in Butler’s own lifetime).

The second thing on my mind this week was names. “Rufus” as a name for a red-haired person stood out to me as awfully obvious as a clue that names might have some specific meaning for Butler (as indeed they frequently do in fiction). Dana’s name too is interesting, since we learn at some point that it’s actually “Edana,” which isn’t a name I had encountered before. “Edana” is of Irish origin and means “fire” while “Dana” from the Hebrew means “arbiter” or “God is my judge” and from the Sanskrit means “generosity.” Dana is awfully generous, isn’t she? “Kevin” means “handsome” and “Carrie” interestingly means “free man” (though it’s a girl’s name). “Alice” means “noble or exalted” and “Nigel” can mean “champion” or “black.” I have no thesis about the names in the book but was just curious about how much significance the various names might have. I’d say the significance is mixed and that sometimes a name may just be a name without having to mean anything big.

The third main thing I turned my thoughts to this week was the notion of fairness. Etymologically, “fair” comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning “suitable, fitting, appropriate, nice.” That came into English with the sense of “beautiful, good-looking, attractive.” So when we say that someone is fair-skinned (as is Kevin, whose name happens, recall, to mean “handsome”), we’re saying they’re beautiful. The implications of this word association are problematic at best. But of course fairness also has to do with doing what’s fitting or equitable. And it’s a quality that Rufus insists his father has, in spite of his other failings. On page 134, Rufus tells Dana that Tom won’t whip her for following Rufus’s orders, since Tom is a fair man. Later, on page 181, when Dana has confronted Rufus about not sending her letters to Kevin, he reports that his father had written Kevin after all. The idea here is that Tom felt that Rufus should have kept his word and so kept it for him out of a sense of the importance of keeping your word. It’s not fairness precisely, but it’s a strange ethical hangup for a man who enslaves people, abused his child, and in general is just sort of a cantankerous cuss.

So what does it mean? Why is Butler drilling home the idea that Tom Weylin has a sort of decent moral or ethical center in spite of his flaws? Is he fair and honorable? Dana has this to say about him too (page 134):

His father wasn’t the monster he could have been with the power he held over his slaves. He wasn’t a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his soiety said were legal and proper. But I had seen no particular fairness in him. He did as he pleased. If you told him he wasn’t being fair, he would whip you for talking back.

Is he fair or not? Is Rufus simply a bad judge of character? Is Butler on board with the notion that people are a product of their time? How can she say at once that Weylin is not a monster and that he’d likely whip somebody for talking back? Is her purpose with this stuff to portray a complex character in Weylin? If so, does she succeed?

Paradoxes

Something you see often enough in science fiction (putting aside whether Kindred actually is science fiction, or fantasy, or whatever) is time travel and its attendant paradox. Actually there are a number of flavors of temporal paradox, but the one I’m thinking of is the one in which, when going back in time, you might change things that would change your present and thus potentially impact you and your ability to go back in time to begin with.

If Dana goes back in time and changes enough about Rufus’s life, he might not turn out to be her progenitor, which in turn would prevent her from going back in time to make those changes. This is familiar territory for Marty McFly.

On page 51, Butler brings up another paradox as Dana and Kevin talk about her return from her second visit to Rufus. Recall that their theory is that, as a threat of Rufus’s death is what calls her to him, the threat of imminent death to her is what brings her back home. Dana says:

For instance, I would have used your knife against that patroller last night if I’d had it. I would have killed him. That would have ended the immediate danger to me and I probably wouldn’t have come home.

In short, in order to remain alive in order to attempt to return home, she may have to do something that will prevent the thing that enables her to return home. It’s a paradox.

A little later, on page 68 in my edition, Dana reflects on the man Rufus is likely to become:

As I hurried up the steps and into the house, I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched — growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him — a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come. I might even be making things easier for Alice.

It’s horrifying, isn’t it? Dana not only must fight to stay free and alive in an environment inimical to that imperative but also bears the burden of trying to make things better for those who will both follow her (as time traveler) and produce her (as ancestors). She must be extraordinarily careful lest she change the past in a way that negates her future present (this stuff is hard to write about intelligibly). And she must grapple with how difficult it is to be the guardian of a child raised in a society that enslaves Black people and infantilizes women. It’s sort of an ethical double-bind wrapped within a temporal paradox.

I read this passage after listening to an episode of a podcast titled Hear to Slay, by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. They label it “the Black feminist podcast of your dreams,” and it is very well worth listening to — fun, incisive, serious, and informative all at once. I’m a few episodes behind and today was listening to the February 1 episode entitled “It’s Our Country Too,” in which they chat with country music artist Rissi Palmer about country music and Black country music. They talk some about why Black women often do hard, extra labor, and in short, it’s so that others who follow can have it easier. Palmer came back to country music on her own terms in spite of getting screwed by the industry. At about the 30-minute mark of the episode, she says “I keep fighting, and I keep caring about it, because, while I’ve figured out a way to have a career and a life and be happy outside of it, people that look like me, and anybody else, if that’s what they want, they should be able to have it.” This seems to me to be directly related to what Dana’s doing in Kindred. Of course she is trying to survive, but she thinks too (and foremost) of Rufus’s safety and upbringing, of those generations between Rufus and the Dana of 1976, and of her husband Kevin (a white man). She is serving, to borrow a relevant phrase from Hurston, as the mule of the world, carrying the burdens of others.

Like many people in marginalized groups, Butler is carrying the burden herself, describing awful, painful details of enslavement in order to tell a story about the past and the legacy of being Black in America. Activists and other Black people who speak on social justice take on this burden not to improve their situations but to improve the situations of current and future others. This too strikes me as a sort of near-paradox: In order to put a stop to the horror and the damage it causes, people are made to immerse themselves in the horror and suffer the damage it causes.