Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1995)

To get along with God,

Consider the consequences of your behaviour

Parable of the Sower is one of the most harrowing, intense novels I’ve ever read.  I had a feeling that I shouldn’t read it while in a raw emotional state, but I picked it up one afternoon, started it and couldn’t stop.  Butler has a deceptively simple writing style that hooks you quickly and then grabs you round the throat and shakes you to your core.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another writer who has less pity on her readers.

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Poem: Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell’

I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep my eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. She published more than 20 books of poetry.

Poem: Maya Angelou, ‘A Brave And Startling Truth’

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

***

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Maya Angelou

One of my favourite poems.

Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)

Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth, p. 1.

In I682, in the area that would become the state of Virginia, an idealistic Anglo-Dutch settler named Jacob Vaark finds it difficult to make a living from farming.  He goes to collect a debt from a wealthy Portuguese settler and is persuaded against his better judgement to accept a slave in lieu of the money.

At the prompting of the child’s mother, Jacob takes little Florens (loose change) home. The child is too young to be very useful on the farm and has a liking for fine things, especially pretty shoes, but Jacob thinks that having her around may cheer up his wife, Rebecca, who has lost all her own children.   Although Rebecca is a mail-order bride from England, the marriage has turned out to be a happy one.  Jacob’s household also consists of Lina, their Native American servant, and another foundling named Sorrow, the daughter of a ship’s captain, who is so traumatised by the shipwreck that killed everyone she knew that she appears to be simple-minded.

Jacob’s last significant act in the novel is to invest in the sugar trade. As Tim Adams observes in his review, this is appropriate because it symbolises “The moment when the engine of capitalism in the New World would be slave labour in distant lands”.  He makes his money, but he dies of smallpox before he can occupy the luxurious house he has been using it to build.

This is the point at which the narrative of A Mercy opens.  Florens, now aged sixteen, is despatched in search of help for her mistress who has also fallen sick with small pox.  Without male protection the women left at the farm are profoundly vulnerable.  If Rebecca dies, Florens, Lina and Sorrow will have no legal status. Florens sets out in search of a free black man who has worked for the family before as a blacksmith and shown skill with healing sick people.  It’s a dangerous journey, but she is sent partly because the other women know that she’s in love with the blacksmith and believe that her passion will make her determined to reach him.

Reviewers have called A Mercy a prequel to Morrison’s most famous novel Beloved, but I think it can be read as a prequel to all her earlier novels because it takes a step back and looks at the historical context that has produced all of her work.  It is set at a period when North America was in a state of flux, a dangerous time, but also a time of possibility. Through the microcosm of one family, A Mercy traces how the possibilities become fixed in certain ways. It’s a parable about how America got to where it is.  In particular, it’s an indictment of the toxic mixture of capitalism and certain kinds of religious expression that have shaped American history.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the story is set in Virginia, a colony founded by a company given a charter by James I to exploit the resources of the area.  And in the most frightening part of the book, Florens finds herself in a puritan settlement and stays at the house of a widow who’s daughter is under suspicion of witchcraft.

A Mercy is also a book about trauma and how historical trauma has shaped relationships between women. The character of Sorrow embodies the trauma that all the women have experienced – Rebecca, in the horrors of poverty in England, Lina in the death of her entire tribe from the smallpox bought by settlers, and Florens by her belief that her mother gave her away so that she could keep her baby son.  Morrison seems to be unravelling some of the structures that have prevented women from supporting one another.

To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.

Morrison gives the last shattering chapter to Florens’s mother, allowing her to explain why she asked Jacob to take her daughter.

A Mercy is Toni Morrison’s ninth book and reviewers seem divided as to how good it is.  But when you’re talking about a writer of Morrison’s level and the question is whether a book is ‘brilliant’ or only ‘very good’, the conversation does seem a little silly to me.  What’s incredible about the book is the amount of history that she packs into 165 pages and how elegantly she manages the material.  I don’t think it’s her best book, but it’s one of her most poetic, one to read, savour, think about, and read again.

Interesting review from Anita Sethi here.

Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

This collection reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

Octavia E. Butler, Lilith’s Brood (1987 – 1989)

Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) is one of the best known African American writers of science fiction.  Her series, Lilith’s Brood, also known as the ‘Xenogenesis Trilogy’, contains three short novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago.

Earth has been all but destroyed by nuclear war. A passing alien race in need of an infusion of new genetic material rescue the few surviving humans, put them in stasis, and set about restoring the planet. These aliens, specialists in genetic manipulation, decide that humanity is doomed by a hereditary conflict between intelligence and hierarchical impulses, a conflict which will inevitably propel the species towards self-destruction. Coming to the conclusion that allowing human beings to continue as they are unaltered would be tantamount to murdering them, the aliens decide to put an end this conflict   When the humans are revived many years later they find that a terrible bargain has been struck without their consent and are confronted with a choice of two horrific options: breed with the aliens to create a new race of beings, or be sterilised and live out long, childless lives.

Having read Butler’s collection of short stories, Bloodchild, and her novel Kindred, I was expecting something challenging and disturbing from Lillith’s Brood and I wasn’t disappointed.  Butler is a totally uncompromising writer who makes no concessions whatsoever to the reader’s feelings.  A lot of people seem to find Lilith’s Brood an uncomfortable read and I think it’s supposed to be precisely that.  Butler is primarily a science fiction writer, but much of her work can also be placed in the horror genre, as she forces us into direct confrontation with social taboos and highly disturbing power dynamics.  She pushes her ideas to their logical conclusion and you get the feeling that she doesn’t give a shit about whether her writing is upsetting you or not; her job is to tell the story she set out to tell.  This is one of the reasons why she’s a great writer.

I’ve noticed in other works that Butler seems particularly interested in exploring how people might respond to being caught in situations they can’t escape from – what kind of compromises might they make?  In the first book, Dawn, a young woman named Lilith Iapo is awoken by the aliens only to be given the job of awakening other humans and preparing them for their fate.  Lilith is utterly trapped – if she refuses, someone else will be chosen; if she agrees, she betrays her own people.  She collaborates in the hopes that some of the people she awakes will resist and that she’ll have a better chance than others would of teaching them how to survive.  The price is that she becomes a scapegoat and is forever viewed with suspicion and loathing by other humans.

A lesser writer than Butler would have focussed on the story of the human resisters who refuse to collaborate with the aliens, because that would have been a much easier story to tell, but Butler is not interested in easy.  By telling the story mainly from the point of view of Lilith and her half-alien children (or “constructs”), she does something much more challenging.  She makes us empathise with those who are, for whatever reasons, unable to resist.  We all like to think we would be the rebels don’t we? But would we, really? She doesn’t allow us the relief of identification with the resisters and makes no effort to romanticise them. Their grievance is acknowledged as justified, but most of them quickly confirm the aliens worst suspicions, descending into murder, rape, theft and the kidnap of the half-alien children.  Perhaps these behaviours are due to their being oppressed by the aliens, but Butler seems to be asking whether these behaviours are inherent to humans.  Nor does she allow us the comfort of reading about aliens who are physically attractive or “like us”.  The Oankali are grotesque, grey-skinned, tentacled beings. Their species has three sexes: male, female and Ooloi, and every marriage (or, as they would call it, “mating”) involves at least five people. They are utterly unable to understand the pain they are inflicting on the humans – it just doesn’t make sense to them because they believe that they are being benevolent.  However, Butler doesn’t represent the Oankali as evil, or allow us simply to hate them – some of them are the most interesting characters in the book, especially Nikanj the Ooloi with whom Lilith has an ambivalent, symbiotic relationship.

The second and third books, Adulthood Rites and Imago continue to work out these themes through the stories of Lilith’s children; first Akin, who with some success attempts to champion the cause of the resisters, and then Jodahs who metamorphoses into the first human/Oankali construct Ooloi.

Lilith’s Brood could be interpreted on several levels.  It could be an allegory about slavery and colonialism, although saying this would probably have annoyed Butler. It may be mainly about her interest in the possibilities of genetics.  There’s clearly a lot going on with gender, since we have an alien race with three sexes. However you read it, it’s very much a product of the mid 1980s, a period during which people really thought nuclear war was imminent and the future of human race seemed highly uncertain.  Butler uses the alien Oankali to ask the then pertinent question of what the hell to do with a species that seems bent on destroying itself?

A classic of science fiction.

Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble (1984)

In Love and Trouble contains thirteen haunting stories about the inner lives of black women in which Alice Walker sets out to undermine black female literary stereotypes.   It’s a powerful and, at times, horrifying collection with persistent themes of cruelty, betrayal, mutilation, vengeance and death.

‘Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?’ tells the story of an aspiring female writer who goes mad after being betrayed by the male lover who steals her work and publishes it under his own name.  The stolen story, which is about a woman who loses her leg in an accident caused by her neglectful husband and who then hangs herself, seems to be a metaphor for the mutilation and destruction of black female creativity within a racist, patriarchal world.

‘Her Sweet Jerome’ is a horrible story about a working-class black woman who marries a teacher.  He neglects her and she becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the ‘other woman’, only to discover that he hasn’t betrayed her for a woman at all, but rather for a revolutionary politics that she doesn’t understand. So she burns his books and sets fire to herself in the process in an ending symbolic of the self-immolation that was her devotion to a cruel and arrogant man.

One of the most horrific, and yet poetic stories, is ‘The Child who Favoured Daughter’, in which a father mutilates his daughter when he finds out that she has a white lover.  The ending is going to stay with me for a long time.

‘The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff’ (based on Alice Walker’s mother’s experiences during the depression), is a tremendous story about an old black woman who attempts to use voodoo to get revenge on the white woman whose mean refusal to give her food stamps resulted in the deaths of her children.  The story makes the point that guilt itself is the real curse on the white woman; it’s the guilt that makes the voodoo work.

In ‘Strong Horse Tea’, a desperate woman with a dying child is forced to fall back on the folk medicine she’s rejected when she realises that her requests for a doctor have gone ignored. And in ‘The Flowers’ a little girl loses her innocence when she comes across the bones of a lynched man, stepping (in a sickening moment) ‘smack into his eyes’.

I think my favourite story is ‘Everyday Use’.  A poor female sharecropper has two adult daughters. The oldest has left home, gone to university, got involved in the civil rights movement, visited Africa and changed her name.  The youngest has been terribly scarred (more mutilation) both physically and psychologically by a fire that burnt down their house when she was a child.  One day, the older sister comes to visit with her smart boyfriend and demands two handmade family quilts that the mother had been saving for her younger daughter’s marriage.  The older sister argues that the younger girl shouldn’t have them because she’ll only put them to ‘everyday use’ when they should really be displayed on a wall. The mother finally stands up to her daughter and insists on giving the quilts to the younger one — an action that heals their damaged relationship. The two daughters are doubles and the story can be interpreted in various ways.  Is the burned, scarred girl the damaged part of the self that’s been left behind by the educated, fashionable sister?  Do the quilts represent the heritage that woman like the older sister (who got out and got educated) must leave behind? Perhaps the loss of the ‘quilts’ is the price of getting out? It’s interesting to note that Walker herself was scarred in a childhood accident and felt that she was hideously ugly, but that she also got out, got an education and became involved in feminism and civil rights. In a sense, I think that she’s both women in this story and seems to be making peace with the scared, scarred, shy part of herself.

After so much intense, painful stuff, the collection ends with a gentle, moving story called ‘To Hell with Dying’ about a woman’s sense of responsibility for Mr Sweet, the old drunken neighbour who played with her as a child.  She had the job of reviving him whenever he took it upon himself to die, but her magic can’t work forever.

It’s well worth reading this collection alongside Walker’s non-fiction book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1984) where she gives a lot of background to these stories in her essays about her upbringing as the daughter of poor sharecropping farmers, the suppression of black female creativity, the need for black women writers to challenge myths and stereotypes, and the writers that influenced her work — Flannery O’ Connor, Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston in particular.