reflections on the octavia e. butler celebration at spelman

i am still glowing and full from last week’s octavia e. butler celebration at spelman. the event was the second one hosted by the humble and brilliant patternmaster tananarive due, the horror/sci-fi writer who held the cosby chair at the college these past two years (and who i am thrilled to call my writing coach this year).

last march, tananarive invited friends and colleagues of octavia’s together to reflect, share work, converse and celebrate octavia’s life and impact. writers and thinkers like samuel r. delany, nalo hopkinson, nisi shawl, steven barnes, lynnee denise, jewelle gomez and sheree thomas sat together and honored their friend and ancestor. i wasn’t able to make it, but watched hungrily from afar.

tananarive focused this year’s event on arts and activism, rooted in her own background as the daughter of civil rights activists. when she invited me i couldn’t fully believe it. i said yes much the way i once said yes to going on the space mountain ride at disney world – OF COURSE I WANT TO DO THAT!!, not thinking until later what that might actually be like as an experience.

over the months between the invitation and the event, tananarive told me she was also inviting nnedi okorafor. then dream hampton and bree newsome. then junot diaz. then john jennings. other than bree, i had buried myself in each person’s work. dream is a close detroit comrade. they are all masters in their respective crafts.

i got very very nervous.

knowing i would be near nnedi and junot particularly made me feel like i was about to be upside down in the dark of an unknown depth. i entered a comfortable denial mode wherein i just didn’t think about it.

then a little over a month ago i was at astroblackness in l.a. and nnedi was there, as well as nalo, john, tananarive and steven. they were all quite normal nerdy cool fresh people. i observed nnedi’s presence, knowing we’d share panel space soon, and with the luxury of being unknown to her. she is a striking and direct speaker – perhaps a little uncomfortable with the attention her brilliance brings, but also wanting to be as precise in her talks as she is on her pages. my nervousness around her became excitement. i wanted more time around her present-moment mind.

now i was only in denial about junot. and the live streaming – did i mention that? the whole thing was sent out to the world and the galaxy in real time. no wardrobe glitches or tripped over words allowed.

my honey lynnee denise was in town, in an alignment of magic she spoke at spelman a few days earlier at the toni cade bambara scholars/writers/activists program at the women’s research center. she kept me in my body and feeling cared for throughout the week, for which i am deeply grateful.

In terms of the event, everything was awesome.

it started off with a black sci fi film festival with piece after piece that inspired and moved me. dream’s video for theesatifaction’s ‘queen’ showed, a gorgeous expression of radical black queer beauty and fashion. there was a short film critiquing spelman’s founders’ day through a magical realism lens. there was a sci fi interactive movie/game about the work of depersonalizing and battling ‘dark forces’ that get inside us, which was funky and spoke to so much of what i have been working through in my own life. bree’s short film ‘wake’ showed, totally creepy and beautiful – it was exciting to experience her work before we met and shared the panel space. then tananarive and steven’s ‘danger word’, a short take on a zombie film, had me in tears – excellent efficient storytelling. the festival closed with pumzi, a short film out of kenya which i have seen a few times and find stunning and challenging. the way the lead character loves her planet always opens me up.

after a short break, tananarive and nnedi gave a reading in the museum, which was full of renee stout’s stunning ‘house of the conjure woman’ exhibit. it was the perfect backdrop for their words. tananarive read from the good house, which i just finished this morning. she read in the voice of the book’s magic ancestor, a part of the book i hadn’t gotten to yet. i am learning so much from her about research, place, description, story arc, and how important the characters are, outside of the horror, science and technology.

nnedi read from her new adult novel lagoon, and as she read she took us into this vibrant world she has created. i downloaded the book immediately and am excited to get into it.

at the end of the event, tananarive said that junot had slipped in the back. i didn’t turn around, but my denial ended abruptly. he was here! so was bree, and the gifted artist john jennings, who is doing the cover of octavia’s brood. so were dream, nnedi and her daughter, tananarive and her father, lynnee, soraya and sage from the NOLA wildseeds coven, a group connected to the octavia butler and emergent strategy work. so was my old friend samirah from college, who is now a textile/fabric artist living in atlanta, who reminded me i had basically been like this since school. and bill campbell, an internet friend for years who i had never met in person. and so was shamika, a new facebook friend who had flown down from NY to connect with all of us. people were texting and tweeting as they prepared to watch from afar.

the pattern was gathering.

shortly before we went up, as i finally frantically gathered my thoughts, tananarive reminded me that she wanted me to do one of the grounding exercises i’d told her about, instead of just a talking intro. all of the sudden emergent strategy flooded my system and i lost my nervousness. i only had to do what i loved and be myself.

junot diaz came over and became just junot, a human with a wicked smile, bad back, and brilliant mouth that talks in essays and curses. dream was there, covered in sparkles. we were all there because of our shared love of octavia.

exhale, be here. i landed in the moment of it, in my body.

a group of spelman and morehouse students opened us with a reading of earthseed verses. then the speakers took the stage. i went first, and had folks stand and do a meditation and sharing around the Octavia’s earthseed concept ‘all that you touch, you change.’ i asked them to share what they are in this world to change, and to manifest it with one other person in the room. i referenced octavia’s brood and emergent strategy to ground the work.

the other panelists introduced themselves with a variety of love stories about octavia and her impact on them. junot and dream both shared what it was like to read her work as it was coming out. john spoke about coming to her work as a visual artist, and how he is in the process of doing a comic book adaptation of kindred. nnedi spoke about her friendship with octavia, and how they corresponded about world events, including 9/11, and octavia’s disdain for bush. bree spoke about the impact of octavia on her creative and activist work.

the q&a that followed had us speaking on the new intelligence of social media and how to use it as a way to connect people for social justice, the blackness of outer space, sci-fi and theology, how to make sci-fi work and ideas more accessible – including changing who is seen as a creator, and using image and film to tell stories. we were asked whether we wanted to write about a world beyond race (most of us said a resounding no…for me identity is one of the most interesting ways we evolve and layer), what themes emerge in our work (i said pleasure!), and how to deal with the fear of changing the world with our writing. the audience was lovely, alert, leaning forward.

i notice that spaces created around octavia feel sacred to me, always.

the next day i got to hold a circle around octavia and emergent strategy. it was an intimate group of about twelve people – students, professors, cultural strategists, artists. tananarive’s father john stephens due was there, which was awesome. elders bring such value, and he has been doing social justice work for over fifty years. he jumped in and played with the ideas of emergence and sci fi.

i introduced emergent strategy and had people personalize it for their lives. it was beautiful to hear what came out as folks talked about being more intentional, interdependent, transformative, adaptive, decentralized, fractal and creating more possibilities in their lives and work.

i deeply believe in the work i am getting to do these days. i think it is a path that will liberate many paths, and i think i am merely a conduit, a gathering place for the ideas to marinate and continue.

i am being shaped, i am shaping.