Pasadena on Her Mind: Octavia E. Butler Reimagines Her Hometown




OCTAVIA BUTLER, who grew up in Pasadena and lived most of her life in Southern California, published her first science fiction story in 1971, at age 24, and built an increasingly influential career until her death in 2006, winning major science fiction awards and a MacArthur Fellowship. An African-American woman who pioneered in a historically white and male field, Butler grew into a model and inspiration for younger writers and scholars, who have since produced collections with titles like Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements and Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia Butler. When the Huntington Library opened her voluminous papers to researchers in 2014, they quickly became one of its most heavily used collections and the basis for a heavily attended exhibit in 2017.

As a historian who works on the history of Western cities and more recently on the relationships between the American experience and science fiction, I felt the same pull to Butler’s work that so many other scholars have felt. Her novel Parable of the Sower opens with the evocative image of near-future Los Angeles in decline; when her papers were released, I imagined they might shed light on how she transformed her experience as a Southern Californian into her depictions of the region’s future. Opening those boxes in the stillness of the Ahmanson Reading Room and noisily extracting spiral-bound notebooks from manila envelopes, I envisioned an essay on Butler and her relationship with greater Los Angeles. What emerged instead is the central role of her hometown.

Starting as a teenager, Butler filled dozens of notebooks with observations, research notes, letter drafts, outlines, and trial runs at stories. These commonplace books form a fascinating, sometimes intimate entry to the mind of one of California’s master writers. At the end of 1977, she wrote in a short bio statement:

I was born in Pasadena, California in 1947, and except for scattered months of living in the desert just outside Victorville, I have lived in Pasadena until 1970 when I escaped to Los Angeles, did some sort of psychological somersault and began writing about Pasadena. It seemed a much nicer place as soon as I didn’t have to live there.

Why did this ambitious science fiction writer turn back to Pasadena, far from the most futuristic or exotic of locales? Butler recognized that the tension between otherness and community made for one of her most compelling recurring themes. Repeatedly writing versions of Pasadena into her speculative fiction helped Butler deal with her own otherness within a quintessentially California city, staking a claim in a place where she had grown up as a marginal citizen. The Pasadena of Butler’s childhood, a self-satisfied municipality of wealth and conservative politics, served as a bedroom for Los Angeles businessmen while also proclaiming a robust identity all its own. Pasadena grew into a center of militant anticommunist conservatism and rising racial tensions as the city’s African-American population increased from roughly 3,000 in 1940 to 15,000 in 1960. More than 60 percent of Pasadena residential properties carried racially restrictive covenants, a measure actively promoted by business leaders around 1940, and many businesses followed Southern-style segregation policies into the 1950s.

An only child raised by a domestic worker mother, Butler grew up a tall, gawky, and “tiresomely shy” adolescent for whom the Pasadena public library served as a second home. The section of Pasadena and adjacent Altadena bounded by Colorado Boulevard to the south and Lake Avenue to the east made up her everyday world. The neighborhoods where Butler lived in several houses and apartments housed approximately 12,000 African Americans, 7,000 whites, and 2,000 residents of “other races.” She passed through two elementary schools and two junior high schools before graduating from John Muir High School, a massive, multiracial school where she was definitely not one of the cool kids. Butler enjoyed the support of an extended family, but she remained awkward and self-isolated: she lived in books and started to write stories in her early teens. As her friend and fellow writer Steven Barnes has commented, the adult Butler lived very much in her head, and she got an early start as an observer of the complex conflicts in her community and the nation at large. She graduated from John Muir scant weeks before the Watts Rebellion, and she could observe rising racial tensions in Pasadena while attending Pasadena City College and participating in the black student union.

Butler thus grew up in an environment where people of color were the norm, but where African Americans shared streets, parks, and schools with whites, Asian Americans, and Latinos. Given her shyness, her nearby extended family, and her mother’s insistence on participation in their Baptist church, many of Butler’s daily interactions were with people of the same race. At the same time, she dealt with white teachers, librarians, and bookstore owners, who sold her SF magazines and paperbacks. The results were mixed; some of her teachers considered her slow because of her shyness while others encouraged her writing ambitions.

Butler’s life remained spatially limited for many years — she never learned to drive. Her first foray from California occurred in 1970 when she traveled to Clarion State College in Pennsylvania to participate in a workshop for fledgling SF writers. Upon her return she moved 20 miles to West Boulevard in Los Angeles, where she lived for 18 years, regularly taking the bus to research and write at the Los Angeles Central Library, as well as to Pasadena to visit family. Butler returned to Pasadena in 1989 to live closer to her mother, taking a bungalow court on East Washington and then, thanks to increasing royalties and advances as well as the backstop of her MacArthur Fellowship, she purchased a house in Altadena in 1995 all of one block from the Pasadena city line.

Butler wrote “Child Finder,” her second professional sale, in the pressure cooker of the Clarion Workshop, and in it she reached back to Pasadena for her setting. The story centers on a woman who senses latent psionic power in children and works to sequester them from an aggressive organization of psis. Set in a seedy bungalow court that could have matched dozens of places in Butler’s familiar quadrant of the city, the story’s conflict mirrors the racial tensions that Butler experienced in childhood: the “child finder” and the young girl she hopes to protect are African Americans and the Organization are whites. At the story’s climax, several psi-active black children band together to protect the child finder and form a racially separate psi-active group.

A few years later, Butler’s home ground figured in the frame of Kindred, a touchstone novel in which a modern African-American woman is abruptly and repeatedly transported backward in time to a plantation in antebellum Maryland. The transitions between present and past make for an especially jarring effect because Dana’s life initially reads like a realization of Butler’s own aspirations. She wrote the novel in her small duplex on West Boulevard, while Dana has been living in a “sardine-can sized apartment on Crenshaw.” Dana and her new husband are able to find a pleasant house in Altadena, mirroring Butler’s own trajectory, and finding a place for all of the books creates a challenge for the characters while unpacking — notably, Dana is sorting fiction from nonfiction when she is thrown violently into the past.

Butler treated Pasadena more elaborately in Mind of My Mind, a novel she began as a teenager and published at age 30. The book details a gathering of “Patternists,” superhuman psionic adepts who can control “mutes,” as they refer to those without psionic powers, and bend them to their purposes. Early drafts placed the first scene in a fictionalized Victorville, but Pasadena’s pull proved too strong: Butler relocated the action to the artificial location “Forsyth.” Using the inside of a grocery bag, she drew a map of Forsyth that mirrors Pasadena — the actual north-south arteries of Lake and Fair Oaks are included and circled in ink to anchor the map. Other streets have conjectural equivalents: “Lago” may be Los Robles, “De Oro” may be Del Mar, and “Richmond” may be Colorado Boulevard. Lake and Fair Oaks are bus routes that Butler would have traveled, as are several of the likely equivalent streets. The map carefully identifies sections of Forsyth — old upper-class area, old section lowest class — in ways that match Pasadena’s social geography. Although the published version of Mind of My Mind used different street names, 1960s Pasadena remains recognizable as Butler’s unenthusiastic image of Forsyth: “[A] dead town. Rich people, old people, mostly white people.” The action moves between a modest duplex in the part of “Forsyth” where Butler grew up and a house easily recognizable from its Pasadena and San Marino equivalents: “[T]hree-story white stucco mansion, Spanish tile roof, great arched doorway, clusters of palm trees.”

More than simple background was at stake. Butler used Mind of My Mind to wield symbolic power over the community where she had grown up. The Patternists, like her, are outsiders, but they command great mental powers, and they make Forsyth the target of a quiet invasion. The Patternists infiltrate the city house by house and mentally compel normal people to foster their children. They take over the best section of town, repurpose the elite private school, and secretly control the city government. Butler played with the normal Forsythers’ response as she worked on the manuscript: in one discarded version, the locals resist, much as the people of Missouri and Illinois fought the Mormons. After what she apparently imagined as an anti-psi riot, Butler has one of the Forsythers rant to a reporter: “These people just aren’t like us. They … aren’t even human. … We aren’t a prejudiced people. Take a look at our schools and businesses. Black white and yellow working side by side. … It’s just a matter of whether or not we’re going to tolerate this sort of godless insanity in our midst.” As she revised, however, Butler made the interaction more subtle. Because Patternists have no outward difference from normal residents, she decided that they could quietly expand until “Forsyth, California … has been completely taken over by Patternists.” When the ordinary inhabitants finally notice, the Patternists have already entrenched themselves, superficially respectable, and able “to pass themselves off as one of Southern California’s many cults.”

Butler found capturing and controlling Pasadena by proxy an appealing idea, whether consciously or not, and she toyed with the same scenario as she struggled through many drafts to craft the story that became Parable of the Sower (1993). Sower’s protagonist, the gifted teenager Lauren Olamina, slowly realizes her capacity for leadership, but she was originally conceived in Butler’s mind as a powerful adult who has already forged a religious community under her autocratic control. In an early fragment, Olamina plans a stealthy takeover of northwestern Pasadena. Lauren can also be read as a stand-in for Butler, who describes the character’s upbringing in the neighborhood, journey to college, and subsequent return during her mid-30s while plotting the neighborhood’s conquest. Butler herself was 42 when she picked out this version on her typewriter, and she had recently moved back to Pasadena herself.

In this fragment, the city’s identity takes center stage as Lauren prepares her lieutenants to take over “a not-very-nice neighborhood in Pasadena, California.” She instructs them to look for churches and houses to purchase in the area bounded by Washington Boulevard, Woodbury Road, Fair Oaks Avenue, and Lincoln Avenue — that is, the Pasadena neighborhoods where Butler grew up. The purchases will be made under multiple names, and Lauren plans to place a few of her followers at city hall to ensure the local government continues to ignore the neighborhood. As the community grows, “eventually, we’ll take over the area across Lincoln — all the way over to the arroyo and in the other direction over to Lake Avenue.”

Octavia Butler was well aware of the problem facing a science fiction writer who tries to follow the maxim “write what you know,” given that she wrote about the unknown. As she said in a speech on publication, “Well, frankly, what I knew I considered boring. I lead an unexciting life and I wrote, at least partly, to add a little excitement.” Nevertheless, she admits, she did write what she knew, time and again: the San Fernando Valley in the final version of Parable of the Sower, the familiar No. 12 bus in “Speech Sounds,” and, of course, Pasadena. Sometime before 1970, Butler wrote in an autobiographical note that “I was born in Pasadena, California in 1947 and except for some scattered months of living in the desert just outside Victorville, I’ve lived in Pasadena ever since. This is a terrible thing to have done and I hope to leave soon, if only for Los Angeles.” As we’ve seen, her opinion changed after she made that move, but her literary response remained complex. Pasadena and Altadena provided conveniently familiar places for an author who always sought to visualize her settings in detail, but Butler also used her fiction to stake her own claim over her home ground — a place both to aspire to and to control. Fiction served as one avenue for Butler to insert herself in her community’s narrative, but not the only way. She also attended her 20-year high school reunion, made sure to list her books in her reunion bio, and participated in various Pasadena events when invited. It must have been satisfying for someone who grew up poor in Pasadena to see the Huntington Library, an elegant legacy of the white elite, so eager to acquire her papers.

Octavia Butler, a complex and compelling artist, did not fit easily into categories. She grew up a shy, bookish outlier in her own community. She built a career as a professional writer in a field where she was instantly recognizable as only the second major African-American writer, after Samuel Delany. Pasadena was home, where she grew to adulthood from 1947 to 1970, where she visited regularly from 1970 to 1989, and where she lived again until 1999. There she found support and opportunities, and there her mother lived until her death in 1996. Also there, her race, economic status, appearance, and gender made her an outsider. The ways that Octavia Butler depicted and transformed Pasadena form a window into her own thinking, but also into the power of race and class in the very real Pasadena that shaped that life. As a writer of science fiction, she imagined alternative futures in which her city’s trajectory diverges radically from its mundane development. Pasadena provided background and heritage that she processed and utilized in multiple ways, sometimes as a neutral or positive setting, and sometimes as a place she could freight with symbolic meaning, and perhaps even symbolic payback. While creating every depiction, however, she was a writer who had Pasadena on her mind.

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A longer version of this essay originally appeared in Western Historical Quarterly, 49:3 (Autumn 2018): 325-34.

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Carl Abbott is professor emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University and the author of Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them.


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