Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Kindred by Octavia Butler

I’ve bought Octavia Butler’s 1979 Kindred, I’ve read it, I’ve greatly enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I’m in a position to review it.  A middle-aged white American male, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the importance of the novel regarding black history in my country, but in the end, the most important thing is that the reader switch windows to their favorite book seller’s site and purchase the book to fully experience the text.  Rich to the point of bursting with socio-cultural importance, the novel ranks alongside the works of Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other writers who have been key to giving the African American voice in fiction.  Tackling slavery, its legacy, and contemporary race relations head on, Kindred gives pause in a multitude of ways.

Like the best works of speculative fiction, Kindred uses genre tropes as a springboard to something grander.  Though technically a time travel story, Butler never goes into the details of shifting characters back and forth in time.  Dana Franklin, a contemporary American black woman, and her husband Kevin, a white man, are taken through bizarre temporal shifts to the American south circa 1815—the heart of of nearly every kind of racial injustice and oppression one can imagine.  The pair finding themselves on the plantation of Dana’s great-grandparents, owned by one Rufus Weylin, they must live through the nightmare of slave life from a 20th century perspective. 

Perhaps Kindred’s greatest success is in how it acts as a ruler.  Measuring how far civil rights have come and how fully they have yet to permeate society (as of 1979), the reader sympathizes with Dana’s situation and the extreme discrimination she experiences, and as a result, indirectly understands how far civil rights have come.  All the while, the circumstances and happenings of Dana’s contemporary timeline, particularly given the racial dynamics of her marriage, still spark disagreement and unfounded prejudices that the reader has a significantly more difficult time understanding the basis of yet is fully cognizant still exists.  The novel’s title announcing its intent, Butler looks beyond these two viewpoints, albeit in indirect fashion, to propose a vision for the future: where we were, where we are, and where we should/might be.

And there are so many other ideas in Kindred that I just don’t feel informed enough or in a position to unpack.  The relationship of Dana’ story to (recorded) American history, race perception, feminism (including, as related to a minority), human power dynamics—the novel is a treasure chest of thought triggers the world would be a better place experiencing and pontificating on for themselves.

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