I’m an aggressive annotator. Or at least someone who loves alliteration.
Okay, so I’m not that aggressive. I’m not sure how annotation would take on that kind of vigor. Maybe you’d find my saliva all over the page next to psychotic looking notes or just see this massive scrawl across each two page set that looks like John Nash’s conspiracy wall in A Beautiful Mind. I don’t know, but now I wish I really were this kind of scribbling lunatic reader. Alas, it’s probably fairer to say that I’m a run-of-the-mill annotator. Excuse me: an average annotator. (I got you, Almighty Alliteration.)
The point? I typically don’t read without at least underlining a lot. When I was a student, this helped me remember everything, as in I could tell you what page a quote was on because I had underlined it. I had (and maybe still have?) quite a powerful memory, for the purpose of school at least, i.e. my recall felt uncanny. I prepared for tests by memorizing pages of notes and then regurgitating them – damn near in their entirety – for the teacher. I didn’t understand most of what I studied, but I could spit it back verbatim, no problem. Since then, I’ve abandoned the wastefulness of memorization in favor of understanding. I got sick of just purging and feeling empty without knowing I was feeling empty. It was an awful intellectual bulimia. At least when Dumbledore emptied a thought into his Pensieve, it was a conscious move. I just acted like I thought I was supposed to for the sake of a good grade.
Anyway, on the night I started reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred, I was so drawn into it that my pen fell out of my hands without me even noticing. The next few nights – four in total – I dropped my pen consciously and leapt into antebellum Maryland with Dana and Kevin, which, now that I think about it, is a strange salivation. Why was I so eager to be there with them in the era of American slavery? Because, “science fiction” though it might be categorized as (Butler preferred “grim fantasy” since “there is absolutely no science in it”), it felt real. Talk about suspension of disbelief! Dana’s narrative is so convincing, so authentic somehow, that I thought I was reading a legit slave narrative, even though it would’ve been of someone transported there magically from 1976 California. (The time travel mechanism is never fully explained, which was reassuring to me since in my young adult novel draft I was preoccupied with creating a tenable defense of time travel for my characters. I guess if the story is strong enough, the themes more urgent, then I don’t really need to worry about it. At the very least, Butler definitely didn’t need to worry about it. Because again, it felt real, and I have faith that reality is true, so why would I need an explanation. Like, it’s cool that we can explain gravity, but I feel it and know it’s real; that’s sufficient.)
It’s not a legit slave narrative, it’s fiction. But readers have often noticed (or I’m pretending there’s consensus on this) that fiction tells the truth better than reality, so that’s likely all I’m intuiting. Still, to Octavia Butler, if you can hear me somewhere out there in the astral realm (I’ll send this message along higher frequencies later), did you…did you actually experience this shit? Ayahuasca and San Pedro taught me not to deny any reality, so I’m totally credulous to the possibility that you were thrust back into your own ancestral past through similar inexplicable means as Dana and Kevin were. I prefer a world where you did indeed time travel, paradoxes be damned.
So what did I learn from reading this?
- I don’t read enough fiction, which comes with the corollary, I will read more fiction. This was so joyful, which isn’t to say it was pleasant and positive, just wholly nourishing. It’s slavery. Kevin, Dana’s white husband, describes a scene (when he was stuck in one 5 year spell, way longer than anything Dana endured…guess he needed to experience more of that reality than Dana, and without her, to really understand her; her lessons ran just as deep, time be damned) where a master whipped a fetus out of a pregnant slave. And then Dana’s ancestor, Alice, hangs herself in what is a particularly poignant, tragic section. And then Dana describes a whipping in which she can smell the victim’s agony. No more abstract intellectualization people; this is felt reality. My Ayahuasca and San Pedro trips had similar effects on me; it ruthlessly fed me all my abstractions and made me feel their truths. Oof.
- Slavery sucks. (Profound, right?)
- As Dana concludes, becoming a slave owner is easy.
- As Dana concludes, becoming a slave is easy.
- In both cases, “easier than you’d imagine.” The conditions aren’t that bizarre, and the capacity is in all of us to fit those conditions. Your ethics only ever match your circumstances, so check your self-righteous judgment at the time travel portal.
Five lessons is enough for the aim of this post. Most of what I learned feels like it’s in my bones, not needing the proof of language to defend its presence. That’s a testament to Butler’s wizardry. (Women can have wizardry, not just witchcraft, right? As far as I’m concerned, in a genre dominated by white men, Butler, a black woman, can have whatever the hell she pleases. In Zinn’s A People’s History…, there was one Feminist group called WITCH that was full of beautifully nasty women. Let’s bring that banner back against Trump and his ilk, please?)
So if you want to feel your next fictional adventure, go face America’s past with an intrepid traveller. Dana is the perfect guide through hell. Better than Dante. I might go add that note – aggressively – onto the first page.