Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler takes its title from one of Butler’s musings on the nature of science fiction, and of artistic creation more generally, reproduced in the book exactly as it appeared in her notebook: “What good is thinking and creating and imagining and getting off the beaten tracks, off the narrow, narrow foot paths of what ‘everybody’ is saying and doing — whoever ‘everybody’ happens to be this year. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.” It is, pointedly, “not a biography, nor is it a study of her literary legacy” — rather, it is a study of Butler’s personal emergence as a boundary-smashing writer of science fiction and as a public intellectual, from the young “Estelle” bullied by classmates and teachers alike to the self-created “Octavia” persona fiercely devoted to her creation and to her craft. It is an intimate and intensely sympathetic portrait, driven by George’s long study in the Huntington archive where Butler’s personal papers now reside and by their shared history as California natives. In particular, the book extends George’s earlier work on the “Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archives of Octavia E. Butler” (previously covered in LARB), bringing at least a taste of this magical collection (the “essential puzzle pieces of her life”) directly to people who have not yet been able to make the pilgrimage to see them in person.
Accordingly, it is a biography like few others, a free-floating, unstuck-in-time journey through Butler’s life where we are by turns learning from her as the accomplished master (the certified, bona fide Genius) she would become while simultaneously rooting for her as a young person who is still figuring it all out, full of self-doubt and scared of what failure will mean for the rest of her life. This is a literary biography, a work of creation and imagination in its own right; George is not afraid to put the reader in its subject’s mind, to intuit what her life must have felt like. It is as much a novel as it is scholarship. As we read transcriptions from Butler’s teachers’ unhelpful “corrections” and their cruel putdowns of a brilliant student who would only later understand she was dyslexic, George (and we) cannot help but beg Butler not to listen:
Each dismissal, each chastisement has a lasting effect, a paring away. Imagine them handed back, those worried-over, loose-leaf pages, turned up on a wooden desk for anyone to sneak a glimpse. Estelle’s face heats up, her eyes trained on the desktop’s grain, too afraid to look at what the marks say. Too afraid to be undone under so many eyes.
I have lived this. Know this. Your full worth and potential, calculated in mere seconds in someone’s eyes. She will persist.
And just a few pages later, almost as a kind of prayer: “Don’t get caught in that grip, Estelle. Stay the path.”
Another beautiful section is an extended study of an older Butler riding city buses in Los Angeles, the inspiration for several of her best-known stories (perhaps most famously “Speech Sounds,” which won Butler her first Hugo Award in 1984 and helped put her on the map in the industry in a new way). Butler’s artistic practice begins with incredibly simple, crucial habits: never leave the house without a notebook and a pen. People watch. Keep your eyes open. “Don’t make excuses about what you don’t have or what you would do if you did, use that energy to ‘find a way, make a way.’” The same chapter ultimately takes Butler on an especially fateful bus ride to the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, one of several L.A. County libraries she haunted from childhood on, first as a reader and then as a struggling writer; she describes her grief at the building’s destruction by fire in 1986 as watching a beloved friend (and teacher, and lover) die.
Butler was obsessed with self-help books; she copied their instructions out by hand, word for word, trying to internalize the dream of maximum self-control and self-possession they seemed to promise her. The books’ lessons led to a practice of almost-daily self-affirmation now archived in the Huntington Library, decades of instructions to herself that have frequently gone viral since the archive opened in 2013:
I shall become a bestselling writer. […] This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months (at least two). Each of my novels does this. So be it! See to it!
And later, in a different pen, reaffirming the affirmation: “I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it!”
A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky, as artistic study, ultimately has much the same inspiring effect on its reader; what it gives us is a vision of how an ordinary person facing incredible odds became not just a kind of “oracle” (as Butler is so often thought of now, in the perennially reoccurring #OctaviaKnew and #OctaviaTriedToTellUs hashtags on Twitter) but a legend in her field and an inspiration to so many. The book doesn’t play down Butler’s struggles with misogyny, poverty, and racism, and her struggle with depression and disability; one section reminds a young Butler that she’ll need “to get angry, to develop a thick skin,” while another quotes her accounting of her rent, utilities, transportation, and food expenses culminating in an instruction to find out how to get food stamps. But it doesn’t make these enemy forces the stars of the show, either. Instead Butler — Octavia, Estelle — is the hero, alongside that relentless, unquenchable drive to achieve her dream that characterized every aspect of her life. She is a force of nature. “What does it take to create a world?” George asks on the young Butler’s behalf. It isn’t much, not really: a notebook to write in, “a diary to confide it,” “a library card to advance your studies,” a bus pass, a calendar, an appetite for the news. Butler’s life was a sort of escape room puzzle, a MacGyver episode, a Robinsonade, a survival story: “With these items, she was able to will herself into being and into a person beyond her own expectations.” And so might you. Nearly every reader will find in George’s loving tribute to Butler’s career some reflections of the times they too have been told “no, you can’t,” alongside step-by-step instructions for refusing to carry that “no” — and that’s such a beautiful thing.
Butler would have been 74 this week. If she had not died so young, with so much work tragically unfinished, she might still be here to tell us all these things herself. But George’s excavation of her archive gives us a taste of what she might have said to all the people who have looked and still look to her story as a model for their own.
In my time working in her archive, I’ve come to see that some of the hurdles she barely cleared were uncannily similar, if not the very same, as many I’ve encountered in my own career. Especially those I faced starting out: breaking through tight cliques; pushing past underestimation; demanding to be seen as a full and complete person, an entity to contend with. She kept telling herself that she belonged, until she carved a place out for herself and then made room for others to follow — and, eventually, to gather. By example, she encouraged: speak on what you’ve learned. Your take is valid. You absolutely deserve to be here. Full stop.
So be it. See to it. They ought to hand this book out in schools.
Gerry Canavan is an associate professor of contemporary literature at Marquette University and the author of Octavia E. Butler.