Octavia E. Butler, who battled discrimination to bring a new voice into science fiction writing, is the subject of a Google Doodle honoring her 71st birthday.
“Octavia E. Butler’s legacy calls to mind the age old question of whether life imitates art, or vice versa,” Google wrote in its tribute. “Today’s Doodle honors the author’s immense contribution to the genre of science fiction, including the diverse worlds and characters she brought to life.” The Google Doodle was featured on January 22, 2018.
Butler is sometimes called the “grand dame of science fiction,” and she once described herself as “comfortably asocial — a hermit in the middle of a large city, 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.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Octavia E. Butler Faced Dyslexia & Social Anxiety But Channeled Her Energy Into Writing
Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, California. “Her extreme shyness, tall build, and mild dyslexia all contributed to young Butler’s social anxiety, which led to her spending a significant amount of time in the local library,” Google wrote.
“There, she discovered her love for science fiction. When her mother bought her a typewriter at the age of ten, Butler also discovered her passion and talent for writing.” According to her Facebook bio, Butler “was raised by her mother (a housemaid) and her grandmother.” The Los Angeles Times reports that she was the “daughter of a shoe-shiner and a maid.”
Butler’s grandmother ran a chicken farm, according to The Times, with no “electricity, telephone or running water.” In later years, her home was in Seattle.
2. Butler Triumphed Over Institutional Racism
Butler was a trailblazer in a “genre historically populated by only white male protagonists,” Google noted, adding that Butler “created characters that she, and millions of others, could identify with. She considered herself to have three central audiences — black readers, feminists, and fans of science fiction — and challenged herself to create a body of work that was accessible to all of them.”
According to The Los Angeles Times, Kindred is her best-selling book. In it, “a 20th-century African American woman is pulled back in time to the antebellum South, where she must save a white plantation owner who is her ancestor,” the newspaper reported.
Butler faced “institutional racism and segregation throughout her life, these experiences influenced her writing and thus shone a light on critical social issues,” reported Google. “She struggled for decades when her dystopian novels exploring themes of Black injustice, global warming, women’s rights and political disparity were not in commercial demand,” reads her Facebook biography. She’s credited with using the science fiction realm to expose real-life issues involving race and power imbalances.
According to her website, Butler was a highly educated woman. “She received an Associate of Arts degree in 1968 from Pasadena Community College, and also attended California State University in Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles,” her website’s biography reads. “During 1969 and 1970, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories.”
There is a scholarship in her name that provides writers of color the opportunity to attend writing workshops. The scholarship site describes her as “a brilliant African American writer who broke barriers with her courageous and profoundly truthful books and stories.”
3. Butler Was Honored Many Times for Her Work
Octavia E. Butler’s talent did not go unnoticed. “Stories including Bloodchild (1984) and the Parable series (1993-1998) resonated so strongly with readers of all backgrounds that Butler was the recipient of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards,” according to Google. Butler’s website lists 11 awards for her writing spanning the years 1980 through 2012.
“In 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, a prize which invests in those with “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits,” according to Google.
Notable books included her first story, Crossover, which was part of an anthology; Patternmaster, her first novel and part of a series; and Mind of My Mind in 1977. She was also known for Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998).
4. Butler’s Family Says She ‘Sought to Speak Truth to Power’
The Google Doodle honoring Octavia Butler contains a message from her family. “Our family is grateful and honored by the opportunity to invoke the memory of Octavia E. Butler. Her uniqueness emerged at an early age when she expressed a strong interest in the written word. It was clear, even then, that Octavia had found her destiny—she decided to pursue a career as a professional writer,” the statement reads.
“Her spirit of generosity and compassion compelled her to support the disenfranchised. She sought to speak truth to power, challenge prevailing notions and stereotypes, and empower people striving for better lives. Although we miss her, we celebrate the rich life she led and its magnitude in meaning. Today, on her birthday, it is with immense pride that we give tribute to Octavia for the magnificent gifts she bestowed upon all of us. Her legacy endures. As long as we speak her name, she lives.”
Butler once explained to The New York Times that her mother’s experiences shaped her writing, saying, “I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors. If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
5. Over the Years, Butler Worked as a Telemarketer & Potato Chip Inspector
According to her Facebook biography, times were lean early on, and Butler held different jobs to survive.
“Butler, always an early riser, woke at 2 a.m. every day to write, and then went to work as a telemarketer, potato chip inspector, and dishwasher, among other things,” the bio says. She died in 2006 at age 58 of a stroke. “At the time of her death in 2006, interest in her books was beginning to rise, and in recent years, her work has revealed its prescience and become hugely popular among all kinds of readers,” the bio notes.
Mystery writer Walter Mosley told the Los Angeles Times when she died that Butler had grown the science fiction 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.”