For many years, one of the few African Americans publishing in fantasy and science fiction, and the first genre writer to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, was Octavia E. Butler, a widely popular and highly acclaimed writer who died unexpectedly in 2006. This week, two of her unpublished stories are available in e-book form as Unexpected Stories, featuring an astute introduction by Walter Mosley.
An intellectually omnivorous polymath, the woman variously known as Estelle, Estella or Junie was indeed a genius, and when she died in the prime of an already illustrious career at age 58, she ostensibly took with her a treasure trove of ideas.
Or did she? With her sudden death began a long process of sifting the sand of her creative life—endless notes on everything from American politics to insect biology; correspondence with Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison, and with other sci-fi writers like Vonda McIntyre, Nalo Hopkinson and Tananarive Due; and what feels like a thousand pieces of stories, scattered across the backs of envelopes, outlined with magic marker on cardboard boxes.
In conversation at the Huntington Library in California, where Butler’s papers are housed, head project curator Natalie Russell recalls how, with “each passing month” of the archival process, “layer upon layer of complexity unfolded” because of the volume of materials, but also because of “the variety of materials and the intertwined nature of Butler’s working methods.”
And we should all be grateful for that work, which helped bring readers two perfect relics of Butler as a young, but already very capable, writer.
“Childfinder,” the shorter of the two narratives in Unexpected Stories, is probably best understood as an early variant on the kinds of stories woven across Butler’s six-volume Patternist series. Written in 1970, “Childfinder” is one the first stories she ever sold, having produced it after crossing the country by bus to attend that year’s Clarion science fiction writers’ workshop in Pennsylvania.
Sadly, “Childfinder” was never released because the anthology in which it was to be included never came to publication, caught up in legal disputes between sci-fi luminary Harlan Ellison and his various publishers. According to her letters, this was a constant source of woe for Butler, who watched her first big break dissipate in circumstances well beyond her control.
“Childfinder” was also Butler’s first taste of learning to navigate between her strong feelings of personal integrity and the desire of a mainly white male editorial and marketing world for writing that was more “black,” i.e., more consonant with their limited imaginations. Luckily for her readers, Butler was instead committed to exploring how systems structure being, and despite her having neglected Ellison’s and others’ pleas to “write the ghetto,” her literary insights persist in artists, scholars and activists engaged in making new futures for people of African descent.
Interestingly, “Childfinder” is actually concerned with race, perhaps even reflecting Butler’s teenage fascination with the Black Panther Party. And though disconnected from the stories readers would come to know, “Childfinder” belongs to the Patternist series. The story’s protagonist, Barbara, has been actively seeking out nonwhite children with emergent psychic powers while snuffing out those of white children.
Stylistically, “Childfinder” is everything Butler rigorously demanded of her own writing: It is lean, compelling and encapsulated, with the strong characterizations that are her hallmark, and a deft interweaving of African-American historical material, in this case the story of Harriet Tubman. In her name, “Childfinder” asks us to remember the sacrifices required to break from established systems of power, yet also contributes a bleak perspective on how even a successfully disruptive political movement might regardless be doomed to inhabit only its own particular historical moment. As in many of Butler’s other stories, the long run of human time washes over all, leaving less in its wake than ever imagined.
With “A Necessary Being”—the other, and longer, piece included in Unexpected Stories—readers get a backstory for the Kohn tribes with whom exiles from Earth contend in the third volume of the Patternist series, Survivor—a novel Butler eventually disavowed.
Much as she resisted writing “the ghetto,” Butler’s criticism of Survivor is that her treatment of aliens is too stereotypical. However, by shifting us more fully away from the human and giving us an immersive story about the capture and imprisonment of a Kohn leader, Diut, “A Necessary Being” produces a more nuanced sense of Survivor’s alien world, perhaps filling in a bit of what Butler perceived as lacking in the novel while still tacking very human problems of oppression, political consciousness and leadership. The story’s title is taken from a quote from a 17th-century sermon, which Butler records on the story’s drafts.
In November 2013, I had the privilege of being the first researcher to work with Butler’s papers at the Huntington. In that first encounter, I couldn’t help but wonder how such immensity could be reined in with such precision. The organizational strength of the archive assures us that the arrival of Unexpected Stories is only a beginning, even if it is difficult to imagine how some of Butler’s unpublished work can be wrangled into publication.
Butler approached storytelling as a fundamentally intellectual exercise, cultivating and transforming each story over many years, sometimes over decades. Her writing was her thinking, and much of her archive is work in progress. When she died, the world lost a genuinely innovative intellectual presence, but with this archive we are at least gifted with the luminous traces of a mind always and beautifully at work. Unexpected Stories carries some of those traces to old fans and new readers alike, with hopefully more to come.
Marisa Parham is director of Five College Digital Humanities and an associate professor of English at Amherst College, teaching and writing on questions of memory, technology and African-American literature and culture. She is currently writing about Octavia E. Butler, and you can follow her investigation of the Huntington Library’s Butler archive at FindingEstella.com.
- Octavia Butler knew that her success as a writer depended on believing in her own talent. Her archives are filled with notes she would write to herself amid difficult projects. This one is from the 1970s.
- Octavia Butler recorded this quotation from John Tillotson on drafts for “A Necessary Being.” It reflects Butler’s stance on the irony of worship.