Friday, March 03, 2006

Octavia E. Butler Tribute

I am sad beyond words. Stunned. One of our most perceptive and talented, brave writers has crossed over, but what a gift she has left us. Such a fine and broad body of work for us to remember and explore. I've learned so much about myself simply from entering her words on the page.

I first discovered Octavia's work in college, when a professor assigned her novel, Kindred, in a slavery and literature course. As you can imagine, the legacy of slavery looms large in the Delta, particularly in my hometown of Memphis, where re-examining this era in American history is practically a local pastime. We read her works alongside those of Sherley Anne Williams (Dessa Rose) and Margaret Walker's Jubilee, and up until Kindred, we'd all been fairly quiet, distant. But Octavia's novel broke our facade of indifference and those protective barriers of silence were broken. The story of Dana's journey through time and history electrified our class and raised the level of discourse, inspiring passionate discussion and debate. I'll never forget it. A dear friend then gave me one of my favorite works by Octavia, Wild Seed, making me a Butler fan for life. I never imagined then that I would later have an opportunity to review her work, Parable of the Talents for The Washington Post Book World, or that I would be blessed to meet her and experience her wisdom and humor as an instructor at Clarion West in 1999 or publish her my first anthology, when she generously allowed me to reprint her work.

Octavia's impact on my life is personal, deep, and I have heard the same from so many other readers who felt that their lives had literally changed after experiencing her work.

The last time I saw Ms. Butler was a very joyous moment, when she received the Langston Hughes Medal at CUNY. Surrounded by so many of her fans and lifelong friends I met at Clarion when we all applied *because* Octavia was teaching that year, the evening was magical, with music and an insightful interview by Wesley Brown. I remember still feeling shy around her, because she is, after all, one of my favorite authors in the world, and she reminded me of elders in my own family, warm, funny, keenly observant, and gracious as ever.

There is so much I could say, but I would just invite you all to revisit her work and pass it on to a new friend, pass it on to a growing reader. Octavia will certainly be missed, but she has left an amazing body of work for us to explore and revisit. I take comfort in knowing that her writing will continue to inspire, that new generations will be touched by her lifework. She had so much to tell us about ourselves, our world, what it means to be human, how we might move forward as we build on it, afraid perhaps, imperfect, but brave. So much to tell us and I imagine, much more still.

Journey well, Octavia. Journey well.

Sheree Renée Thomas


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