It’s been three weeks since I read, Kindred. A fictional-memoir of 19th century slavery by African-American science fiction writer, Octavia Butler (1947-2006). The book was a gift given to me by a good friend in celebration of our 12 year transatlantic friendship. I had read online articles about Butler and her pioneering work as one of the first female African American science fiction writers before, but had never read her work, that is until three weeks ago. Although science fiction has never been my preferred choice of reading material, I was excited to read her after being introduced to American-Nigerian writer Nnedi Okarafor Who Fears Death (2010), The Book of Phoenix (2015) and many more books which left me feeling empowered, somewhat invincible and literally panting for more.
“In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn”. Octavia Butler
So that when my friend presented me with Kindred (1979), I was expecting to be lifted into even greater heights of fantasy and super-normal abilities. I excitedly texted my friend letting him know that I was reading it, his response was rather sobering; “ You’re in for a long and disturbing night.” Although his response suprised me a little, I did not think much of his warning fooling myself into thinking that once I’ve read one book about slavery I’d read them all.
“Beware: Ignorance protects itself. Ignorance promotes suspicion. Suspicion engenders fear. Fear quails, irrational and blind. Or fear looms, defiant and closed. Blind, closed, suspicious, afraid. Ignorance protects itself, and protected it grows.” Octavia Butler
It’s been three weeks since I read, Kindred, and even as I write this I am still searching for the right words to relate the experience. It’s been three weeks since I have been trying to make sense of time, this time, my time, our times. It’s been three weeks and I’m still trying to figure out exactly who and what I was before I read this book. Before I opened its pages and emerged on the on the other side, drenched, soaking wet from the muddy river, pulling myself heavily out of the water, my feet sinking into it’s slippery banks in the middle of nowhere, called to save a boy’s life through mouth to mouth recitation. Yes, I became the protagonist Dana Franklin (26) the writer who is pulled involuntarily through time and space from her cosy 1976 California home which she shares with her white husband, Kevin Franklin who is also a writer. She arrives in 1917 antebellum south, time-travelling back to a time of slavery in order to save her distant white relative Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation and slave owner until he grows up to father a daughter, Hagar, who is Dana’s ancestor.
Death and the fear of Death connects her to her ancestors
She is forced to repeatedly return to this world where she is conspicuous in every way from the way she dresses and behaves. Although she first meets Rufus as a young and insecure boy, he grows up to become as cruel as his slave master father. He also becomes obsessed with Dana whom he claims is the only person he can speak to or who understands him. Though he claims to love her, he none the less enslaves her and attempts to rape her, to possess her, to control her, to keep her from leaving him. Dana is forced to somehow maintain her identity as a strong, intelligent, free black woman in a world where women and all black people are completely subservient and owned by cruel ignorant white men. The only way for her to return home from this life of slavery is when she is literally faced with death.
“All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change. Octavia Butler
The book left me reeling. Chills ran down my spine with each turn of the page. I was, like the protagonist afflicted by nausea and dizziness which preceded Dana’s time travelling episodes. I was dumbfounded by the book. It is not so much the gratuitous description of violence and the ways in which slaves were oppressed, it is not so much the back-breaking hard work from dusk till dawn which got to me. No. It was something much worse, more insidious and overpowering, intoxicating like too much wine in the middle of a blazing hot afternoon, a sinking, helpless feeling. Here I could taste, feel, the experience of being a slave. Of being no different to an animal. A cow, which is forced to work the fields, produce offspring who are sold for profit, being milked and sucked everyday and every night. An animal which is loved much like one would love an ox that is good for business. A commodity, an investment that brings home the cheese. That is traded whenever it has lost its value. Some-thing which is discarded or maimed at will, used, abused, caressed, stroked, kissed, smothered, suffocated. An animal with rights to nothing and no one. It was as if I was reading about slavery for the first time in my life and like Dana who is the narrator of the story, had only understood it, superficially, intellectually.
“Books had not taught her why so many slaves accepted their condition, nor had books defined the kind of bravery possible in the humiliating situation of being owned” (Page 277)
I texted my friend the next day, after the book left me almost comatose. All I could say was: “My God! Such relentless torture! Enough to make me grateful for whatever pain I have experienced in my own life. A breath-taking, detailed account of human cruelty in all its imaginable forms, the most despicable of which is the one often described as love. I am dumbfounded”
The book is incomparable to anything I have read to this day in its depth. A visceral account of suffering, resilience and cruelty beyond what is psychologically reasonable for any human to endure without succumbing to utter madness. It brought to mind James Baldwin’s words which echoed repeatedly in the recesses of my mind “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive”
It’s been three weeks since I read, Kindred. A book I wish I never read. For I am now forever, changed.