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Booklog: Kindred by Octavia Butler

I listened to an audiobook edition of Kindred by Octavia Butler. It is fucking brilliant, and really disturbing because it is about slavery and abusive relationships. It is also depressing because it's about unpleasant parts of US history. But that's not the whole story.

Dana is a young black woman writer living in the 1970s. By mechanisms that are never explained, she gets called back to the past, early nineteenth century Maryland, where she is compelled to save the life of a white boy named Rufus. He calls her back whenever his life is in danger. She is compelled to spend more and more time in the past and as Rufus grows up to become a slave-owner, she is forced to live the life of a slave, although she has privileges the other slaves don't, because Rufus understands he is dependent on her. A complicated abusive relationship develops between her and Rufus.

One might make the case that this relationship represents for the long, complicated, abusive relationship between white and black people in the US. If so then Butler may be saying that there are deep inequalities that mean we can't understand each other, and that we are mutually interdependent for survival—but not forever. Dana keeps going back into the past because Rufus is her ancestor, and she needs to make sure he stays alive long enough to father the next generation of her ancestors and free them. But after that, all bets are off.

One might also argue that the relationship stands for black people’s relationship with their own past and history. Sometimes white people say "Slavery was over 150 years ago. Why can't you just let it go?" But the history and ancestry of black Americans are necessary to their survival and can’t be forgotten.

The relationship also has plenty to say about power dynamics between men and women.

The relationship between Dana and Rufus isn't just metaphorical though, it's scarily realistic. Rufus isn’t just a symbol for white privilege. He is a carefully drawn person with a personality. Other characters are complex and react to their circumstances in a variety of specific ways. Butler is good at writing books with multiple complex, believable characters.

I found it interesting that Dana's relationship with her modern-day husband, Kevin, who is white and older than her, has very little in the way of problematic power or race dynamics. (Although they do have conversations about privilege, and in some cases it's clear that Kevin doesn't get things Dana wants him to understand, it doesn't cause a lot of resentment between them.) I can think of a number of reasons Butler might have chosen to write the book this way. Perhaps Butler wanted to focus in part on the improvement in race relations between then (pre-abolition) and now. Perhaps she believed interracial relationship would no longer have difficult power dynamics due to racism in society. (The couple receives some flak from their families but it isn't a serious problem for them.)

There are also notes of hope. Several of the characters who have cross-racial interactions gradually move toward seeing at least some people of the other race as human—that is, similar enough to themselves to attempt communication. I imagine that Butler is saying there is a human urge to see other people as equal humans, and that if there’s enough interaction between people who start out as Other to each other, eventually Similar will start to infiltrate. But there are cultural and historical and personal reasons why, in a slave-owning society, no one on either side can fully replace Other with Similar.

I found Kindred a compelling read in a way that Parable of the Talents wasn't for me.

There's a certain emotional detachment in both books, at the same time that Butler describes some horrific behavior and screwed up relationships. I'm not sure if the detachment I sense is due to the way the audiobook narrators chose to approach the works, or if I would have felt the same way if I read the books on paper. Butler's characters for the most part are survivors, whose response to suffering is to get up and go back to the work of surviving and at the same time following their dreams. So it feels as if some of the emotional hard stuff is diluted or buried in hard work. On the other hand, what this also means is that Butler anchors her stories very strongly in the work the characters do and therefore in day to day living.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
cappyhead
Apr. 13th, 2009 01:48 am (UTC)
Kindred was an assigned book for a class I took in college. After I bought my books, I flipped through Kindred, sat down in the quad & started to read. I skipped my next two classes and didn't get up until I had finished the book. I agree, it is powerfully and compellingly written. It's one of my all time favorite books.
firecat
Apr. 13th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC)
Yay!
Anita Lohar
Nov. 5th, 2017 03:29 am (UTC)
Kindred
What do you understand about the character or about the world the character inhabits in kindred? Why does Butler go to such lengths to bring together a late-20th-C Black woman and an early-19th-C White boy? Is she hopeful that these two can be good for each other or is she just setting us up for a chapter called, ominously, “The Rope”?
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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