I REMEMBER WHEN SOMEONE mentioned to me that Samuel R. Delany, the author of the award-winning novel Dahlgren, happened to be black. I was as stunned as a young, African-American, science-fiction-loving geek could be. All my close friends were big into science fiction, and not all of us were such pootbutts that outside of a library we spent our time cowering from gangbangers, though that was often the case. Science fiction explained our weird-ass dysfunctional lives better than any social realism, but I don’t think any of us thought we should or could write science fiction about our lives. For whatever internalized racist feeling, I thought black folks weren’t about creating books with Jules Verne–like worlds; we just consumed them with an unending appetite, distracting ourselves from the Vietnam War or drugs or the LAPD, the Nazgûl of the avenues. I actually remember sitting on the curb, hearing James, one of my older brother’s friends, discuss the merits of H.P. Lovecraft: “If you could get beyond his obvious racism, he’s worth reading.” Shub-Niggurath my ass, I’d say.
So when I first heard of Octavia Butler, it was like hearing about a black hockey player. A black woman busting out the novels? And on top of that, winning awards? I read her, admired her work and loved that she made it to the top of her field, the only black woman in a gang of white male science fiction writers.
Later, when I moved to Pasadena, where she lived and worked, I realized that she was drawing straight from this racially explosive community, where blacks and whites frequently encounter each other — unlike so much of Los Angeles where freeway distance gives a false sense of security. This familiarity brought contempt more than anything. Butler’s work was grounded in this reality of a grim, racist Pasadena that Jackie Robinson, another native son, hated and never wanted to return to.
Ten years ago I was lucky enough to hear Butler talk. I’d heard she was shy, but she spoke with great ease and humor, the rare writer of tremendous talent who appreciated her audience. She told us a story of how her mother would give her a hundred-dollar bill for her birthday and how she was arrested at the Ralphs market for attempting to pass this supposedly bogus C-note. Though she was quickly freed, she said the worst thing about the experience was that her lifelong enemy happened to be in the grocery store and saw the whole thing, smirking this evil smirk. I felt such a connection to Octavia Butler right then, and I fell for her too, this charming, well-spoken woman, who did me the great favor of disabusing me of my small-mindedness about what black folks should or could do.