March 1 - March 31, 2006
A brief conversation with Octavia E. Butler
- Who is Octavia E. Butler? Where is she
headed? Where has she been?
Who am I? I'm a 56-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old
writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm comfortably
asocial — a hermit living in a large city — a pessimist if I'm not careful;
a student, endlessly curious; a feminist; an African American; a former
Baptist; and an oil and water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity,
certainty, and drive.
- What have you written?
Novels, short stories, and essays. I've had 11 novels published so far. They
are Patternmaster, Mind of my Mind, Survivor, Kindred,
Wild Seed, Clay's
Ark, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago, Parable of the Sower and
Parable of the
Talents. Parable of the Talents won a Nebula award as 2000. I've also had
published a book of short fiction and nonfiction called Bloodchild and Other
Stories. One story in this collection, "Speech Sounds," won a Hugo award as
best short story of 1984. The title story, "Bloodchild," won both the 1985
Hugo and the 1984 Nebula awards as best novelette. And, speaking of awards,
in 1995 I received a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation. In 2000, I received a lifetime achievement award in
writing from PEN.
- What were your educational
preparations for a writing career?
I graduated from Pasadena City College in 1968 (Pasadena, California is my
home town). Then I attended California State University, Los Angeles. I also
took a few extension classes at UCLA. But the most valuable help I received
with my writing came from two workshops. The first was the Open Door Program
of the Screenwriter's Guild of America, West. I attended from 1969-1970. The
second was Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop which I attended in
Octavia E. Butler is author of many novels, including Patternmaster,
Adulthood Rites, Mind of My Mind, and Parable of the Sower.
She is the winner of science fiction's Nebula and Hugo awards, as well as a
recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" award.
Read more about
Butler on the Pasadena City College website.
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Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her
twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from
her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white
son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him.
Dana is drawn back again and again for Rufus, yet each time the stay grows
longer and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will
end, long before it has even begun.
(Source: Beacon Press Catalogue, via the
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Print study guide
"What tangled skeins are the genealogies of slavery!"
—Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,
1861 (from the Introduction by Robert Crossley)
The American slave narrative is a literary form whose historical boundaries are
firmly marked. While first-person narratives about oppression and exclusion will
persist as long as racism persists, slave narratives ceased to be written when
the last American citizen who had lived under institutionalized slavery died.
The only way in which a new slave-memoir could be written is if someone were
able to travel into the past, become a slave, and return to tell the story.
Because the laws of physics, such as we know them, preclude traveling backwards
in time, such a book would have to be a hybrid of autobiographical narrative and
scientific fantasy. That is exactly the sort of book Octavia Butler imagined
when she wrote Kindred, first published in 1979. Like all good works of fiction,
it lies like the truth.
—from the Introduction (ix)
1. Both Kevin and Dana know that they can't change history: "We're in the middle
of history. We surely can't change it." (page100); and "It's over . . . There's
nothing you can do to change any of it now." (page 264). What, then, are the
purposes of Dana' s travels back to the antebellum South? Why must you, the
reader, experience this journey with Dana?
2. How would the story have been different with a third person narrator?
3. Many of the characters within Kindred resist classification. In what ways
does Dana explode the slave stereotypes of the "house-nigger, the handerkchief-head,
and the female Uncle Tom" (page 145). In what ways does she transcend them?
4. Despite Dana's conscious effort to refuse the 'mammy' role in the Weylin
household, she finds herself caught within it: "I felt like Sarah, cautioning."
(page 156), and others see her as the mammy: "You sound just like Sarah" (page
159). How, if at all, does Dana reconcile this behavior? How would you reconcile
5. "The ease. Us, the children . . . I never realized how easily people could be
trained to accept slavery." This is said by Dana to Kevin when they have
returned to the present and are discussing their experience in the antebellum
South. To what extent, if any, do you believe racial oppression exists today?
6. How do you think Butler confronts us with issues of difference in Kindred?
How does she challenge us to consider boundaries of black/white, master/slave,
husband/wife, past/present? What other differences does she convolute? Do you
think such dichotomies are flexible? Artificial? Useful?
7. Compare Tom Weylin and Rufus Weylin. Is Rufus an improvement or simply an
alteration of his father? Where, if any, is there evidence of Dana's influence
on the young Rufus in his adult character?
8. Of the slaves' attitude toward Rufus, Dana observes "Strangely, they seemed
to like him, hold him in contempt, and fear him at the same time." (page 229)
How is it they can feel these contradictory emotions? How would you feel toward
Rufus if you were in their situation?
9. Compare Dana's 'professional' life (i.e. her work as temporary help) in the
present with her life as a slave.
10. When Dana and Kevin return from the past together, she thinks to herself: "I
felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus's time was a
sharper, stronger reality." (page 191) Why would the twentieth century seem less
vivid to Dana than the past?
11. Dana loses her left arm as she emerges—for the last time in the novel—from
the past. Why is this significant?
12. Kevin is stranded in the past five years, while Dana is there for almost
one. Is there a reason why Butler felt Kevin needed to stay in the past so much
longer? How have their experiences affected their relationship to each other and
to the world around them?
13. A common trend in the time-travels of science fiction assumes that one
should not tamper with the past, lest s/he disrupt the present. Butler's
characters obviously ignore this theory and continue to invade each other's
lives. How does this influence the movement of the narrative? How does this
convolute the idea of 'cause and effect'?
14. Dana finds herself caught in the middle of the relationship between Rufus
and Alice? Why does Rufus use Dana to get to Alice? Does Alice use Dana?
15. The needs and well-being of other residents of the plantation create a web
of obligation that is difficult to navigate. Choose a specific incident; and
determine who holds power over whom and assess how it affects that situation.
16. Dana states: "It was that destructive single-minded love of his. He loved
me. Not the way he loved Alice, thank God. He didn't seem to want to sleep with
me. But he wanted me around—someone to talk to, someone who would listen to him
and care about what he said, care about it." (page 180) How does the
relationship between Dana and Rufus develop? How does it change? What are the
different levels of love portrayed in
17. Discuss the ways in which the title encapsulates the relationships within
the novel. Is it ironic? Literal? Metaphorical? What emphasis do we place on our
own kinship? How does it compare with that of the novel?
18. Do you believe that Dana and Kevin's story actually happened to them, or
that they simply got caught up in the nostalgia of moving old papers and books?
19. Butler opens the novel with the conclusion of Dana's time travels. The final
pages of the book, however, make up an epilogue demonstrating a, once again,
linearly progressive movement of time. How does the epilogue serve to disrupt
the rhythm of the narrative?
20. After returning from his years in the nineteenth-century, Kevin had attained
"a slight accent" (page 190). Is this `slight' alteration symbolic of greater
changes to come? How do you imagine Kevin and Dana's relationship will progress
following their re-emergence into life in 1976?
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Club How To
for setting up a book discussion group from the Washington
Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library
and organizing the first meeting:
clear what is expected of participants:
Careful reading, active participation in selecting and
discussing books, and having fun.
- Decide what types of books
your group wants to read:
Only fiction? Prize winners? Classics? Anything and
everything? Does the book have to be available in paperback?
- Figure out the logistics:
How long should the meetings be? (We find that the best
discussions last between 45 and 90 minutes.) Will you meet
at a library? Coffee shop? Private homes? Do reminder
messages need to be sent out by email, mail, or phone?
how the book club will be run:
Will you have a leader? Will the same person be in charge
for each meeting, or will you rotate leaders? Some groups
bring in an outside “expert” (who may need to be paid).
Do you want the leader to give a brief biography of the
author and a selection of reviews of the book under
the books to discuss:
Choosing what books to read is one of the hardest, most
enjoyable, frustrating, and important activities the group
will undertake. Members of the group should be prepared to
compromise and to read outside their regular areas of
interest. (Some people will drop out if the books chosen are
not what they want to read; don’t worry, this is a normal
occurrence.) Go with the majority opinion, but remind people
that there can be a big difference between “a good read”
and “a good book for a discussion.” (See next section.)
Choose books well in advance (at least three months). People
need to know what’s coming up so they can read ahead. In
addition, you don’t want to have to spend time at each
meeting deciding what to read next.
What makes a good book for discussion:
People often ask what qualities make a book a good candidate for book
discussion. Probably the most important criteria are that the book be
well written, have an interesting plot and three-dimensional
characters. Good book discussion books present the author’s view of
an important truth and sometimes send a message to the reader. A good
book discussion book often stays in the reader’s mind long after the
book is finished and the discussion is over. These books can be read
more than once, and each time the reader learns something new.
During a book discussion, what you’re really talking about is
everything that the author hasn’t
said – all those white spaces on the printed page. For this reason,
books that are plot driven (most mysteries, westerns, romances, and
science fiction/fantasy) don’t lend themselves to book discussions.
In genre novels and some mainstream fiction (and often in nonfiction)
the author spells out everything for the reader, so that there is
little to say except, “Gee, I never knew that” or “Isn’t that
interesting.” Librarians, booksellers, and friends can often supply
you with suggestions of good books to discuss.
(Incidentally, this “everything that the author hasn’t said”
idea is why poetry makes such a rich topic for discussion.)
Recommended Books for Discussion,
The very best books are those that insinuate themselves into your
experience: They reveal an important truth or provide a profound sense
of kinship between reader and writer. Searching for, identifying, and
discussing these truths deepen the reader’s appreciation of the
questions, reading carefully, imagining yourself in the story,
analyzing style and structure, and searching for personal meaning in a
work of literature all enhance the work’s value and the discussion
potential for your group.
- Make notes and mark pages as you go:
Reading for a book discussion – whether you are the leader or simply
a participant – differs somewhat from reading purely for pleasure.
As you read a book in preparation for a discussion, ask questions of
yourself and mark down pages you might want to refer back to. Make
notes like, “Is this significant?” or “Why does the author
include this?” Making notes as you go slows down your reading but
saves you the time of searching out important passages later.
tough questions of yourself and the book:
Obviously, asking questions of yourself as you read means you don’t
know the answer yet, and sometimes you never will discover the
answers. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions because often the
author is presenting difficult issues for that very purpose. Look for
questions that may lead to in-depth conversations with your group and
make the book more meaningful.
attention to the author’s message:
As with any skill, critical reading improves with practice. Remember
that a good author uses every word in a text deliberately. Try to be
aware of what the author is revealing about herself and what she wants
you to learn about life from her perspective.
Try to analyze the important themes of a book and to consider what
premise the author started with. Imagine an author mulling over the
beginnings of the story, asking himself, “what if … ” questions.
to know the characters:
When you meet the characters in the book, place yourself at the scene.
Think of them as you do the people around you. Judge them. Think about
their faults and their motives. What would it be like to interact with
them? Are the tone and style of their dialogue authentic? Read
portions aloud to get to know the voices of the characters.
the structure of the book:
Sometimes an author uses the structure of the book to illustrate an
important concept or to create a mood. Notice how the author
structured the book. Are chapters prefaced by quotes? If so, how do
they apply to the content of the chapters? How many narrators tell the
story? Who are they? How does the sequence of events unfold to create
the mood of the story? Is it written in flashbacks? Does the order the
author chose make sense to you?
comparisons to other books and authors:
Compare the book to others by the same author or to books by other
authors that have a similar theme or style. Often, themes run through
an author’s works that are more fully realized by comparison.
Comparing one author’s work with another’s can help you solidify
your opinions, as well as define for you qualities you may otherwise
Leading the discussion:
Research the author using resources such as Current
Biography, Contemporary Authors, and Something
About the Author. Find book reviews in Book
Review Digest and Book
Review Index. The Dictionary
of Literary Biography gives biographical and critical material.
These resources are probably available at your local library. The
World Wide Web is another good source for reviews of the book,
biographical information about the author, and questions for
prepared with 10 to 15 open-ended questions. Questions that can be
answered yes or no tend to cut off discussion quickly.
ask each member of the group to come with one question. Readers will
focus on different aspects of the book, and everyone will gain new
insights as a result.
should be used to guide the discussion and keep it on track, but be
ready to let the discussion flow naturally. You’ll often find that
the questions you’ve prepared will come up naturally as part of the
participants that there are not necessarily any right answers to the
be afraid to criticize a book, but try to get the group to go beyond
the “I just didn’t like it” statement. What was it about the
book that made it unappealing? The style? The pacing? The characters?
Has the author written other books that you liked better? Did it
remind you of another book that you liked or disliked? Remember that
many of the best book discussions center on books that many group
to keep a balance in the discussion between personal revelations and
reactions and a response to the book itself. Of course, every reader
responds to a book in ways that are intimately tied to his or her
background, upbringing, experiences, and view of the world. A book
about a senseless murder will naturally strike some sort of chord in a
reader whose mother was killed. That’s interesting, but what’s
more interesting is how the author chose to present the murder, or the
author’s attitude toward the murderer and victim. It’s often too
easy to let a group drown in reminiscences. If that’s what the whole
group wants to do, that’s fine, but keep in mind that it’s not a
Some suggestions for participants:
A good discussion depends in large part on the
skills we develop as participants. Here are some suggestions (based on
the New York Public Library’s book discussion program):
UP! Group discussion is like a conversation; everyone takes part in
it. Each speaker responds to what the person before him said. Nobody
prepares speeches; there should be a spontaneous exchange of ideas and
opinions. The discussion is your chance to say what you think.
thoughtfully to others! Try to understand the other person’s point
of view. Don’t accept ideas that don’t have a sound basis.
Remember, there are several points of view possible on every question.
BRIEF! Share the discussion with others. Speak for only a few minutes
at a time. Make your point in as a few words as possible. Be ready to
let someone else speak. A good discussion keeps everyone in the
YOUR VIEWPOINT AND EXPERIENCE! Don’t expect to be called on to
speak; enter into the discussion with your comments of agreement or
disagreement. When you find yourself disagreeing with other people’s
interpretations or opinions, say so and tell why, in a friendly way.
Considering all points of view is important to group discussions.
WITH YOUR OWN QUESTIONS IN MIND! As you read the selection, make note
of the points on which you’d like to hear the comments of group
What should you be thinking about when you read a
book for discussion? What kinds of questions make for interesting
discussions? These are important questions because they lead to the
heart of what book groups do: read, think about, and discuss
literature. You don’t have to have a background in literary
criticism to be in a book group. Here is a list of some common
questions to think about when reading a book for a reading group.
How do the characters function in this book?
Are they thin and uninteresting, or well developed, with many
different facets of personality? Are certain characters more
“real” than others? Why or why not?
Is the protagonist sympathetic or
What themes – motherhood, self-discovery,
wilderness, etc. – recur throughout the book? How does the author
use these themes? Do they work?
Why do certain characters act the way they
act? What motivates a character to do something that she would not
normally do? Does she have an axe to grind, a political ideology, a
religious belief, a psychological disorder? Is there anything that you
would call “out of character”? Does the character grow over the
course of the story?
What types of symbolism are in this novel?
What do these objects really represent? How do characters react to and
with these symbolic objects?
Think about the broader social issues that
this book is trying to address. For example, what does the author
think about anarchy versus capitalism as a means of life? How is a
particular culture or subculture portrayed? Favorably? Unfavorably?
How do you feel about these characters? Do
their experiences fit or clash with your own experiences? How so?
Which character do you identify with? Is it possible to identify with
any of these characters?
Where could the story go from here? What is
the future of these characters’ lives? What would our lives be like
if we lived in this story? Could the civilization portrayed really
exist? What if?
What does that character mean when he says
“…”? How does the author use certain words and phrases
differently than we would normally use them? Does the author make up
new words? Why would he do that?
How does the arrangement of the book help or
detract from the ideas in the novel? Does the arrangement contribute
to themes or symbols? How is the book structured? Flashbacks? From one
or multiple points of view? Why do you think the author chose to write
the book this way?
Does this book fit into or fight against a
literary genre? How does the author use [science fiction, humor,
tragedy, romance] to effect in the novel? Does this book typify a
regional (southern, western) novel? How?
How does this book relate to other books you
have read? Would this book make a good movie? Is there a film
adaptation of this book? How does the film compare to the book? What
is brought out or played down in the film version?
Is the setting of the book important to the
theme? Why? How realistic is the setting?
What did the author attempt to do in the
book? Was it successful?
What is the author’s worldview?
Were the plot and subplots believable? Were
they interesting? What loose ends, if any, did the author leave?
What is the great strength – or most
noticeable weakness – of the book?
For more information, contact:
Washington Center for the Book
at the Seattle Public
800 Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98101
This guide for book discussion groups was
developed by the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public
Library. The Washington Center for the Book is a member of the
Audiences for Literature Network, made possible by the
Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds – eight leading centers dedicated to
building and sustaining audiences for literature.
City, One Story (2006) would like to thank the Washington Center for
the Book for permission to use this guide.
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