Trauma in Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Kindred by Octavia Butler and Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My favourite thing on Twitter at the moment is the monthly discussions about sci-fi and fantasy books by women, led by the writer Gem Todd (author of Defender and Hunted as GX Todd). Each month we vote on a selection of books before reading and then discussing the most popular choice. In May and June we discussed two novels by black women which dealt with different types of trauma – the classic Kindred by Octavia Butler and the Afrofuturist, soon-to-be a HBO series, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a 26-year-old black woman living a few miles from LA with her white husband, Kevin. It’s 1976. As they unpack the boxes in their new home, Dana begins to feel dizzy and sick. She’s pulled from 1976 to 1815 where a young white boy, Rufus, is drowning. Dana saves him but then is almost shot by the boy’s father. As she stares down the barrel of his rifle, she travels forwards to 1976 where Kevin tells her she’s only been missing for a few seconds.

Later that evening, Dana finds herself back with Rufus who is now three or four years older and attempting to set fire to the curtains in the room he’s in. It soon becomes clear that Rufus is the son of a plantation owner and also a relative of Dana’s.

Over the course of the novel, Dana is repeatedly called to Rufus when he is in mortal danger. She’s tied to him in the sense that she seems to be the only person who can save him from himself and also because she exists due to his relationship with her ancestor, Alice, a free black girl who lives outside the bounds of the plantation with her mother, who is also free.

The complexity of Dana’s link to Rufus allows Butler to explore ideas of structural inequality, complicity and the way in which horrific behaviour can be normalised.

Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder.

Kindred is a difficult and disturbing read – as it should be. The moral complexity of Butler’s tale also makes it a thoughtful one and raises questions about our own behaviour in a time where white supremacy is highly visible once again.

Onyesonwu is the protagonist of Who Fears Death, the title being the meaning of her name in an ancient language. Onyesonwu is an Ewu – the product of rape – and has been shunned because of it. The novel begins with her telling us that the father who raised her, who looked beyond what she was to who she was, died. In the four years since his death a lot has happened. She dictates this to an unknown scribe with a laptop during the two days she has left to live.

She tells of her upbringing in the desert with her mother. Of finally settling in a town and going to school. Of the friends she makes, including Mwita, a boy who is also Ewu. She also reveals that she is more than she seems:

“There was a vulture,” I said. “Looking right at me. Close enough for me to see its eyes. I threw a rock at it and as it flew off, one of its feathers fell off. A long black one. I…went and picked it up. I was standing there wishing I could fly as it did. And then…I don’t…”
“You changed,” Mwita said. He was looking at me very closely.
“Yeah! I became the vulture. I swear to you! I’m not making this..”
“You’re an Eshu,” he said.
“A what?” The word sounded like a sneeze.
“An Eshu. You can shape-shift, among other things.”

Onyesonwu is being hunted by something that repeatedly appears to her as an oval eye. In order to help her harness her powers and defeat the thing that seeks her, she tries to get Aro, the sorcerer, to teach her. He rejects her while apprenticing Mwita. Why? Because she’s a girl.

Who Fears Death is a coming of age story that deals with first love, friendship and sex. It also looks at power – who has it, how it can be used, how to defeat it and what happens when it goes wrong. Okorafor considers how society treats women, including men who would view themselves as supportive of women but still fall foul of their own egos. The book’s strength lies in Onyesonwu’s youth and flaws – she doesn’t transform into a strong, all-conquering woman but has to deal with her fallibility and her mistakes – and also in the friendship between four young women, including Onyesonwu, which develops as the novel progresses. It’s an interesting and inventive story but also a slightly overlong one.

Thanks to Headline for the review copy of Kindred.

In the Media: 23rd November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

It’s been Ursula K. Le Guin’s week. Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, she gave a widely praised speech about the need for freedom. You can watch it here, or read the transcript here. She’s interviewed on Salon, in The Guardian by Hari Kunzru and there’s a piece on where she gets her ideas from on Brain Pickings

Arundhati Roy and Megham Daum are the women with the second most coverage this week. Roy’s in Prospect, talking about ‘India’s Shame‘ and the caste system and interviewed in The Observer, where there are plenty of unnecessary comments about her looks. While Daum is interviewed on FSG’s website, in The Guardian and on The Cut.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

The lists:

And the best things I’ve read this week: