How to Write Like Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler in front of her house, 1988.
Photo: Miriam Berkley

In her lifetime, Octavia E. Butler wrote more than a dozen books and short stories that varied in style and scope. Related follows a young Black woman and writer who travels between 1970s California and an antebellum Maryland plantation; Parable of the Sower is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel; Beginning unpacks racial hierarchies through a fast-paced vampire narrative that is equal parts violent and sensual. Her work often returns to a few key themes: environmental apocalypse, the lasting legacy of racism, and the power of organized communities to survive regardless of the circumstances. Despite the heaviness of her narratives, they never read that way. Her stories feel imbued with optimism: Her characters are curious, resilient and community-oriented, always fighting for a brighter world, no matter how dark the one they live in becomes. Here, a few artists explain how she inspired them in their own work and what they learned at the Butler Writing School.

Butler never minced words when she talked about racism, sexism or the exact mechanisms of how bigotry works. In Dawn, there are several points where characters point out that a big reason the Oankali, a fictional alien community, continue to fail to form families with human men is because the aliens can’t fathom toxic masculinity. (That term wasn’t common in 1987, but Butler uses different language to make it explicit.) Several human male characters struggle with this because they reject the idea that it’s something men should even think about. Rape is for women, in these men’s minds; men are supposed to always want sex and always take a dominant role in it. Butler leaves none of this for the reader to infer. Lilith, her protagonist, blatantly pleads with the Oankali to put the most “macho” of the men back to sleep. The Oankali cannot understand that some people would rather die—or kill—than give up their traditional gender roles. When I first read this book, I had never seen anything like it in science fiction. There is a lot of feminist science fiction out there, but much of it is written by Second Wave feminists and tackles the issue in a fairly shallow or one-dimensional way—no examination of class, race, and other power dynamics. Butler just laid it all out: the social construction of gender identity, the ways in which some people perform gender and reinforce its performance among themselves to the point of violence. —NK Jemisin, author of The Broken Earth Trilogy

As I reread Butler’s work, I am comforted by her bits of sly humor. In one of the Xenogenesis books there is a scene where after the aliens have overtaken humanity, they try to breed Lilith with a human male because they can tell she is lonely. They send her to hang out with a young Black man who has never actually seen a woman, and so he gets really into it and gets a little powerful. In response, Lilith channels her mother – and almost every Black mother – and becomes angry with him. She tells him to step off, to back off, and informs him that he is going to listen to her. The man has never heard a Black mother, and he apologizes and moves away. It’s a very scary scene in which Lilith is at great risk, and Butlers doesn’t shy away from it. But neither does she look away from the rest of the human experience. It was hilarious to me because I knew the mother she was talking about. -Nalo Hopkinson, author of Brown girl in the ring

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Octavia Butler’s novel Beginning introduced me to a brilliant hook: What if Black vampires existed in their own right outside of the Western European paradigm? Because of this book, I began my own research to learn about culturally specific folklore around the world that gave their vampires different names. What I like about Butler is that she contextualizes her fantasy with facts. Honest, undiluted science unfettered by white supremacy is a gold mine for fantasy. Melanin acts as an additional protector from the sun for Black people. Why not tap into this as a superpower for day-walking Black vampires? This was the catalyst for my short film Suicide by sunlight. Regardless of the specificity of Butler’s work, she provides poignant commentary on the human condition. Her quote: “You got to make your own worlds; you got to write yourself in” has become my mantra, my prayer, as I continue to center black female protagonists within genres that typically tempt us to the sidelines. —Nikyatu Jusu, director of Nanny

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I like how practical Octavia was about how we move into the future – not just considering how things need to change, not just that we need to reorganize ourselves into functional communities, but what we need to pack, what we need to study, what we have to practice to change. She’s the voice in my head that says, “Sure, but how?” My novel Bereaved is fundamentally about putting life on the line, even when the odds feel impossible. Surviving apocalyptic conditions requires learning new skills, radically changing your priorities, and understanding that there is individual work to be done within collective survival. In writing bereaved, I felt inspired by how Octavia wrote younger people, generating different solutions than people who had to manage a family, write a budget and negotiate with bureaucracy. In this way, my protagonist, Dune, follows in the footsteps of a character like Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of the Parable series. I wanted to call out Lauren in terms of how much more risk we’re willing to take when we’re young, even if it’s the risk of being alone. I hope I wrote Dune in such a way that if she and Lauren ran into each other, they would want to stay together, would want to survive together. —Adrienne Maree Brown, activist and author of Emerging Strategy

Of all the songs on my last album, the one named after Octavia felt like the one that took the most winding road to find. I loved seeing the pictures of Octavia’s notebook pages and was especially inspired by the page where she listed every goal she had for herself. Every single thing on her list ended up coming true. I think it’s a special kind of magic. I later read her novel Related, which is the story of a Black woman from the 1970s who travels back in time to slavery times, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of researching the details of the experience of slavery. I previously understood much of the more graphic, physical violence of slavery, but I had less understanding of the impact of the more subtle violence, such as forbidding enslaved Black people from learning to read or write. It sent my mind back to the power of the written word, imagining if ancestors like Octavia had never been able to write her list, or her books for that matter, and the gravity of denying people a means of self-expression. I was a teaching artist working with high school students when I wrote the song, so I was also thinking about how often young black people are made to feel that their way of speaking or writing is not “proper” or good enough. For me, Octavia Butler’s legacy was so much about the power of the written word and the power to make the world the way you want it to be. — Jamila Woods, songwriter

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