As I read Octavia Butler's Kindred this weekend, two other things (besides its narrative brilliance. I couldn't put it down!) struck me: first, the amount of thorough research that most likely went into in, and secondly, it could well be the book that gets me started on a fiction writing journey.
The novel is narrated by Dana Franklin, a black woman living in California with her white husband. Both Dana and her husband are writers with varying levels of success (he's had more than she's had). The year is 1976 and they have just moved into a new home. In the midst of unpacking boxes, she is suddenly physically transported from her time to a fully functioning slave society in early 19th-century Maryland. We learn that her purpose there is to rescue a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin, who is the son of the owner of the plantation. After the rescue, she escapes back to 1976 California when her life is threatened by Rufus's father, who sees her with his son and assumes she's up to no good.
As Rufus grows from boyhood to manhood, Dana is summoned back to the past several times to save him when his life is threatened. But though several years go by in his lifetime, the longest time Dana spends away from her life in California is eight months (Yes, things do happen a lot faster in our time than they did back then). Dana and Rufus are not accidentally linked; it turns out, he is destined to be her great great grandfather, and their blood and psychic bonds give the time-travelling plot an aura of realism.
The connections between Kindred's two main settings aren't arbitrary either. California is Butler's homestate, and 1976 was a year notable for (among other notables) the uprising of blacks in Soweto over the policies of apartheid, and for the United States' 200th year of independence from the British. These two occurrences become current and past reminders of our human capacity for creating and correcting injustices. Butler's research was obviously thorough, and she stays as true to historical facts as one can bear in fiction, but the novel's triumphs lie in emotional honesties, rather than historical ones.
Dana and her husband (who joins her on one of her trips to the past) are at first observers protected by their 1976 sensibilities and general curiosities about slavery. They seem initially intrigued by questions like why didn't enslaved blacks run away or rebel more often? how did they manage to survive the horrors of their enslavement for so long? and, could a person (black woman or white male) with liberal attitudes about race in America 1976 keep those attitudes intact if he or she were placed in a 19th-century slave society? Their revelations, based on the close relationships they develop with both blacks and whites in the society to which they are transported, become our revelations. The novel's presentation of a 19th-century Maryland landscape that is dense and isolated (despite it being a border state), as well as its depiction of the complex human relationships that can be formed between abuser and abused in such a confined space, allow us these moments of revelation which we experience along with its characters.
In a 2003 interview with Writers & Books, Butler was asked about the novel's ability to get readers to feel along with its characters:
W&B: You said that Kindred was the first novel that you knew of that tried to make readers understand what it felt like to be a slave.
Butler: Not so much make a person understand, but confront a modern person with that reality of history. It’s one thing to read about it and cringe that something horrible is happening. I sent somebody into it who is a person of now, of today, and that means I kind of take the reader along and expose them in a way that the average historic novel doesn’t intend to, can’t.
And Butler's critics, for the most part, share her view about Kindred's precedence-setting ability to give readers a view of the past ( in fiction) that awakens the imagination. I came to the book 30+ years after its publication, and I certainly experienced its power to awaken.
So much so that the idea for a book of my own came to mind. But before I say what that idea is, here's the moment that got me started...
On one of her trips back to the past, Dana is asked to help Rufus (who is at that point the new owner of the plantation. His father is dead) write letters to his creditors, and she says, "I had to read several of the letters he'd received first to pick up the stilted formal style of the day. I didn't want Rufus having to face some creditor that I had angered with my twentieth-century brevity--which could come across as nineteenth-century abruptness, even discourtesy." And there my idea was born!
Now because I trust you, I'm going to share that idea with you. It's a sneak peek into my journal of good ideas (I call it "the bulb colony," because some day I hope the good stuff I write there will transport me to riches. And yes, I do have a step-by-step plan.) Read it and tell me what you think.
[From Bulb Colony, p. 44] What if I write a discourteous book of my own? But who would I target? I have to be dead-on with my attack because I don't want it to be deemed funny, or worse, playful! I want to offend, but of course, in a civil discourteous manner.... How about the snooty professor types? Now there's a lot that's always in need of an attack. I even think I could get in good with them...learn their culture well...bow low and kiss their feet, imitate them so well they'll be pleased with how well they could teach. Then I'll write, still imitating them, but gently...subtly. So that even if they notice the similarities to theirs, they'll be proud of my accomplishment. And I'll work hard at spreading their culture and peculiarities far and wide. And they'll be even prouder still. They might even create a special prize for me and praise me for my good deeds. And all the while (hopefully) they won't notice that I've made them look foolish...
Now while you're thinking about what to tell me, I suggest you read Kindred. I'm even offering a free copy (as bribery for good feedback on my book idea). So be the first to tell me my idea is great, and I'll send you a copy: (signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com).