"Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories" at The Huntington Library

Photo of author Octavia Butler
Photo courtesy of Octavia Butler, Facebook

The Huntington Library presents the first major exhibition dedicated to award-winning author, Octavia E. Butler. On view at The Huntington from April 8 to August 7, Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories examines the life and work of the celebrated author, who was the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant and the first African American woman to garner widespread acclaim writing in that genre. Butler’s literary archive resides at The Huntington.

“She was a pioneer, a master storyteller who brought her voice—the voice of a woman of color—to science fiction,” said Natalie Russell, assistant curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington and curator of the exhibition. “Tired of stories featuring white, male heroes, she developed an alternative narrative from a very personal point of view.”

A native of Pasadena, Butler told the New York Times in a 2000 interview: “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”

The exhibition follows a roughly chronological thread and includes 100 items that reveal the writer’s early years and influences. It also highlights specific themes that repeatedly commanded her attention. An only child, Butler discovered writing very early because it suited her shy nature. The exhibition features samples of her earliest stories.

A 1954 sci-fi film, Devil Girl from Mars, inspired Butler to take on science fiction. Russell said, “She was convinced she could write a better story than the one unfolding on the screen.”

Butler enrolled in every creative writing course she could find, including classes at Pasadena City College. In the early 1970s, at a workshop for minority writers, she met famed science fiction author Harlan Ellison, who introduced her to the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop, where Butler learned to hone her craft among other like-minded writers. Butler’s first story, “Crossover,” was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology.

Following Clarion, Butler took odd jobs to support herself, writing in the early morning hours before work. But the road to success was long and slow. “In fact,” she once said, “I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.”

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Octavia E. Butler, notes on writing, “I shall be a bestselling writer…” 1988. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

On display in the exhibition will be one of the pages of motivational notes she frequently wrote to help herself stay focused on her goals: “I am a Bestselling Writer. I write Bestselling Books...Every day in every way I am researching and writing my award winning Best selling Books and short stories...Everyone of my books reaches and remains for two or more months at the top of the bestseller lists...So Be It! See To It!”

In 1975, Butler sold her first novel, Patternmaster, to Doubleday, quickly followed by Mind of My Mind and Survivor. This trio comprises part of her “Patternist” series, depicting the evolution of humanity into three distinct genetic groups. A review that's included in the exhibition lauds Patternmaster for its well-constructed plot and progressive heroine, who is “a refreshing change of pace from the old days.”

By the late 1970s, she was able to make a living on her writing alone. She won her first Hugo Award in 1985 for the short story “Speech Sounds,” followed by other awards, including a Locus and Nebula.

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Octavia E. Butler, "Kindred" (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.: 1979), first edition. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The exhibition includes examples of journal entries, photographs, and first editions of her books, including Kindred, arguably her best-known work. More fantasy than science fiction, the book involves an African American woman who travels back in time to the horrors of plantation life in pre-Civil War Maryland. “I wanted to reach people emotionally in a way that history tends not to,” Butler said about the book. Published in 1979, Kindred continues to command widespread appeal and is regularly taught in high schools and at the university level, and is frequently chosen for community-wide reading programs and book clubs.

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Anyanwu from "Wild Seed" | Photo courtesy of Octavia Butler, Facebook

Beyond race, Butler explored tensions between the sexes and worked to develop strong female characters, a hallmark of her writing. She also challenged traditional gender identity. Bloodchild, for example, is a story about a pregnant man, and the plot of Wild Seed centers on two shape-shifting—and sex-changing—characters, Doro and Anyanwu. The exhibition includes Butler's notes about the two characters as she worked to develop them.

Even with the extremes of imagination, Butler sought to meticulously research the science in her fiction, traveling to the Amazon to get a firsthand look at biological diversity there in an effort to better incorporate biology, genetics, and medicine in her work. Climate change concerned her, as did politics, the pharmaceutical industry, and a variety of social issues - she wove them all into her writing. “Her stories resonate in very powerful ways today,” said Russell. “Perhaps even more so than when they were first published.”

After Butler’s death, The Huntington became the recipient of her papers, which arrived in 2008 in two file cabinets and 35 large cartons, comprising more than 8,000 items. By the time the collection had been processed and catalogued, scholars were already clamoring for access. In the past two years, the Octavia E. Butler archive has been used nearly 1,300 times—or roughly 15 times per week—making it one of the most actively researched archives at The Huntington.

Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories 
April 8 - August 7, 2017

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino

Open Monday, Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Closed Tuesday