The Huntington presents the first major exhibition on the life of award-winning author Octavia E. Butler
A new exhibition opening this spring examines the life and work of celebrated author Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award and the first African American woman to win widespread recognition writing in that genre. Butler’s literary archive resides at The Huntington.
“She was a pioneer, a master storyteller who brought her voice—the voice of a woman of color—to science fiction,” said Natalie Russell, assistant curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington and curator of the exhibition. “Tired of stories featuring white, male heroes, she developed an alternative narrative from a very personal point of view.”
Butler, a Pasadena, CA, native, told the New York Times in a 2000 interview: “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only Black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”
The exhibition follows a roughly chronological thread and includes approximately 100 items that reveal the writer’s early years and influences. It also highlights specific themes that repeatedly commanded her attention. Butler was born June 22, 1947, to a maid and a shoeshine man. Her father died when she was quite young. An only child, she discovered writing very early because it suited her shy nature. The exhibition will feature samples of her earliest stories.
The exhibition will include examples of journal entries, photographs, and first editions of her books, including Kindred, arguably her best-known work. The book is less science fiction and more fantasy, involving an African American woman who travels back in time to the horrors of plantation life in pre-Civil War Maryland. “I wanted to reach people emotionally in a way that history tends not to,” Butler said about the book. Published in 1979, Kindred continues to command widespread appeal and is regularly taught in high schools and at the university level, and is frequently chosen for community-wide reading programs and book clubs.
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