Octavia E. Butler Writing Lessons

A few artists on how the author’s work has inspired them.

Octavia E. Butler in front of her home, 1988. Photo: Miriam Berkley
Octavia E. Butler in front of her home, 1988. Photo: Miriam Berkley

In her lifetime, Octavia E. Butler penned over a dozen books and short stories that varied in style and scope. Kindred follows a young Black woman and writer who travels between 1970s California and an antebellum Maryland plantation; Parable of the Sower is a postapocalyptic science-fiction novel; Fledgling unpacks racial hierarchies through a fast-paced vampire narrative that is equally violent and sensual. Her work often returns to a few key themes: environmental apocalypse, the enduring legacy of racism, and the power of organized communities to survive no matter what the conditions. Despite the heaviness of her narratives, they never read that way. Her stories feel imbued with optimism: Her characters are curious, resilient, and community-oriented, always fighting for a brighter world no matter how dark the one they live in becomes. Here, a few artists explain how she’s inspired them in their own work and what they’ve learned from the Butler school of writing.

Forget subtlety.

Butler did not mince words, ever, when she talked about racism, sexism, or the exact mechanisms of how bigotry was working. In Dawn, there are multiple points where characters point out that a big reason the Oankali, a fictional alien community, keep failing to form families with human men is because the aliens can’t comprehend toxic masculinity. (That term wasn’t in common use back in 1987, but Butler uses other language to make it explicit.) Several human male characters struggle with this because they reject the idea that it’s something men should even think about. Rape is for women, in these men’s minds; men are supposed to always want sex and always take a dominant role during it. Butler doesn’t leave any of this for the reader to infer. Lilith, her protagonist, blatantly pleads with the Oankali to put the most “macho” of the men back to sleep. The Oankali cannot understand that some people would rather die—or kill—than give up their traditional gender roles. Back when I first read this book, I’d never seen anything like that in science fiction. Plenty of feminist science fiction exists, but a lot of it was written by Second Wave feminists and tackled the issue in a fairly shallow or one-dimensional way—no examination of class, race, and other power dynamics. Butler just laid it all out: the social construction of gender identity, the ways in which some people perform gender and reinforce its performance among themselves to the point of violence. —N.K. Jemisin, author of The Broken Earth Trilogy 

Octavia Butler, as understood by

Her spectacular life.

Her most misunderstood work.


Her writing style.

Her famous journal entry.

Have a sense of humor.

As I reread Butler’s work, I’m comforted by her bits of sly humor. In one of the Xenogenesis books, there’s a scene where after the aliens overtake humanity, they try to breed Lilith with a human male because they can tell she’s lonely. They send her to hang out with a young Black man who has never actually seen a woman before, and so he gets very into it and becomes a little forceful. In response, Lilith channels her mother—and pretty much every Black mother—and becomes cross with him. She tells him to step off, to pull back, and informs him that he is going to listen to her. The man had never heard a Black mother before, and he apologizes and draws away. It is a very scary scene in which Lilith is at great risk, and Butlers doesn’t look away from that. But she also doesn’t look away from the rest of the human experience. It was hilarious to me because I knew the mother that she was talking about. —Nalo Hopkinson, author of Brown Girl in the Ring

Get your facts straight.

Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling introduced me to a brilliant hook: What if Black vampires existed in their own right outside of the western European paradigm? Because of this book, I initiated my own research learning about culturally specific folklore around the world that gave their vampires different names. What I love about Butler is that she contextualizes her fantasy with fact. Honest, undiluted science that is unfettered by white supremacy is a gold mine for fantasy. Melanin serves as an additional protector from the sun for Black people. Why not tap into this as a superpower for daywalking Black vampires? This was the catalyst for my short film Suicide by Sunlight. No matter the specificity of Butler’s work, she makes poignant commentary on the human condition. Her quote: “You got to make your own worlds; you got to write yourself in” has become my mantra, my prayer, as I continue to center Black woman protagonists within genres that typically regale us to the sidelines. —Nikyatu Jusu, director of Nanny

Be pragmatic.

I love how practical Octavia was about how we move toward the future — considering not just how things need to change, not just that we need to reorganize ourselves into functional communities, but what we need to pack, what we need to study, what we need to practice in order to change. She’s the voice in my head saying, “Sure, but how?” My novel Grievers is fundamentally about harnessing life even when the odds feel impossible. Surviving apocalyptic conditions requires learning new skills, radically changing your priorities, and understanding there is individual work to do inside collective survival. In writing Grievers, I felt inspired by how Octavia wrote younger people, who generate different solutions than people who have had to run a family, write a budget, and negotiate with bureaucracy. In that way, my protagonist, Dune, follows in the footsteps of a character like Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of the Parable series. I wanted to evoke Lauren in terms of how much more risk we are willing to take when we are young, even if it is the risk to be alone. I hope I wrote Dune such that if she and Lauren ran into each other, they’d want to stick together, survive together. —Adrienne Maree Brown, activist and author of Emergent Strategy

Write your dreams into reality.

Of all the songs on my last album, the one named after Octavia felt like the one that took the most winding path to find. I loved seeing the photographs of Octavia’s notebook pages and was particularly inspired by the page where she listed out every goal she had for herself. Every single thing on her list ended up coming true. I think this is a special kind of magic. I later read her novel Kindred, which is the story of a Black woman from the 1970s who time travels back to slavery times, and that sent me down a rabbit hole of researching the details of the experience of slavery. I had previously understood a lot of the more graphic, physical violence of slavery, but I had less understanding of the impact of the subtler violence, such as forbidding enslaved Black folks to learn to read or write. That sent my mind back to the power of the written word, imagining if ancestors like Octavia had never been able to write her list, or her books for that matter, and the gravity of denying human beings a mode of self-expression. I was a teaching artist working with high-schoolers at the time I wrote the song, so I was also thinking about how often young Black people are made to feel like their way of speaking or writing isn’t “proper” or good enough. For me, Octavia Butler’s legacy has been so much about the power of the written word and the power to make the world up the way you want it. —Jamila Woods, songwriter

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