In honor of Black History Month, join us each day from February 10th to the 19th as we celebrate Black Angelenos who have influenced culture, social justice, and progress in Los Angeles and, in some instances, the nation.
Today we celebrate Octavia E. Butler:
"I'm a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles," science fiction novelist Octavia Butler once famously quipped, referencing not just a traumatic local childhood - dyslexia and social anxiety had her branded as "slow" while growing up in Pasadena - but how that trauma would mark her life in both expected and unexpected ways. Being born an epically quiet and awkward black girl in post-WWII Los Angeles had made Butler into the sort of bookish, borderline shut-in who would live with an elderly, Baptist mother her entire life. But this origin story had also made her into one of the greatest writers of her generation, a black woman who did not so much reject the notions she had received about race and gender as she meticulously stress-tested them in the laboratory of her fiction.
If a grand theme emerges from Butler's work, it's that relationships between the powerful and powerless turn out to be much, much more complicated than we are often asked to believe them to be. The same applies to the details of Octavia Butler's own life. Born to a shoeshiner who died while she was just an infant, Butler was raised by her mother and grandmother in circumstances that seemed to hover persistently between two black L.A.'s: one hardscrabble and weighed down, one striving and upwardly mobile. The ironies of being black and female in the planet's entertainment capital clearly did not escape the notice of a girl remembered as towering and ungainly (female beauty is a source of both power and vulnerability in Butler's work), Nor did the problem of being black in L.A.'s famously diverse exurbs, the complex hybridity of her fiction likely having some precedent in the ferment of her adolescence in black/white/latino 'hoods.
What material deprivations Butler may have suffered were offset by the wealth of media to which she had access growing up during the dual high watermarks of American pulp and the Californian dream. No biography of Butler is complete without references to the public library system, to the go-go heydays of magazine publishing, replete with legendary brands such as Galaxy and Amazing and Fantasy and Science Fiction, to long afternoons spent hiding in double features and matinees. She wrote her first story at the age of twelve to escape what she described as run-of-the-mill loneliness and boredom and never stopped, throwing herself into the creation of rigorously crafted imaginary worlds, this even as her generational compatriots were working in parallel at reimagining the country at lunch counters, marches and protests.
Butler wrote thirteen novels and many more short stories, and Los Angeles provided a recurring backdrop for her writing. In such stories, black Los Angeles retains its specificity even as it provides the ground on which other, highly speculative edifices will be built - the black church, restive black working and middle classes, and black Hollywood enclaves all make resonant appearances. Butler died at the relatively young age of 58 (young against the backdrop of contemporaries such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Jamaica Kincaid), but as long as there are thoughtful black boys and girls wrestling with how to live in the City of Dreams, she'll be read, reread and remembered.
A 2006 interview with Akasha Gloria Hull for LAPL's Aloud series (originally published here):
Began writing when she was 10 years old and told friends she embraced science fiction after seeing a B-movie called "Devil Girl from Mars"
In 1979, published Kindred, a novel that uses time travel to explore slavery in the U.S., which became the most popular of all her books, with 250,000 copies currently in print In 2010, inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame
Diagnosed with dyslexia
Woke up everyday at 2 a.m. for years to write before she went to work
In 2000, received the Lifetime Achievement Award in writing from the PEN American Center
Won numerous Nebula & Hugo Awards--both highly regarded Science Fiction honors--for various series and projects
Attended John Muir High School, Pasadena City College, and UCLA in Los Angeles Butler wrote thirteen novels, including, Patternmaster (1976), Wild Seed (1980), Clay's Ark (1984), Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), Imago (1989) and Kindred (1979)
As we continue celebrating Black History Month with daily portraits of iconic Angelenos, check back for more features on other pioneering individuals and make sure to share this history with your friends and family. Click here for more portraits.