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An Alternative Universe

She Fills Her Novels With Horrifying Aliens, but for Octavia Butler, the Real World Is Much Scarier.

October 18, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | Pamela Warrick is a staff writer in The Times' Life & Style section

The afternoon of her 51st birthday, Octavia Butler is speaking of parasites. Of leeches, grubs, maggots and botflies, specifically.

Street poets, feminist authors, college professors and civil servants on lunch hour have gathered this summer day at Sisterspace bookstore in Washington, D.C., to honor "Sister Octavia"--and to buy some of her books. They are treated to the story behind her famously stomach-churning tale "Bloodchild."

Oblivious to the pink paper plates stacked up behind her and the frosted birthday cake waiting to be served, Butler describes in unappetizing detail how she got so embroiled in the life stages of such slimy creatures. Anticipating a research trip to the Peruvian Amazon, Butler had begun to fret about botflies and their way of laying eggs in the wounds left by the bites of other insects. "The [larvae] eat and they eat and they get bigger and bigger, and then there's a big knot that comes up under your skin, and as they eat closer to the bone, it hurts and . . . well, I simply knew I'd have to do something about my botfly concerns or I couldn't go. So I did what I do whenever anything upsets me: I sat down and wrote about it." What she wrote, a horrifying novella about aliens that use the bellies of humans to incubate their young, is ripe with images of thick worms, blind and slimy with blood.

When she was quite small, Octavia Butler learned that if the world tormented a poor, shy black child--if it saddened her, humiliated her or frightened her out of her skin--she could always escape by making up a story. Her earliest tales--the first concocted at about age 4 on her Pasadena porch while she watched other children at play as punishment for ruining her only pair of shoes--were standard fantasies about the adventures of a magical horse. Octavia was the horse.

Several decades and a dozen books later, Butler is still inventing stories to keep the world at bay. She writes novels that have evolved from the biologically bizarre to the socially profound, working behind the drawn shades of her San Gabriel Valley home and venturing beyond her local bus route only for research or to accept the occasional invitation to discuss her writing. Yet legions of fans know her as one of the preeminent authors in her field, a genre the Library of Congress classifies as science fiction but which most other current practitioners call "fantastic realism." Under any label, it serves her special purpose: "The major tragedies in life, there's just no compensation," says Butler. "But the minor ones you can always write about. It's my way of dealing, and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than psychiatrists. The story, you see, will get you through."

Light years before the MacArthur Foundation handed her a $295,000 "genius" grant," before she won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, before being feted by feminists and flattered by the Smithsonian, Octavia Estelle Butler was a girl everybody called "Junie." Her father was a shoeshine man. Her mother, Octavia Margaret, was a maid who had lost four babies before delivering Octavia. When her father died, little Junie--short for Octavia Junior, according to one theory--was sent to her grandmother's chicken farm out near Victorville to live until her mother could make a home for her.

Although there was no electricity, no telephone, no water--except for what her uncles trucked out from Los Angeles--and very few people, for Butler it was paradise. A place with plenty of space, a blank canvas to fill with her fantasies. It is the bright stars against the deep black sky, not the daydreams, that she remembers best about the farm. Even with a crescent moon, her grandmother could see well enough to bring in the laundry, long after the sun had set. In her hopeful tale of post-apocalyptic survival, "The Parable of the Sower," Butler describes taking the wash down from the line in the cool of early night: "The basket is full. I look to see that [no one] is watching me, then let myself fall backward onto the soft mound of stiff, clean clothes. For a moment, the fall is like floating."

Junie soon moved back to the city lights, to Pasadena, where her mother worked as a maid and also took in boarders. "Sometimes I went to work with my mother, and I was very ashamed. She went in back doors, and she cleaned up after other people." Once, she was reported to the police just for changing a tire on a street in La Canada, where she worked, Butler says. "I felt so embarrassed, but I had a roof over my head, I had food to eat, I could go to school."

The elder Octavia had been snatched out of grade school to work and wanted something better for her only child. "She brought home any books her employers or their children threw out," Butler says. "I had books with yellow pages, books that had been scribbled on, spilled on, cut up, books without covers, anything that could be read." Dyslexia merely slowed her pace.

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