The End of All Our Exploring

The other posts here, and an exchange I’ve been having with another friend who’s also just read Kindred for the first time, have had me ruminating on a few things that I think I’ve figured out how to solidify together. There are two parts to this, really: the description of what I see happening in the text, and the interpretive metaphor. Let’s go with the metaphor first, since it’s more overarching and I’ve already broached the subject in a comment on Daryl’s recent post.

Butler is giving us a way to reconceive the psychic force of our shared history of slavery as not primarily a horror, but a wound. (Dana’s lost arm, Kevin’s PTSD…) That’s not to say there’s no horror—Paul reminds us of an especially hideous moment that branded itself on Kevin’s memory. But it’s important, I think, that we get that incident at some remove: Kevin’s telling Dana about a thing he saw years earlier (in his subjective time frame). The move here is to locate another category we can assign to the gravamen of slavery and its legacy, not deny any of it, and then to look at what that new framing means for the possibilities of our relationship to it.

Throughout the book, Butler shows us that the system of slavery is destructive to everyone. Obviously I’m not saying what we really need to think about in terms of slavery is how it hurt White people; what I’m saying is that Butler is very clearly showing us that it also hurt White people. This is one of the reasons for the move from horror to wound, because it’s hard to feel a moral demand to care about the effects on a monster of their monstrousness. You don’t sympathize with Dracula—but you can with Renfield, because he’s been damaged too. It’s empathy, not absolution.

We’ve talked some about Tom and his code of honor, and in this last week’s reading Rufus became an especially complex character. The reason it’s so uncomfortable to engage with them is that Butler gives us enough to see who they could have been if they hadn’t been warped by the world they live in. As my friend said to me, slaveowners were humans too, after all, with all the psychological and emotional needs that entails. They developed their own moral and ethical code to contain their lives in the system they lived in—and vastly benefited from—and justify the inversions of human feeling that it demanded. It’s no sure thing, but we get enough flashes of the man Rufus could have grown up to be, I think, to feel the loss of the comparison with who he ended up as. (Especially when the man he ends up as is a man who will drive the woman he believes he loves to kill herself because it’s so plausible that he would punish her—for resenting being serially raped—by selling their children.) It’s nothing like Alice’s losses, or Isaac’s, or Sarah’s, but it’s still a loss.

There’s a purpose here for Margaret Weylin too; remember that Dana illustrates Margaret’s neuroticism in terms of her micromanagement of the house. Her function is supposed to be running the household, but in the system of slavery, that’s accomplished by means of a community in her home that she’s not a part of—people she needs but won’t love, and can’t trust. No wonder competence in a Black woman is a threat to her. She’s forbidden to have any herself, or to complain about that.

And again, Butler’s careful to make sure we know she’s never just talking about the past. Given the time-travel conceit in this book, Faulkner’s aphorism is more apt than he even knew: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Remember Dana’s uncle, and how angry he was that she married a White man? “The last thing my uncle said to me was that he’d rather will [his apartment buildings] to his church than leave them to me and see them fall into white hands.” The book takes place only 20 years after Brown v. Board—that uncle grew up under Jim Crow, and may well even have gone to segregated schools. The wound was never healed. In the second paragraph of the first proper chapter of the book, Dana mentions that she and Kevin have just moved into “a house of [their] own a few miles away in Altadena.” That’s not just a line about how greater Los Angeles is made of gazillions of separate cities and neighborhoods: Altadena is where Owen Brown eventually settled after he survived his father John’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. (Check out his gravestone here: “Son of John Brown the Liberator.”) And bringing the past into the present, Altadena was also one of the first middle-class Black neighborhoods in the LA area, because it escaped the redlining that prevented Black people from buying land and owning homes in so many places. The wound was never healed. I come back to Dana and Kevin’s “chocolate and vanilla” coworker, too, because miscegenation only even exists as a concept in order to enforce racial categories—the core mandate in the system that we inherited from slavery.

Over and over again, we see that slavery brutalizes Black people specifically but injures everyone. Butler’s not the first person to observe this, of course, and I’m nowhere near the first person to take up medical imagery for the subject; Lincoln’s Peoria speech describes slavery’s euphemistic presence in the Constitution’s as “a wen or a cancer, which [an afflicted man] dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” It’s figured there as a potentially fatal wound to the entire country, which indeed it has very nearly been, more than once. But here’s the trick, I think—the whole point of this change in stance: a wound can be healed. There’s a connection here to my previous post, in that considering slavery only as a horror forecloses a lot of constructive responses to it. What can you do with an atrocity? Depends on which side you’re on, of course, You hope that the victims find the grace to forgive you for it. You recoil in shame from complicity in it, or privileges descended from it, and harden the walls of your ego-protective reaction. Or you resent the original sin against you and your people, and you swallow the embers every day from the match that can’t be unstruck. But wounds… Wounds we have a framework for, one that acknowledges both the possibility of healing and the necessity of being an active part of your own healing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean that some pristine state from before is recoverable. Scars are a part of healing too. But it means there is a kind of wholeness that can be striven toward. I don’t think Butler’s project in this book extends so far as to prescribe; expecting her to reminds me of the breathtaking audacity of the book’s setup, in which the universe kidnaps a Black woman more or less at the existential version of gunpoint and forces her to play guardian angel for a White boy. It’s Daryl’s Hurston quote again, “the mule of the world.” It’s on us White people to do the work of healing the body politic just as assiduously and conspicuously as we (as a group) take self-care measures like therapy and meditation and going to the gym. The only real obstacle is our collective will.

Worthy

This week took us to the end of the book.

Dana arrived home with Kevin this time.  He’s initially happy to be home, but is soon very restless. He was in the past for five years.  They have only been in their new house together a few days–noting is familiar here.  He is agitated and irritable.  He tells her about some of the horrible things he’s seen like a woman dying in childbirth.  It’s interesting that this horror comes from Kevin telling Dana about a woman’s whose master beat her until the baby fell out of her.

I feel like Kevin is overreacting to his return–his agitation seems way too great.  I realize that things are new in this house, but you’d think that even after five years, being home wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  And then he tells a story like the above and while I still don’t understand why it’s not just a relief to be out of there, i can see that he’s got PTSD.

But he was jumpy–the sound of jet overhead freaked him out.  Again, would five years without a jet overhead make you forget that they existed before hand?

Earlier Dana had been concerned that Kevin could be “won over” to the bad side. But he tells her that he had been helping slaves to escape.  he even imagined that they might both want to go back to help more slaves escape–to do good historically speaking.

This story is obviously not about Kevin, but it is interesting to think that if he felt his life wasn’t amounting to much here (despite or because of the marriage), that he might feel he was more useful in the past.

But before either one of them could settle down she felt herself pulled back once again.

She arrived in a storm to find a drunken Rufus passed out–face down in a puddle.  [Not saying that this doesn’t happen in real life, but I’ve never seen anyone drunk, face down in a puddle,  But it does happen quite a lot in fiction]

She helped get Rufus back home where his father was waiting.  His father was much older, he had a cane and had lost much of his edge. But he still had sass for her.  He asked what happened to her face–she had a scab.  She told him that’s where he kicked her.  He roared at her that it was six years since he’d seen her last. She told him that for her it was only a few hours.

Rufus was in a really bad way–he had malaria.  Of course no one knew anything about mosquitos back then, so she tries to teach them about microbes but they don’t believe her.  She was able to mend him (she had brought back aspirin an Excedrin which helped with the pain). I love the way Dana is exasperated with the “doctors” of the day.  I also wonder a the limited supply of things that Dana brought with her.  While she couldn’t get antibiotics OTC, I wonder if there’s any medicine beyond aspirin that se could have brought with her.

As Rufus was recovering, his father became deathly ill.  Rufus insisted that Dana help him.  She rushed to his side, but he was already dead when she got there. Nevertheless Rufus blamed her for not being able to save him.  It’s not entirely clear if he really did blame her or if he just needed to blame someone.  Although Rufus ha come to think of her as supernatural (which she was).

The next day Rufus took it out on her by putting her to work in the fields under the an incredibly nasty field manager.  He mocked her as useless (which she was, she would admit), and supposedly “so smart.”  Then he beat her hard.  And continued to do so no mater how hard she worked.  She didn’t know if she would make it through the day.

Rufus came and took her out of the field telling her that she was no good as a worker–embarrassing her but also saving face.  Then he told her that his mother was coming back to stay with them and he wanted Dana to sit with her.  Dana was shocked–assuming that the woman was dead.  But also never wanting to see that horrible woman again.  But Rufus assured her that his mother had been taking laudanum and had mellowed considerably.

She also learns that Rufus is continuing his father’s policy of selling slaves and breaking apart families.  But he also threw parties for the slaves and allowed them to marry–something other slaveholders didn’t do.  Rufus continues to be a(largely bad)  contradiction.

All this time, Rufus had been with Alice–and she still didn’t like him.  They had had some children but they’d all died or been sickly.  She had had a boy who survived but he was not very psychically strong.  Luckily for the boy, he looked a lot like Rufus and he was very smart.  Alice was pregnant again and Dana hoped it would be Hagar, Dana’s ancestor.  Surely the birth of Hagar would be the end of Dana’s duty.

Finally Alice gave birth to Hagar (Rufus hated the name) and finally one of the children looked like Dana.

All this time Rufus still fancied Dana.  It’s unclear what he wanted from her exactly, because sex didn’t seem to be it.  It was more just a matter of possessing her.  So when he saw that one of the slaves, Sam, was making eyes at her, Rufus had him sold.  When Dana learned about this, she slit her wrists.

Which sent her home.

She figured it was the best way to get home, because Kevin would know immediately what had happened and could take care of her (if she had OD’d on something they would have no idea what happened).  She was home for fifteen days this time.  Kevin was certain that she was back for good since Hagar had been born.  But Dana could not relax.

She would not leave the house and would certainly not drive (imagine if she disappeared while behind the wheel).  And she was right.  Because she was sent back once more.  This time it was not ling after the last visit.  Rufus seemed fine but he showed her in the barn where Alice had hung herself.

Why? because he sold her children (his own children).  Why?  Because she ran away and he wanted to punish her.

He explains to Dana that he did not sell them, he sent them to his family in Baltimore as punishment to Alice.  Alice was even starting to come around to Rufus a little.  But this was the last straw.

Dana says that he basically killed Alice.  He refuses to accept that.  She tells him that the least he can do is raise their children free.

He agrees to bring them back home if Dana will help him raise them.  She says he knows that she’s going to leave.  Man, Rufus is a master manipulator.

The children come home and he finds that he actually likes the little ones.  Dana asks him to make a will in which he frees all of his slaves on his death–something other slaveholders have done.  He says she’s crazy–he knows that she will kill him if she thinks the slaves would be freed.

He lay with her on a pallet, forcing her hand, pleading with her and threatening her. I wonder how much of this book was meant to bring attention to manipulative men–the scenario is extreme, but you can see the manipulation at work.

He gets close to her and asks her some hard questions

“You never hated me, did you?” he asked.
“Never for long, I don’t know why.  You worked hard to earn my hatred, Rufe.”

That is a staggering admission.  Butler has created Rufus to be a complex person.  Unlikable for so many obvious reasons, but seemingly willing to break the mold of what he has grown up with.  At the same time, is Butler showing how easy it is for abused women to find good in their abusers.  Of course, she also puts Dana’s own future on the line as motivation to care about Rufus.

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand still holding my hand, and slowly, I realized how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk.  But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh that I had saved so many times (256).

As the book opened, Dana told us that she had lost her arm.  I sort of get what Butler was doing–Rufus’ grasp was so strong, as if he would never let go, and in a sense he didn’t. It does come across as peculiarly science-fictiony to have that happen though.

In the epilogue she is back with Kevin and they fly to Maryland to see where they were–see what remains–see if there is any legacy of their being there.

This must have been a difficult book to end.

So much intensity had gone on, but Dana is now living with it yet so far removed from it.  Having them able to find some information but not a lot also rings true to the history of slaves.  There are no complete answers–not to what happened to her ancestors or even what happened to her.  Most slaves were not deemed worthy of being remembered. if it were not for Dana’s ancestor writing the family tree in the Bible, Dana would not have known what she was even fighting for.

I’m really looking forward to Parable of the Sower–having no idea what it’s about.

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.

What We Owe to Each Other

At the beginning of last year, I joined a book group run out of my local library. (Got a whole two meetings in before we had to switch to Zoom, heh.) It’s for classics, which in this case means at least fifty years old. The book we discussed in February was A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the first East African author to publish a novel in English. It takes place in the few days before and the day of Kenya’s official independence, and while I didn’t especially enjoy reading it, it gave me a lot to think about, and it feels like an especially valuable piece of postcolonial literature.

One of the themes my thoughts kept returning to from that book is the idea of justice, and how often pursuing it after the fact is a mug’s game. It feels weird to me even to type that sentence, which suggests that I might have gone for the most inflammatory summary of my thinking, so let’s take the long way to understanding it.

When we’re being socially constructed as citizens, we’re taught that justice is the function of the legal system. We have a whole coequal branch of government dedicated to it, after all. This is fundamentally the purpose of constitutional law, right? (I’m very aware that this is a White fairy tale; as I said, this is how we’re molded into the citizens that society wants us to be, which is White supremacists.) But interestingly, our legal system knows better—and has for something like three quarters of a millennium. The US legal system was originally based on that of Great Britain, particularly English common law (although of course, just like their squirrels and ours evolved differently once the continents separated, so too did our legal systems after independence), and until 1938 maintained a distinction inherited from that common law between law and equity. Simplistically, cases at law involved seeking money (“damages”) and cases in equity involved seeking…basically anything else. That old, old distinction arose in the first place from widespread recognition that the law wasn’t producing equitable outcomes; it was deeply formalist and procedural, and thus largely unconcerned with the justice of the underlying dispute, but also: money is only a substitute for, well, literally everything but other money. Compensating a person is rarely the same as making them whole. There are things you can do to a person, to a group of people, that can’t be taken back or repaired.

This is where Daryl’s double bind comes in: On levels from micro to macro, from interpersonal to global, there are affronts that can only be healed through the grace of the victim. In A Grain of Wheat, that’s refracted through colonial oppression (and war crimes) and the inevitable accompanying issues of collaboration/survival and post-independence retribution. In this section of Kindred, it’s focused pretty sharply through Dana and what she has to forgive Rufus in order to keep to her mission of saving his life (and thus her own) and maybe hopefully if she’s lucky changing his heart some too. It’s not bad enough to have to endure the aggression and insults and humiliations and enslavement; she also has to just eat it all and find a way to keep trying even though she knows there’s more coming. Even worse, he forces her to be complicit in his rape and abuse of Alice, which it hurts her to have to try to reconcile. Thus the double violation: first the injury, then the demand to bear all the burden of healing it.

But of course even with that focus on the interpersonal level, Butler makes sure our eyes are on the bigger picture too. The book takes place in 1976, after all—the Bicentennial. What kind of celebration must that have been for Black Americans, though? The country it was celebrating was the country Rufus summons Dana to: a country explicitly founded on racism and enslavement. Over those 200 years of independence, multiracial democracy on a national level had only existed for 11. (Even when Butler was writing, the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet turned 15.) We see from Dana and Kevin’s families, and their odious “chocolate and vanilla porn” coworker, that injustice and group trauma live on beyond the time that the aggressor deigns to desist (and remember Frederick Douglass’s admonition: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”—a third burden on the violated). And the costs they impose can’t be recouped.

That’s not to say that healing and change aren’t possible. It’s to say that I’ve come to see the idea of justice as forward-looking, because it can’t change the past. On a personal level, that means we have an inherent obligation to strive not to do these harms in the first place—although the danger there is that the force of that injunction comes from the idea that it’s unjust to impose the costs of my behavior on others, and for some people that asymmetry is called permission. Look at Rufus, and Dana’s understanding of his hideous plan to claim Alice. There’s nothing but Dana’s disapproval and opposition to keep him from it, and that only matters for as long as he lets her opinion hail him and chooses not to exercise his power over her. But in a larger sense, it goes along with Dana’s ruminations about Rufus that Daryl highlights. As he says, her goal is “to make things better for those who … follow her.” That’s where ideas of restorative justice (in the criminal system specifically) and transitional justice (in the context of regimes of human-rights abuse) come into play instead. I’ve already been going on more than long enough, so I’m not going to run through all that, but I do encourage y’all to look them up. The primary point is that rather than look to undo what can’t be undone or limit the repair to settling a dollar amount on the harm inflicted, these approaches understand justice as a transformation of the set of circumstances that produced the injustice. In a meaningful way, they’re about fixing the world rather than settling a score. To put it in terms I learned from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: Justice for Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have meant George Zimmerman in prison and weregild paid to Trayvon’s family. It would have meant Michael Brown being alive. And so on and so on and so on and on and on and on.

And really that’s what I mean too, when I say that pursuing justice after the fact is a mug’s game. What we have to do is seek it in advance, so that things like what Dana and Alice and Isaac and Sarah and so very many others—and more importantly, real people—go through aren’t done to them in the first place. This is the onus Butler is showing us.

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?

Tolerance

This week’s read is one long, painful chapter. It made me think about how much pain one could tolerate. And also how one could be sol intolerant to unleash such pain–and feel justified about it.

After the first few sections have established the scenario, the more you think about it, the more you realize how many things can (and likely will) go wrong for Dana.

Each time Dana is sent back in time, the gap between instances grows.  Time doesn’t pass in the present the same way it does when she goes back.  She had been gone for nearly two months but when she returned home she had been “gone” for less than a day. This time discontinuity has to mess with her head even more.

Now that Kevin has remained, she fears for him as well and those fears are completely reasonable–he was treated well in that world because he was white.  He looked forward to watching the expansion of our country West.  Could he become a hardened white person if he was there for too long?  Kevin seems like a pretty decent fellow and doesn’t seem like he would become an owner of anyone, but you could see him getting caught up in everything that’s happening. I’m curious if this was also a commentary on the fragility (at least from societal pressures) of interracial marriages even in 1979.

Dana tells us about her relationship with Kevin and how neither his sister nor her aunt and uncle approved of their marriage.  Kevin’s sister had married a racist doctor and she refused to allow her brother and his new wife into her house.  Meanwhile, her aunt and uncle were offended because they assumed she’d marry a man like her uncle–proud and black.

Then she woke up and realized that every part of her body hurt.  She could barely move.  She had been whipped.  Brutally (although we find out later that Rufus’ father went “easy” on her).  Her clothes had bled and stuck to her body–this detail really got me. She managed to clean herself off and made sure she would not get infected (from a whip that had been tempered by oil and blood). It’s details like this that really emphasize elements of the barbarism.

Kevin had not returned with her.  She was by herself so she prepared for her next inevitable return.  She grabbed a denim bag and filled it with necessities–medicine, a knife, pens and paper, clothes.  Eight days later, she was whisked back to Rufus’ side as he was once again in danger of being killed.  This time, a black man–Isaac, all grown up–was beating him to within an inch of his life.

Turns out hat in the decade or so since she was last there, Isaac had married Alice, (even if it was not legally binding for slaves to marry).  But Rufus still wanted her.  He was willing to do anything to have her.  He had tried to take Alice but Isaac was having none it.  It was Dana who spared Rufus’ life by calming Isaac down.  She also spared Isaac’s life.  If Isaac had killed Rufus, he would have no hope of survival (although I do wonder who would know it was Isaac who did it). She encouraged Isaac and Alice to flee and promised that Rufus would not say anything. How foolish was this for Dana to do this? Did she not realize how impossible it would be for them to escape? Her own failure later shows just how hard it was.

Rufus was as good as his word, but Isaac and Alice were found anyway.  Alice was sent back.  After being beaten so badly she forgot a lot (including how she felt about rufus).  Although her memory did come back slowly.  But Isaac (and therefore Alice) wasn’t so lucky.  They sent him down south.  And they had cut off his ears(!). What the fuck.

Dana went to Rufus’ house.  Things were different.  His mother had left.  She had given birth tow two girls who both died.  She had a nervous breakdown).  Rufus’s father was still there but seemed to be tempered somewhat.  Rufus even said that he was a fair man–not kind, but fair–after all, he beat and whipped people but only what the deserved.

Rufus father recognized Dana immediately.  He seemed to have a strange kind of grunding respect for her.  He had seen her disappear, which clearly made him think she was a witch or something. Although I have no interest in Rifis’ father’s point of view, I do wonder what he must have thought when she just disappeared like that.

Dana heloped nurse Rufus back to health.  She gave him some of her aspirin.  She had also brought a history book with a map of the area.  But when he saw the history books she had brought, he grew angry at what they said (it sucks finding out you’re on the wrong side of history).  He didn’t believe the things he was reading.  Then Dana realized people like Harriet Tubman could be in trouble if a white man heard about what she was doing. 

It’s easy to forget the science fiction-y nature of the book because everything is so visceral and real. But then you get a moment like this where you have to pull back and say, yes, we’re talking about time travel here, she could really be changing things in the future. And no matter how much she’d like to change things for the better, all signs point to her giving away important secrets.

Rufus insisted that she burn the book–including the map of Maryland that she had torn out of the book. 

If she did all that he would allow her to send a letter to Kevin.

Kevin had left Maryland for the north and had been there for a few years.  He was in Boston or possibly Maine at this point.  Dana wrote him a letter and imagined he’d be there to take her away within a few weeks.

But Rufus had no intention of sending her letter.  He told dan that she was home now and he meant it.  He “loved” Dana and didn’t want her to leave him.  So he did to her what he had done to Alice–whom he also “loved.”  He used threats and duress to keep them near him.  He wanted to have sex with Alice– luckily not with Dana.  But he held Alice’s safety over Dana’s head–she should talk Alice into sleeping with him or he would take Alice by force.

I wondered if Butler was commenting on contemporary men as well with this segment–and the way men “possess” women even in the late 20th and 21st century.

Dana was there for a long time.  She became a part of the family–and was more or less a slave even if she wasn’t “owned.”  She had no proof of her freedom and, as people pointed out, any papers she carried could be torn up and ignored, anyhow.

But once she realizes that Rufus had not sent the letters–that Kevin had no idea she was even back, she decided to make a run for it

She plans out everything but doesn’t consider that one of the servants doesn’t like her.  And tells on her.

This was an aspect I hadn’t considered either. That there would be jealousy among the slaves (understandably) but that pissing off anybody could get you in serious trouble. How fragile your survival was.

Dana is very quickly found by Rufus and his father.  They bring her back and she is whipped to within an inch of her life.  A pain so fierce it seems like it should send her back home.  But she must have known that this wasn’t going to kill her, so instead she had to stay there and bear it.

That’s another detail that is really striking. A pain so bad you wish you were dead but you know it won’t kill you.

She was laid up for days. Rufus did tend to her.  And explained that his father only whipped her because he couldn’t allow other slaves to think a runway would go unpunished–that whole “fair” thing.

When she was able to walk, she saw a white man–old and bearded–riding a horse on the property. She couldn’t believe it was Kevin.  And he barely recognized her.  When he saw what had happened, he was (understandably) furious.  But Dana knew she might arrive back here again and told him to be cool.  Anything he did now would come back to haunt her if (when) she came back. She planned on riding off with him without saying a word.  Until Rufus sees them walking out of town.  He stops them with a gun.

This is the second time a gun sends her back home.

We don’t know if Kevin is with her this time or how long she’ll be home.  But since there’s 70 pages left its safe to assume she’ll be heading back to Maryland at least one more time.

Pragmatics

There’s been some discussion already of Butler’s style, which I want to investigate a little in terms of how it functions to help create some interesting effects in the first sections of this book. (I agree with Paul that this book seems to demand less playfulness than I’d usually strive for in titling posts. For this post in particular, I know enough to know that I’m referring to an area of linguistics that relates to the points I want to make, but not enough to know how to lay out those connections myself! If anybody who does know more about pragmatics in the linguistic/semiotic sense wants to spell it out, I’d love to learn.)

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m going to do a bit of generalizing about Butler’s style, based not just on the first third of Kindred but also on the seven other books of hers I’ve read (the Patternist and Xenogenesis series). It’s been a couple years since I read those, so I’m working from memory; but that memory tells me that her style is largely consistent across books, with the possible exception of Wild Seed, which I remember as being somewhat more consciously beautiful.

So. In thinking about this little investigation, a rough dichotomy of styles occurred to me. On the one hand is a kind of writing that seems to show the author’s intellect visibly at work, or on the move. I’m thinking of Wallace, of course (and that sense so many readers describe of his writing being the voice in their brain), and Nabokov, and maybe Austen—and, frankly, myself: One of the things I value so much about these group reads is the opportunity to write about the books, because that’s how I find out what I think about them. Sometimes this style shows the writer themselves on a journey, or sometimes it shows them leading the reader on a journey that feels more planned. On the other hand is a kind of writing that’s trickier to pin down, but the best way I’ve come up with to describe the feeling that characterizes it is that the author has already made the journey, whatever kind of journey it is, and is sort of reporting from the place where they’ve settled. I’m thinking here of O’Connor, a lot of Morrison, Hemingway, and, relevantly, Butler. The characters still have places to go and things to learn (or not), but there’s a kind of density of conviction that underlies the writing, a feeling of experience rather than experiencing, if that distinction makes sense. (This is all sort of a provisional structure. If you have any refinements or additions or objections, speak up! For one thing, don’t think the gender skew of my examples has escaped me…)

There’s an incredible economy in the way Butler structures the first parts of this book. It’s clear that the structural logic and the narrative logic are largely aligned—Dana’s called to Rufus when he’s in mortal danger from something: a river, a fire in his bedroom, a fall from a tree. So we get a section for each of those: “The River,” “The Fire,” “The Fall,” and so on. (The flashbacks and present-time moments of Dana in 1976 are important, but in my reading that importance is narrative rather than structural.) The Prologue is two pages, beginning with “I lost an arm” and ending with two characters saying they don’t know what truly happened. Then comes “The River,” which introduces us to this pattern. Dana’s called away for just barely over a page, and there aren’t even six whole pages in the section. We’re moving fast, from event to event, and it’s deliberately bewildering. Butler’s giving us nothing that she isn’t also giving Dana, and what she’s giving Dana is a damn lot in a big hurry. “The Fire” is then about four times as long as everything combined that went before it, and then “The Fall” is another 20ish pages longer still.

I’m talking about page spans here because it’s quite literally a learning curve:

And that’s an important part of what we see: Dana learning. Learning what’s happening, especially, but also learning about living in the antebellum South as a Black woman, and learning as much as she can of what the Black people on and near the Weylin estate have grown up knowing. But also we see her taking action, and that’s some of where I come back to where I place Butler in that dichotomy I mentioned. We don’t watch Kevin decide to assemble a go bag for Dana; we skip right to her awaking with it already beside her. And then she iterates on its contents, trying to zero in on the optimal combination of supplies to bring with her. The thinking, here and throughout, is fully reconstructable (and indeed, not always withheld), but it’s kind of taken for granted that the thinking is indeed happening.

Even when we get more explicit cogitation, it reveals that there’s already a fully formed intellect underneath that’s doing the thinking: On page 28, when Dana’s putting together her tie to Rufus, she thinks, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage?” (The italics are mine; Butler doesn’t do a lot of that kind of cuing.) From Dana’s 1976 perspective, that’s a reasonable question. But of course its real import isn’t whether Alice and Rufus solemnized their relationship—it’s whether Alice was given the power to consent at all. There’s no further elaboration on that point in Dana’s train of thought, though. On the Watsonian level, Dana already knows why she’s wondering, so there’s no need for her to rehearse it. And on the Doylist level, this is part of how Butler operates. It’s up to us as readers to be alert to the mass of the iceberg under the water. Whether that technique lands for you is more or less a personal question, but I’m finding it quite powerful.

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.

I’ve never read anything like it.

I was pretty pleased to see that Octavia E. Butler would be the new reading choice.  I had recently read Mind of My Mind, which I really liked.  I liked its political sci-fi and its Afrofuturist ideas. So this was a great opportunity to read more from her.

I didn’t know what this book was about.  The cover of this book gives absolutely no indication is what’s going inside.  In fact, it looked pretty much exactly like what is not happening in this book.

Unlike other books that we’ve read for a group read, this one doesn’t lend it self to frivolity or clever post titles. The violence in it is unlike any violence I have read before–and I’ve read some really graphic stuff (yup, American Psycho). But this was worse because it was real. Butler doesn’t do a lot to set up the scene. We have just enough–and probably exactly what a slave would know. The plantation that she is on and virtually nothing behind it.

I just happened to be supplementing this book with the March graphic novels from John Lewis. Having that historical context really fresh in my mind makes this book (written a decade after the Civil Rights Act was passed) seem even more powerful. And really shows how little has changed.

So here’s my contribution with some quotes that I found especially affecting.

I was blown away by the first sections of this book.  Butler’s style is not fancy and I found this direct writing to be really effective at conveying what is going on.

Butler basically puts a horrifying slave narrative into a science fiction story.

It starts very abruptly with the prologue.  The narrator, Dana says that she lost her arm on her last trip home.  The police question her husband Kevin but she assures them it is not his fault.

Then the story resumes with The River.  It flashes back to when this all started–June 9, 1976.

In The River, Dana and Kevin are unpacking books in their new California home when suddenly Dana feels dizzy.  She is pulled through space into a river where a young red-haired boy is drowning.  Dana thinks quickly and stomps into the river to rescue the him.  She even does some mouth to mouth

The boy’s mother starts blaming Dana for what’s happening even while she is trying to resuscitate the woman’s son.  Dana succeeds and just as the boy, whose name is Rufus comes to, his father holds a shotgun at Dana’s head.  What is the black woman (who is dressed like a man) doing with her mouth on his son?

Rufus’s father is Southern and they seem very, very old-fashioned.  But just as Dana fear the worst from the shotgun, she flies back to her bedroom.  She is covered in mud and soaking wet, but Kevin says she was gone maybe ten seconds.  He has a hard time believing her (who wouldn’t) despite the proof of the mud on her clothes.

What in the hell just happened?

Continue reading

A Confession

Purple neon lights that read "Is This Just Fantasy"
Photo by Mudassir Ali from Pexels

I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering genre snob. When I was young, I read mostly genre stuff — Grisham and Cornwell and Grafton and Rex Stout and King (though I reckon he’s considered literary by now). Then I went off to college and got real big for my britches. I read some philosophy and a lot of Victorian capital-L Literature (ignoring the fact that favorites like Hardy and Dickens were sort of the pulp of their time). I read Shakesepeare and Milton and for a while entertained ambitions of becoming a scholar of non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. I tried to like the Modernist poets, and it turned out late in college and after that I did like the big postmodern tomes. Science fiction and fantasy, though? Meh, those were for people who preferred beach reads, not for a literary dynamo like me.

Occasionally in adulthood, I would condescend to read something non-literary. I read a lot of Martin’s Game of Thrones series, though whether I did so out of real interest or in anticipation of the television series I don’t recall. When trailers for the Narnia movies and the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I read those. When I learned that Philip Pullman was a heathen like me, I read his Dark Materials books. But these were just little side ventures. I dipped into these and then got right back to reading the great pillars of the canon.

Eventually I sired children, and eventually they grew out of board books and strictly little-kid books. I read aloud to them religiously, often for an hour or more a night. We read the Harry Potter books of course, and the Lemony Snicket books. We read bits and pieces of other series. I was exposed to a lot more fantasy and sci-fi by reading to my kids. I read aloud fully half of the Wheel of Time series before wanting a change of scenery. I read Lord of the Rings a few times. We read a lot of McCaffrey’s Pyrne series. And we read the first several books in Brandon Sanderson’s pretty marvelous Mistborn series together. In a fit of nostalgia (for I had read these when I was young), I dipped back into Rex Stout and some of the hard boiled detective fiction writers a few years ago, and having seen that sometimes fantasy and sci-fi and detective writing could be engaging and lovely and not just pulpy after all, I started going out of my way to read more of it in earnest and for my own sake rather than for that of my kids.

N.K. Jemisim was an obvious contemporary pick. Her Broken Earth trilogy is great, my favorite (especially the first two books) of all of hers. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series (YA books) are worth a read. LeGuin of course is worth a read; I’ve got a lot more of her to read yet, but I especially enjoyed her Earthsea series. In other kid’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series was a treat. Some of William Gibson’s books I enjoyed, and of some of Dick’s. Stephenson is spotty for me. A few years ago, my son wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I had never gotten into as a kid. I learned how to play and started reading some relevant fantasy, notably R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series, which I enjoyed quite a lot. I had read Dune not too long after college and reread that again (to my son, but also for myself) in the last couple of years.

So, I have become, if not a convert, at least a willing and open-minded reader of genre fiction. I’ve found a lot of these books a real pleasure to read, and many of them aren’t as light or noncerebral as I might’ve imagined when I knew everything during and shortly after college.

Still, I find myself instinctively assuming that fantasy and science fiction will be light or easy reading — more craft than fine art — and I think that colors how I approach them. That is, instead of automatically looking for what’s ingenious or lovely in the writing, I think I find myself looking for what’s simple or straightforward in the writing and perhaps sneering a little at it. Because I think of genre fiction as being driven by plot more than by aesthetics or capital-L Literariness, I’m more likely to read right over elegance or economy of language in these books. When reading McCarthy’s The Road, I might think of the language as spare and solemn and thus evocative and fitting given the austerity and general quietude of the book. But I might unfairly read similar prose in a genre book as merely utilitarian or simplistic by default.

These are the biases I’ll have to self-consciously push against while reading Butler’s work. She is a writer of genre fiction in my mind, and I’ll have to keep nudging aside my tendency to dismiss in her writing what I might see as significant in the writing of an author I’ve been told writes literary fiction. The first step to recovery, it’s said, is to admit that you have a problem. I here admit it. I’d like to recover. And I hope that reading some of Butler’s books along with a community of careful readers will help me pay attention in this fiction to the things I might look past otherwise and help me put aside once and for all my ridiculous knee-jerk snobbery.