4 Lessons Learned from Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred

In: Book review, How to write

Written by Octavia E. Butler and published in 1979, Kindred is a harrowing novel about Dana, a Black woman mysteriously transported to her family’s past over and over again. She learns she’s connected to Rufus, a white slave owner in Maryland, and she gets pulled back to instances when he’s in danger. A full plot synopsis is available on Wikipedia.

I’ve made this conscious decision to harden myself to stories and characters. I always get so emotionally attached that reading about their suffering tends to hurt my feelings.

I know. I’m weak. That’s another topic for another day.

With this intentional coldness, then, it’s rare for a book to really make my heartbeat quicken. But Kindred gripped me from the start and stayed with me long after. I really needed to get to the end to see what would happen to Dana. Beyond its immersive qualities, this book is wonderfully written and does many unexpected things. I always try to learn from what I’m reading and I had a special feeling of a “belly full” mind at the end of Kindred.

Here’s a quick list of some things I learned.

1. Mixing genres can add energy and depth.

Genre-mixing is commonplace these days, and sometimes it stands out in a way that doesn’t feel natural. Kindred reminds me that a good writer can do this effortlessly, and at the same, acrobatically. I’ve heard people refer to the book as fantasy and African American historical fiction, but along the way, I felt it included colours of other genres too—horror, family drama, and memoir. Octavia Butler wrote with such an easy and unconscious crossing of styles. I think it’s what makes the book feel so real, not to mention layered and engrossing.

2. It’s okay for the narrator to reflect.

Stories are supposed to show, not tell, and fear of over-exposition has made me paranoid. But there are many moments where Dana, narrator, openly processes the traumas she’s living, and it’s welcome. For example, when Dana gets pulled back to the past with her white husband Keven, they both have to pretend she’s been enslaved by him. At night when no one’s looking, she sneaks into the estate’s guest room where he stays to find some semblance of a normal marriage. One morning, she got caught by the estate owner.

I froze, then made myself relax. “Morning, Mr. Weylin.” … That was all. I knew that if Margaret got me kicked out, it wouldn’t be for something as normal as sleeping with my master. And somehow, that disturbed me. I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed.

I suppose this kind of self-reflection is more acceptable in a first-person narrative, but I’ve still avoided it thinking it would make everything clunky. In this moment, I would’ve been tempted to find some awkward plotting and language to show Dana’s feelings. Racing pulses and sweats, perhaps. In the end, I appreciate how Dana often just says how she feels.

3. Dystopia can happen any time, any place.

It’s not only located somewhere in the future. This one’s in our past and it has profoundly shaped the structure of our world today. The truthfulness of a past and reverberating dystopia pushed the stakes right up for me.

4. When the stakes are high, you can’t get away unscathed.

Of the end of the novel, Butler said, “I couldn’t really let [Dana] come all the way back … Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole” (Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, 2007, Y. Williams, p. 66). I won’t reveal what the “missing wholeness” is in Kindred, but reading it taught me more about this sometimes necessary brutality of stories with truly high stakes. I guess I’ll have to rethink my cold-heart reading policy. I still think writers can ratchet the abuse up for no proper reason, but Kindred is an example of how to get the high and frightening stakes right.


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