Just two years ago, Octavia E. Butler wrote in her autobiography, "I'm a 56-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm also comfortably asocial – a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles – a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."
Unfortunately, Butler died alone at her Seattle home – 22 years too soon. Her death on Feb. 24, after falling and hitting her head outside her home, has stunned those who loved her work. She was 58.
As an African American woman, Butler claimed her space in a literary universe dominated by white men – science fiction. She suffered the pain of rejection for many years before finally winning science fiction's most prestigious awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She picked up several additional honors during her years, including a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
Mystery writer Walter Mosley told the Los Angeles Times that Butler expanded the genre "by writing a kind of fiction that African American women around the country could read and understand both technically and emotionally … She wasn't writing romance or feel-good novels, she was writing very difficult, brilliant work."
Kindred, one of Butler's 12 stunning, thought-provoking novels, is the story of a 20th century African American woman, Dana, who is pulled back through time to find herself in the antebellum South to save her great-great-grandfather Rufus, a white plantation owner. Dana learns more about the complex nature of slavery and the struggles of African Americans to survive it. The result is a powerful and accessible story that resembles a historical slave narrative – but one told from a modern perspective and in a modern voice.
Born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Butler was known to her family and friends as Junie. She found refuge in writing because it was a place where she was freed from whatever troubled her.
"The major tragedies in life, there's just no compensation," Butler told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, "but the minor ones you can always write about. It's my way of dealing, and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than psychiatrists. The story, you see, will get you through."
Dan Simon, founder of Seven Stories Publishing, said he felt a relationship with her work that was deeply personal and startling. Butler's latest novel, Fledgling, published by Seven Stories, would be the novel that ended a long stint of writer's block caused, in part, by illness and the effect of medication, according to Simon. It was reported that Butler suffered from congestive heart disease.
Butler was a powerful presence: tall and striking, with a deep voice. She will be missed, most of all by the fans that have followed her work throughout her lifetime.