Octavia Butler and the Impossibility of Slavery

[For Black History Month 2017]

At the heart of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred is the question of writing. How to write truthfully, effectively, humanely, about past atrocities: atrocities on a scale that can’t be conceived of, involving crimes that can’t be atoned for and bodily and psychological impressions that can’t ever be fully recovered by the reader as lived experience? Her choice of fantasy as a means of asking these questions might seem perverse, especially because she made it at a point in the history of the genre – the mid-1970s – when it was chiefly associated with the secondary world fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. The success of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the launch of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, and with this short-lived but influential imprint a publishing phenomenon was born, inventing a genealogy for itself and spawning a host of Tolkien imitations and original novels from the mid-1960s onwards. And indeed, the Ballantine series could well have played its part in Butler’s choice of form. Its daring reimagining of literary history, which involved recovering forgotten texts and nurturing new ones, each of which found startling new ways to consider the relationship between the imagined past and the haunted present, had much in common with her project. In addition, Kindred is refreshingly open about the need for professional authors to tap into commercial trends if they are to make a living from the pen: its protagonist is a professional writer of fiction like Butler herself. Writing as a source of income constantly forces its exponents into intensive negotiations with the complex freedoms and restrictions of the literary marketplace.

But in writing what she called a ‘grim fantasy’ Butler may also have been engaging with a number of specific fantasy tropes. For one thing, she was taking advantage of an ancient association between slavery and fantastic fiction, which stretches back to the works of Aesop and Plato, both of them slaves whose imaginative storytelling alternately won them fame and got them into trouble – in Aesop’s case even getting him killed, or so the ancient biography attached to his name suggests. Aesop made animals talk and act like human beings – or more accurately like a strange chimerical fusion of beasts and people – and his successors included the self-professed apologist for slavery Joel Chandler Harris, who from 1881 wrote the animal fables attributed to his nostalgic ex-slave Uncle Remus. These fables attained massive popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, opening the door to more fantastic tales along similar lines. Harris’s most distinguished successor was the African American writer Charles W Chesnutt, whose story collection The Conjure Woman (1899) brought distinctly unsettling overtones to its tales of magic on the slave plantations of the antebellum South. These tales were purportedly told to the author by another ex-slave, Uncle Julius; and Julius is a very different figure from Harris’s genial source. He tells each story as a way of seizing some advantage for himself – as when he claims that a building is haunted by the ghost of a slave who was magically transformed into the tree from which it was constructed, with the result that the building is handed over to Julius himself for use by the religious congregation of which he is a member. Uncle Julius, then, is a sort of Brer Rabbit trickster figure, not the amiable sub-relative of a rich white family which Uncle Remus is content to become. And Uncle Julius tells his tales to a fellow African American rather than to white folks, or to the governors who were served by his ancient forebear Aesop. His book marks the beginning of a new chapter in literature, anticipating the deployment of the fantastic as a means of giving a voice to the monstrous past (the term ‘monstrous’ is one of Uncle Julius’s favourites) by African American writers from the late twentieth century to the present.

Chesnutt’s story of the slave turned tree, ‘Po’ Sandy’, tells of desperation, heartache, and physical and mental agony. The aggressively overworked Sandy returns from his labours one day to find that his master has sold his wife. He then marries a woman called Tenie, only to be sent away soon afterwards to work on a distant plantation. In response, Tenie – a ‘conjure woman’ like the one in the title – turns him into a tree, at his own request, so that he can stay near her; but Sandy’s master has the tree chopped down and sawn into logs (with horrific sound effects) while she is away on her mistress’s business. Tenie goes mad in consequence. Uncle Julius’s acquisition of the haunted building, then, serves in his story as a small restitution for the torments of forced separation and bodily violence inflicted by a barbaric system. In this the tale is quite unlike Uncle Remus’s animal fables, which ascribe the acts of savagery they contain to a natural order that lies beyond the enchanted circle of the storyteller’s ersatz family: a community of generous whites and humble blacks who live in perfect harmony and whose innocence is embodied by the old man’s most regular listener, a little white boy of seven or eight. Whippings and beatings don’t occur in this happily mixed enclave, and there’s no reference to them having occurred in the antebellum past where the ex-slave spent most of his life; but they find expression in the acts of violence with which his animals threaten one another, and which from time to time get carried out in earnest – though only ever on the strong and cruel, not the weak and helpless.

One thing, however, unites Uncle Remus and Uncle Julius with their progenitor Aesop. For each of them narrative is a means to an end, a necessary form of persuasion, a way of making things happen in the immediate aftermath of the storytelling act – even if all that happens is that the little boy stops damaging Uncle Remus’s belongings and brings him cakes in exchange for more stories. Their tales are bound up with their lives in a practical way, just as the building Uncle Julius tells of is bound up with the suffering body of the man it was made from – or just as the tall tales told by Brer Rabbit serve to extricate him from potentially lethal entanglements. The ligatures that bind story to world are embodied in the ‘morals’ traditionally attached to Aesop’s fables, which are replaced in Chesnutt’s book by the successive revelations of what Uncle Julius wants from his listeners in return for each tale. And as we shall see, that sense of an almost physical connection between the world of the story and the world of its teller is shared by Kindred to an unnerving degree.

The links between slavery and the fantastic grew stronger after Butler wrote Kindred. The African American writer Samuel R Delany started his epic Return to Nevèrÿon series at the end of the 1970s, much of it concerned with a slave rebellion led by a Conan-esque barbarian miner called Gorgik. In the late 1980s Toni Morrison published Beloved, which tells of another haunting, this time of an ex-slave by the young daughter she killed to prevent her being returned to slavery. More recently, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) reimagined the famous escape route from South to North as a physical track cut through rock and earth at the cost of thousands of hours of voluntary labour, an imaginary monument to the countless hours of involuntary labour suffered by African Americans on the historical plantations. The remarkable diversity of these fantastic representations of slavery, their experimental restlessness, which manifests itself most clearly, perhaps, in the various forms and styles tried out in his series by Delany, presents us with one of the reasons why the genre or mode of fantasy is so well suited to this topic. Slavery is an unfinished story, and one that can never be finished, in part because it can never really be imagined – and hence never really started – by those who haven’t been subjected to it. Using fantasy to speak of atrocity is to acknowledge that we who have not undergone such things can only ever dream of them, and shouldn’t be tempted into believing we fully understand their appalling causes and damaging consequences.

There’s another point here about fantasy which isn’t embraced by the crudely collective ‘we’ of that last sentence. With very few exceptions, African Americans have little hope of tracing their ancestry further back than a few generations. The forced removal of African names, the replacement of ancestral languages with the words of the slave-owners, the imposition of bizarrely inappropriate sobriquets from classical history – Remus the murdered brother of the founder of Rome, Julius the conquering Caesar, Caesar in The Underground Railroad, whose name recalls the plantation name of the captive African prince in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – all testify to the fact that a white man’s fantasy made hideously concrete underlies the whole structure of North American slavery, a pseudo-Mediterranean rival for the pseudo-Nordic fantasies made real by the Nazi state of the 1930s. This systematic extirpation of traceable historical records leaves only the imagination available as a means of recovering the intimate details of African American history; and fantasy is the most open and honest rhetorical stratagem for asserting the role of imagination in conjuring up this painstakingly obliterated past.

At the same time, fantasizing about that past brings responsibilities with it. Slavery happened – slavery happens – and any attempt to address it needs to take cognizance of the facts as they have come down to us. There are plenty of counter-examples. Too many fantasies represent slavery as an unscrutinized fact of life, an exotic part of the scenery to be dismissed as uninteresting as soon as noted, or offer too easy channels of escape for their fictional slaves, thus cheapening the appalling practical and psychological difficulties involved in any attempt to win freedom from a life of forced labour. A particularly noxious example of the representation of slavery as exotic fantasy is the series of Gor books by John Norman, which enjoyed some popularity in the 60s and 70s with their pornographic depictions of ‘naturally’ subservient women in the sort of post-decadent sword-and-sorcery setting that Delany mocks in his Nevèrÿon series. The original sword-and-sorcery tales published in the pulp magazines of the 1910s, 20s and 30s by writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are full of casual references to slavery not much less glibly eroticised than Norman’s piffling mimicries of these precursors. Less offensive, perhaps, but equally problematic are the representations of slavery as a state from which one can simply free oneself without major repercussions. The socialist William Morris can’t be accused of perpetrating this sort of myth in his romances of the 1890s. The heroine of his The Wood Beyond the World, for instance – one of several books by Morris published in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series – is first encountered by the male protagonist as a slave and later frees herself and him with her magic; and she goes on to suffer what sounds very much like post-traumatic stress disorder in later life. Nevertheless, she and her female successors in his late romances attain prosperity and lasting happiness without the torment of losing husbands, friends and children who remain enslaved. And even their condition as slaves acquires a kind of exotic allure from its context in what is self-evidently a chivalric romance, whose ending is likely to be a happy one, whatever rough territory its characters may happen to traverse.

In Butler’s own lifetime, Ursula le Guin famously chose a dark-skinned man as protagonist of her Earthsea sequence – though she repeatedly saw him whitewashed in filmed adaptations of the novels – and the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore (1973), represents slavery in her world from the slave’s perspective. At one point one of the protagonists, the young Prince Arren, finds himself chained in the hold of a galley. But he spends only a few pages in captivity before the inevitable rescue by magic:

The fog glowed over the deck like the moon behind thin cloud, cold and radiant. The oarsmen sat like carved statues. Crewmen stood in the waist of the ship, their eyes shining a little. Alone on the port side stood a man, and it was from him that the light came, from the face, the hands, and staff that burned like molten silver.

The Archmage Ged takes Arren from the slave-ship with consummate ease, leaving the other slaves unbound; and it’s some time before Arren’s thoughts return to his fellow slaves, and the question of why Ged didn’t also take the slavers’ weapons from them when he loosed their captives’ bonds. Ged replies that he did not unarm the slavers or bind them because he refused to be made a slaver in his turn; but the more complicated question of how far a band of freed slaves might be able freely to choose what is to be done with their former owners, or what choices they might be forced to make in the complex process of regaining their liberty, are never addressed. It’s characteristic of le Guin’s restless urge to revise and rethink her projects from fresh perspectives that she twice returned to the topic of slavery and its effects on the mind and body, first in the story ‘The Finder’ in Tales from Earthsea (2001), then in the dazzling third volume of her post-millennial fantasy series Annals of the Western Shore (Powers, 2007), which is all about the after-effects of enslavement. But at the time Butler wrote Kindred there had as yet been no serious attempts in fantasy (as far as I know) to inhabit the mind and body of a slave, with the crucial exception of Chesnutt’s work and that brief passage of le Guin’s.

The trope Butler puts at the centre of her story, on the other hand – time travel – was a familiar one in both fantasy and science fiction. The best known early example of its use, H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), transported a white middle class protagonist into a slave state of the future, where infantilized human cattle provide food for their masters in return for a lifetime of creature comforts, and where the time traveller’s own imperialist aggression finds frequent outlets in his penchant for beating out the brains of the cannibalistic masters. There is an irony about Wells’s vision which Butler must have appreciated. At one point the time traveller speculates that the master race in this future time must be descended from the industrial working classes, wage slaves who have exacted a hideous evolutionary revenge on the ruling classes who benefited from their labour by feeding on them for many generations. If he is right, then slaves have merely replaced masters in an aeon-long cycle, and there is no prospect of the socialist liberation from this cycle of which Wells was dreaming at the time his book was published; freedom is a fantasy and varieties of slave state may be humanity’s ‘natural’ condition. The fear that history may indeed be cyclical finds a clear echo in Butler’s book, and the struggle to free oneself from its nightmare has never felt more urgent.

A later example of the time-travel sub-genre, Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), is in effect a nostalgic tourist excursion into turn-of-the-century New York, its theme tune of ‘jingle bells’ conjuring up all the pleasures of old time sleigh-rides unsullied by the period’s attendant torments and inequities. Butler touches only once in her novel on this kind of time-travel tourism, when the protagonist’s white husband starts to consider how delightful it would be to travel west in the early nineteenth century and witness at first hand the white man’s conquest of central and western America:

‘This could be a great time to live in,’ Kevin said once. ‘I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it – go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true.’

‘West,’ I said bitterly. ‘That’s where they’re doing it to the Indians instead of the blacks!’

He looked at me strangely. He had been doing that a lot lately.

This exchange takes place when the narrator, Dana, has become uneasy about how straightforward she and her husband have found it to settle into their new life in the early nineteenth-century slave state of Maryland. ‘For drop-ins from another century,’ she comments immediately beforehand, ‘I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease. The problematic nature of their ease is confirmed by Kevin’s enthusiastic allusion to the ‘building of the country’, a metaphor that elides the materiality of the building process: the slaughter of the land’s previous inhabitants, the forms of more or less forced labour involved in the physical construction of farms and buildings, the violence, racism and patriarchy that underlie the ‘Old West mythology’. Only a white man speaking from the privileged position of the slave-owning classes could use the metaphor so glibly, and the strange look Kevin gives Dana when she points out the perspective he has just adopted emphasizes the wedge he has inadvertently driven between them by failing to consider his utterance from her point of view. A single statement has made them strange or foreign to each other, and in the process pointed up what the novel has to say about the fantasy of a single unified ‘country’ on which the state of America has been founded.

Finney’s Time and Again represents its journey as a trip home to a less complicated and more humane period of American history – utterly blanking the racism and anti-feminism of turn-of-the century New York. Butler’s novel foregrounds the complexity of the term ‘home’ in its opening sentence: ‘I lost an arm on my last trip home’, it begins, and it’s not until some way into the book that the reader begins to appreciate the difficulty of ascertaining which ‘home’ she refers to. Does she mean the house in Altadena, California, into which she and her husband were moving at the time of her first experience of time travel? Or does she mean the slave-owner’s house in Maryland to which she is repeatedly transported, and which she and her husband problematically begin to think of as ‘home’ in the course of their adventures? The Maryland house is more tightly bound up with Dana’s family history than the Californian house is, and when Kevin too gets taken back in time and forced to live there for several years he has appalling difficulty in readjusting to the twentieth-century environment on his return. More drastically, Dana’s experience as a slave teaches her that she must find a home for herself in the slavers’ house if she is to survive there at all. Dragged repeatedly to it by the mysterious link between herself and the son of its owner, Rufus – whose unusual name recalls the black central character of James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), thus underlining the kinship between the white boy and the black narrator which is gestured at in Butler’s title – Dana needs to build lasting alliances with her fellow slaves as well as with the child as a means of protecting herself from the cultural isolation that would inevitably destroy her. Her recognition of the need to make herself at home, so to speak, also drives home to her the devastating consequences for slaves of being sold away from the home they have been born into – the fate of ‘Po’ Sandy’s’ first wife in Chesnutt’s story. Two such sales of slaves who leave family behind lead to deadly confrontations between Dana and Rufus, and the only clue she finds at the end of the novel as to the fate of the slaves she met in the previous century occurs in a list of slaves put up for sale on the death of their owner. Home, then, for a slave, is a place to be clung to and cultivated as well as to escape from, and the contradictions built into it are summed up in the way Dana’s arm gets bound up with the wall of her twentieth-century home at the beginning and end of the novel – both making her part of the building, like Chesnutt’s Sandy, and inflicting terrible pain.

Language, then – written or spoken – is the first source of difficulty for the writer of African American history. A casual reference to the building of a country can become an act of complicity with the slavery that made it possible. The word ‘home’, often seen as cognate with ‘nation’ or ‘country’, becomes loaded with unwelcome connotations. The same is true of the reference to kinship in Butler’s title. We have already seen how the plantations used familial titles to naturalise the possession of human beings: Uncle Remus, Uncle Julius, in this book Aunt Sarah. Unsettlingly, these titles sometimes identified concealed or even flagrant familial relationships between black slaves and their white owners. The most disturbing aspect of Dana’s journey into her family history, as she is hauled back in time by a series of crises in the life of one of her ancestors, is the discovery that she is related to the slave-owners as well as the slaves of the early nineteenth century. She finds this out because of the boy Rufus’s surname: an unusual one which has been inscribed in the list of her ancestors recorded in the only book handed down by her family, ‘a large Bible in an ornately carved, wooden chest’. Rufus Weylin is set down alongside Alice Weylin as parents of Hagar Weylin, the woman who bought that Bible and began that list; and as soon as Dana recognizes Rufus as her ancestor the nature of his connection with her family, as recorded in the list, becomes problematic. It is inscribed alongside the name of a black woman, Alice Greenwood, who is Rufus’s childhood friend; and when Dana begins to think about the eight-year-old Rufus and his potential future wife, she begins to find the familiar names fraught with unexpected difficulties: ‘Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn’t someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white?’ In nineteenth-century Maryland the word ‘marriage’ as applied to a bond between a white man and a black woman – and marriage of some sort if implicit in the fact that Alice Greenwood has, in the list, assumed Rufus’s surname as well as her own – is barely possible. The plain words mask a story of rape, enslavement, abuse and eventual suicide in which Dana finds herself a player against her will; an inadvertent pimp, so to speak, between her ancestral parents; an accomplice to sexual violence. Home, marriage, kindred, family history – all the words that help to make Dana who she is are thrown into confusion, and the way she understands herself and her place in the world is radically changed as a result.

As it turns out, the family Bible also provides testimony (or a testament) to Dana’s link with another white inhabitant of the boy’s household: his mother, Margaret Weylin, a frustrated and abused woman who takes exception to Dana as soon as she meets her, in part at least because she can read so much better than she can, despite her inferior status as a domestic slave. Later in the book, when Margaret Weylin suffers a physical and mental breakdown, she conceives a passion for the scriptures and becomes reconciled to Dana, asking her to read from the Bible daily to her as if to cement the unwelcome connection between them by a still more unwelcome intimacy. In the process the good book becomes a mark of ownership; Dana has no choice but to read it when she’s ordered to do so. If words are difficult, slippery things when considered in relation to history, then so is the Word, the divine scripture that gave Margaret’s granddaughter Hagar her name. After all, Hagar was the slave of Abraham before she became his wife, and thus testifies to the complicity of the dominant American religion with the system of bondage in which she was born.

Many commentators have pointed out the plainness and lucidity of Butler’s prose style; but her narrative of tangled relationships and disconcerting connections makes every word complex. More than this, it invests every word with a devastating forcefulness by virtue of its deployment in a narrative that literally brings home the horrors of the past. The Bible, the Word of God, begins as a receptacle where the words that define Dana’s family are recorded. It becomes a token of the link between Dana and Margaret – a link that is defined both by their kinship and by their status as mistress and slave. And it ends as a vehicle for Dana’s grief when Alice Greenwood Weylin commits suicide to escape from her abusive relationship with Rufus, its words brought to life for the first time since her childhood by her new understanding of the pain they articulate:

The minister was literate. He held a Bible in his huge hands and read from Job and Ecclesiastes until I could hardly stand to listen. I had shrugged off my aunt and uncle’s strict Baptist teachings years before. But even now, especially now, the bitter melancholy words of Job could still reach me. ‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…’

Reading Kindred is, then, a learning process, for us as for Dana. We learn to read the world afresh both through the act of reading it and through the effect of the many other acts of reading that fill its pages. Most remarkably, reading and writing in it become matters of life and death. Each time Dana finds herself hurled into the past by some mysterious agency whose nature we never find out, she is confronted by a situation in which Rufus’s life is in danger: he is drowning in a river, he has fallen from a tree, his room has caught fire, he is being beaten to death, he is dangerously sick or suicidal. Metaphorically speaking, she must read the situation as fast as she can in order to save him – and not just Rufus but her entire lineage as inscribed in the list, including herself, since she will not be born if the boy should die before he fathers Hagar.

Literal reading, too, and its corollary the study of words, gains a new urgency from Dana’s relationship with Rufus. When they first meet she begins to believe that she can educate him, that he can learn from her, acquiring some of the more enlightened attitudes of her generation and thus helping to alleviate some of the suffering he will otherwise inflict. She tries to dissuade him from using offensive terms for black people like herself; to teach him to read and thus open his mind to other ways of living; to encourage him to respect other African Americans as he respects her. But her efforts at pedagogy find themselves countered by an appalling alternative education, whose force makes itself increasingly felt with every visit. Like the slaves on his father’s plantation, the boy’s mind has been shaped by violence: his father’s violence to the slaves and him, as he was growing up; his own verbal violence to his mother Margaret; the acts of violence he is exposed to in the daily running of the plantation and the wider slaving community. Even what she reads him is full of images of slavery, like the Bible: Robinson Crusoe, which begins in a slave ship and ends with a relationship between Crusoe and Friday which looks very much like that of master to slave; Gulliver’s Travels, with its representation of the Yahoos as worthy slaves to the wiser Houyhnhms; The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the protagonist Christian seeks deliverance from the slavery of sin. And as well as teaching him – he is a very slow learner – Dana is forced, at her own slow pace, to learn from Rufus: to undergo a crash course in that violent alternative education that shapes him alongside her own. The final lesson she learns in this tough school is to take his life: to stab him with a knife she carries when he tries to rape her. Before meeting Rufus she could never have done this; and there are many occasions in the course of her visits when she fails to do it or resists the urge. By the end of the book, however, he has learned to write and she has learned to kill; the pen and the blade have discovered a kinship as toxic and ineradicable as Dana’s kinship with young Rufus and Alice, her other ancestor, whom he rapes, enslaves and finally drives to self-destruction.

Writing and reading, as practised by slaves in the nineteenth century, are acts of defiance. These skills give the captive power: the power to write their own destiny by recording their thoughts and reading the subversive thoughts of others, or by forging a pass that will help them escape to freedom. This power must be countered by the owners with another kind of writing: the marks on a human body of the slaver’s whip, which impart knowledge to their recipients, knowledge of the system in which they are trapped and a deep-seated sense of their own entrapment. Teaching a black boy to read earns Dana her first whipping, and as she receives it from the boy’s owner, Rufus’s father, he ‘curses and lectures’ like an angry schoolmaster. Dana faints under his lashes and is transported home to California; and by this time in the story we know that this only happens when she thinks she’ll die. Later, however, she learns more about whipping; it’s not such a crude or merciful measure as she thought at first. No intelligent owner, she finds, would kill a valuable slave with his blows if he can help it; and the discovery means that next time she’s whipped (after an attempted escape) she remains where she is, a slave in Maryland. The second whipping is embedded in the vocabulary of knowledge through pain, pitched directly against the vocabulary of learning. ‘Educated nigger don’t mean smart nigger, do it?’ says Rufus’s father, commenting on Dana’s ineffectual efforts to run away. ‘You’re going to get the cowhide,’ Rufus then tells her, ‘You know that’ – and at this point she realises that she ‘hadn’t known’, that the young man’s gentleness had led her to think he would let her off lightly. She knows more than she wants to, however, about the function of cowhide. As Rufus’s father beats her,

I tried to believe he was going to kill me. I said it aloud, screamed it, and the blows seemed to emphasize my words. He would kill me. Surely, he would kill me if I didn’t get away, save myself, go home!

It didn’t work. This was only punishment, and I knew it.

She has, in other words, learned her lesson; she has taken another step towards becoming a naturalised citizen of a slave state. Her literacy in the ways of violence keeps her away from her own time and place, preventing her from finding escape in the fear of death that would send her home, barring her from the art of writing by which she defined herself in modern California. One knowledge drives out or supplants another, and she spends the rest of the book seeking desperately to win back her identity as a writer, and with it what she increasingly identifies as her life.

In her own time, Dana’s talent for writing helps her forge a community: the miniature community of husband and wife and their potential offspring, the family of the future as against the family inscribed in the Bible and thus embedded in the past. Both she and her husband Kevin are professional writers, and their capacity for writing – and for the meticulous research which is everywhere apparent in Butler’s novel, the quest for truth in other writers’ texts – is both part of what draws them together in the first place and part of what enables them to imagine a future for themselves which departs from the cyclical entrapments of a traumatic history. The temerity of their decision to live by writing is signalled by the fact that they meet in a factory, where they are forced to work because they can’t make a living from their pens. The temerity of their decision to become partners in the 1970s is signalled by the fact that they are both disowned by their nearest relatives when they get together. But a living can be made from the pen with sufficient commitment, just as a new family can be formed by a meeting of minds and bodies against all odds. The new home into which they move is proof of this; they buy it together with the proceeds of Kevin’s most successful book. Living in it, though, once they have bought it, is not so easy. The fact that it’s Kevin who bought it – the straight white male in their relationship – suggests that it doesn’t yet belong to both of them equally when they move in. Kevin finds it hard to write there, even before the first time travelling episode. And it’s while unpacking books, the tools of their trade, that Dana first gets hurled into the past, as if to show that the words they use, the knowledge they draw on, the possibilities they imagine for the future, remain interwoven with unresolved issues from the past which must be confronted before the future can begin. In the course of her adventures, Dana’s marriage becomes a kind of utopia, the one possibility she clings to of a brighter future when her troubles and travels are over. The serious business of making it properly utopian, however, must be deferred till the time travel ends – and hence till after the end of Butler’s book.

Which brings us back to fantasy fiction, and why Butler chose it as the vehicle for her tale, as against the science fiction with which she made her name.

Fantasy is often defined as the literature of the impossible: a kind of writing that takes as its starting point an acceptance on the part of the reader that she will choose to believe, throughout the act of reading, in events, people, things and places that could never exist in past or present or the conceivable future. This is where it doffers from science fiction, which is concerned with the possible – or rather takes as its premise the possibility that what it describes might really take place at some point in the future, or might have done in an alternative version of the universe we know. Possibility versus impossibility; this is the difference between SF and the fantastic. There is just one impossible thing in Butler’s book: the series of unexplained events that take Dana back from her own time, the 1970s, to the early nineteenth century. The rest of the book is a model of realism; the kind of realism that stresses the material necessities and practical difficulties with which it confronts its characters. Dana is always asking herself how to take objects and clothing with her when she leaps through time, how to alleviate the bodily and psychological damage she suffers in her beatings, how to persuade Rufus to supress his desire for her and think instead about his responsibilities to his slaves and his children. She simply has no time to wonder how she keeps making those leaps; there are too many more important things to consider.

At the same time, she keeps coming up against the impossibilities of slavery. Her leaps through time are each caused by the fact that she believes she is about to die, having reached the limits of what the human body can endure. As those limits get more extended, as her body learns to endure greater punishment, she is confronted with different impossibilities – psychological ones; above all, how to reconcile herself to the increasing ease with which she is adapting to the intolerable conditions in which she finds herself. She begins to choose to return to her time by committing suicide, again and again, in dreadful anticipation of the eventual suicide of her body double, her ancestor Alice. Ease itself becomes a problem for her, as it does for Kevin when he returns from his one extended trip to Maryland. ‘Everything is so soft here,’ he tells Dana, ‘so easy. […] It’s good. Hell, I wouldn’t go back to some of the pestholes I’ve lived in for pay. But still…’ Concealed behind that final ellipsis is the thought that ease is difficult for him, an uneasy nostalgia for the titanic efforts required of him from day to day in the past he’s left behind for ever. That ellipsis, in fact, represents the terrible possibility that he might by now feel more at home in the days of the slave trade than in the days of the automobile and the electric oven.

Ease, in fact, is what finally drives Dana to kill Rufus in self-defence. The brilliance of Butler’s portrait of this slave-owner, abuser and rapist is how strangely attractive she makes him seem – largely, perhaps, because we’ve seen every detail of how he was made into what he is, but also because of his awkward fusion of kindness and cruelty, aggression and thwarted affection. At the point when he’s about to rape her Dana is suddenly struck by the fact that she could partially consent; that she could become his slave mistress, bear his children, integrate once and for all into his perverse pastiche of a loving family; after all, she is already ‘Aunt Dana’ to his son by Alice.:

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand holding my hand, and slowly, I realised how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk. But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh I had saved so many times. So hard to kill…

If the whip represents the pen of the slaver then the knife could be said to represent one of the pens available to the slave: a pen whose use involves automatic self-destruction, but which also writes freedom in death for those who choose to wield it. For Dana, imminent death is a key to life – it will take her ‘home’; yet killing remains the difficult option. When Kevin tried to persuade her it was necessary, back in California, he couldn’t even utter the word. The easy option is the happy ending, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe; a false reconciliation which is embodied in the parody of an affectionate embrace described in the passage. Dana’s decision to use the knife instead is not a triumph; it is, like Tenie’s decision to transform ‘Po’ Sandy’ into a tree, the counsel of desperation. It’s a refusal of something that had once seemed impossible, but has somehow made itself possible in the course of Dana’s adventures. It’s an acknowledgment that simple happy endings, too, are impossible, like utopias; they exist no place, and the best we can do to achieve them is to reject the grim alternatives when we have power to do so.

The end of Kindred is a series of ellipses, of gaps in the narrative. Dana never finds out the fate of most of her friends from the nineteenth century, never learns what became of her ancestors Hagar and Joe, Alice’s children by the rapist Rufus. At the end of the book, as at the beginning, she knows only their names, although she can conjecture some of the paths they might have taken on the long road to liberty. But her quest to bring them to life – through her dealings with Rufus, through her writing of the novel – have made the past immeasurably closer for her readers. Immeasurably closer, and a lot less easy.

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