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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Octavia E. Butler and Ruthanne Lum McCunn Session Author and Literary Works: Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler

Author Bio

Octavia E. Butler was the first African American woman to become a major science fiction author; she was also one of the best-known and most admired authors in the country. Her work reflects on many of the most pressing issues in American society, including race, religion, technology, the environment, and geopolitics. Butler’s work often predicts the future in precise terms, but she cannot be pigeonholed as a stereotypical science fiction writer since, as educator and psychologist Rosemary Stevenson points out, Butler’s “character development, human relationships, and social concerns predominate over intergalactic hardware.”

Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, California. Her father was a shoeshine man who died soon after she was born; her mother was a maid who taught her daughter to love stories and storytelling. Butler comments: “My mother read me bedtime stories until I was six years old. It was a sneak attack on her part. As soon as I really got to like the stories, she said, ‘Here’s the book. Now you read.’ She didn’t know what she was setting us both up for.”

Butler credited her mother with instilling in her a love of reading, but she credited a bad sci-fi movie for her love of writing. She explained: “I was writing my own little stories, and when I was 12, I was watching a bad science fiction movie [Devil Girl From Mars] and decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try, and I’ve been writing science fiction ever since.” Butler pursued writing in her spare time while she continued her education, earning an A.A. degree in 1968 from Pasadena City College and attending California State University, Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles. Butler further honed her writing skills in two key programs: the Open Door program of the Screenwriters Guild of America and the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.

Butler’s writing was shaped most powerfully, however, by her own dogged determination. In her essay “Furor Scribendi” (Latin for “rage for writing”), she described her path to honored professionalism: “First, forget inspiration,” she writes. “Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not … Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent … Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need … Persist.”

Butler’s persistence paid off in a long, successful career featuring several science fiction trilogies, collections of short stories, and stand-alone novels. Her work often features imaginative figures — aliens, telepaths, immortals, gene-swappers, and so forth — but it also features careful analysis of social issues and subtle psychological insights. Her work has been admired by readers and critics alike, and has garnered her numerous awards: the 1980 James Tiptree, Jr. Award for Wild Seed; Hugo Awards for “Speech Sounds” and “Bloodchild, ” in 1984 and 1985, respectively; Nebula Awards for “Bloodchild” in 1984 and Parable of the Talents in 1999; a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1995; and a PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. Parable of the Sower (1993) was both a finalist for the Nebula Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Butler wrote books that are fast-paced, surprising, and thick with social reflection. They are also fun to read. As a reviewer for the Washington Post Book World commented in an article about Parable of the Talents: “Octavia E. Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction, period … A master storyteller, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty, and ignorance and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature.”

Synopsis of Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower, the first novel of Butler’s Earthseed Trilogy, describes in diary form Lauren Oya Olamina’s quest to organize a society around Earthseed, a religion based on her own philosophies.

Olamina’s story begins just as her home, a walled-off community outside of Los Angeles, is being overrun. The protections that her family and friends have devised to keep themselves safe — wire atop guarded walls, guns, and vigilant neighborhood watches — can no longer withstand the terrors from outside the community. Poverty, starvation, global warming, and lawlessness are rampant; incomes are dwindling and few families can afford to live in their own homes. The pain in the area is almost overwhelming for Olamina, who suffers from a “hyperempathy” condition which causes her to experience the pain (and pleasure) of all those around her; she struggles simply to exist.

When her community is destroyed by “paints” — gangs of youths who live only to take drugs and set fires — Olamina escapes. She takes with her Harry and Zahra, two other survivors, who agree to start a new community based on the principles of Olamina’s philosophy, Earthseed. As the three walk the road to Northern California, others join their quest. Through some difficult struggles, Olamina and her group make their way to Mendocino, where they are able to settle into a new terrain and a new future.

Although Parable of the Sower has all the elements of a science fiction novel, Butler insists that it is one of the most realistic books she has written. “In the ‘Parable’ books, I wanted to keep everything as realistic as I could,” she says. “I didn’t want any powers, any kind of magic or fantastical elements. Even the empathy is not real — it’s delusional. I wanted to have human beings in that one book find their own way clear.” Even the fictional religion of Earthseed is, for Butler, a fairly realistic belief system. “I wanted something that I could have believed in and joined when I was 18,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be stupid or hypocritical — that happens a lot when you’re writing about religion. You’re either making fun of it, or it’s your religion and you’re trying to convert people to it, or they’re crooks. And I didn’t want to do any of that. So I have a character who, whether she’s right or wrong, truly believes in what she stands for, and she’s not trying to rook anybody.”

The future world that Butler creates in Parable of the Sower is fairly realistic, and by focusing on some of the difficulties that could arise in the next few decades, Butler throws into high relief the difficulties we are facing right now. Parable’s damaged environment, undereducated children, and insular communities — in which Olamina must keep her hyperempathy and her beliefs secret in order to be accepted — all seem terribly familiar to contemporary readers. These are, in fact, our problems, because we have not yet determined how to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the larger community.

Reading Parable of the Sower offers students an intriguing look at an alternate universe that is oddly like our own. Its drugs, schools, unemployment, crime, and environmental damage are all too familiar. But Butler is careful to point out that her world is one that can and should be changed. As she reminds her readers: “Writing novels about the future doesn’t give me any special ability to foretell the future. But it does encourage me to use our past and present behaviors as guides to the kind of world we seem to be creating.”

Audio Clip with Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower
grew out of a number of things. It grew out of the fact that I’m addicted to the news which is incredibly depressing. I listen to National Public Radio. I subscribe to a lot of magazines. So I’m stuffing myself with current events, and most of them are terrible, and I have to have something to do with them, and pouring them into novels is one of the things that I do with them. What I did when I was working on the book was look around for the things that really bothered me, things like the effect of drugs on whole populations, on the children of drug addicts, for instance.

Q & A with Octavia E. Butler

Have you had any career other than that of a writer?
I have a background in a lot of other horrible little jobs — it used to be the writer’s initiation. I did a lot of factory work, warehouse work, cleaning, food processing, clerical work. I really hated clerical work because you were supposed to pretend to enjoy it while you were doing it. You were to just smile and behave as though you really liked being there. And since I really hated being there, it didn’t work out very well. The other things that I did — blue collar, mostly — I did because they paid a little better than the clerical work and nobody cared whether you were happy to be there or not. Fortunately, it was a time when jobs were opening up to women that hadn’t been opened before. I was able to get the kind of jobs that most men didn’t want because they required — oh, say for instance — manipulating small objects and dealing with things that were fragile. And women didn’t want to do them because after you packed these objects, you had to move them around. So I wound up doing jobs like that in warehouses. I used all this, of course, in books like Kindred. I use it directly, because my character is a would-be writer and has to go through this initiation. But I wouldn’t say that I had any kind of career apart from the writing.

Did you write during that time period?
Well, let me say first, writers use everything. It’s not possible to have something happen to you and have it not affect the writing. I was getting the writing done very early in the morning. I found that I couldn’t really write after work. I would come home, as I put it, “all peopled out.” I didn’t really like working with other people, and it made me more tired, I guess, than the actual job. So I would come home, eat, go to bed, and get up at around three in the morning and do some writing until I had to go to work. And this didn’t make me a fun person to be with during the day, because I was already tired. But on the other hand, I did get some writing done. I never got anything publishable done this way. It lacked the coherence that the work needs. For me, that means that I need to be on it pretty much all the time. And the only way I could do this was to work at these jobs, save money, and buy writing time. You could actually save money then, while working for the minimum wage, if you were a single person who was willing to live in a really terrible place, which is something that I did.

What is the role of empathy in Parable of the Sower?
Power and empathy are important in Parable of the Sower, first of all in the neighborhood that my character lives in, the neighborhood that she’s born in. She’s born in a neighborhood that is similar as far as class is concerned: Everybody is pretty much middle class in an area where being middle class is the same as being rich. But people come in all colors and backgrounds, and the good thing is, I’ve lived in neighborhoods like that, and I’ve lived in neighborhoods like that that became communities. So I was able to just reach back into my own past and find the kind of thing that I really needed. As a matter of fact, in my writing, one of the things that my characters are always doing is either joining or building some kind of community. And it’s always a community of people who actually do get on together, whatever their difference is. So it’s just something that I come to naturally. You know, as far as empathy is concerned, my character actually has a disorder called “hyperempathy syndrome,” which I made up, which is a delusional disorder. She feels, on some level, that she feels the pain of other people — not in the sense of the president saying “I feel your pain,” but in the sense of actually feeling it: Somebody gets the cut and she feels the physical pain of that cut. Now, it is delusional. You know how somebody says “It’s all in your head,” and they make you feel as though that should be an answer. Well, it’s all in your hand and it doesn’t matter, it still hurts. She can be fooled — this is proof that it’s delusional. Someone who is good at acting can pretend to be hurt and cause her to feel pain. Someone who is good at concealing pain can keep it from her; even though they are in terrible pain, she doesn’t feel it because she’s not aware of their feeling it. So what she has is a kind of biological conscience. She can’t really inflict any pain that she isn’t willing to endure. This is very bad for her, because she lives in a time when, if she’s going to be attacked, she’s going to have to fight back.

I hadn’t thought of it before, but I can’t help wondering if some of this came from when I was in junior high school. When I was in junior high school, I was the tallest kid in school, as usual. So I was the target of some bullies. The problem was if you got into a fight, you got kicked out. It didn’t matter if somebody came up and punched you two or three times. If you punched them back it was a fight, and you were both kicked out. You had to really decide that it was worth it before you did anything like that. And I usually found other ways of dealing with it. But I wonder if that didn’t play right into my character having to make the same decision. I said earlier, writers use everything, everything that happens to us filters into our writing, and this is the case where something that I hadn’t really thought about for a long time seems to have filtered into my writing.

Is there a relationship between the themes and ideas of Parable of the Sower and contemporary political crises?
My characters in Parable of the Sower are living with the ecological results of our behavior. And I think I was really kind of horrified with the idea that now we’re going to ignore global warming, and we’re going to go on ignoring it. I think the big problem with a problem as big as global warming is there’s no way to fix it and then it’s done. Nothing we could do would fix it in our lifetimes, and I think this causes people, politicians, anybody, to think that, “Well, if we can’t fix it, you know, maybe we should wait and some techno-fix will be around down the line, or maybe we should ignore it, because maybe it’s natural.” Or other excuses — for instance, the SUV problem. I mean, I think it’s becoming more of a problem. The idea that large numbers of people need huge cars to get around in, huge trucks almost, truck-like cars to get around in that use more fuel, spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, [and] increase global warming. But it’s comfortable and it’s fun, and we can assure ourselves that it’s safe. And besides, we don’t see global warming happening quickly. You don’t get into your car and start the motor and something happens. It’s not even as fast as cancer and cigarettes, and there are still plenty of people who smoke because they can’t quite believe that 30 years down the line they’ll get cancer. Global warming is such a long-term problem that I don’t think we’re taking it seriously, because it’s not the kind of thing we’re built to take seriously. It’s not the kind of problem that we’re good at solving until it’s suddenly an emergency.

What is the biblical story “Parable of the Sower”?
The biblical story is actually in the book. It’s the idea of a sower going out to sow his seed, to plant his seed, and some of it falling on rocks and not sprouting, and some of it getting eaten by birds and therefore being lost, and some being choked out by weeds and being lost. But the final bit that finally did take root and grow produced ten-fold. So I have these people who have been kind of winnowed out of their communities and who go to create another community that should, if not produce ten-fold, should survive and produce something that is of use to the world.

What does Earthseed mean?
Earthseed is the religion that my character creates. And I think it’s most easily summarized by the first verse of Earthseed: “All that you touch you change, all that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” My character makes a god out of the idea of change. And not a god that you would pray to, not a god that you would look to for any sort of mercy, but simply a god that must be taken into account, and a god that is implacable. There’s no way of escaping this god. So it’s not a very comforting religion. I don’t know whether you have time for an anecdote.

When the book came out, I was being interviewed by someone who wrote for a magazine and we were talking about Earthseed, and the interviewer said she liked it. And I said, “Well it really wouldn’t work as a religion — it’s really not complete enough and it’s not comforting enough.” And she said, “Well, I don’t need my religion to be comforting.” And I said, “Well, that’s because you already are comfortable.” You know, we all are. But when times are very difficult, you know, when religion is pretty much all you’ve got to fall back on, it should be comforting.

Do you have any advice for teachers?
I think the thing that I would like most is that they do make clear to the students that this is not prophecy, this is warning. I think the most important thing I try to do in my books is make people think. One of the ways in which I got verses for the Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents was to read things I disagreed with, and that forced me to come to some kind of understanding of what I did believe.

Information About Key References

Earthseed is an original religious philosophy which posits that the ultimate purpose of the human race is to leave Earth and seek new planets to populate. The core doctrine describes God as “change,” and thus directs the adherent’s attention to the ever-fluctuating conditions of life, particularly the volatile changes experienced during the course of the novel, which begins in 2024.

The scarcity of virtually all material goods (food, clothing, blankets, etc.), has led people to recycle goods in new ways, or ultimately to use them as fuel. A character comments that poverty has made the streets cleaner, as scarcity has eliminated what was once considered trash.

Walled Communities
The urban middle class lives in gated and walled communities. In response to the hostile poor outside the gates, community residents coalesce around issues of maintaining the safety of their members.

This is the name given to those who suffer from “hyperempathy,” a condition caused by a pregnant parent’s addiction to Paracetco, a pill used for intelligence enhancement. Described as an “organic delusional syndrome,” hyperempathy causes the afflicted to acutely experience the pleasure and pain of those around them.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is part of a trilogy. Teachers can use a reader-response approach to the novels by dividing students into literature circles and having each group read a different book from the trilogy. Each group should create a series of questions gleaned from their text for the other groups to consider and respond to in writing. After the groups have responded to these questions, students should examine the responses, noting the new ideas and insights as well as the inconsistencies and missing information. In this way, the groups can see what common themes run through the trilogy and can integrate the questions into their own reading.

A cultural studies approach might include an exploration of the various sources that Butler draws on to create a certain aspect of the book, such the Earthseed religion. Students should ask themselves how this religion is like other religions they are familiar with and how it differs. As they research other religious texts, students should note how Butler has referenced, adapted, or changed aspects of various religious philosophies to create her own. By doing so, they see how writers draw upon the world around them to create new ideas.

An inquiry approach might require students to choose some aspect of the futuristic novel and trace its evolution back to the present. For example, they can examine the problems of the novel’s Los Angeles of the future — lack of technology, gated communities, poor public transportation — and find sources for these problems in today’s world. Such an inquiry might be a bit more interdisciplinary than other inquiries; students would have to conduct research in urban planning, environmental science, sociology, etc. In addition, students might look for literature with similar projections and cautions about the future. Ultimately, they can write or speak about specific steps they might take to help neutralize or rectify the conditions written about in the novel.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Butler, Octavia E. Adulthood Rites: Xenogenesis. New York: Warner Books, 1988.
This novel tells the story of Akin, the first “construct,” part human and part alien.

—-. Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.
A collection of stories and essays.

—-. Clay’s Ark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
The survivor of a spaceship crash unwittingly spreads an alien disease to the people of Earth.

—-. Dawn. New York: Warner Books, 1987.
Humans are persuaded to mate with an alien race.

—-. The Evening and the Morning and the Night. Eugene, OR: Pulphouse, 1991.
A genetic disease forces people to fight their own bodies.

—-. Imago. New York: Warner Books, 1989.
This narrative is told by the first half-human, half-alien “construct.”

—-. Kindred. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
A Los Angeles woman travels to back in time to 1815 to save a small boy.

—-. Lilith’s Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner Books, 1989.
A nomadic alien species is driven to interbreed with humans.

—-. Mind of My Mind. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
A telepath uses her mind to battle a despotic immortal.

—-. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books, 1993.
A young woman embarks on a quest to found a new society.

—-. Parable of the Talents. New York: Warner Books, 2000.
This novel continues the tale of Parable of the Sower, following the saga of Lauren Olamina’s Earthseed community.

—-. Patternmaster. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
A member of an elite group of mentally-linked telepaths battles the group’s leader for control.

—-. Survivor. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Human missionaries on a distant planet must confront the intermarriage of a human and a planet native.

—-. Wild Seed. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Two powerful shape-shifting beings become locked in a never-ending confrontation.

Works about the Author

Allison, Dorothy. “The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 471-78. New York: Meridian, 1990.
Allison explores the ways in which Butler constructs “femaleness.”

Antczak, Janice. “Octavia Butler: New Designs for a Challenging Future.” In African-American Voices In Young Adult Literature, edited by Karen Patricia Smith. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1994.
Antczak considers Butler’s dystopian visions.

Beal, Frances M. “Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia Butler.” Black Scholar, 17:2 (March 1986): 14-18.
This interview covers both biographical and creative issues.

Foster, Frances Smith. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapolation:A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 23:1 (Spring 1982): 37-49.
Foster gives an analysis of Butler’s work.

Green, Michelle Erica. “There Goes the Neighborhood.” In Utopian and Science Fiction by Women:Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donaworth and Carol A. Kolmerten, 169-75 Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
This analytic essay focuses on Butler’s fiction.

Kenan, Randall. “An Interview with Octavia Butler.” Callaloo: A Journal of African-American Arts and Letters, 14:2 (Spring 1991): 495-504.

Levy, Michael. “Green SF and Eco Feminism.” Originally published in IAFA Newsletter (Spring 1989). Reprinted in Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review Annual, 1989 Edition, edited by Robert Collins and Robert Latham. Westport, CN: Meckler, 1990.
This article reviews the work of Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress, Pamela Sargent, and Sheri S. Tepper

McCaffery, Larry. Across the Wounded Galaxies:Interviews With Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990; (54-70).
This interview with Octavia Butler focuses on her writing in the science fiction genre.

Raffel, Burton. “Genre to the Rear, Race and Gender to the Fore: The Novels of Octavia E. Butler.” Literary Review, 38 (April 1, 1995): 454.
Raffel analyzes Butler’s work in the context of contemporary fiction writing.

Salvaggio, Ruth. “Octavia Butler and the Black Science Fiction Heroine.” Black American Literature Forum, 18:2 (1984): 78-81.
This critique examines Butler’s construction of femaleness, and includes perspectives on race.

Shinn, Thelma J. “The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia Butler.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, 203-15. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.
This article addresses Butler’s fiction and her characters.

Stevenson, Rosemary. “Butler, Octavia E.” In Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, 208-10. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
Stevenson provides a brief biographical essay on Butler.

Zaki, Hoda. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies, 17:2 (1990): 239-251.
Zaki provides an analysis of the kinds of worlds imagined in Butler’s fiction.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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