Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Review of Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(If you have not read the book, you might not want to read this review, although I'm cautious about what I reveal).


This book is extremely well-written (should be 4.5 stars) and thought-provoking on so many levels, but I hope that any reader of this review can reserve my criticisms of this unique story as navel-gazing theorizing, and not an indictment of Ms. Butler.

As Black Americans, we tend to guard each other such that every work of Black authorship must be lifted up, as lifting up the rest of us, to the degree that we fail to allow criticism that we would certainly entertain after reading non-Black authors.

So, before I am deemed a hater who is jealous of Ms. Butler I will say I am nothing of the sort. Her writing is peerless in her narrative. It's engaging to a fault. But I do find some "kindred" in our backgrounds that makes me understand her unique voice (my use of the term "kindred" is not to be mistaken for how it is used in the novel, which is for you to decipher).

I grew up in Carson, California, a neighbor to Pasadena, where Ms. Butler also grew up. As a newly-minted fan of hers, I would like to think that our families' lives intersected somewhere in our ancient histories. My mother was born there, and my grandparents were scions of the local AME Zion Church in Los Angeles. Ms. Butler and I could have passed each other on the streets or highways of Los Angeles County.

I hear Ms. Butler's voice and it sounds somewhat like my own (although I freely admit that my editors, including my voracious reader mother, helped liberate my writing voice for my own novel). Lower and middle-class, even upper-class families in Pasadena and Carson speak the Kings English as perfectly as any Boston Brahmin, and our accents are indecipherable from that of our Southern California white neighbors in many ways. That's how we sound. I say this because Dana "sounded White" to me. But as I've been accused of the same, I mention it only to say that I found her voice to be familiar, but strange, at the same time. But maybe that was intentional, on her part. Again, this book is deep on so many different levels. I don't grade my accent as a sign of my having arrived. Rather, I see myself as a microcosm of the American dream. As children of the 60s (and 1970s in my case), we went to integrated schools, our friends were of many different races, and we were, overall, Southern Californians. So, I definitely vibe with Ms. Butler and her voice, in general.

So, on some levels, I really get her. I would even go so far as to guesstimate that her plot might have unconsciously been influenced from the same cartoons I used to watch growing up: Fractured Fables--one in particular in which, whenever an adventurous turtle got in trouble, he would yell for "Mr. Wizard" to come save him. However, Ms. Butler's story is far from cartoonish. In Kindred, we're transported to the slave-holding South, where a family of slave-holders resides, and where our protagonist, Dana, finds herself. She is bonded to a young boy to whom she shares a genetic history, one which makes their lives cross over and over again.

This revelation is not really newsworthy. The story is not about the fact of Dana's time-travel. The story is about what she sees and experiences as a freed-woman turned "worker" on the white boy's family's land. It is the realness of the slave experience that is so riveting. The slaves had names. They had families. They had relationships. And they had no freedom.


They were chattel to be worked, beaten, raped, and desired in a way that should make anyone feel the anguish, anger, and repulsion at not being able to control your own sex.

This country is still steeped in the taboos of Black sexual prowess and mystery--currently lionized by a blonde-tinted gyrating, hip-shaking multi-millionaire named Beyonce who flaunts her sex for all to covet and/or admire. But you can't touch, now, where you could in Kindred's time. How terrible was that institution that has its mark on so many of us--in our skin color, our eyes, our hair, our expressions, borne of white men who had their way with so many of us. Our popular television shows depict the same. We are still the mistresses of white men of power. But I digress. "critique" of the book has to do with some of the relationship choices Ms. Butler made. For an author who decried Gone with the Wind and the "Happy Negro" phenomenon (I admit to being an apologist for the actual film because I'm a big Clark Gable fan and because Hattie McDaniel stole the show), I'm not sure that Ms. Butler deviated from that plot in her choices of relationships. Did she dare go where Margaret Mitchell didn't--showing how the emotional bonds and perverted bondage of sexual slavery likely entered too many of America's families' bedrooms, too?

Or were her choices because she's a product of the 60s, where everyone explored interracial relationships and it was okay to do so? Was she showing that Black women are always chattel in some sense, and if so, why would she continue that mantra in her choice of romantic relationships? Can a Black woman not be in a loving relationship with a Black man or is our "freedom" our choice of with whom to partner (I believe many a Black man feels that in his choice of mate, which too often neglects women of his own race)? What does it say about the impotence of the Black man in the book, and the message it sends to this day about the plight of the Black man? Or am I being too protective? Or condescending, even?

I am not a fan of science fiction, but if this is science fiction, then I need to explore it more. Overall, I am so glad that I finally read it. I feel richer because of it. And I am, indeed, I am proud of Ms. Butler. I remember when she passed away recently, gone too soon. I knew we were losing an icon, but I finally know why. I look forward to reading interviews and scholarly works about her. Her one book could be a full semester course.

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