The Joy of Change and Discovery: Introducing Octavia E. Butler to a New Generation
In a binge-watch society, television shows and film franchises typically take on most of the public conversation in pop culture. When I was growing up, binge-watching TV shows wasn’t quite feasible with VHS tapes, but I still remember the love of finding a good author or series and consuming every bit of material I could. I can still take you to the very shelves in my high school library where the books that turned me into a voracious reader are located, waiting to be discovered. Euphoria takes on many forms, and for me, that form was ink on a page.
I will admit that I did not know the joy of author Octavia Butler until later in life, but had I found her on one of my high school library shelves, I’m sure I would have absorbed her work with the same reckless abandon as I did with so many other books as a teenager. My introduction to her occurred in college as part of another newly discovered source of euphoria, author Ursula K. Le Guin. To know these writers, to read them and consume their work, was transformative. It still is. As a writer I've seen my work change under their influence, and as a teacher, I see the same, perhaps more so with Butler. She catalyzed change for me, and now that I have brought her into my classroom, she has catalyzed change for my students as well.
At the high school where I teach, Butler has been taught before. Her short story “Speech Sounds” is often read at the sophomore level and her novel Parable of the Sower has made its way into at least one senior AP Literature and Composition class. When my colleagues Jessica Bailey, Dr. Corby Baxter, and I designed our senior-level Gothic Literature curriculum in 2020, branching off into science fiction felt natural because it was one of the many branches of what we called “The Haunting Tree,” our visualization of the roots, history and subgenres of the Gothic. Though we discussed including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, something decidedly more modern seemed appropriate after already diving headfirst into Bram Stoker's Dracula. We selected a Butler short story titled "Bloodchild" to see where the students would take it.
Our students’ initial thoughts on “Bloodchild” ran the gamut, but many of them felt scared by the story or creeped out by its horror-like aspects. This did not deter them, however, as these were the kinds of stories they desired. They are always in search of a challenge and found it in this pregnant man story. During our discussion, students found comparisons to a caste system, to reservations, and to internment camps. While a common interpretation of “Bloodchild” is slavery, the students did not settle for that single lens as it seemed almost too easy. Butler herself would likely have smiled as she didn’t think the story was about slavery either. My students then moved into theories on human trafficking and other issues that generated fear for them. Scared or creeped out, the students met Butler's challenge.
We then explored Butler’s short story "Speech Sounds," a tale of a civilization that essentially loses its ability to communicate following a global pandemic, as our second Butler reading. The students engaged with the story even more than with “Bloodchild.” Rather than only analyzing the story through discussion, we added a layer of application. I had each student create their own personal symbol, either to represent their name or to represent themselves as a person. They also had the option to forge a new identity in Butler’s communication apocalypse. The following class day, they were tasked with trying to identify each other by their symbols. The exercise proved valuable for both their critical and creative thinking, and we quickly discovered that it doubled as a community builder for our class. I could see confidence growing as the feedback from fellow students was more fulfilling than anything I could have said. This year, my students wanted to not only guess their classmates’ identities but also those in my other sections, an activity that built community across all three classes. Fun as the assignment was, I asked my seniors why we did this. They understood the application as well as the abject lesson of dealing in a world in which communication had radically changed. It was not simply a matter of finding a way to speak but also a matter of listening.
This year, I have added Butler’s full anthology Bloodchild and Other Stories to the booklist, giving students even more opportunities to explore her work. For our third story, I selected "The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” I expected this to be a greater challenge than either “Bloodchild” or “Speech Sounds” considering the darker nature of the story, but again, my students embraced the challenge with maturity and curiosity. Perhaps its take on a fictional deadly disease makes it a more prescient read, and although I had no intention for the story to become an allegory for the politics of COVID-19, my students guided the discussion in that direction. What resulted was an earnest and respectful discourse, far different from the divisive debate I expected. They didn’t solve the world’s problems in their class discussion, but, inspired by Butler’s treatment of current events through a speculative lens, they pondered the pandemic and tried to understand. For some students, this was exactly the attraction to Butler's stories.
As I lesson-planned and reviewed my notes about the fourth reading I intended to assign, it dawned on me that I could assign "Amnesty" as intended or give students the option to choose from the remaining stories in the collection. I listed them off to each class, providing one-word blurbs about the topics these stories tackled. The sign-up list soon went up and, while not an even distribution, each story found its group, even the story options I expected to fall flat. By this point in the unit, the students demonstrated not only engagement in the texts but also enthusiasm for an author who may not have been on their radar previously. Regardless of the story the student chose for the assignment, many stated they intended to read the others anyway.
On our first day of discussing Butler, I quoted one of her novels Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” In our review for an in-class essay on Butler, I reminded students of the quote and assigned a warm up exercise asking students to list every type of change they could think of. Upon sharing their lists, each section produced a collection of sixty plus seemingly innocuous types of change. In that first class after the first running of the warm up, I glanced at the board. Another change came to mind, a bit of on the fly thinking that I felt would be too good to pass up.
Turning to the class, I asked which of the changes they listed appeared in “Bloodchild.” In what they thought to be a casual review, they made their claims, presented evidence, and worked out their analysis with one another. We repeated the process with “Speech Sounds” and again with “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” By the end of our review session, the students were at the board, leading the discussion with me merely standing by to keep the rudder of the ship on course. They were charting their own waters.
Discovery. Change. Choice.
All of these stories were largely unknown quantities to the students when entering this unit with Butler. Yet, I anticipated the inspiration she would bring, a gift left to be opened. In sharing Butler with my students, not only could I watch their own discovery of new avenues in literature, I could once again experience memories of my own. This same joy runs parallel to the exhilaration of teaching at its best. If Butler can be as much of an inspiration to these students as she is to me or if she can rekindle any love for being a voracious reader, then that is a change to welcome.
Kyle Lee is also known as our Literary Hephaestion and Occasional Vocational Tumbleweed