Kindred – Dang Good SF

Wow! Kindred was great! I give it all the stars!!!

This is so much closer to what I wanted to be reading for my Song Cycle Read-a-thon. When I made my initial list, I had a lot of Important works on there. One of the things I love about SF is that it is firmly rooted in the time it is written; it extrapolates from contemporary technology and culture and asks “what if?” At its best, it shows me other ways to look at things, gives me a road map of what I might do in a given situation, places me gently in the shoes of the “other”. Because Important SF books are often only permitted into the canon once they are old enough to be respectable, the starting point of the extrapolation may be woefully behind our current mores. Look at the central thesis of “Herland”, which seemed to be arguing against the prevailing culture which worshipped women as mothers in lip service only, by saying “what if we truly worshipped Motherhood?” instead of “what if women’s contributions to family, society, art and commerce were acknowledged and respected?”. Of course, I am looking at this through the lens of someone who learned to love reading at the opposite end of the 20th century in which “Herland” was written, but I think whether a text holds up in the canon of Important Feminist Literature or should be included as contextual reading for Women’s History is a debate we might wish to have.

So onward to Kindred, with a little background on the author. Octavia Butler was an African-American author born in 1947, and raised in Pasadena. She came from a working-class background and worked to put herself through community college with an Associate of Arts with a concentration on History. While she took some writing classes through UCLA extension courses, she was largely a self-taught writer, working temp jobs and attending writing workshops while continuously writing. She sold short fiction as well as novels, and her prose is transparent and lovely. Her works all fall under “Speculative Fiction”, but rather than concentrating on technology and science, they often focus on what makes us human – both good and bad – what makes us form communities, how we organize ourselves in hierarchies, and how science might change the way we already relate as a society.  In 1995, she was the first Science Fiction writer to win a Macarthur Foundation “genius” grant. Butler described herself as “…a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Sadly, Ms. Butler passed away in 2006, but she left us lots of wonderful books and stories.

“Kindred” is a story of time-travel, but it’s also a story of American history. Edana Franklin and Kevin Franklin have just moved into their first home together in Southern California. In the midst of loading up the new bookshelves, Edana (or Dana, as she prefers) becomes dizzy, falls to the floor and finds herself transported to a rural area where a red-headed boy, Rufus Weylind, is drowning in a river. Dana resuscitates the boy, and is met with immediate suspicion from two white adults, one of whom aims a gun at her. She reappears in her new home, to a shocked Kevin. These episodes continue, each time the child is in mortal danger, and Dana quickly realizes that she is being transported back to a Maryland of the early 1800’s, and Rufus is a distant ancestor.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, because this is a great book that is also highly thought-provoking as well as entertaining. While there are no other similarities, I found myself feeling the same way I did when I first read “To Kill A Mockingbird” last year; why did no one who told me this was an Important book also tell me it was a wonderful book? But while TKAM was a meditation on race relations through White memoir, “Kindred” is an undeniably African-American perspective. A story can have many inspirations, and Butler herself cites a few. In an interview with the New York Times, Butler referred to her mother’s work as a maid, “…I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors. If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably.” Additionally, the seed of Kindred may have been a discussion she heard when attending Pasadena City College in the mid-sixties, when she heard a male classmate criticize previous Black generations of “subservience” to whites. She didn’t see it that way – “They were fighting, they just weren’t fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that’s most admired until you have to live with the results. I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”

Kindred delves into all layers of ante-bellum society; Dana and Kevin are an inter-racial couple in late 70’s California. Rufus Weylind, who inadvertently summons Dana each time he is near death, is the child of a plantation owner. He is also one of Dana’s ancestors. Dana gets to know many members of slave society but is always held slightly apart due to her tenuous position in the Weylind household. We see all the compromises people without power are forced to make, and how even some of the relatively weak people like Rufus’ mother, do not hesitate to “punch down” and hurt those with even less power.

But I’m making this sound like an Important book – a virtuous plate of steamed broccoli when you’d rather add some more cheese to the mashed potatoes – but I promise it’s also a great read. Lots of suspense, etc. But I will spoil one thing – Dana and Kevin survive. You learn this in the first chapter, so it’s not too much of a spoiler. I know it is often difficult for me to read a book if I know it will be incredibly depressing (see, Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”) so knowing that our protagonists at least survive was enough to take the edge off of some of the suspense.

So in conclusion, I highly, highly recommend this book. It will make you think (here – start with this one: “A Handmaid’s Tale” is not a future dystopia – for Black women, it is part of their history.) You’ll end it smarter than you started it. And once you’re done, you can go visit an exhibition of her papers at the Huntington Library.

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