Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Last Night's Octavia E Butler Tribute @ NYPL!

One of Octavia E. Butler's fans created this picture some time ago, and when I first got it I thought, 'Ooh, that's crazy lookin', don't favor her at all!' but now I just see the admiration it was made with. Looks kinda cool to me now. The various covers above are just a few from the numerous foreign and other editions of some of Ms. Butler's most beloved works. I love to check out how works are sold in other markets, and when I was in the UK, I picked up additional copies of works I already owned just because they were presented in totally different editions. These editions make you see the work through other eyes, and sometimes that vision is humorous and sometimes it's quite fascinating and sometimes it's just strange.

Last night some of Ms. Butler's fans and family gathered at the New York Performing Arts Library to celebrate her life and memory. The program was quite wonderful--humorous, fascinating, strange at times, and just really rich. I'm glad I was able to witness it. The program was star studded, featuring:

Marleen Barr

Avery Brooks

Samuel R. Delany

Harlan Ellison


(Yes, bro'man's name is a registered trademark)

Sandra Govan

Merrilee Heifetz

Toshi Reagon

Bernice Johnson Reagon

Max Rodriguez

Sonia Sanchez

Dan Simon

The evening offered many jewels, too many to jot all down here, ranging from heartfelt testimony, illuminating and hilarious anecdotes, a couple of bizarre moments (oh, we are human, ain't we!), some fyah performances from Sonia Sanchez and Avery Brooks (Good Lawd!), and rousing musicmakin' from Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon that could only make Octavia smile.

I saw a lot of lovely faces and folk I haven't seen a while, all there to honor a writer so many from around the world have claimed as their own. It's funny, but we laughed and cheered all night, and I don't believe there was a tear in the house, but the tears didn't hit me until I'd just started posting this, so I will leave you with just a few hightlights from each presenter for now.

  • Meeting Octavia's family! My editor Jaime introduced us, and they were really warm, beautiful folk. Everyone was so happy that they made the journey from Southern California to join the celebration. There was a giant gorgeous photo of Octavia projected on stage behind the presenters, and when I looked at her cousin Ernestine, I could see some of Octavia in her eyes. Beautiful!
  • Her editor Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press began the evening by telling us that Octavia was so hard on herself as a writer, that she had such an intense process, that by the time her manuscripts arrived, she had given so much to her work that he was hard pressed to do anything to it on the page, "...and this was not for lack of trying!" Dan said that on a couple of occasions, Octavia had called him saying that she had basically finished writing her novel, and that she would have it to him a week or ten days. Then a week or so later, she would tell him that she had to start all over and write the book again! And she would and the book would come in a year or two later--and it would go on to become one of her many awardwinners...
  • Sonia Sanchez, wearing a coat of many colors, her gorgeous gray locks adorned in a purple rhinestone bandanna, read beautifully (of course) from the "Positive Obsession" essay that is in the new edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories. What an amazing essay about how Octavia came to her writing as a ten-year old, and the stories of her mother and other family who helped in her journey really should be shared with young folk everywhere. Powerful stuff.
  • Then the legendary Harlan Ellison's wonderful voice filled the room with a recorded memorial that let it be known that if you were expecting some other kind of testimony, well, this one wasn't it! I loved the trickster testimony he shared, and meeting (Octavia) ESTELLE at age twenty-two through his eyes. His descriptions of her as a statuesque and shy young woman who might not have been destined for Hollywood screenwriting but was definitely destined for writerly success were classic Ellison! Good stuff there, especially his take on the Watts riots and Beverly Hills and the racial chasm he and his colleague 'Irv' were trying to cross when they started offering the first west coast Writers Guild screenwriters workshop for 'minority writers' (sorry, you will just have to ask somebody for Harlan's hilarious riff on this!). Folk was lookin' around and trippin' throughout this performance. An evening highlight!
  • Merrilee Heifetz, Sr. Vice President of Writers House, Octavia's agent of many years (after Felicia?) gave a very moving account of their relationship. She said that when she first met Octavia, they were sitting next to each other when Octavia won the Hugo award. Octavia told Merrilee that she was good luck and this began their journey together in publishing. I think at this point, when Merrilee began representing her, one or more of Octavia's books were out of print. The sales had been dismal and publishers turned Octavia's novels down, one of them even telling Merrilee that "blacks don't buy books." This, Merrilee reminded us, was before Oprah or Terry McMillan. Their journey was hard going at first, but Octavia was "a true optimist." Merrilee later received an offer from a publisher who said that if she could sell the hardcover to another house, he could publish Octavia's work in paperback. When Octavia received the MacArthur Award in 1995, "sales picked up!" and the rest is, you know, history.
  • What I enjoyed most about Merrilee's talk was the letters she shared with us...for example, on gleefully describing her ideas for an incredibly rich, biology-based, sentient Gaia-planetary five-novel series where the planet responds to human colonialization the way your immune system responds to disease, Octavia wrote, "...Fun! Fun! Fun!...Forgive me, but this is what I'm like when I'm in love." Hearing Ms. Butler discuss her writing so passionately, what she was working on and how she felt about it, was really wonderful, even the outlines of works that she ultimately urged, with characteristic humor, Merrilee to throw away. Merrilee said that Octavia was a big believer in luck, and as Merrilee read, I kept thinking just how lucky we are that Octavia was such an astute reader of her own work and that she was wise and fortunate enough to have remained in such capable and knowing hands.
  • Other highlights from Merrilee's talk included hearing some of the old working titles for Octavia's novels, including God's Clay (I believe that was the working title for what would later become Parable of the Sower) and Justice (somebody give me a shout if you were there and remember which work this title referred to). I think Octavia kept the characters from this work but tossed the title and premise.
  • Scholar Sandra Govan's talk was straight signifyin'. I am a long admirer of her work, but now she gets signifiyin' props! Sandra let it be known that she can get down with the best of them and write a circle around you while she doin' it. That's what I'm talkin' 'bout! Her presentation was an example of what good scholarship can do. Dr. Govan educated without condenscending, patronizing, alienating, boring and jargon-juking and jigabooin'. All that, while putting down an impressive framework for how Octavia Butler's works have been read, within and beyond the canon, in the academy and in the 'hood, taught in the tower and in high schools, taught in black studies, women's studies, American studies, history, science fiction studies, all kinds of studies, and Sandra did so with humor---and most impressively, she was succinct. I loved her story of how a young man in Chicago, stood up to tell Octavia, "THANK YOU for WILD SEED," and how Sandra said he spoke as if the work had "touched his soul." Yes, Amen.
  • Then the strangeness. I don't even know what to say, so I'm not going to say too much. Just to watch out for noodles and gumbo. Ditto what Amiri said. Though folk mean well, that we do. And, um, read Fledgling, Octavia's last book after what Sandra Govan described as a "long, numbing bout of writer's block." Read this work Octavia described as her fun book. Read it and revisit all of her works if you can. But if you're new to her work, don't start there, consider beginning with her short stories, collected in Bloodchild (the 2nd edition) and then read one of her novel series, the Patternist books or the Xenogenesis series (repackaged as Lilith's Brood), and of course Kindred...
  • Avery Brooks, Avery Brooks, Avery Brooks.... got up on the mike and said, "Good evening. I'm Avery Brooks..." and don't you know somebody shouted back, "We know!!!!!!!!!!!" What that shirt say? I HEART Black People. Yes, indeed. If you didn't know when you saw this dapperly dressed, gleamin' bald, lean, graceful man, then you certainly did when he opened his mouth and said, "Darkness... God... Chaos..." Can you hear that bass? Oooooh Hey now! Avery threw down, threw down, threw down, an amazing performance gathered from Butler's Earthseed passages in Parable of the Talents. I loved watching his hands dance as they gripped the podium, as if he was beating out rhythms as he broke it down, keeping time as he brought it down on that stage. That he did! Loved it. I think Octavia would have, too!
  • Pioneer Samuel R. Delany, always a pleasure to see, always eloquent and insightful. I'd heard some of his talk at the National Black Writers Conference @ Medgar Evers College, but new jewels included him telling us that his mother was the librarian who handled the Schomburg collection back in the day, which he used to climb all over as a child since it consisted of a few boxes in the old Countee Cullen libary in Harlem. Years later he would be invited to speak at the Schomburg again, with his former student, Ms. Butler, whom he hadn't seen in fifteen years, only to learn that the boxed collection that once served as his playground was now an impressive research center with its own real estate on 135th Street and Lenox. Samuel described learning about Octavia from Harlan Ellison, who pulled him aside to tell him about this very talented and shy young African-American writer, who Ellison had encouraged to attend Clarion. Harlan didn't want Octavia to get lost in the crush, and Samuel said that it was very clear that she was talented and of course, quite shy, but when she spoke, her comments were always on point and succinct. Samuel later joined everyone in celebrating

  • the beautiful song Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock and composed work for the Africans in America
  • PBS series) created after reading Parable of the Sower. Said Ms. Bernice, "I can sing this book!" And that she did. Toshi Reagon accompanied her on guitar in a song that asked, "Would I know you better if I could feel you..." exploring Lauren Olamina's empathic condition dramatized in Octavia's 1998 novel. Rich, rich stuff. We ended the evening in song, and what a beautiful evening it was.
All Best,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This sounds like it was a great event, and I'm so sorry I missed it.

With all the dramatic readings going on at this tribute, I hope this means that plans for a feature film are in the works :)

With the right treatment, OEB's Parable of the Sower would make a great film.

Thanks Sheree, it's good to know that such an esteemed and established community of African-American writers, poets, musicians, artists, scholars, and fans gathered to pay tribute to such an original and dynamic voice in African-American fiction: Octavia Estelle Butler will truly be missed.

Do you know if a similar event is planned in the Washington DC area?


6/14/2006 9:25 AM  

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