- Guest Editors' IntroductionPalimpsests in the Life and Work of Octavia E. Butler
Award winning author Octavia E. Butler crafted a life as unique as any of her stories. Regarded as the grand dame of Afrofuturism, Butler is also the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant for her fiction and nonfiction writing.1 Born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, June 22, 2017 would have been her seventieth birthday. As one of the first recognizable black feminist science fiction writers to date, Butler had an illustrious career despite lackluster grades in primary school. She set her intention to become a writer at an early age and worked diligently to propel herself forward. She developed a process that she called "positive obsession" and wrote every day to advance her craft.2 She wrote at least sixteen novels (including a few that have never been published), short stories, and essays, and is heralded as one of the most influential black speculative fiction writers in the world. This special issue of Palimpsest celebrates her life and legacy by introducing and bringing to the fore scholarly work that is inspired by her science fiction.
Palimpsest was the obvious choice for this special issue as the palimpsest is an implicit theme in Butler's work. Palimpsest describes the traces of previously erased writing that show through in the newest versions of the work. We see this practice in Butler's writing with historical texts, concepts, and conventions bleeding through to the present and into the future through time travel, genetic ancestry, and muscle memory.
Stranger Than Fiction: Palimpsestic Memorialization in the Life and Writing of Octavia E. Butler
We examine the threads and traces from Butler's real life to their expression on the pages of her novels and other writings. Moya has called this palimpsestic memorialization, a process of reconstituting personal history into a fantastic [End Page v] multivalent narrative that can be abstracted and safely shared. We utilize our shared explorations into Butler's self-curated archive at the Huntington Library and the way it reveals her talent for weaving real life into fiction and memory into archetype. Likewise, the physical circumambulation of geopolitical locations in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and Southern California in Butler's life and writing also constitute the necessity for a palimpsestuous investigation of her life and work as inextricable from one another. To that end, Ayana has employed the term palimpsestuous to signify ways that Butler's life and work are palimpsestic and incestuous in relationship to and with one another and with collective history.3 In this current iteration of our overlapping collaboration, we use both terms to mirror, support, and amplify one another and palimpsestuous memorialization emerges.
Her stories are strange and sometimes do have the requisite aliens and other worlds one might expect from speculative fiction or fantasy. But more often than not, her work concerns itself with the human problem, with the ways that humans' dual nature as both intelligent and hierarchical beings dooms them/us to destruction in an infinite number of ways. She explores biological, epidemiological, divine, alien, and human interventions into our most harmful and persistent patterns of behavior.
It is, however, through Butler's own life that we see the author herself as very much embroiled in these questions of humanity. How does she navigate the differences between herself, her classmates, and family? How does she negotiate the very real impact of hierarchies of race and gender that inform how she is treated in society on a daily basis?
We've explored the ways that Octavia Butler, as a theorist in praxis, struggles with these concerns as we make connections between her written work and her lived experiences. In the eight thousand-plus items in the Octavia E. Butler Collection of manuscripts housed at the Huntington Library, it appears that Butler kept everything.4 Not only are her own notes, journals, diaries, letters, and other ephemera catalogued therein, but also the photocopies of greeting cards, letters and other correspondence she typed out or handwrote to other...