Octavia Estelle Butler often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. She lost her father at a young age and was raised by her mother. To support the family, her mother worked as a maid.
Butler credited the struggles of her working-class mother as an important influence on her writing. Because Butler’s mother received little formal education herself, she made sure that young Butler was given the opportunity to learn by bringing her reading materials that her white employers threw away, from magazines to advanced books. She also encouraged Butler to write. She bought her daughter her first typewriter when she was ten years old, and, seeing her hard at work on a story, casually remarked that maybe one day she could become a writer, causing Butler to realize that it was possible to make a living as an author. A decade later, Mrs. Butler would pay more than a month’s rent to have an agent review her daughter’s work. She also provided Butler with the money she had been saving for dental work to pay for Butler’s scholarship so she could attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where Butler sold her first two stories.
Butler began reading science fiction at a young age, but quickly became disenchanted by the genre’s unimaginative portrayal of ethnicity and class as well as by its lack of noteworthy female protagonists. She then set to correct those gaps by, “choosing to write self-consciously as an African-American woman marked by a particular history” —what Butler termed as “writing myself in”. Butler’s stories, therefore, are usually written from the perspective of a marginalized black woman whose difference from the dominant agents increases her potential for reconfiguring the future of her society.
In 1979, Butler had a career breakthrough with Kindred. The novel tells the story of an African-American woman who travels back in time to save a white slave owner—her own ancestor. In part, Butler drew some inspiration from her mother’s work. “I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors,” she once said, according to The New York Times. “If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
Publishers and critics have labeled Butler’s work as science fiction. While Butler enjoyed the genre deeply, calling it “potentially the freest genre in existence”, she resisted being branded a genre writer. Many critics have pointed out that her narratives have drawn attention to people from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. She claimed to have three loyal audiences: black readers, science-fiction fans, and feminists.
In an interview by Randall Kenan, Butler admits that she writes science fiction because she does not want her work to be labeled or used as a marketing tool. She wants the readers to be genuinely interested in her work and the story she provides, but at the same time, she fears that people will not read her work because of the “science fiction” label that they have.
Charlie Rose interviewed Octavia Butler soon after she received the award of a MacArthur Fellowship and asked, “What then is central to what you want to say about race?” Butler’s response was, “Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from, ‘Hey we’re here!’?” This points to an essential claim for Butler that the world of science fiction is a world of possibilities, and although race is an innate element, it is embedded in the narrative, not forced upon it.
For some writers, science fiction serves as means to delve into fantasy. But for Butler, it largely served as a vehicle to address issues facing humanity. It was this passionate interest in the human experience that imbued her work with a certain depth and complexity.
In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive critical recognition for her work. She won the 1984 Best Short Story Hugo Award for Speech Sounds. That same year, the novelette Bloodchild won a Nebula Award and later a Hugo as well.
In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race. To ensure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy. She went on to write the two-installment Parable series—Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998).
In 1995, Butler received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation—becoming the first science-fiction writer to do so—which allowed her to buy a house for her mother and herself.
Octavia was a perfectionist with her work and spent several years grappling with writer’s block. Her efforts were hampered by her ill health and the medications she took. After starting and discarding numerous projects, Butler wrote her last novel Fledgling (2005), which was an innovative take on the concept of vampires and family structures, the latter being one of her works’ prevailing themes.
On February 24, 2006, Octavia E. Butler died at her Seattle home. She was 58 years old. With her death, the literary world lost one of its great storytellers. She is remembered, as Gregory Hampton wrote in Callaloo, as a writer of “stories that blurred the lines of distinction between reality and fantasy.” And through her work, “she revealed universal truths.”
(From Wikipedia, Biography.com, and the Internet.)