book review

Hey, let's talk about books: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

I finished reading Kindred a couple weeks ago, and I have to write about it. I loved this book. I will tell you why.

            This is the first and only Octavia Butler novel I’ve read, so I can’t say much about her body of work as a whole. I know that she grew up reading science fiction, and was dissatisfied and puzzled to find so few black voices—particularly female black voices—represented in the literature she loved. So when she began writing her own sci-fi, she was setting out in uncharted territory.

            Kindred, first published in 1979, follows Dana, an aspiring writer who works for a temp agency in 1976 Los Angeles. She is unpacking after moving into a new apartment with her partner Kevin, when she is suddenly pulled out of her reality and into another, where she encounters a young, red-headed white boy. The boy is drowning, and without the time to consider her whereabouts, Dana must save him. She does and is then transported back to her apartment, but not for long; this reality-jumping keeps happening. She eventually learns that the alternate reality is antebellum Maryland, and the boy is her ancestor Rufus—the heir to a slaveholding plantation. She must continue to save the boy, or else her own existence will be jeopardized, and she is afraid to know what would happen in that case.

            Dana is black and Kevin is white. On one prolonged trip back to Maryland together, the two are quickly embroiled in local plantation conflict. They find themselves assuming the roles of slave and slave-owner, and things get messy. That is all I will reveal of the plot; sorry if it’s too much of a spoiler. (Aside: I personally feel like it’s okay to discuss a bit of plot when talking about books, as long as the climax and resolution are never revealed. By the time you read the book [which you should!] you’ll probably forget anyway—you’ll only remember that feeling of “Wow, I should read that book!” And for me, it’s all about the details and the author’s delivery, and you can’t get that from a plot synopsis.)

            So the novel is this beautiful blend of science fiction and gritty slave narrative, but from the perspective of a modern black woman stuck in the middle of it all. In slave-owning Maryland, Dana knows the history and how it’ll all end, but until she’s transported back to her own place and time, she must play along in order to survive and get by. And playing along means submitting to slavery, with implications that she couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

            I can’t discuss the myriad reasons why I loved this book in this short little treatise, but they are all worthy of close attention and discussion. Striking to me was the poignancy with which Butler conveys the complexities of the social relations among the novel’s characters—most of whom can be broadly defined as either slave or slave-master. For example, this novel more than any other literature I’ve read—including first-person slave narratives—illuminates the sexual inner-workings of the female slave/male slave-owner relationship.

            Consider: for the first centuries of this country’s existence, the only relationship among white men and black women was that of ownership. Like, literally ownership. And legally, the two parties had very little choice in the matter, even if they tried. Black women were legally bound to do for white men whatever they were asked, with any and all consequences for rebellion justified by popular consensus and by law. The ways that white men accordingly fashioned the etiquette surrounding their sexual lives is—among other descriptions—unfathomably disgusting and somewhat unimaginable to the modern American. But Butler goes there, seemingly out of a feeling that someone must go there, because the implications of those centuries-spanning norms are still felt today—for Americans black and white, female and male—and the roots are well worth examining.

            This legally admissible exploitation of black female power had enough of a stronghold in early America that it still persists today—just take a look at the case of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who just last week was convicted of sexually abusing at least thirteen black women, with charges including multiple counts of first-degree rape and coercive oral sodomy. He did these things often, and for months he got away with them, because (1) his victims typically had prior convictions (drugs, prostitution, etc.) and feared incarceration if uncompliant, and (2) because he was a cop. As a white male in a position of authority, he time and again leveraged his power over his black female targets to take what he felt entitled to, and the survivors were made to feel powerless enough that that they had no choice but to give it.

            The state of the black woman in America is a shadowy one, blanketed with decades of dingy shaming and indifference, but Butler shines a light on the dirt and the cobwebs, revealing the troubling roots with a beautiful, brutal honesty. And what perfectly rounds out the novel for me is Butler’s pleasantly surprising portrait of the white male American—someone who has been raised in a culture that expects from him a certain hunger for power over those with too weak a social standing to fight back. The vengeful, red-eyed slave-owner is typically painted with one raging brushstroke by novelists and filmmakers, but Butler gently gives him emotional nuance—humanizing him, bringing him to empathizable life for the first time.

            I could go on and on about how Butler expertly crafts this beautiful portrait of American racial and sexual confusion, and how her characters are so appalling and yet worthy of empathy, and how her clear, vivid prose drives it all home in the most satisfyingly devastating way—but I’ll let you listen to Octavia herself. She does it so much better than I ever could.

** Fun Fact: From the critical essay by Robert Crossley that follows the novel text in my copy of the book: “In the spring of 2003 the city of Rochester, New York undertook its third annual event titled ‘If All of Rochester Read the Same Book.’ An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people read Kindred, discussed it in local reading groups, and for three days had a chance to meet Butler and talk with her about the book at her numerous appearances at universities, libraries, and bookstores.” Is it just me, or should we get something like that going in Columbus?!

Hey, let's talk about books: Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

I’m deciding to take a crack at writing a sort of book review. Book of the week, book of the month—I’m not sure if it’ll become a regular thing. And I’ve never done any “blogging” before so this is fairly new to me, although I do love to write and I love to talk about books even more, so here ya go. For now I’ll call this little segment, “Hey, let’s talk about books.”

            When I talk about books and how much I love them I usually espouse the far-reaching benefits of fiction, but I’m going to start here with one of my favorite nonfiction books of the last few years. I want to tell you about this lovely book, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, published in 2010. Pictured is my tattered copy, which I bought at Women & Children First in Chicago maybe four years ago and have since lent to at least three friends, who all enjoyed it as much as I did.

            Put as simply as possible, Ryan and Jethá examine various studies of primate sexual behavior and from them derive a hypothesis which develops throughout the book. This hypothesis, basically, is that humans are not biologically monogamous. Our strong cultural perception that we are “naturally” meant to exist with only one sexual partner is a relatively recent human construct, and it denies thousands and thousands of years of human evolution when our species—our ancestors—engaged in sexual relationship structures completely different from what we’ve been led to believe. Monogamy isn’t real. Well, it’s real only insofar as we are taught it from a young age and we end up believing in it. Further, the authors assert that this trend of ours to force our non-monogamous biological programming into a monogamous way of life is firmly at the root of many of our problems in relationships, sexual and otherwise.

            I love the idea of this book because it tackles topics head-on that many people feel too uncomfortable talking or even thinking about, like what if we’re not meant to have only one sexual partner? And maybe the way we construct families proves so problematic time after time because it’s fundamentally flawed, given our biological makeup? Ryan and Jethá use a wealth of credible scientific resources to back any claims they make. While you’re reading you’re taking in some pretty dense scientific information, but it doesn’t feel like it because they have a light, sometimes funny way of talking about everything that it feels more like a conversation than a research paper.

            I think it’s easy for a reader of this book to be critical—I mean, it makes some statements that feel pretty blankety to me, pretty black and white. And I think some of the authors’ assertions are somewhat problematic, but isn’t that true for every book (and everything), ever? I think some people feel resistant to this book because they don’t want to hear that a fundamental aspect of our culture is not as set in stone as we believe it is. But the authors make some wonderful, mind-blowing points that are undeniably apt and will make you think in entirely new, refreshing directions for a long time after you read it. If you read it, I mean. And you should.

            There is so much to this book. The complexity of the ideas presented is so dense, I feel like I could think and talk about it forever. While the authors say we might be better off sexually non-monogamous, I feel like they also recognize that this is somewhat impossible given the structure of the rest of our lives. We no longer live in the small groups we used to; we live in enormous, amorphous communities that seemingly have no ending because we now know just how big the world is, whereas for thousands of generations our predecessors personally knew every person they were aware of. Many aspects of our sexual lives are obviously at the whim of the rapid evolution of the structure of human life that has come about in the past few centuries—in the past few decades, even! The authors examine these causes and effects as well, drawing on interesting modern examples of people being dissatisfied with life and having few places to turn for answers why.

            Sex at Dawn, to me, is a shamelessly honest, sex-positive evaluation of many aspects of human behavior that most researchers shy away from. And it’s written in straightforward, accessible prose, which I always appreciate. It’ll change your life a little bit. That’s my review! Thanks.