Essay by Colby Payne
Art by Aiza Bragg
In Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred, protagonist Dana is drawn suddenly into the past, where she must repeatedly save her slave-owning ancestor Rufus to ensure her future survival. In a 1997 interview, Butler stated that her inspiration for Kindred was an interaction with a member of the Black Power movement, who blamed his ancestors “for their humility and their acceptance of disgusting behaviour on the part of employers and other people” (Rowell 51). Her intention for Kindred, Butler elaborated, was to “take a character […] back in time to some of the things that our ancestors had to go through, and see if that character survived so well with the knowledge of the present in her head” (Rowell 51). While this interview suggests a rather straightforward thought experiment, the novel’s persistent sense of irresolution and futility complicate Butler’s statements. Further, the novel’s use (and subversion) of genre expectations and incorporation of literary and historical narratives often provoke uncomfortable implications regarding our ability to communicate our experiences and understand those of others.
Throughout the novel, Dana and her husband Kevin frequently reference their familiarity with narratives of the plantation-era South, and frequently turn to such narratives when attempting to comprehend and cope with their trips to the past. However, Dana laments that there is little in the books they refer to that proves legitimately useful (48). Further, when Dana brings books to the past that she believes may help her, Rufus quickly confiscates them, further highlighting their inefficacy in aiding Dana (141). Even the Bible containing Dana’s family records neglects to mention that Rufus was white, conveying the difficulty of historical and fictional narratives in adequately capturing or aiding us to understand the past. Dana even states on two occasions, when referring to the brutality of slaveowners (48) and after reading a book about concentration camp survivors (117), that she wishes she knew less about the cruelty of the past from these historical narratives, further calling into question the value of historical and literary narratives.
Beyond the inadequacy of narratives in capturing the past, Butler suggests that engaging with historical narratives may even prove detrimental to our relationships to the past. This manifests particularly in Dana’s discomfort with how she and Kevin become “familiar, accepted, accepting” at the Weylin Plantation (97). Dana understandably questions Kevin’s assertion that the plantation isn’t as bad as he would have expected, with “no overseer. No more work than people can manage” (100); however, even Dana admits to feeling unsettled by the relative ease with which she acclimates to life on the plantation, stating that she “never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (101). Their comparisons of the Weylin Plantation’s relative lenience with the cruelty exhibited in traditional slave narratives suggests that such narratives may, in fact, lead us to diminish the lesser, yet nevertheless condemnable, elements of the past in favour of more narratively engaging, and perhaps even narratively satisfying horrors. This is perhaps as uncomfortable a suggestion for readers as it is unsettling for Dana, given that it critiques historical narratives without necessarily providing an alternate method to convey historical truths – truths which Butler’s novel suggests might be impossible to convey.
Butler further conveys this challenge through Kevin’s relationship to the past. On page 97, he says, “this could be a great time to live in. […] I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it – go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true.” This demonstrates how, although he is able to acknowledge such fictions as mythology, Kevin struggles to disentangle the realities of the past from popular narratives. While Dana’s perception of the past tends to be far less curious than Kevin’s, she nevertheless acknowledges that during most of her time in the past, she views herself merely as an observer as opposed to an active participator, partially as a form of protection (101). Perhaps, then, Butler suggests that this is how we as readers engage with fictional narratives, as well as with the historical record – merely as observers, unable to be truly drawn into the past.
It is curious, then, that Butler chose to write Kindred as a narrative that combines historical and fictional elements. Questions of genre and narrative structure further problematize Dana’s – and the reader’s – relationship to the past. By writing a science fiction text in which Dana not only possesses the ability to return to the past from the present, but also return once more to the present, Butler writes Dana’s survival into the book’s very structure, giving her a privilege which the characters who exist solely in the past lack. Furthermore, Dana’s fear of death draws her back into the present, further limiting the novel’s stakes by rendering it significantly more difficult for her life to be threatened. This strengthens the thematic significance of the futility of knowledge, given that regardless of whether the knowledge Dana holds will help her in the past, she is able to survive while those with whom she interacts on the Weylin Plantation do not have such certainty. This contributes a further sense of futility, or at the very least inevitability, to the events of the novel, which Butler establishes immediately in the novel’s prologue. The prologue opens with the line “I lost an arm on my last trip home” (1). Though the prologue may be interpreted as occurring in the middle of the novel rather than at its conclusion, it may also be read as confirmation that Dana will survive all the events that follow this opening, thus further deflating at least one facet of the novel’s tension.
The novel’s epilogue, rather than providing a sense of resolution, continues to frustrate narrative expectations; this occurs particularly through its emphasis on both the uncertainty of the fates of those at the Weylin Plantation, and the uncertainty of whether Dana’s journeys to the past truly had any impact. While there are glimmers of hope in the endurance of Dana and Kevin’s relationship, this hope is undercut by the knowledge that those whom they encountered in the past continue to suffer. When Dana and Kevin travel to Maryland and attempt to gain some semblance of closure, they find that Nigel, Carrie, and Rufus’s children Joe and Hagar were not listed as sold following Rufus’s death. However, Dana states that “everyone else was listed. Everyone” (263). Dana’s emphasis on “everyone” stresses the magnitude of this outcome, amplifying the sense that Dana’s actions were ultimately largely ineffectual. Though Dana and Kevin visit the Historical Society in an attempt to “touch solid evidence that those people existed” (264), the historical archive holds little assurance, reinforcing the futility of historical knowledge in grappling with the past. Further, though Joe and Hagar are not listed as sold, Dana and Kevin speculate that Margaret Weylin may have taken them as slaves regardless; their sole solace is in the fact that “Hagar, at least, lived long enough for the Fourteenth Amendment” (263). In addition to resisting a sense of closure at the novel’s conclusion, this exemplifies the reliance that Dana and Kevin exhibit throughout the text on a sense of foreknowledge, even as Butler simultaneously highlights the fragility of such certainties.
Butler’s statements on her inspiration for the book suggest that foreknowledge would not necessarily aid an individual were they to be cast back in time. However, the novel seems to frequently accept historical events as a form of foreknowledge. For instance, Dana attempts to use her knowledge of future events to her advantage in her relationship with Rufus, as when she lists forthcoming presidents to convince him that she is from the future (63). This is not particularly effective given that Rufus does not share Dana’s foreknowledge, and her claims thus mean little to him, suggesting that this foreknowledge, as with the forms of knowledge represented by narrative, are inadequate in coping with the past. Later in the novel, when watching a group of Black children play a game in which they imitate a slave market, Dana remarks that “the future will come whether [the children] understand it or not” (99). She expresses a similar sense of determinism when explaining to Rufus the impending abolition of slavery, saying, “that’s history. It happened whether it offends you or not” (99). However, shortly thereafter, Dana worries that, with enough foreknowledge, Rufus could alter the course of history and prevent abolition from occurring. Kindred thus not only questions the efficacy, but also the stability, of foreknowledge as a tool for Dana and Kevin to cope with the past.
Beyond the inadequacy of narrative forms and foreknowledge in the text, as well as Butler’s use of the prologue and epilogue to create a sense of inevitability and irresolution in the novel, Butler also challenges readers’ understanding of the text through Dana’s unexplained and often uncomfortable connection to Rufus. By her second visit to the future, Dana already refers to Rufus by the nickname Rufe (23), rapidly developing a deep connection to, and affection for, him despite his glaring flaws. The mechanics and depth of their connection are never entirely understood either by the reader, or by Dana herself, as demonstrated in the epilogue, in which she still feels compelled to defend him to Kevin (263). Dana says that she “could have been descended from someone much worse” (32); this again suggests that historical narratives representing the most brutal and callous slaveowners may lead us to more readily accept less immediately cruel, yet still profoundly racist and hateful, slaveowners. While Dana vows to “try to keep friendship with Rufus, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help” (68), she acknowledges nonetheless the “thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father” (68), already aware of the potential futility of her actions—yet determined to continue regardless.
The novel’s ending chapters affirm this sense of futility, with Rufus attempting to rape Dana and ultimately driving her to kill him. Dana’s attempts to influence Rufus’s development seem only to strengthen the depth of her connection to him; her realization of “how easy it would be for [her] to continue to be still and forgive him even this” (259) during the attempted rape demonstrates not only the largely futile nature of her attempts to better Rufus, but also how such attempts complicate her survival by rendering it more difficult for her to kill him, even in self-defense. This also marks another instance of Butler placing Dana in a situation in which only a person with the privilege of the present would be capable of taking such radical action against a slaveowner while retaining the ability to escape and survive. While this does not necessarily counter Butler’s concept of examining how a character with present knowledge would fare in the past, it does give her thought experiment its own sense of futility when it is the story mechanics of time travel, rather than any knowledge Dana does or does not hold, that allows her to resist and escape the cruelty of the plantation.
Alice’s death by suicide also contributes to the novel’s theme of futility, as well as the characters’ relationships to passivity. Following Alice’s death, Sarah says that she “thought [Alice] was finally settlin’ down with [Rufus] – getting not to mind so much,” to which Dana replies, “if she was, I don’t think she could have forgiven herself for it” (250). This suggests that Alice’s growing sense of her own passivity, or perhaps helplessness, towards Rufus’s rape and removal of her children, as well as the futility of her foiled attempt to escape, drove her to kill herself. The contrast between Alice’s fate and Dana’s resistance to Rufus’s attempted rape aligns strangely, even distressingly, with the perspective of the Black Panther who inspired Kindred. While the futility of Alice’s attempted escape does suggest that it was inability, not unwillingness, that prevented slaves from exhibiting more resistance, the contrast between Alice’s death and Dana’s survival implies that a character arriving from the future would, in fact, be able to resist in ways that slaves of the Antebellum South could not. However, Butler’s deployment of time travel mechanics to enable Dana’s survival suggests that resistance is only possible due to inexplicable, perhaps magical events – in other words, that it is impossible.
Butler’s incorporation of foreknowledge, particularly Dana’s reliance on foreknowledge for hopefulness, complicates the sense throughout the novel of the impossibility of resistance; this is indicated in both Dana’s and Alice’s foiled escape attempts, as well as the uncertainty as to whether any of the slaves on the Weylin Plantation were freed following Rufus’s death. Such an imposing sense of impossibility and futility is difficult to reconcile with the foreknowledge that Dana and other characters rely on so heavily throughout the novel. If, in the world of Kindred, resistance is near-impossible, but abolition is also a relative certainty, it is difficult to imagine how freedom could ever occur in this world wherein every attempt at change, every grasp for freedom, is rapidly thwarted. As professional writers, Dana and Kevin each attempt to understand their experiences in the past through writing, yet both are largely unsuccessful, with Dana recalling how she “had tried and tried and only managed to fill [her] wastebasket” (194). Beyond writing, Dana states, “I thought for a moment, tried to find the right words. If I could make [Kevin] understand, then surely he would believe me” (246) when discussing her relationship with Rufus. This further exemplifies the notion that the past cannot be captured adequately in a narrative, particularly for those who engage with the past through the prism of the present.
Butler complicates this, however, by writing the novel in the first person. In doing so, Butler implies that Dana was eventually able to capture her experience in a written narrative which combines historical and literary facets – the very forms that the novel seems to indicate are inadequate and perhaps even harmful to our understanding of the past. However, the continued questions around determinism, free will, and Dana’s perhaps inexplicably profound connection to Rufus, as well as the novel’s lack of resolution and lack of interest in the mechanics of its time travel, suggest that, though she has written an entire book about her experiences, Dana is perhaps still unable to find “the right words” to wholly capture what she endured. This would align with the emergent theme that we cannot fully convey our experiences through narratives. Such an interpretation, then, again raises the question of why Butler chose to write this novel, or a literary narrative in general, to carry out her thought experiment about a modern individual being drawn into the past; this question is inextricably linked, too, to why Dana would write her narrative despite the seeming futility of doing so.
In the same 1997 interview in which she detailed her inspiration for Kindred, Butler described her early life as a writer, which closely parallels Dana’s life prior to meeting Kevin; both worked physically demanding temporary jobs while writing in the early mornings (Butler 52-3; Rowell 60-1). This shared history, in which both Dana and Butler seem to pursue writing more as an intrinsic need than as a method for conveying their experiences, supports an argument that writing is, or should be, done primarily for the writer, rather than attempting to convey historical truths. In this case, perhaps Kindred’s status as a thought experiment is its most true form, allowing Butler to work through her own ideas and feelings without needing to provide any additional meaning for the reader. This may not be a particularly satisfactory interpretation for readers, just as the ending of Kindred offers little relief or resolution to the pain that runs through the novel. In considering a novel as complex, and at times troubling, as Kindred, perhaps the most compelling path is to view the act of writing as a tool that allows a writer to express their pain, uncertainty, and frustration, without adhering to the expectation of resolving such experiences.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Beacon Press, 1979.
Rowell, Charles H., and Octavia E. Butler. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” Callaloo, vol. 20, no. 1, 1997, pp. 47-66.