“The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”
― Octavia E. Butler,
If you were to hand me Kindred and tell me to shelve it in the appropriate section of the bookstore, I’d be stymied. It defies categorization. While it’s often billed as the first science fiction written by a black woman, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It is a novel of rich literary complexity written by a black woman; however, it’s not exactly science fiction. One of its key elements is time travel, but the book provides no pseudo scientific explanation for how that occurs. Kindred is more accurately an amalgamation of fantasy, historical fiction and slave narrative. It’s a unique and powerful story about power.
Dana, the main character, is a 26 year-old woman living in California in 1976. She has a white husband, aspires to be a writer and works degrading jobs to make ends meet. Ironically, she and her fellow temps refer to the staffing agency as the “slave market.”
One day, without any warning, she is thrust back in time to antebellum Maryland. There, she rescues a young white boy from drowning and faces down the barrel of a shotgun. Abruptly, she ends back in her own time and place. Over and over again, she travels back and forth between the two times, each time to rescue the same young man, who she learns is a slaveholder and her distant relative. She grows to understand that she needs to keep him alive long enough to father her great-grandmother.
While I had an academic understanding of how awful the treatment of slaves was, this book made me feel it on a more visceral level. Dana often admits that she, a modern woman, does not have the fortitude to endure what many of the slaves took for granted. You or I might think to ourselves, I’d never put up with that. I’d run away. The book makes it abundantly clear how impossible that would actually seem to a person caught in that world.
Kindred also explores how there can be a strange mixture of love and hate for someone who has absolute control over your life. At times, Dana experienced maternal and sisterly feelings towards the slaveholder. Many other times, she struggled with her revulsion and her need to comply.
Notably, Dana’s mission in the past was not to undermine the oppressive system. She had to endure it, like so many before her. The experience changes her utterly. It complicates her relationship with her white husband, and her family and friends. A piece of her will always be left in the past–as I think is true for anyone with such a traumatic and dehumanizing heritage.
“I began writing about power because I had so little.”
~Octavia E. Butler
Curious about Octavia Butler? Here’s a great piece on her in the Independent. An aunt told her “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers.” Fortunately for us, she ignored that advice.