the octavia symposium (aka: not faster caterpillar – butterfly!

yesterday was one of the best days of my life. i hosted my (the?) first ever octavia butler symposium to create a strategic octavia butler reader for social justice visionaries.

it was incredible…i want to place the raw notes here so we all have them. i will craft these into a strategic reader which will live here on the blog till it finds a new home. Enjoy the transcript of our magic geeky time together 🙂 Below that is a list of related creations to consume.


adrienne’s words:

want to uplift some key themes for me from each of these books that are relevant for us in the movements for social justice.

the parable series shows us the apocalypse, and then the agricultural and spiritual solution, and then the true smashing of almost all vision, and – to me the most important part – the zapatista-style person to person relationship building that maintains and spreads the vision.

the patternist series shows us two beings, good and evil, who are basically immortal and thrust together simply by the shared experience of not dying. their offspring are a race of telepaths who illuminate the digital divide of new forms of communication (even if they are organic), the elitism that can come with communication, and the power of networks and relationship.

the xenogenesis series (also known as lilith’s brood), is about the key question – what is necessary about humans? do we deserve to exist? what would we do to survive and what elements of our species are worth preserving. this is after we have destroyed earth, another species (more advanced) picks us up and begins to integrate us into their physical and cultural existence.

it’s also the series that has the most evolved vision on a near darwinian level of what works for survival – organic creation and building, zero waste, networked families instead of 2 parent households, things we need to pay attention to.

i won’t do too much on kindred here, or fledging, or survivor (which octavia took out of print and didn’t want us to read. and it was awesome.) simply because they are not part of series where we can see the arc of lesson flow.

blood child and other stories is an important collection of short stories – first for the essay on how being a writer is about persistent practice much more than raw talent.

also, the story in there about people digging and gouging at themseves makes me think of how we dig and destroy our selves, our organizations, our movements. how can we redirect that intense energy into creativity?

fishbowl conversation: Developing the Intro for the Octavia Butler Strategic Reader.

(here we placed 4 chairs in the middle of the room and asked a few questions – there were no lulls in this conversation 🙂 )

Why is Octavia Butler strategic/important to your work?
– seeing a strong dynamic powerful black leader was important
– we had an eternal summer of the black feminist mind on octavia butler…everything we read has the question – are you willing to be transformed? [even past human?]…its not a cooler version of what you were, its something completely new. its important because it’s transformative. caterpillar to butterfly – not fast caterpillar, BUTTERFLY
– she provides me with a place of rest – her work IS her, she can teach me things, i can melt into her…
– in most of her books there’s a capitalist mistake that leads to something new. corporate medicine leaked into water makes smart people empaths – the empaths that are an underclass in the parables.
– often in her stories the protagonist meets an older woman/mentor who wasn’t supposed to live. and they name explicitly that because of who we are and what we do, we can’t work together, we even hate each other…for my political work this yields the lesson of how to rise above ‘shit’ and honor different territories and shared skill for the greater goals of the work
– people long for the apocalypse (or revolution) – folks are always waiting for it to get really bad before they change….octavia shows what its like to get thru the bad, and then it gets worse, and gets worse. a cycle of apocalypse. resilience (not as a word to throw around) is what it is to go thru the cycle of apocalypse with your visions intacts.
– how does octavia relate to disability? how does it become a strength – and what does the agricultural vision from many of her works mean for folks who can’t farm 8 hours a day?
– when we think about priorities and class – i’m thinking about healing and class. what does it mean to FEEL oppression, vs folks who are more insulated. how is that a liability and a resource? she walks many paths with it.
– she’s all about the dry run – as a campaigner i always ask how would [that] look? she takes us on a pageant play of what the iterations of the apocalypse are gonna look like. i wake up at night thinking of the image of the 16 year old girl and her folks roasting a baby on a spit. we’re going on a journey, and we’re seeing all this suffering – and its our responsibility to go to the stars. we can’t solve every problem. how do we take from these lessons, and survive?
– when you talk about going to the stars it makes me relate to…how we relate to colonization…at the expense of what people, what means? i feel octavia is asking – do humans need to be here? its a hard question. if its about survival, and we see ourselves as connected – is this species one that needs to survive? connected – she asks hard things about incest and age. this really disturbed me when i read her – how we don’t talk about hurt and power differentials – childhood sexual abuse (gen 5 and others are thinking about this)…how do we see non-consensual acts that create other things that people use and find helpful…

why octavia (as or not as sci fi) now [at this current moment, in the age of sb1070, the flotilla, economic crisis, technological advances]?

– i think we are in a spiritual awakening, looking at what our society could be in a spiritual realm. she holds that space for us
– i think when u bring up the apocalypse, its not science fiction, its happening. especially what she writes in the parable.
– the guiding philosophy that lauren (olamina, from the parables) has in her life is that god is change – that gives me strength. the only thing i can count on is change, so how to be of use at a time like this?
– what she presents forces me to face my deepest fears…like, when the apocalypse comes we will have to walk. that scares me. when i moved to oakland from the midwest i had to wrestle w/what about when the apocalypse comes and i can’t walk to ohio to see my family?
– i think the issues are timeless. when she wrote them she was forecasting. and some of what she has written about has come to pass. if we continue on this path this is how it will look.
– she writes from the perspective of the marginalized, often first person. they are dealing with gangs on the highways and border control [“no one wants california trash”] – really personalizes it: how do u feel?
– i want to put in a pitch for science fiction. its a great gateway – i am always looking for anti-racist and postcolonial thought. this world is so vaster and more beautiful and has more potential than we give credit to it – if that wasn’t true we would have no hope for the social movement work we are doing now. octavia is only one of the writers who approaches this work.
– octavia draws into play: if there’s all that magic in the world why don’t we use that potential? there’s the potential of all the characters – they have these powers. its not just the apocalypse, her protagonists have the potential to destroy as much as save their communities.
– its weird that its labeled as science fiction – her work brings up race, gender, sexuality…how do we deal with living in a world where folks in some places actually ARE eating babies – and how do we deal with our comfort?
– introduces us to the power of stories of the future. we’re trying to look into stories of the future in our organizing – to see what obstacles we’re trying to create. it allows us to role play. things are complicated, folks don’t act the way you want them to – her work is complicated. there’s many reasons the characters fail, many reasons they succeed, all those reasons are human.
– if u can imagine it u can build it – she lays blueprints for social change. also – the digging – people have loads of creative energy…what would it look like to release our creative potential? [self-critics and haters particularly]
– i came to her as a sci-fi fan, not knowing she was a black woman, she was in the sci-fi ghetto. the power of sci-fi is – if u wrote a novel about detroit, people have all these expectations {oh this a race analogy, and poverty, etc]. but if you take it out of that context, there’s a suspension of disbelief that allows you to get at issues without peoples’ walls going up. it IS a parable, it is an allegory, and it fits into what we’re dealing with now
– the evening, the morning and the night – our work in detroit summer is all about transforming our energy – that story shows the value of investing not in keeping schools open but in creating spaces to rechannel their energy.
– with lilith’s brood, i have been thinking about the concept of the singularity – a friend of ours (kweli tutashinda) has been writing about how folks in the science world are moving closer to merging human genes and technology – and there are nearly cults that believe its the next stage of evolution. NASA had a conference about it – its coming. kweli writes about whats at stake for indigenous and grassroots communities in that shift?
– [editor’s note: this is making me reflect on how we keep recreating the technology to do what we know how to do naturally but have forgotten to practice: awanyu has to pretend to do things a normal way when she knows another way. telepaths having to speak. how do we release or re-member what we know how to do?]
– also reflecting on speculative democracy and we are all going to be impacted by it. access to technology is one way to experience this.

Then we shifted into small groups to think specifically about each series of Octavia’s work. We had two groups work on the Parables, a Patternist series group, a Xenogenesis group and a short stories/other group. What follows are their verbatim notes. Many folks signed up to stay in touch about this work – if you are interested as well, let me know.



Notes from the Short Story group. Starting off with a go around with names and the stories that brought us to this group:

– “The Morning, the Evening and the Night”
– “Speech Sounds”
– _Fledging_
– “Bloodchild”

Interest in
– what it means to be a writer
– class differences in “speech sounds”
– people of color scifi as a way of decontextualizing our struggles and framing them in a new light
– trauma as a context of transformation of people’s relationship to their bodies, their relationships and how they perceive reality in the short stories
– consent, parenting, what makes a familyand how we support each other in “bloodchild”
– disability in her stories. mental health.

Going deeper into one of the stories: Bloodchild

1. Octavia Butler says in the comments of Bloodchild that she is not writing about slavery unless she explicitly is writing about chatterel slavery. Do we agree with that? Do we believe her?

2. What are some reasons she might have said this?
– Pigeonholed as an African-American author
– Slavery as a specific historical instition
– Thinking about other forms of oppression

3. What do we understand as the relationship between Octavia Butler as an author and the statements of her narrators?

We are all vibrations. The moment we share here is a preparation for the next moment. She leaves her writing in order to prepare us for the next meeting.

Two people shared dreams related to Octavia Butler, touching on the power of our own prophetic dreams. Magical, prophetic experiences related to the AMC.

Being able to create, imagine bigger is a process of decolonization of our dreams. Our dreams have gotten smaller and smaller, but as we engage scifi in reading and in dreams, our imaginations can grow and decolonize.


How does immortality or longevity relate to morality?
(bc to them, there are no consequences)
> how does it relate to immortality as privilege
> longevity as privelege at the expense of other peoples live
>what is interdependence? (i.e. communities)
> there is a leader – the patternmaster – people are very resistant to the patternmaster
> what does it mean that there even IS a patternmaster?
> female leader/patternmaster was able to kill the male immortal thru the power of the network – she was like a conduit for their power, but she was actually controlled by them (the network) – question: what are the patterns of de-centralized leadership?
> what do the actual lines of de-centralized leadership look like?
> how to we go about accounting for the disabled – i.e. ppl born with the alien disease, ppl are disturbed by that/them… how do we affirm bodily differences? – in the world that we create?
> alot of tension btwn ideas of a scarcity mind-set vs an abundance mind-set…?
…theres this abundant amt of this energy in the world and the way to sustain it…
>how do we do the emotional work to help each other after the trauma?
“Is there more than just getting through the day?”
> Wildseed – reliance on gender-based binary set-up, then subverted into…? there is some gender-switching throughout, but still reverts back to male-female dichotomy.
> are you willing to be transformed into service work – patterns of people grouping together around ‘differences’ – how are we going to group in this way w/o one or the other eventually rising above in privelege?
> scarcity vs abundance mindsets – how does that play out in behavior patterns?
—also, does she illiustrate this in the form of class? does a “middle class” exist?
> didnt really touch on race in this discussion yet….
> white history + anthropology books gloss over human origins as being people of color…. and her way of presenting it is more an adam and eve thing… eden is africa, and its not the same idea of eden…
> evolution presented in a way of turning darwinism on its head and address instead human vs superhuman vs subhuman…?

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Notes from Parable Series 1
-How are these books closer to reality than fiction?
-Question for Parable of the Talents: Even if we have different values, how can we still relate to each other without disrespect? (based on Lauren and Marcos’ relationship, Marcos keeping Lauren’s daughter away from her, brainwashing her to keep away from Acorn)
-How do we within our movements really find ways to heal intergenerational stuff.
-What can Lauren’s daughter offer us? What kind of commentary is she offering through her resistance to Earthseed, and her mother’s obsession with ‘the cause’ at the expense of family. Often time we have outsider status within our own families because of our political work, where we are so often organizing other people’s family members and not our own.
-From perspective of whte folks/ those in power, the difference between sympathy and empathy, to learn that the pain they are inflicting is hurting them too… how to organize a world on those principals as well
-Ques. related to Lauren’s hyperempathy… How do you create spaces where we can strongly empathize what another’s feelings, when we have to deal with so much oppression and numbing ourselves becomes survival.
-Parable of the Talents freedom after acorn is taken over, mudslide scene: Planning you can do to move towards liberation and what happens our of control that can also help us. What role does faith play if a role at all. In what are you taking solace?
– Parable of the Talents: Snitching on the lesbian couple: How do we trust and build relationships in themidst of oppresive situations?
-Very end of the Series, and they are successful–imagining a way to move forward… the ship Earthseed leaves for the stars on is called Christopher Columbus… what is Butler saying there? Is Earthseed beautiful as something that works right here right now, what does it mean that they will move to colonize another planet?
-Preparation for the unpreparable… how can we make meaningful links with one another ahead of time before crazy apocolypse
– Black Church: apocolypse and prophesy, today’s 2012 phenomenon and how we are all talking about it… How are similar themes present in this series?
-How do we develop technology for social change in a hostile environment or co-opt technologies that have been used for say military defense.
empathy in relations to power structure
belief in faith
Super-power of change


Feelings, being overwhelmed by feeling – critical question about what does it mean to feel empathy?

Relationship between healing, empathy, creativity, movement

Gendered expression of feelings – how women are treated when they express their feelings and how men are treated when they express their feelings

(Kat) Wisdom and strength comes from pain. In POS POT, what wisdom and strength comes from pain and trauma? How is that healed, or how is it not healed?In our reality, how can we can respect and hold the wisdom that comes from pain and trauma, while healing from that. How can we respect the wisdom, while working to stop the trauma from happening to other people?

Source of pain is stolen daughter – how does she use that pain as a driving force?

What does OB believe her characters learn from trauma and how does that trauma help them approach their work, guides and motivates their work?

How OB talks about feelings – sometimes feels like a little dissociation/detachment – writes about humanity in a really big way, people facing trauma, but keep going – don’t have time for healing circles etc, we have to just survive always – role of emotions in OB’s work – processing trauma in a community way is really imp – reading POS POT – acorn built on concepts of interdependence, but not in an emotional way — (Tyrone)

(Jesse) That might also be part of dealing with trauma – part of impact of how trauma is dealt with in that book – example funeral ceremony where planting trees, realize the emotional content of the tree planting – something so interesting about the gathering ceremonies – they are about emotions, welcoming people into the community, transition life death – also logistical, are we going to build this thing or not, interdependence or not – intermeshed logistics and emotion – Olamina constantly being commented on as unemotional – all about blocking what you feel

How does distance from feelings help in POS/T? How does it cause problems?

(Kat thought) also she is saying that logistics and emotions can’t be separated

She felt deeply but her father was v stoic – looked upon as weakness to display emotion, something to be manipulated – overcompensating for that

When first began journey – what this looks like in our society – ppl who put on bigger clothing and takes a male identity – ppl in our reality do that too, to take the power of maleness –

(Josh) what is the role of empathy in our own work? Polit arguments based in empathy, or respect, what are the themes of our own work?

What is it that makes her – empathy, her father, her experiences?

When we have overwhelming feelings, how do we strategically deal with them in our work?

What are our rituals?

(Jesse) When we have political talk, we often talk in terms of hyper-empathy – how does Lauren separate/balance the empathy and maintaining her own strength? If she doesn’t get some distance, she loses focus and ability to work…

How do you distance yourself and be in it at the same time? Carrying and balancing empathy…

How do women assert our strength in our own form, as opposed to transitioning to someone else?

How do people assert strength in their true form, without being oppressive?

What is the role of body and gender performance to power in POS POT?

What stands in for gender normatively and lack of GN in OB’s books, and how do people use it, are influenced by it

Disability as strength, as community, as weakness, as vulnerability

Apocalyse – some people love her bc of our fantasies of the apocalypse

Agriculture, seeds, as related to food and freedom, and control

Religion – how do we embrace and reject religion, how does she do that in her books?

How do we balance logistics and emotions in our work? How does OB do that in POS POT? What lessons is she trying to share with us, what to learn?


Lilith’s Brood
Questions: Cancer as a metaphor-the way the oankali can survive–how can we take what we see as inherently distructive and make them healing and liberatory?

what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be alien?

What would I do if I were Lilith? Is the pleasure Lilith sucumbed to a tool for domination?

What is the place of pleasure in our work?

How do we frame the other? How do we define the othter/alien/immigrant?

How do we deal with our complicated reactions to difference? (looking at Lilith’s first experiences with Oankali)

How do generations surpass each other? How can we see more possibilities than those that come before us?

How can we raise our children recongnizing they are totally separate/different/other beings?

What are the connections between Lilith and the Lilith in the bibile? Within traditional Jewish beliefs?

How does the oankali explore gender is ways that are helpful/transformative to us? Related to how we see it? Limited?


Other works

listen to:
Nina Simone’s 22nd Century
Tamar Kali’s Warrior Bones

Carl Brandon Society – sci fi readers and writers of color
Minister Faust
Tanarive Due
Nalo Hopkinson
Jewelle Gomez
Janelle Monae’s whole songbook!