A High-Five for Travis

I was so gratified to see Travis testing Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy. (Religion? I mean, yes, but is it yet?) I’d had some similar questions myself, and it was pretty clear that Lauren wasn’t going to just engage them in her journal. She’s got better things to do with her time. But it should have occurred to me that someone she met would do the asking for me. Plato gave Butler the dialogic tools for it a couple thousand years ago.

That conversation between Lauren and Travis got me thinking more about Earthseed itself, though, and what we know of it. Principally, that’s the epigraphs—which we’ve talked a little about already. But looking back on the disappointment we expressed there, I see that mine is pretty firmly rooted in reading them as literature. That’s certainly a legitimate way to read parts of a novel! (He says, understating the case.) But they’re not part of the narrative here, they’re sort of in-world apparatus to the text. So they’re susceptible to a reading for that function too, their Watsonian value as scripture. So I guess I’m doing exegesis this week! Or at the very least, taxonomy.

Chapter 1 starts with actually a pretty strong couple verses: “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God Is Change.” That’s actually just pretty straightforwardly good Buddhist philosophy, and focuses on the interconnectedness of everything. A pretty good summary of Earthseed, I expect. Except then suddenly the word “God” shows up, and I agree with Travis: Why? Lauren’s answer is essentially a matter of durability and social engineering (shades of the Bene Gesserit), but I’m not convinced. I mean, personally I’m not convinced by any argument about God; but the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is good and enduring, and it doesn’t couch its exhortations in terms of a god. Compare the Ten Commandments to the Eightfold Path: one is an authority telling you how to circumscribe your behavior, the other is guidelines for measuring yourself against yourself and striving to improve. It’s not clear to me that the introduction of the concept of God strengthens Earthseed.

It strikes me that for a book named after one of Jesus’s parables, we don’t get any parables from the Book of the Living. We get close a couple times, with Chapter 6 (“Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.”) and Chapter 14 (“In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / First / Must / Burn.”), but notice that neither of them uses a definite article. A parable, as Daryl said, is a simple story, but it’s also a specific story. Take the Chapter 6 epigraph, for instance. In the form of a parable, it would be a simple little story about a person who was drowning and thrashed so hard that their would-be rescuers were unable to hold onto them and pull them back to shore. Not some nebulous drowning people, whom it’s difficult to identify with, but a specific person. (Notice that it’s the Parable of the Sower, not a Sower.) The more elliptical statements in Lauren’s Book of the Living are more distant, more abstractly philosophical. They seem to invite an either/or kind of understanding—”I get it!” or “I don’t”—rather than the experiential sort of process that a parable, with its conscription of narrative, takes devotees through.

More effective, I think, are the more direct verses, by which I mean Chapters 2 (“A gift of God / May sear unready fingers.”), 5 (“Belief / Initiates and guides action— / Or it does nothing.”), 8 (“To get along with God, / Consider the consequences of your behavior.”), and 15 (“Kindness eases Change”). They’re not trying to gussy up any of their meaning, and they’re not meant as koans or contemplative prompts; they’re telling the faithful of Earthseed how to be. Be ready, be active, be thoughtful, be kind. This is the moral philosophy of Earthseed, where the scripture tells readers how to be good according to their beliefs.

Chapter 13 (“There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.”) isn’t quite the same type, to me, but it’s one of my favorites, and there is some relationship. It’s more about a mindset than any specific practice or trait to cultivate, which is also the case with Chapters 3 (“We do not worship God. / We perceive and attend God. / We learn from God. / With forethought and work, / We shape God. / In the end, we yield to God. / We adapt and endure, / For we are Earthseed / And God is Change.”), 4 (“A victim of God may, / Through learning adaptation, / Become a partner of God, / A victim of God may, / Through forethought and planning, / Become a shaper of God. / Or a victim of God may, / Through shortsightedness and fear, / Remain God’s victim, / God’s plaything, / God’s prey.”), and 11 (“Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. / Seek them out. / Any Change may bear seeds of harm. / Beware. / God is infinitely malleable. / God is Change.”). These verses are emphasizing the way to understand the world around you, the wisdom counterpart to the previous category’s praxis.

There’s a sort of cosmological/sociological strain too, which seems to me the weakest of all of the epigraphs: Chapters 7 (“We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe, Godseed is all there is—all that Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths. The universe is Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”), 9 (“All struggles / Are essentially / power struggles. / Who will rule, / Who will lead, / Who will define, / refine, / confine, / design, / Who will dominate. / All struggles / Are essentially power struggles, / And most are no more intellectual / than two rams / knocking their heads together.”), 10 (“When apparent stability disintegrates, / As it must— / God is Change— / People tend to give in / To fear and depression, / To need and greed. / When no influence is strong enough / To unify people / They divide. / They struggle, / One against one, / Group against group, / For survival, position, power. / They remember old hates and generate new ones, / They create chaos and nurture it. / They kill and kill and kill, / Until they are exhausted and destroyed, / Until they are conquered by outside forces, / Or until one of them becomes / A leader / Most will follow, / Or a tyrant / Most fear.”), and 17 (“Embrace diversity. / Unite— / Or be divided, / robbed, / ruled, / killed / By those who see you as prey. / Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”). These are the ones, honestly, where I wish we had parables instead. They’re just so…diagnostic. “This is the way the world is.” Well that’s a lot of cases to try to cover. They would be rhetorically stronger, I think, and more scripturally effective, if they were told as stories that exemplified the themes but showed the counterexamples as well, for followers to identify with. It’s easy enough to think of how it could be done; hell, off the top of my head, Chapter 17 could be about two farmers, one practicing monoculture and one crop diversification, or two villages, one insular and disproportionately affected by a genetic disease and another constantly welcoming newcomers and making the whole genetic pool more robust. Better than “Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”

Lauren’s building a mindfulness component into her doctrine, too. Chapters 12 (“We are Earthseed / The life that perceives itself / Changing.”) and 16 (“Earthseed / Cast on new ground / Must first perceive / That it knows nothing”) both have a real humility and depth to them in terms of rooting the practice of Earthseed—whatever it is—in the center of your being. Who you are, what you’re experiencing, what you know, what you don’t. It keeps you in communication with yourself and challenges you to be connected and honest. Clearly Earthseed is going to be cast on new ground—there’s a Destiny—and so some of this is about preparing those travelers for success. But all of life is a journey, it says; anywhere is new ground.

And then there’s the one that truly made me scoff when I read it: Chapter 18 (“Once or twice / each week / A Gathering of Earthseed / is a good and necessary thing. / It vents emotion, then / quiets the mind. / It focuses attention, / strengthens purpose, and / unifies people.”). (It is, of course, also the chapter in which Lauren gets her first convert. This is not a coincidence.) It seems so…paltry. It’s not “here’s how to be a good person,” it’s not “here’s how societies are structured but shouldn’t be,” it’s not “know thyself”—it’s “have church a couple times a week, for these specific reasons.” But then I realized something that I think is actually really neat about this one, more than any of the others. This particular set of verses is about how to establish an Earthseed community. It’s the rules of the early church, not doctrine but management. More than any of the other epigraphs, it gives a vision into the process of Earthseed turning from one girl’s ideas into a community and presumably then a movement and a religion. There are things like this in the Christian New Testament too, what seem like finicky little details on how to run services or to operate a church. They’re not really instructions on how to worship; “once or twice” is entertainingly vague for scripture. But what Lauren needs if Earthseed is going to grow is for it to spread. She needs Earthseed communities to sprout in more places than just wherever she is, and for them to have a shared identity. Now that I’m reading this epigraph as community consolidation rather than scheduling, I can’t help feeling like it would be such an interesting one for future historians of Earthseed to use in re-creating the early communities of their faith, and that just tickles me.

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 Benefit of the Doubt

Seems like we’re sort of all in the same boat responding to this first chunk of reading in The Parable of the Sower: It’s only Act I, so we’ve got both too much and too little to work with. But I’m also about to give y’all whiplash, going from my rah-rah explorations with Kindred to holding my nose on the way into this book (but looking forward to it anyway, because Butler is a great read). And yet.

Here’s my question, underlain by my personal tastes, but it’s an honest question: What is the purpose of apocalypse fiction?

I’m specifically making a distinction between apocalypse fiction and postapocalyptic fiction, because I totally get the point—and the appeal (which is a different thing)—of the conjectures and experiments that postapocalyptic fiction allows. How might human societies be reorganized after a sea change in certain structures or resources or conditions? Good question, with so many knobs and parameters to fiddle with! It’s one of the versions of the question “What if?” that I mentioned at the beginning of this IZ go-round, which sf as a literary approach is made for answering.

I suspect that’s where we’re going with these Earthseed books, but it’s not where we are. Right now we’re in the slow-motion apocalypse itself. And sure, the details may differ from example to example, but this story always goes the same way, right? It’s an inevitable descent, at one speed or another, into a Hobbesian nightmare of warring clans under the law of the jungle.

So: Why? Given the formula, and the straight-up misery and panic that always accompany the apocalypse, I’m skeptical of an argument for aesthetic pleasure. (Although I’m open to hearing one!) Does it have an instrumental function, then? Is it a pessimistic prediction? An Old Testament–style prophecy? Or is there even truly such a thing as apocalypse fiction as distinct from just the incipit of a postapocalyptic story? Is it just an extended buildup to the postapocalyptic part, giving us time with the characters on their way to the real meat of the story?

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.

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.

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?

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.