The genre of Fantasy is often confronted with the accusation of being escapism. (And after that, the discussion is whether this is okay or not.) And it’s true, Fantasy leads the reader away into other worlds. But what if that other world is harder and crueller than we can imagine? I have just now returned from the world which Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred builds up in front of our eyes and which it shows us in all its plasticity and ugliness, and yet, in a very sensitive way. And now, as I return, I have the feeling that I am being escapist, not the novel.
Trigger-Advarsel: Racism, violence (physical, psychical, sexual), humiliation, blackmail, suicide.
Some kind of preface – you may skip it 😉
Before I talk about this novel, which to me is one of the best, if not the best fantasy novel I have ever read, I would like to tell you a little how I “met” the novel. Probably, I would never have found it if I had stayed in Germany.
I was in Chicago recently, mainly because of my job, and had thus not too much time to do sightseeing. But to visit a bookstore the time simply must be sufficient for me when I am abroad. I always buy a book when I am abroad, in the country’s language, if I am able to understand it somehow. The bookstore in Chicago I googled was great. Some stairs leading down to a basement filled with wooden shelves, like a maze in a cornfield, but very orderly and everything was easy to find.
[The special concept, which would be a great idea for Germany as well, was that you could buy both new books and used ones. That means, you will always find for example “Lord of the Rings” at its proper place, and if you are lucky, you will find a second-hand edition for much less money right next to the new ones, so that you can decide which to buy.]
Easily I find the shelf with the fantasy books on it (which I always go to if I don’t know what exactly to look for), and I am surprised again: It’s totally different from a German fantasy bookshelf. Of course there is the typical action and blockbuster stuff, elves and dwarves and orks look at you from the covers. But between them, there were books who absolutely do not look like fantasy books from the outside (in fact, they look much better, in my opinion). And also the contents are far away from the typical clichés Fantasy is often reprehended for. Also Octavia Butler’s Kindred is not that typical for a fantasy epos, though it is utterly right to call it fantasy – as you will see. Only that on the German book market, it would be counted as belles-lettres. Or the attribution to a genre would be that complicated that it would simply not appear on the market.
That seems to be the case with Kindred: On the German market, the novel, which could be as important for the American history of literature as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, is nearly invisible. There is at least a German translation, but however, it has not received a single Amazon review yet.
Maybe one does not want to take too close a look at what Fantasy is able to do?
Shockingly enough, the novel begins by Dana’s, the main protagonist’s, losing her left arm. “On my last trip home” (p. 9). It is her trips which give a structure to the whole novel. Shortly after she moves together with her husband, Kevin – they are both writers –, into a new house, Dana suffers from sudden attacks of nausea and dizziness, which herald a voyage through space and time: From Los Angeles to Maryland. From the year 1976 to the year 1815. To an America, where the lives of black people like Dana do not have any worth beyond their economic significance. To Rufus, who is the son of a plantation owner and slaveholder, still a little boy at the beginning of the novel. Dana seems to have an odd magical connection to him: Whenever the boy is in serious danger, he kind of calls Dana to him for help. Only when her own life is at stake, is she able to return home – which is 1976.
Altogether, Dana travels six times to Rufus. The duration of her stay differs from several hours to whole months. Once, she is even able to carry Kevin with her by touching him at the “trip’s” moment. When she comes home, almost no time has passed: During her trips, only three weeks go by in 1976’s reality, while she passes about a year with Rufus – who grows up to be a 25 years old man in the intervals between her “visits”.
While being there, Dana dives deeper and deeper into the society of the time. She first becomes witness to the horrors black people and slaves in particular have to endure: Whippings. Sales of people which divide families. Unbearable arbitrariness. The clear message that you are not equal, let alone a human being.
However, Dana does not stop at being a witness, but gets involved deeper and deeper into the story of Rufus, his family and the people working at his father’s. Above all, she finds out that this story is more connected to her own than she thought: Together with Alice, a childhood friend of Rufus’ and his later slave, Rufus is to father Hagar – Dana’s grandmother.
Dana sees her opportunity to influence the course of events, and the burden of her responsibility at the same time. The tries to influence Rufus, to change his thoughts and open them up for the humanity and equality of black people; she knows what his power as future landowner and slaveholder at his father’s plantation is to be, how much he can change the fates of the people who have become her friends – and who are, after all, a part of her family.
Yet, despite her role as enlightening power coming from the future, she almost imperceptibly becomes a part of this society herself. She “learns“ – from sheer fear – how she as a black person is supposed to behave towards the whites: No talking back, no taking action by her own, “yes, sir.” She slowly begins to accept the place offered to her by this society, if not in thoughts, in actions and as a result also in feeling. She begins to play along the fragile game of blackmail and threats and the tentative opening and closing of spaces of freedom.
That this game is going to culminate dramatically at the end is already evident from the novel’s beginning.
The plot lives not so much from the decisive incidents – there are some, but they are not to the pillars on which the story rests – but from the development of its characters. Everything is laid down in the characters from the very beginning, and yet still in motion, so that the possibility of other developments remains open. With great artfulness Octavia Butler depicts the medley of the different characters and the reciprocal impact the protagonists have on each other, with slaveholder society’s influence always present. The latter is the reason why, looking back, the plot looks like a terrible teleology. “It had to happen.”, we say when finishing the novel, and yet, while reading, always had the hope for a better ending. Many small hopes (for things improving, for Dana’s being allowed to go home, for Dana’s being spared from more trips) in exchange with many small fears (when Dana is going to be called again, how Rufus will react about this and that) carry the suspense on until the end. Despite the hard-to-swallow topic, I found the novel surprisingly easy to read as there are enough phases of recreation for the reader without the suspense going down on a single page.
Another feature of Butler’s great narrative skills was for me, how precisely the logic of the plot corresponded to the logic of the time the novel is largely about. In accordance with his position as white and as “master” in slaveholding society, Rufus is the little god of the plot. Good and bad of everyone depend on his actions – and the circumstances of his upbringing don’t help him act responsibly. Any major turning point is initiated by Rufus’ actions. The other protagonists – except Kevin, who is white as well – are not able to really act and can only influence the course of events via influencing Rufus.
The only space of action is their own attitude towards the events. Are they willing instruments? How submissive are they? Are they ready to sell their dignity to gain privileges from the “master”? This individual attitude is a huge topic among the black people of Rufus’ household. The women who let themselves get involved too much in this game of grace and disgrace are called out as whores, Dana, who obviously has a far more equal relation to Rufus, even as “white nigger.” What in this context means nothing else as: She betrays her own people, mingles with the whites and lifts herself above her group by openly displaying her education. The discrimination between white and black is so deeply engraved into peoples’ minds, that, in the end, both sides support it by their behavior. A vicious circle which Octavia Butler lets us experience so strongly it crawls right beneath our skin.
They rise before our eyes as if alive. I would, if I had the space, like to talk about all of them as they are all, as different as they are, comprehensible and authentic and have their own profile: From the broken and yet so strong Alice to Rufus’ cruel, over-rational and yet principled father.
Dana is almost the least distinguished of them, and this must be so: She is the person to identify with, who comes to this world with the same or at least a similar background as we do. There has to be room for everyone beneath her skin. We see her in the beginning as an emancipated woman with not the easiest start in her life, who is about to settle down and find some calm through her marriage with Kevin. However, it is often allured to as a dangerous calm, which threatens Dana to be overcome as the weaker part – this time by her husband, and largely unconsciously. Implicit racial and gender bias seem to be at work in 1976 as well.
By her trips to 19th century Maryland Dana’s character is put into a hard confrontation with the new conditions of her life. Partly under threat of severe violence she has to lay down behaviors utterly naturally for her, expressions of her equality and worth. Between coercion, pressure, psychical terror and constant fear she fights not to lose her self-esteem and at the same time to prevent damage from herself and others.
The focus of attention is always her relationship to Rufus. Rufus, whose development from an innocent, still formable boy to a young man deeply rooted in his inhumane society we can trace, is maybe the most antagonistic and most complicated character of the story. In a world which puts his needs as a white “master” to the center, he takes ruthlessly whatever he wants, with the calm knowledge that this is just right. His needs – sympathy, love, being acknowledged – are in fact very human and understandable and make him a character we can sympathize with despite him acting like a monster. His coping with his needs is, however, more than destructive and has terrible impacts on his fellow human beings. Not so much from their nature, but in a system, which subjects the one group of people radically to the arbitrariness of another group, ugly but still natural human feelings like jealousy become means of terror and suppression.
In this system, Dana’s and Rufe’s relationship is an extreme case with the potential to destroy the system. Dana has a lot of things which bring her very close to equality with Rufus even in that world: She saves his life repeatedly and becomes a real counterpart and thus a real partner for him by refusing to humor him. She even grows to be some kind of psychological parent for him. Her ability to vanish when in danger ensures her a certain degree of independence from him – concerning Dana’s skin colour, all this is a real paradox in Rufus’ world. Throughout the novel we see his efforts to classify Dana, meaning for him: to give her her proper place in the hierarchy of slaveholding society, which he never manages to. On the other hand, he craves for her closeness, gives her privileges, and bids for her affection. In the end, this ambivalent relationship culminates in the question whether he can see in Dana anything else but his personal property. He can’t. Thus, he forces Dana to take action.
Kindred’s language is simple and elegant, yet weaves a tense atmosphere. The focus is set precisely on the things which are the most important: quite often, this is the dialogue through which borders are negotiated and understanding is fought for. The things unspoken are often more important than the things spoken.
Though the historical details are researched precisely, especially regarding the protagonists’ behabior, the novel is content with relatively few details and some strong metaphors. Even in highly emotional scenes the narrator steps back tactfully and gives the reader’s empathy room to expand, a technique which I admire very much. An example:
„I stared at her not believing, not wanting to believe… I touched her and her flesh was cold and hard. The dead gray face was ugly in death as it had never been in life. The mouth was open. The eyes were open and staring. Her head was bare and her hair loose and short like mine. She had never liked to tie it up the way other women did. It was one of the things that had made us look even more alike – the only two consistently bareheaded women on the place. Her dress was dark red and her apron clean and white.” (p. 248).
Now what do I think?
Kindred is a novel where the fantastical is not just an effectful ornament but a program. It raises the question “what if?” and starts a literary experiment of letting collide Dana’s perspective, which is largely that of us modern readers, and the inhumane conventions of slaveholding society in America. Thus, the gap between our mere history book knowledge and real experience is bridged without being (wrongly) negated. In dealing with this topic, Octavia Butler does not simply make use of the dichotomy of good and bad but talks about the fault in our times as well as their achievements. (The novel was published in 1979, but in my opinion applies to 2018 as well.) Also the past is viewed not with condemnation, but understanding. That this balancing act worked so well, makes the novel in my opinion range among the very great.