Octavia Butler at the Huntington

At the beginning of August, I went to the WriteGirl workshop at the Huntington. WriteGirl is an organization that runs creative writing workshops for teenage girls in Los Angeles (that’s really just a fraction of what they do–you should check them out!), and I’ve been a volunteer with them for almost a year now, though I’ve only been able to serve as a mentor at a few of their monthly workshops.

The summer workshop at the Huntington featured a private tour of the current exhibit on Octavia Butler, the celebrated black science fiction author. The promised tour was part of the reason I really wanted to make this workshop. A WriteGirl staff member gave me a ride, and we arrived bright and early to help set up. Upon our arrival, I realized that the Huntington is closed to the public on Tuesdays, meaning that we had special access to the library and gardens and that the only other people there were staff and researchers using the library.

I wound up with two mentees for the day, both rising high school seniors, and our group was the first to visit the exhibit Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories. We were welcomed by the exhibit’s curator, Natalie Russell, who told us how she’d spent a little over three years sifting through and cataloging all of Butler’s papers when they came to the Huntington after her untimely death. She’d selected about a hundred items for the exhibit.

The only novel of Octavia Butler’s I’ve read is Parable of the Sower, on the recommendation of my friend Leland. I bought it at graduation from the Swarthmore bookstore and read it shortly after. One of the many fascinating items on display was Butler’s typewritten outline for Parable of the Sower, with additional handwritten notes and highlighting in pastel colors. Some of the notes that caught my eye were: “ADD more racism”; “Add more Hispanics. …More Hispanic surnames on people…who seem ordinary blacks, or ordinary whites.”; “More casual, horrible death”; “GOD IS HER OPPONENT, AND/OR HER PARTNER” (Parable of the Sower is in part about the protagonist’s elaboration of a religion founded on the notion that God is change).

There was another item in the exhibit that featured Butler’s brief reflection on how science fiction treats religion. She said there was a prevailing attitude among science fiction writers of “Oh, we all know this is BS,” but she pointed out that no human society lives without religion (I think she acknowledged that some had tried, but she stood by this statement). This made me think about Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its companion, A Closed and Common Orbit, two science fiction novels I recently read. I enjoyed them (I loved Angry Planet), but I remember being struck by how despite all the exploration of different sentient species and cultures in the galaxy, there was almost no mention of religion. Shouldn’t many of these cultures have religions?

Another item was what I think was a self-interview with Butler, perhaps a stock of answers to questions she might get in interviews. The first question was something like, “Who are you?” and about halfway through her answer there was: “I am also comfortably asocial–a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles.”

Yet another item was her answer to “Why do I write about mixed-race couples?” She said it was for the same reason she wrote about egalitarian societies (in terms of gender, I believe).

One of the drafts on display was of the short story “Speech Sounds,” which won the Hugo Award. I was curious about the title, since it sounded very linguisticky/phonetics-y. It’s about an outbreak of a mysterious illness (hmm, sound familiar?) that strikes Los Angeles, depriving people of the ability to use language. The page of the draft that was exhibited was from a scene on a bus, and the curator’s notes said that Butler would have been familiar with buses because she didn’t drive! It reminded me of the bus stories at BUSted!.

The exhibit also had the manuscript of a short story called “Flash-Silver Star” that Butler wrote at age 11 in cursive on lined paper. It was about horses. It reminded me so much of how I wrote my stories around that age!

Among the most striking parts of the exhibit were the motivational notes that Butler wrote to herself, long before she came successful. There were different variations on these, but they included affirmations about her writing life: “I am a Bestselling Writer. I write Bestselling Books And Excellent Short Stories. Both Books and Short Stories Win prizes and awards. Everyday in Every way I am researching and writing My Awardwinning Best selling Books and Short Stories” as well as what she intended to do with her earnings as an author: buy her own home in a good neighborhood, obtain the best healthcare for herself and her mother, fund the educations and aspirations of young black people. It was inspiring. I have to admit I’m skeptical about this kind of motivational technique even though I’ve heard it touted before. I’m sure it can’t hurt, and it can probably actually help.

After we’d seen the exhibit, which you can probably tell I loved, my group had lunch and did some brainstorming of speculative fiction story ideas. The workshop wrapped up with some of the girls reading pieces they’d written that day. Afterwards, I got to catch up briefly with two mentees I’d worked with at previous WriteGirl workshops, which was lovely.

The staff member I’d gotten a ride with was running a focus group for some of the girls after the workshop, so that meant I had almost two hours to wander the gardens by myself. On a day the Huntington was closed to the public. I cannot overstate how excited I was by this prospect.

I made my way to the Chinese garden, which I’ve visited multiple times. On those occasions, the garden was always teeming with people, but this time it was beautifully empty. For most of the hour and a half I spent there, I felt like I had the whole garden entirely to myself. It was very hot that day, around 95°F, so I sat in the 愛蓮榭, my eponymous pavilion, writing in my journal and listening to the koi splash around the lotuses.

IMG_0445

愛蓮榭, amid the lotuses

When the sun was somewhat lower in the sky, I left the pavilion and wandered along the blissfully empty paths. It was glorious having the Chinese garden all to myself. So, thank you to WriteGirl for an amazing day at the Huntington.

2 thoughts on “Octavia Butler at the Huntington

    • You should! It’s the library and gardens, and there are also art galleries. The library exhibition hall has a Gutenberg Bible, an illuminated Canterbury Tales, and tons of other really cool books and documents!

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