Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
Not that far into the reading of Octavia Butler’s fourth novel, recently released in a beautiful new edition from the Folio Society, I realized that the title is a pun. The innocuous term kindred — denoting likeness, similarity, or shared ancestry — can also be split into kin – dread — fear and horror connected with one’s kin, one’s relations or ancestors.
And the latter meaning is very relevant. We begin with the narrator shattered by a bizarre injury, telling us the story of how it came about. Dana has been pulled back in time on several occasions, dragged away from her life as a writer in twentieth-century California, always suddenly, inexplicably, and with no one except her husband as a witness. Her time in the past can last minutes, weeks, or months, but she returns shortly after she left. Whatever happens to her there is real — if she gets wet she stays wet, if she’s injured she stays injured. There’s no way it can be explained away as a mental aberration, but also no way to control or manage it.
At first she has no idea why this is happening, but it soon becomes clear that it’s when a certain boy is in danger that she’s called to his side — by his fear? his need? No one can say, but the connection is undeniable. For she also discovers that he is her ancestor, that he must survive in order for her to be born.
And this is where the dread comes in. For she is black, he is white, and a slaveholder in antebellum Maryland. Her progeniture depends on an act of rape, her existence is rooted in violence and oppression. How can she come to terms with this conflict, and with the very real threats that being in the past poses to her? Is there any way to take hold of her destiny, to bring any positive action to counteract the dreadful burden of the past?
Butler herself carefully conceals her protagonist’s color for the first fifty pages, so that there should be some shock when she’s first called and treated as a “nigger.” But it’s given away by blurbs, book covers, and in the case of the new Folio Society edition, illustrations. So there’s not much point in trying to avoid talking about this “spoiler,” and there’s not much one can say about the book without acknowledging it.
For the plummeting of a modern woman into the visceral, horrifying reality of slavery is the core of the book. The time-travel conceit is absurd if one looks at it intellectually, but powerful and compelling when one takes its message to heart: slavery is not something that happened in the past, that we can say we have progressed beyond or overcome. It’s happening now, it’s in the blood of our veins and the wounds of our souls. It takes more than a couple of centuries for such wrongness to be overcome, and that will never happen if forgetting and ignoring are the only tactics we can come up with.
“Look how easily slaves are made,” Dana reflects at one point, when cruelty has reduced her to the state of abjection from which she at first proudly distanced herself. Her efforts to educate her ancestor, to mitigate the effects of his cultural conditioning, are weak and ineffective compared to the forces that drive him, the slave/owner mentality that is so hard to dispel even today. Though it is rooted in his own weakness, in pitiful dependence on the people he dominates, when combined with outward power, it takes a stranglehold that it begins to seem only violence can break.
It may appear a bleak prospect, a recipe for despair. But we know (because of the opening scene from which the rest of the book is a flashback) that Dana will survive, though terribly wounded. We know she has a marriage that has also been tested and strained by her ordeal, but that will go on. And at the same time we know that she will never be able to forget, or to let us forget, what she has gone through, the dread that runs through her veins. Her future is our present, and we bear the responsibility of making sure that the suffering of the past does not make us numb and impervious. Do some wounds, to be healed, have to remain open?
For the Folio Society edition, six illustrations and a frontispiece were created by James Ransome, one of whose previous projects was a picture book about Harriet Tubman (a figure significantly mentioned in Kindred). I always find it more satisfying when the illustrations are placed next to or at least near the corresponding text, so I was pleased to find that care was taken with this aspect, as well as making sure there was one image for each of the time-travel sections. The illustrations are richly hued and detailed watercolors, one a double-page spread, that strive to capture the emotional power of the novel. Most focus on moments of threat — hiding from searchers, witnessing a whipping, walking in a chained line — that bring home the grim atmosphere of fear that Butler’s words so effectively convey.
If you haven’t read this modern masterpiece, or if you have and want to own a keepsake copy, this is one to put on your list. With Kindred, the Folio Society adds to its short shelf of challenging, ground-breaking books that explore issues of power, oppression, and freedom: books by Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin, Toni Morrison. It’s a category I would dearly love to see more of. What other titles would you add, along the same lines?