Sep 06 2017

Kindred by Octavia E Butler

I’m not ordinarily a fan of editions that feel compelled to shoehorn critical essays of the novel into the same volume, but I must say that Robert Crossley did provide me with a significant insight into a thing that had been bothering me about the book: Dana’s occasional and exceedingly grating naivete. About 40% of the way through the book, I actually wondered to the members of my Ingress book club if this might have been due to the book being written in the 70s, as I cannot imagine any remotely politically aware female person of color in present-day America marveling so at how people could so easily succumb to the horrors of both inflicting and living under slavery. For real, people in positions of power can be greedy to the point of erasing the agency of others, and the people under their thumbs can care more about survival than rights much less dignity (which I think was something that I also didn’t really care for in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My survival instinct is, like Kindred’s Sarah’s, way too strong.) Pain and fear are great motivators, and it irritated me whenever Dana would think she would somehow be impervious to these when the black inhabitants of antebellum Maryland (God, when oppressed people anywhere!) were not.

So when she did finally realize that her 1970s standards couldn’t apply in the early 1800s, I was far more sympathetic to her as a main character, and especially so after I read that Dana was meant to be a stand in for/critique of the black middle class of the 1970s, with their self-satisfaction and disregard for the suffering and struggles of earlier generations, as Octavia E Butler saw it. And this book began to make a lot more sense to me, because it is essentially a case for hyper-empathy particularly in re moral relativism (and, I suspect, the seed for the splendid character of Lauren Olamina in the Parable books.) For every Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, you had thousands of black women just trying to survive, to take care of themselves and their loved ones in the face of a system that was intent on destroying their personhood. This kind of everyday, quiet bravery, this determination to nurture the spark inside and keep it away from the hurricane gale of systemic oppression, is also the reason I have no patience for women today who won’t make themselves uncomfortable in order to help the vulnerable. We are so lucky in the right here and now to have these rights that our foremothers risked their lives for, and to not use our privileges for good is shameful. A little embarrassment, even the occasional humiliation, is nothing compared to the perils those courageous women faced in order to bring about a better world.

Anyway, I’m also unsure why Dana at the end didn’t just tell Rufus the truth about why she kept being drawn back to help him, because maybe that would have stopped him from triggering that last confrontation between them? He obviously cared about his children, so I felt it an odd narrative choice for Dana to keep him in the dark on that. Tho I suppose it needed a violent ending to complete the metaphor of her returning to the present permanently marked by her time travel (but also, wouldn’t he have come back with her? I’m willing to handwave this tho.)

Ms Butler’s books always make me feel uncomfortable because they insist that I care more and do better, and I love them for that. I try to foist the Parable Of The Talents on anyone who will read it, but I haven’t read much else of her oeuvre precisely because I like feeling comfortable with myself (and who doesn’t?) They’re a good beachhead against complacency, tho, and worth reading every time.

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