Octavia E Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred is a deft and fluid hybridisation of the nineteenth century Neo-slave narrative and twentieth century speculative fiction. The resulting novel is a poignant and illuminating exploration of the human experience in antebellum Southern America and provides a salient meditation upon the dangers of allowing history to be forgotten or repeated. Butler’s persistent interruption of a seemingly conventional novel with ‘speculative fiction’s oldest imaginative devices, time travel’ results in a novel that speaks directly to the overarching concerns of the two presiding genres (Marisa Parham, 2009, p. 1317). In terms of the Neo-slave narrative, Butler’s text firmly problematizes the sentimentality and Romantic realism that accompanied certain texts within this genre, and it provides an insight into the antebellum South that is wholly devoid of any humanity or warmth. In terms of the science fiction genre, Butler speaks to the genre’s concerns regarding the future and the survival of mankind. Butler’s interjection throughout the Neo-slave sections of her novel with multi-dimensional time travel, something that Missy Dehn Kubitschek argues is in ‘other works [is] frequently metaphorical’, serves as a reminder of the corporeal dangers of forgetting what has gone before (2012, 107). While Butler’s mixing of literary tropes may be perceived as an exercise in narratology, within Kindred, time travel serves the greater purpose of mapping ‘the often uncanny interlocutions of race, gender, and history’ within a complex multi-dimensional narrative (Parham, 2009, p. 1317). Through this exploration of ‘race, gender and history’, Butler is able to interrogate the protagonists overwhelming fear of death and fierce desire for survival. Dimensional time travel with Kindred inverts reality; the past becomes present and the present becomes future. As such, the novel’s protagonist Dana is forced into a process of continuous self-reflection. Dana’s survival is intrinsically and biologically intertwined with the history of slavery in Maryland and as Missy Dehn Kubitschek concludes, ‘Kindred provides a literal paradigm of coming to terms with a history of slavery and oppression’ (2012, p. 218). In order to survive the present she now inhabits, Dana must come ‘to terms with…slavery and oppression’, and in doing so she is able to secure her continued survival in the future she has been removed from.
Overall, through Dana’s continued struggle with ‘slavery and oppression’, Butler demonstrates how survival under oppression is dependent upon adaptation, and adaptation can only be fully realised and achieved through a determined process of reflection, acceptance and understanding. Butler’s speculative narrative provides a platform from which these acts can be undertaken, as the reader is forced into facing the barbarous, inhumane realities of slavery. The direct transposition of a contemporary consciousness in the form of Dana into antebellum Maryland shatters the distance that can be often erected within Neo-Slave narratives, and the narrative device prevents the reader from a potential numbness to the true horrors of history. Dana ultimately serves as a simulacrum of the contemporary individual, the role the reader inhabits, whilst being transported sidelong with the narrator into an era of abject horror. It is through this that the novel is able to lay the ground work for a paradigm of survival and a schemata for shoring up ones survival in the future, principally through the process of learning and understanding what has gone before.
Within Kindred survival is essential for continued existence in both the past and future; it is the entire modus operandi of the novel’s protagonist, its tertiary characters and sinisterly the novel’s slave owning antagonist. Each character within this novel is linked simultaneously through history and blood. The novel’s secondary characters and antagonist serve as the protagonist’s biological ancestors, thus setting in motion the complicated rationale for Dana’s time travelling abilities. The biological physicality of Butler’s novel is at time violently corporeal and horrifying real—Dana is physically wrenched through time and space into slavery whilst still in full possession of her contemporary consciousness and historical understanding. She is forced to navigate the precarious and dangerous setting of the Southern plantation, all the while ensuring her own survival, that of the other enslaved characters and the novel’s central antagonist. Dana’s multi-dimensional time travelling has once again transcended Kubitschek’s arguments around the ‘frequently metaphorical’ nature of time travel. The past has simultaneously become her past and present; her survival in all time lines is wholly dependent upon the survival of those individuals around her, and metaphor gives way to Butler’s very real denouement—Dana’s biological connection to Rufus, the central slave-owning villain and the necessity of their mutually assured survival that results.
Kindred is a novel preoccupied with the implications of history and of the individual’s roles within the understanding and experiencing of historical events. Marisa Parham argues that ‘Butler insists that there is no possibility for an experience of the past outside of first-person experience’ (2009, p. 1323). While Kindred does demonstrate that a ‘first-person experience’ offers the greatest opportunity for understanding the past, it would be reductive to assume that nothing can be gained from a second hand experience of the ‘past’. Through Dana’s ‘first-person experience’ of antebellum Maryland and the horrors of human enslavement, the reader is simultaneously exposed, through this ‘pedagogical project’ of a novel, to the methods used in order to survive such a hostile and merciless environment (2009, p. 1321). The novel can then be viewed as more than the sum of its literary parts. It transcends its fictive artifice, becoming instead a guidebook on how to use the ‘past’ experiences of others in order to aid in the continued survival and progression of contemporary life.
Kindred is an essential text when considering the survival of humanity, earth-bound or otherwise, because of the centrality Butler provides to survival through education. When considered as a ‘pedagogical project’ on historical reflection as Parham concludes that it is, Kindred becomes a vital artefact for those seeking survival in an undetermined and unstable future. The repetition of certain historical events, such as the enslavement of men, women and children, is enough to bring about the same problems, tensions and disenfranchisements that are still being experienced in present day society. Marlene D. Allen affirms that Butler’s novels, Kindred included, ‘teach her readers important lessons about life, about human history, and about the many pitfalls that continually seem to ensnare the human species’ (2009, p. 1354). The ‘lessons about life…human history…[and] the many pitfalls’ that ‘ensnare’ mankind are essential lessons to learn, reflect upon and remember in order to ensure the continued survival of the ‘human species’. Upon the development of a new society, in extension to Earth, failure to heed such ‘life [and] history’ ‘lessons’ would simply restart the cycle of history again, ensuring the destruction of a fledgling society instead of its development and survival. Consideration of Kindred’s narrative lessons are of great import when the process for new life and off-planet colony building ultimately begins, and only when these lessons are fully taken to heart will one section of Earth’s bloody history be prevented from taking root again.
Allen, M.D. (2009) Octavia Butler’s “parable” novels and the “boomerang” of African American history. Callaloo: a journal of African-American and African arts and letters (online) pp.1353-1365. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.yorksj.idm.oclc.org [Accessed 30th July 2017]
Butler, O (2014) Kindred. London, Great Britain. Headline Publishing.
Nadine Flagel (2012) “It’s almost like being there”: Speculative fiction, slave narrative, and the crisis of representation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Canadian Review of American Studies, (online) pp.216-245. Available at: muse.jhu.edu [Accessed 6th August 2017]
Parham, M. (2009) Saying ‘yes’: textual traumas in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Callaloo: a journal of African-American and African arts and letters (online), pp. 1315-1331. Available at: http://www.jstor.org.yorksj.idm.oclc.org/stable/27743153 [Accessed 1st August 2017]
Tom Jackson is a PhD student in the School of Humanities, Religion and Philosophy at York St John University.