Although Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred does involve time travel, the story is, in the words of the author, a grim fantasy, rather than science fiction. First published in 1979, it is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.
To say this story is “grim” would be akin to saying Rammstein is “a bit odd.”
To me, this story represents a modern black woman’s worst nightmare. Any black woman’s worst nightmare, actually. It was a harrowing read for this sci-fi fan, and not one I think will ever be far from memory from now on.
A few spoilers follow.
Butler offers no explanation for how twenty-six-year-old Dana Franklin is repeatedly transported back, against her will, to the antebellum South to save the worthless life of Rufus, the emotionally screwed-up and volatile son of a slave owner–who turns out to be her distant progenitor.
Because, as with the existence of slavery itself, how is really beside the point.
If Dana had not kept “Rufe” alive long enough to eventually conceive her ancestor through the repeated rape of the slave Alice over a period of several years (his twisted notion of “love”), she would not exist.
This is a story of brutality, of necessity, of the internalization of degradation.
I think the most beautiful thing about this novel, in the midst of all the horror, is the way it does not use the enslaved as merely faceless victims, this one or that one brought forward when the need arose to depict the cruelty and indifference of the day. Instead, we come face-to-face with Alice Greenwood-Jackson, Dana’s ancestor, born free but forced into slavery. We come to respect Sarah, the matronly cook whose children are sold, one by one, never to be seen again. We fall in love with Nigel, whose love for his sons prevents him from trying to escape. So many more.
Early on, Dana wonders at how these proud people can succumb to slavery so absolutely, even catching herself feeling a touch of superiority. But after being beaten into the dust and shredded by the cowhide, after having those she’s come to love torn apart by dogs for trying to reach freedom, she finally understands they are simply clinging to survival within a machinery that has no regard for the lives or families of those who are not white. How could they allow themselves to be made into non-people, into property? You do what you have to do in order to keep your family from being torn apart, and keep them all alive. That is how.
It should be no surprise, then, that Dana comes to think of the vile plantation as “home,” each time she is forced to return.
At the very end, after Rufus has destroyed the mother of his children, he is terrified of being alone. It’s in that moment that he ultimately decides Dana will be her replacement. Lying in his grip, she tells herself it won’t be so bad, he won’t kill her or anyone else she loves…not if she just lets it happen, doesn’t fight it…
It took me a long time to get through this book. I kept stopping to read other novels, because for me this one was more terrifying than the works of all my favorite horror writers combined. Most frightening is the fact that the depictions of violent subjugation and submission spring from real accounts from real people who were born, captured, and/or sold into slavery.
This story will drag you bleeding through the mud, and, like Dana, you may emerge with missing parts. And yet I know there are other written works, both fiction and non, even more brutal than this one. Someday I will get up the courage to read them.
Note: Kindred has been adapted into a graphic novel by artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings.