Tracing Octavia Butler’s Footsteps: An Interview with Dr. Ayana A. H. Jamieson




“I SHALL BE a bestselling writer,” Octavia E. Butler scrawled on the inside cover of one of her spiral notebook journals in 1988. The statement was one of many affirmations intended to fuel the still-struggling writer’s resolve. “I will help send poor black youngsters to college,” Butler wrote. “I will get the best health care for my mother and myself. I will hire a car whenever I want or need to […] My books will be read by millions of people!”

Intensely personal and awkward, the affirmations doubled as prophecy. Less than 10 years after she wrote them, the Pasadena native, who’d already received a Hugo Award for Best Short Story, would publish four more novels and earn a Nebula award and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “genius grant.”

Today, Butler’s 13 books are indeed read by millions. What’s more, her journals and other personal papers are now being combed by scholars at The Huntington Library, to which she willed her private collection. After her unexpected death in 2006, more than 300 boxes and crates worth of material, including rough and original novel drafts, photographs, journals, personal correspondences, financial records, mementos and memorabilia, were cataloged there. But only approved doctoral students and thrice-referred researchers may access the materials.

Until now. Clockshop has spent the year opening the exclusive archives to the public in a way that only a Los Angeles art collective could do — by creative proxy via original fiction, music, visual arts, an academic lecture series, and other projects that are open to anyone who loves Butlers work or would simply like to learn more about a local artist who made it big both proverbially and literally. 

“I really hope that this project promotes and sustains Octavia Butler’s legacy in Los Angeles,” said Clockshop founder Julia Meltzer, who conceived of the yearlong “Radio Imagination” art event series. “And that it educates more people about the work that she did and how she shaped herself and wrote herself in.”

That education includes art exhibits, original scores, and a posthumous interview by essayist Lynell George, a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.

“About a month into just going into the archives and pulling boxes, I thought, ‘okay, what I need is her voice. Not her voice on the page in terms of her short stories or her novels, but her casual voice, how she would be in conversation with people,” said George, who produced a 20-page piece. I was looking specifically at letters, the journals, early diaries. And I kind of painted a portrait of her writing life, her life in Los Angeles; her dreams, her fears. Her writer’s block. What did it mean to be a writer in her definition?

This Sunday, Radio Imagination launches its penultimate event — the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Tour. Helmed by Dr. Ayana A. H. Jamieson, the December 4 tour, which will begin and end at the Radio Imagination exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, serves as a rolling guide to the places that shaped the authors’ life and writing. It highlights locales featured in many of her novels and short stories. I spoke with the OEB scholar-turned-tour guide about her extensive work with the Octavia E. Butler archives and her decision to hit the road with a tour dedicated to the woman whose best seller Parable of the Sower predicted the disassembling of NASA, the exporting of most American manufacturing jobs, the corporate sell-off of the American empire, and the presidential election of a questionable zealot.

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all-good-things-must-begin

“All good things must begin.” — Octavia Butler, journal entry

ROCHELL D. THOMAS: How did you get started in the Octavia Butler archives at The Huntington?

DR. AYANA A. H. JAMIESON: The papers became available in November 2013, I believe. I was a grad student at the time, studying depth psychology and writing my doctoral dissertation on Octavia Butler’s fiction. I’ve read everything she ever published. I’ve read unpublished drafts, any interviews available to the public through academic databases, all the short stories, in-depth historical research, census records, anything I could get my hands on. All to try and find out more about her. So when I found out from a close friend that the papers were going to go to the Huntington, I started doing research there, to sort of fact-check the intuition and the different things that I’d written in my dissertation.

So you were combing the archives before the Radio Imagination project launched?

Yes. I was writing about the mythology in Butler’s work, and I was doing that prior to the Radio Imagination campaign that Clockshop is currently running. So, I’m just a qualified researcher who has a doctorate, who gets to go to the library to access the archives.

How did you come up with the idea for the tour?

During my doctoral research, I discovered that Butler’s grave was close to where she grew up and lived. As a person who grew up here, I began to realize that the writing she had done was very connected to the geographical landscape. I would notice things driving in my neighborhood that connected to her writing. Like along the San Gabriel Mountains or through Pasadena, where I partially grew up. Then I started taking people on private tours — my close friends, or someone that I met through the Octavia Butler Legacy Network. So this tour kind of developed organically, to teach people about her life, what it was like when she lived here.

What is the Octavia Butler Legacy Network?

I founded that organization in 2011 after going to Butler’s grave and seeing that it was very unkempt. It was hidden. The headstone was misplaced because of an error at the cemetery grounds. So I founded this organization and I started to get to know people that were already reading her work and using it for something.

How was her headstone misplaced? Was it on top of the wrong grave? 

Octavia’s mother had the same first name and last name. Her mother is Octavia Margaret and she is Octavia Estelle. When her mother passed away in 1996, Octavia Butler, the writer, purchased the grave plot. So 10 years later, when she passed away and the headstone came sometime after the funeral, they plopped it down on the plot that she had purchased — that was her mother’s grave. I think someone in her family went to the cemetery and said, “This is not where the headstone was when we had the funeral.” So, probably about seven or eight years after she passed away, [cemetery management] posted a little sign that said, “Would the loved ones of Octavia Butler please go to the office?” It was almost like the thing that happened with Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, where Walker was out there looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s grave, unable to find it, and kind of pretending that she was her niece. They thought that I was Butler’s relative too, because I was visiting so frequently and making all those enquiries. 
kindred

“My town was Altadena, California, a decent enough place to live.” — from a working draft of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (formerly titled To Keep thee in All Thy Ways) ca. 1977

Octavia Butler reportedly said that she grew up in “Jim Crow California.” How does your tour capture the essence of that? 

I point out some of the Jim Crow aspects in Southern California and in this area in particular. A stretch of Fair Oaks Boulevard, adjacent to where the Armory is now, used to be a seedy and yucky place before it was gentrified. There’s a J. Crew there now, a Banana Republic and Cheesecake Factory. But 20, 25 years ago, it didn’t look like that. During her younger years, when she still had to do odd jobs and other day jobs while she was writing, Butler worked at a Broadway department store. I think that was probably at the Pasadena Mall. And it just looked different. These are all backdrops of her work and backdrops of her life. I think that people do forget that she wasn’t always an award-winning writer. She had a very working-class family. 

How many stops will you have on the tour?

There will be between three and five stops on the tour. One is her final resting place in the Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. But it’s more like the Universal Studios tour, where things are happening along the way. As we’re driving through, I’ll be talking and pointing out how it looks now, how it looked during the time when she lived there and was writing, the things that were occurring. Her high school is in the area, and her junior college. Those are some of the things that we’ll pass, as well as other landmarks. One of the primary stops will be at the exhibit at the Armory in Pasadena. There is artwork there done by writers and artists based on things that they saw in the archives.

Will you be driving through areas that were prominently featured in Parable of the Sower? 

All of Pasadena is prominently featured in Parable of the Sower, and the whole mountain range that goes from the middle of the coast all the way down into Mexico.

butler_commonplace-books

“I am owed at least three thousand dollars yet I cannot pay the rent. My utilities are about to fall behind because I must use the money I have to buy food […] What can I pawn quickly…?” — Octavia Butler, journal entry, ca. July 6, 1977–May 5, 1978 

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while going through the archives at The Huntington?

The thing that has surprised me most was really how cash poor she was. She’d journal just about every single day. She would write something in her journals and then she would work on her novels or a story or whatever. She would be doing calculations in the margins — word counts and how much she would be paid per word for something, how much money she had to get through the week, or how much or how little food she could purchase. Her shopping lists down to the penny. Which meant she had to go without a lot of things to produce the writing that we have been gifted. And it was kind of heartbreaking. And I wouldn’t use the word surprising.

The other thing that affected me very deeply came when I was doing some research on the letters between her and Toni Cade Bambara for an article for The Feminist Wire. I came across this photocopy of a greeting card she had sent her mother. The card said: “Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas, Mama. Don’t write on the check.” Octavia had a copy of the mortgage statement and the check that she had sent to pay off her mother’s mortgage. Finally, she’d had enough money. I think she’d gotten an advance on one of the Xenogenesis books, or maybe the whole series [which includes Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago]. But she’d gotten a bunch of money and that’s one of the things that she did. I found that extremely touching and so generous and so loving — that her mother would not have to worry about paying rent or a mortgage. That, to me, was really, really moving.

To do something like that is a poor writer’s dream. Thank goodness she kept a copy. 

That’s one of the beauties of the archives. When she typed up letters to people, Octavia made copies before she sent them, so that she would know what she had communicated. This is the way that she kept track of things. Even when she started using email in 1997 or 1998, she would print out the emails and file them away as communications. She would write down her phone messages and file them away. She would write down descriptions of photographs that she took while she was researching, greeting cards, birthday cards, and letters. Sometimes even revising them — she would type them up, then make hand corrections on the typed thing. She’d make more corrections. Photocopy it.

Do you think that grew out of a need to remember or her early fears of dyslexia? 

I think it was just her method. I don’t think her dyslexia was ever diagnosed. But I think she began to suspect something. There are quirks in her manuscripts and handwriting that kind of give some insight into what was going on. Like her letter T or the letter F. They look like the same letter and it’s kind of curved like the British Euro sign. That’s not all the time. But some of the time. So I don’t know if it [making copies of everything] was a conscious thing. I think it was an adaptation and the method that she used to keep everything straight. Also, when she did finally start using a computer on Parable of the Talents, stuff would get screwed up and not saved. Then she would lose her work. So she was in the habit of printing it out and saving it so that she would know where she left off. Just in case.

parable-of-the-sower_talents

Handwritten drafts of Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents

What was the first Octavia Butler book you read?

The first book I read was Parable of the Sower. The first thing that I read was called “The Second Law of Thermodynamics,” and it was a roundtable conversation led by Jewelle Gomez and featuring Octavia Butler that was in the back of the Dark Matter anthology. Then I read a short story called “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” And that was in the first series. She was one of the only writers that left notes at the end that talked about why she wrote what she wrote and what biological components underlay what she was writing about. I think it was because, by this time, people were saying, “Butler means this” and “Butler means that,” and trying to shape her so meticulously that she began to correct them, like, “No, that’s not what I meant. This story is not about slavery.”

How has her work inspired you to develop your own?

[By the time this comes out], it will have been almost a decade since I started grad school and started orienting my work toward Octavia’s. I founded the Octavia Butler Legacy Network after the experience I had with her grave, and I use social media to engage people that I would never have met, had I not had that virtual reality to stage a community space. And eventually the community space began to be funded and I acquired opportunities to have people meet in person for an exchange of ideas. For example, to have the first generation of speculative fiction writers like Jewelle Gomez and Andrea Hairston and Nisi Shawl mentor younger writers and editors like Daniel José Older. I brought them all together in a retreat situation — folks that wouldn’t necessarily end up in the same place, really making connections.

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Rochell D. Thomas has taken Octavia E. Butler’s 1983 science fiction short story, “Speech Sounds,” to heart. A former TV Guide columnist, Thomas is now a licensed speech pathologist based in New York.


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