Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Don’t throw tomatoes! Kindred is my first Octavia E. Butler read.
I’m a huge advocate of reading what you want, when you want, however you want. In my humble opinion, sometimes books are bestsellers simply because of buzz and hype more so than being a quality book. This buzz may be created by great PR or just a curiosity wave of seeing something around so much that you give in an investigate. That’s certainly me. While I’m a mood reader, sometimes I experience FOMO, give in to curiosity and end up getting burned (hello, The Girl on the Train).
Having said that, sci-fi as a reading genre has never been my bag. I watch sci-fi television shows and movies, but curb sci-fi books as if I’m allergic. In a way, I am because my mind’s eye can’t comprehend what I’m reading on the page to follow along. That was the case when I read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, but even more so for A Wrinkle in Time.
Knowing my kryptonite, I never picked up an Octavia Butler novel. She’s hailed as Theeee Black Sci-Fi Queen. While I was proud that a Black woman held such a title and her books appeared on several must-read lists, I always felt a slight tinge of bookshame that I never read any work from such a revered writer.
The Universe has been nudging me to read Kindred. I visited Harriett’s Bookshop in Philly back in August. The bookshop owner’s mother, who was minding the independent Black owned bookstore that day, suggested I read it. As booknerds often do, we launched into bookchat. She suggested title after title. I told her what I’d read, own, or wasn’t interested in reading.
“My sister, you have got to read Octavia Butler. And you must start with Kindred.”
“Ok. I trust you. Point me in the right direction,” I said.
Unfortunately, they were sold out.
Weeks ago, @cultivatedreads (real name Dominique), a bookstagrammer I follow, announced she was hosting a read-along in anticipation of the series adaption airing December 13 on Hulu. I signed up, ordered a used copy from Thriftbooks, and proudly shared the cover of my copy in the Instagram chat created specifically for the read-along. Mine was different from the usual kinda-sepia toned cover, in which an oversized image of a Black woman dressed in white is looking down and at the bottom we see smaller shacks. Mine had a blue tint to it with a golden 25th Anniversary edition sticker on it. A woman stands alone in a field looking at something in the distance. I began reading on Amtrak from New York to Boston for Thanksgiving break.
Being the delinquent reader that I am, I fell behind and had at least 20-25 pages left when I logged on for the Zoom discussion Saturday morning. It didn’t help that for the first time in years, I lost a book. I missed reading time when I left my Kindred copy at a bodega during a late night stop en route home to pick up a grilled cheese sandwich. I admitted this and that I hadn’t finished, but reiterated my early thoughts that I had shared in the chat.
I was pleased that as a reader we are immediately thrust into the action. There’s no slow build up. I didn’t have to enact my rule of giving a book to page 50 to hook me of else I DNF (do not finish) it.
“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.” So begins the prologue. Wait, what? We’re losing limbs in this story?
Dana and Kevin are a young newlywed couple moving into their new, shared home, when Dana inexplicably begins to time travel. Therein lies the sci-fi aspect of the novel, but the rest of it is more historical fiction. Dana keeps going back in time, leaving 1976 Los Angeles for 1815 Maryland. At least, that’s the year of her second time hop to the antebellum south. Every time she’s summonsed to the past, what amounts as mere minutes and hours in “present” day is days, weeks, months and years in the past.
As Dana begins to navigate in the past, she comes to realize that she’s actually interacting with her ancestors, including the white family of slaveowners. She realizes that she is summoned to the past every time Rufus, whom she calls Rufe, is in danger or experiencing deep moments of distress. Somehow, she has become his guardian angel. Only problem is, sometimes Dana is the one who needs the protecting.
There were aspects of the novel that surprised me, starting with the fact that Dana’s husband Kevin, is white and that he’s actually sucked into one of these timewarps with her. It’s amazing and wonderful that he believes and supports her and even looks out for her when they go back in time together.
Another shocker is how much cruelty and actual physical abuse Dana herself, as the main character actually endures. Usually, protagonists bear witness to the worst of the events of a novel. Not in this case. Some of what she experiences breaks her, in what one could call the female version of buck breaking for female slaves. “I wasn’t getting enough time to myself. Once—God knows how long ago—I had worried that I was keeping too much distance between myself and his alien time. Now, there was no distance at all. When had I stopped acting? Why had I stopped?”
The biggest shocker of all is that Kindred turned out to be a slave narrative. All these years, I had no idea what the novel was about, let alone that it involved slavery. I’ve been saying I want to stay away from slave stories. There is more to the Black experience than re-reading and re-watching these traumatic slave stories. It gets in your psyche. All these years that I avoided Kindred is because I thought it was a straight sci-fi, containing futuristic elements. I had no clue it delved into the atrocities of slavery. Whipping, rape, selling of children. All of it.
I can’t say I’m overly excited to watch the adaptation on Hulu. Not only am I worried about how many and the lengths of artistic liberties that they’ve taken with the novel (I saw a clip with a young lady wearing earphones), but as I said before I try to stay away from slave stories. I hope that they don’t overly romanticize certain aspects of the book. For instance, as protective of Rufus as Dana was, they were not friends. Not in the least. Nor was he friends with the enslaved characters that he had known since childhood. As Rufus matured, he mirrored the mean and evil man his father was.
Kindred is a gripping novel. There isn’t a single character for whom you don’t develop feelings for, whether it’s sympathy, empathy, disgust or hatred—as strong as that word is. Even though we learn of Dana’s family’s past, we can’t help but to worry about her future.
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