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Once upon a time, there was a shy, dreamy kid who wouldn’t stop writing. Her name was Octavia—a girl with social anxiety and dyslexia who wrote some of the most amazing science-fiction novels about wild futures, space adventures, and superhuman people. She wrote more than a dozen books and is now known as the Grand Dame of Science Fiction.
After earning a college degree in Human Biology from the University of Toronto, Amita Parikh moved to London where she completed the six-month Curtis Brown Creative Writing Course, the Royal Court Theatre’s Writer’s Programme, and was a runner-up in the 2019 Jericho Writer’s Bursary Competition for underrepresented writers. Her debut historical fiction novel, The Circus Train, will be published in multiple countries in 2022. When she’s not writing, she works as a marketer and developer in the tech industry and produces and hosts a podcast about women and girls in sport.
|Once upon a time… there was a shy, dreamy kid who grew up immersed in a fantastic world of science fiction.
Her name… was Octavia.
Octavia was obsessed with superheroes and fantasy people living impossible and interesting lives. People could fly, communicate with animals, change shapes, and control people’s minds.
In 1951, At age four, in Pasadena, California, Octavia laid on the scratchy braided rug in the living room alone. Her mother was at work cleaning peoples’ houses, and her grandmother was cooking up something that smelled delicious in the kitchen.
She rested her skinny back against the couch and thought about the last time her mother had a day off. They’d gone to the carnival and she was drawn to the sleek, muscled animals in a small, dusty pen. Her eyes were wide with wonder as she watched the horses do incredible tricks.
One stubborn horse didn’t want to rear up on its hind legs. A whip cracked and Octavia jumped. The horse looked scared. When she looked closer, they all looked a little tired, sad, and grumpy. She thought they’d rather be running free in a nice green field instead.
In a dreamy voice, Octavia began her story.
“Once upon a time,” she whispered, “there were lots of special horses. They could turn into anything. They sprouted wings and flew away from the mean carnival. And they were free.”
This was just one story, but Octavia would grow up to be a writing legend.
I’m Amita Parikh. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode: Octavia Butler. The grand dame of science fiction who changed the genre forever.
A twelve-year-old Octavia sat in a dark theater that smelled like buttery popcorn. The velvet curtains on the walls seemed to whisper with all the stories they’d seen. As people sat down, the seats clacked and squeaked.
The white screen glowed as the movie began. A large, white flying saucer descended onto the black and white landscape. A man shouted into a telephone, calling for help. Octavia craned her neck so she could see better over the tall people in front. The film started and the words scrolled across the screen: “The Devil Girl From Mars.”
The alien woman, dressed in a long black cape, came to capture people. If they didn’t come with her, she reduced them to dust with her laser gun. Her robot sidekick that looked like an over-size refrigerator waddled across the screen.
As Octavia watched, her nose wrinkled and her brow furrowed. This was awful. The movie was full of cliches and plot holes and things that didn’t make sense.
“Geez,” she thought to herself. “Anybody could write a better story than this. Somebody got paid for writing this?”
That night, Octavia went home and started writing her first short story. She was a slow reader and an even slower writer, but she was determined to put her jumbled thoughts onto paper.
Everything she’d read before swirled up inside her: magazines, superhero comics, children’s books, and classic science fiction novels. She wrote about a girl named Silver Star who met a charming alien from Mars named Flash. Octavia’s characters went on an exciting adventure around the solar system and zoomed faster than the speed of light.
Octavia submitted her first story at age thirteen. These early stories were rough, and none of the magazines she submitted to wanted to publish her work. She wasn’t discouraged. She kept on writing.
These early stories contained worlds and characters that would turn into epic novels that the world loved.
Octavia had lots of ideas, but writing them down was difficult. And she loved to read, but it was slow going. It didn’t matter how many grammar books she read or how many writing and reading classes she took. She had a learning disability called dyslexia.
When she looked down at the page, the letters wiggled around. Sometimes the letters looked the same to her or flipped upside down. She stumbled over her words when she read out loud in school. It didn’t help that she was very, very shy around people.
Teachers were frustrated with her, so they hardly ever called out on her. Other kids teased her and giggled about her spelling mistakes. She didn’t have many friends.
Octavia wasn’t stupid. She just needed more time than other people. Listening to audiobooks or hearing someone read outloud was easier. But that didn’t work all the time.
Being a slow reader and writer meant Octavia really chewed the words. She rolled ideas around in her head like marbles and savored them.
One day, Octavia’s mother bought her a typewriter. Her face lit up with glee. She ran her fingers across the keys and imagined herself typing a mile a minute.
“It’s so you can practice being a secretary,” her mom said.
“Or a teacher,” her grandmother added.
“I’m going to be a writer,” Octavia said shyly.
“Honey,” her aunt said,” black people can’t be writers.”
Those words really hurt. Octavia would not stop writing. She typed up positive notes to encourage herself when nobody else would.
“You will write every day.”
“You will write a great book.”
“You will become a bestselling author.”
By saying these affirmations, she would will them into existence.
Octavia made it through college, and her passion for writing only grew.
She wrote chilling horror stories full of aliens, mutants, space travel, religious fanatics, vampires, time travelers, shape changers, and people with special powers of telekinesis who could move things with a mere thought.
None of her characters were perfect. She didn’t believe in a world with happy endings. There were no bad guys or good guys. Her characters were all flawed and messy, all fighting to survive.
Not everybody appreciated her stories.
“Can’t you write anything normal?” one professor asked her in exasperation.
Octavia shrugged. She liked her abnormal stories. She just hadn’t met the right people yet who would appreciate them.
In 1969, she met Harlan Ellison, a successful science fiction author. He invited her to the prestigious Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop in Pennsylvania.
Octavia had been born and raised in California. She’d never traveled outside her home state. She stared out the window of the greyhound bus in awe and scribbled down notes about absolutely everything.
The Clarion workshop was brutal.
Every night, Harlan demanded that each writer churn out a whole story at rapid speed. Octavia had a hard time keeping up with the whirlwind pace. She shuffled into the workshops yawning because she’d stayed up late and gotten up early.
Octavia felt out of place as a six-foot-tall Black woman with a deep voice. She wanted nothing better than to disappear, but she stood out because of her height and because she was the only Black person there. She was lonely, but she also had trouble talking to people.
Despite her shyness, Octavia managed to sell not one but two stories. And she made life-long friends who also shared her passion for sci-fi.
Octavia drummed her fingers on the desk. It was so early it was still dark outside.
She scrubbed a hand over her face and looked down at what she’d written. In frustration, she tugged the paper out and crumpled it up. “No good,” she muttered.
She looked down at the legal pad and made a mark in red. Then she began again with a fresh sheet of paper. One finger at a time, she carefully pressed the typewriter keys. With each click, an inky black letter appeared on the clean white paper. When the letter’s reached the right edge of the page, she slid it back to the left to start the next line.
A few hours later, Octavia had added a few crisp sheets to a thick pile beside her. Now, it was time to get ready for her paying job.
Octavia’s life wasn’t going so great. She hadn’t sold a story in six years. She had tons of student loans. She worked so many jobs she was constantly exhausted—Some of her job titles were potato chip inspector, warehouse worker, telemarketer, and dishwasher. But at least she had her own apartment and her writing.
Octavia’s mind never stopped working. She wrote and rewrote each story, putting her characters in wilder situations than anyone could imagine. Her short stories spiraled into longer and longer epic journeys until they were as long as novels. And then they turned into a series. Then two series. Then three.
Publishers didn’t seem interested in any of them. She received many rejection letters.
In December of 1975, the mail carrier slipped a thick white envelope into Octavia’s mailbox from Doubleday publishing house. They wanted to publish her first novel Patternmaster.
Octavia could barely believe her eyes. Her hands shook a little while she took in the words. At age 29, she’d finally done it. She would finally be a published author.
Her happiness in that moment was overwhelming.
A middle-aged Octavia stood in front of a crowd full of adoring fans. She wore a shirt with a bright pattern on it, dangly earrings, and wide, round glasses. Her hair was cut down in a short afro that was easy to manage. The whole thing felt like reading out loud when she was a kid in school.
No matter how many times she spoke in front of people, her heart beat fast and her palms were sweaty. What if I mess up? she thought. What if my reading is too slow for them?
The audience waited on the edge of their seats, breathlessly waiting for their favorite author to speak. The echoey lecture hall was silent for a long moment.
Then, someone blurted out a question: “Why did you start writing?”
Octavia answered in her deep, melodious voice: “I was a strange kid who learned to stay by herself and make things up. I began writing about power because I have so little.”
Octavia fielded question after question about her writing, her process, and her books. Some were easy and some were not.
One question stumped her a bit. “How many more books will you write?”
By now, she had published twelve novels and nine short stories using her wild imagination. Her famous Xenogenesis series explored aliens, space travel, and the creation of a new alien-human hybrid race. Her book Kindred about a time traveling woman was known the world over. She’d won all sorts of awards and prizes for her work.
Publishing houses were excited for her next masterpiece. Octavia had started mapping out at least another two novels to her famous post apocalyptic series called “The Parables.” And she’d planned a sequel to her vampire book Fledgeling.
Octavia didn’t ever plan on slowing down.
Octavia passed away in 2006 at age 58.
Octavia’s books would reshape the entire landscape of science-fiction and introduce topics like race, class, gender, and genetics. Today, Octavia’s book Parable of the Sower and Kindred are so popular that they’ve been turned into graphic novels. Kindred is set to become a television show. Most importantly, her work inspires all aspiring science fiction writers everywhere.
The shy, dreamy kid from her childhood had become a science fiction legend.