Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 13

PhD Research Proposal

Candidate: Roxana Marin

Provisional title:
Spirituality in Dystopic US Science Fiction
with an Emphasis on Octavia Butler and the Parable Series

Advisor:
Roxana Marinescu

UNIVERSITATEA OVIDIUS DIN CONSTANTA

INSTITUTUL STUDIILOR DOCTORALE

Septembrie 2020
1. Overview and objectives
From faith to women’s empowerment and Afrofuturism is a trajectory not many Black American
women writers can boast - especially considering the predominantly white male membership of
American science fiction in the 70’s, when Butler made her debut. Her contribution to the
development of science fiction in general cannot be debated: she introduced interspecies (alien-
human) characters, proposed that time travel can be used to combat racism, and personally funded
the development of American literature in an initiative that survives, nourishes and inspires African-
American writers to this day.
There are several major regards in which Octavia Butler’s life and work constitute a major
contribution:
● Intersectional feminism
● Social equity movements such as Black Lives Matter
● Religion in the 21st century
● Decolonization of African American identity and culture: Afrofuturism
● Innovating science fiction through themes and character development techniques
Feminism is often pre-supposed as an attitude, set of beliefs or ideology inherently underlied by
atheism. Despite loud and sometimes violent clashes between church and feminists, especially in
recent decades, there is a considerable body of feminist fiction transversed by the authors'
experience/s with religion, the church, or both. From Mary Wollstonecraft to Jeanette Winterson or
Maya Angelou, many notable feminist writers and outspoken activists have had a close relationship
with spirituality and/or organized faith.
Conversely, afrofuturism is imbued with spirituality and tradition. It also proposes the possibility of
preserving tradition and fighting colonization by white man, while at the same time pursuing
exciting and revolutionary technological and scientific endeavours. It is, in other words, Marinetti’s
manifesto in reverse: preached by black people who claim their right to be as cutting edge as white
man. Moreover, Afrofuturistic artists and writers present women as leading and important figures,
as opposed to white/Western tradition.
Octavia Butler’s work is illustrative in both these regards. She stands out not only through her
personal relationship with the church, but also - and especially - through her Parable of the Sower
and sequel, Parable of the Talents. Without compromising anything to patriarchal normativeness in
regards to femininity or gender roles, Butler’s pre-visionary dystopia proposes an incredibly potent
solution to the divide between church and feminism, and a magnetic projection of space
colonization by fugitives from an Earth dilapidated of most resources - and hope of salvation.
Butler’s entire development and the entire body of her work, as America’s first Black woman

1
author of science fiction, stand on faith. Eulogized as a founder of Afrofuturism, Butler is an
adamant supporter of the marriage between tradition and modernity, and many of her female
characters are forerunners of Nakia or Shuri in Black Panther, for example.
I propose to examine Butler’s treatment of faith and feminism, her contribution to Afrofuturism,
and the impact of her work not only on religious, Black and feminist communities, but also on
mainstream trends informed by an awareness of race, gender and faith - such as Black Lives Matter
or the #metoo movement1.
Objectives
Given the background and justification of my interest in Butler offered above, I propose to
document and analyze her seminal contribution to:
● The development of science fiction, by laying the foundations to Afrofuturism
● Black literature, through the avenues and opportunities she created for young Black writers
● (Black) feminism and intersectional approaches to feminism
● Social movements such as Black Lives Matter
As a more original, or less explored, research topic and objective, I propose at the onset
● Religion in the 21st century, aligned with women’s rights and black/minority/indigenous
rights
While this has been a reality of Black feminisms and churches for a couple of decades already, the
topic has (as suggested by the multiple adjectives preceding ‘rights’ above) certainly transgressed
into a rather global mobilization to decolonize human rights and the prevalently white substance of
the generally accepted/funded/practiced views on justice, progress. happiness.

1 https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/

2
2. Framework: state of current research and key theoretical concepts

Current research

Interest in Octavia Butler has been soaring since her death in 2006. Coincidentally, her death was
rather unexpected and somewhat mysterious – but this cannot be counted as the main factor in her
post-mortem international popularity. Back in the USA, Butler had been a household name for a
couple of decades already, not only through her writing, but also through her involvement in
African American leadership and representation, as well as her personal efforts to support Black
authorship for years - an effort continued after her demise by a memorial grant for young African
American writers to attend the Clarion workshops that were so foundational to her development. As
of August 2020, there is also a fellowship programme with the same aim, providing substantial
support (50,000 dollars for 9-12 months) to Black writers who have completed their PhD.

There is extensive literature on Butler’s work, from the circa 3,000 titles on platforms like
Academia or Jstor, to the more political references to her role in the inception of Afrofuturism,
cyberfeminism or an open discussion of sexuality in the reclaiming of a Black womanhood seeking
to liberate itself from the constraints of colonialism and self-colonizing norms. From this list of
recommended themes of research found on the website of the Octavia E. Butler Foundation (which
organizes events periodically and large conferences bi-annually), we may derive a fairly
comprehensive idea of the scope of her impact, and the kinds of things scholars focus on, in regards
with her work:
Afrofuturism
Antiracist pedagogies
Apocalypse and eschatology
Climate Collapse
Community organizing as a result of Butler’s influence
Cyborgs and the Posthuman
Disability studies
Ecocriticism
Indigenous sovereignty
Institutional transformation
LGBTQIA+ studies
Mapping and cartography
Migration

3
Pleasure activism
Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction
Utopia/dystopia

Perhaps the most important 2 themes, however, are feminism and belief - understood both as
personal spirituality and organized religion.

In relation to the first major theme, women and especially Black, Hispanic and indigenous women,
both academic and activist discussions abound, as can be noted at a very quick glance on the
platforms mentioned above. Butler’s predominantly female protagonists are proto-Afrofuturist,
cyberfeminist - and, worth noting, do not speak or act in a man-blaming radical register, but rather
try to build support networks which include men as active participants in an effort to (re)build
humanity, usually led by a woman.

There is also considerable interest in the spirituality, indeed new religion born as a ramification of
her work - most likely unintentional, hence all the more potent.

Earthseed, the new religion proposed by Butler’s protagonist in The Parable of the Sower has
definitely stirred a lot of interest across a wide span of communities, from religious to academic to
scientific. Terasem, for example, is a community of incredibly prestigious and prodigious scientists
inspired by Butler’s Earthseed to transcend terrestrial/human borders precisely in order to save
humanity – just like Olamina. Thus, Butler is connected with a corpus of scientific and religious
writings, as well as with an ensemble of actual tangible work (technology etc), that Butler’s
Olamina and her peers (later congregation) made sense of before it even got going.

Some key theoretical concepts

Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history and fantasy to explore the
African-American experience and aims to connect those from the black diaspora with their
forgotten African ancestry.2 I found this definition to be very comprehensive, yet concise, the only
element missing being the keen interest - and massive presence - of technology in afrofuturistic
narratives, from gadgets functioning symbiotically with humans, to spaceships and time travel.

Indigenous antifuturism: my favourite definition is from this website3, granted radical: a


transmission from a future that will not happen. From a people who do not exist. Essentially,
indigenous antifuturism is an awakening of colonized indigenous nations from the numbing of

2 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/afrofuturism, accessed 29 Aug, 2020, 13:00


3 http://www.indigenousaction.org/rethinking-the-apocalypse-an-indigenous-anti-futurist-manifesto/, accessed 29
Aug, 2020, 13:46

4
white/European/Western supremacy, exercised violently - always - but presented as ‘progress’ etc.

Cyberfeminism: a feminism informed by the essential role of technology and the internet in the life
of society, women etc, and concerned with countering men’s dominance in technology and the
internet. Most agree that the roots of this concept and the ensuing discussions/applications would be
in Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto4, while others would contend that the term was coined
surreptitiously in the Spare Rib, an iconic feminist UK magazine founded in the loud 70’s and
extinct in 1993, digitized by the British Library in 20155.

Post-cyberfeminism is an awareness of both the advantages and disadvantages of living and


working as feminists in an era dominated by technology and the internet.

4 Haraway, Donna Jeanne (1991). "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late
Twentieth Century". Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge. ISBN 0415903866.
5 https://www.bl.uk/spare-rib, accessed 20 Aug, 2020, 10:12

5
3. Research questions

a. How are religion and feminism connected, in Butler’s paradigm


Inasmuch as religion has played a major role in the evolution of humanity, it has also played a
major role in the setting up of gender norms and roles, hence in the establishing of the different
statuses of the different genders - especially how normed/rigid or accepting of diversity a culture is.
For example, before the colonization of the North-American continent, two-spirit persons (the most
commonly used translation of one of the many names transgender persons have in the many First
Nations) used to be the priests, teachers and doctors of the community, and they enjoyed very high
status and respect. Christian supremacy took that to the opposite extreme - by treating trans persons
as pathological anomalies within a native population that they treated as inferior anyway.
Paradoxically - or maybe not, given that white supremacy was instated extremely forcefully, and
genocides continued well into the 20th century - this had a very quick and enduring effect on the
native people, who massively steered off their original awe of two-spirit people.
The same phenomenon occurred in regards to men versus women’s roles in society. In old non-
Christian cultures genders were more egalitarian: we have women warriors in South America6, men
who stay at home to raise the kids while women go hunt and gather in central Africa, etc. With the
ascent of colonialism/white supremacy and Christianity in these cultures, things get to resemble
more and more the ‘normality’ of Western cultures.
All the developments ensuing from colonization of non-white, non-Christian cultures by white
Christian ones have led to the annihilation of many indigenous cultural elements, including attitudes
to gender norms and roles, attitudes to power, (re)understanding ‘God’ or finding community in
churches/religious congregations (or not.)
With the rise of decolonization movements - and even substantial government programmes - a re-
awakening of indigenous pride and self-representation is also on the rise, and indigenous spirituality
plays a major role. Ancient protocols and ceremonies are increasingly resumed (at local, regional or
even national level), talk of the ancestors and old gods is on the increase, educational, cultural and
even economic programmes are tailored more and more with care to identity and heritage.
My contention in regards to the impact of religion on feminism and women’s writing in general,
and the writing of Octavia Butler in particular, is that both Christianity and other monotheistic
religions have failed to provide a safe, respectful frame/environment for women’s development -
6https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141029-amazons-scythians-hunger-games-herodotus-ice-
princess-tattoo-cannabis/, accessed 25 Aug, 2020, 19:38

6
nor can they be ‘tweaked’ so as to fix injustice and foster gender equity - or equity in general, for
that matter. New spiritualities, such as Butler’s Earthseed religion, have emerged in recent decades,
precisely because it is sometimes easier (and more effective) to make something anew, rather than
fix something of yore - especially if that something is as vital (and literally carved in stone) as
religion. These religions, especially Earthseed, have the benefit of being molded in an egalitarian
fashion from the onset, without needing to be ‘purged’ of patriarchal misogyny or homophobia
(which is actually not an achievable aim, anyway.)

b. What is Butler’s solution to the gap between religion and feminism?

My contention is that Butler’s attitude to the marriage between faith and feminism is a constructive
one, regardless of how dystopian the narrative frame. Furthermore, my working thesis is that a
constructive approach to faith is conducive to a higher adherence to feminism in 21st century
Western culture, and not only. Tommaso Marinetti’s futurist dream, premonitory of fascism through
its elitism and lack of concern for heritage or equity, is crushed by this Afro-American woman
writer who shows us that progress is illusory or even gangrenous when all tradition, including faith,
is crushed.
Religion is (paradoxically for c. 21) an increasingly important part of day-to-day life, public policy
design, national and international politics, war, even science. Most of these aspects of human
existence, and their relationship with religion, are featured in Octavia Butler's The Parable of the
Sower. A novel published in 1993 projecting humanity in a not very distant post-apocalyptic future
(the action is set in 2025!), The Parable is informed by Butler's intersectional identity as a Black
queer-questioning woman, and perhaps the most important thing about it is that it is seen by some
as the beginning of a new religion, which is actually put in practice by some groups as we speak.
For illustration, this definition from the dedicated website, www.godischange,org:
Earthseed is a real religion which is based on a fictional religion, also called “Earthseed”, which
is described in two of Octavia Butler’s science fiction novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of
the Talents.

c. To what extent and how does the writer’s approach and her literary universe reflect a concern
for intersectionality?

Butler’s philosophy of writing revolved around a few precepts. One was to avoid sentimentality of

7
style, though some of her story frames or key moments are rather imbued with sentimentality.
Another was to pioneer the inclusion in science fiction of subjects such as sexuality, male/female
relationships, racial inequity, and contemporary politics - and to treat them directly.
Finally, Butler exerted incredible self-discipline, which she admitted was the hardest part7:
“Writing for publication may be both the easiest and \the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Learning the
rules — if they can be called rules — is the easy part. Following them, turning them into regular
habits, is an ongoing struggle.”

Butler’s protagonist in The Parable of the Sower evolves against a backdrop of a very patriarchal-
machista, post-apocalyptic, corporation-led society. My contention is that her effectiveness and
humanity are connected with her intersectional identity - and that of the community members she
connects with and eventually founds the first Earthseed community with. Incidentally, Olamina’s
main characteristic - she is an empath - counts as a disability in her world, which makes her a
Black-Hispanic-disabled-nonconforming young female fugitive and leader.
In this section, I will also dwell on some of the findings I analyzed in my Master's dissertation 8,
which discussed identity development in relation to one's notions of 'femininity' and 'masculinity.'

7 From Furor Scribendi, an essay included in Bloodchild and other stories, 1995 (re-edited in 2005 with 2 additions)
8 Gender Actions and Reactions, A Study of Gender-Related Beliefs in Romania, University of Bucharest, Faculty of
Philosophy, UNESCO chair on the study of intercultural and inter-religious exchanges, Feb 2019

8
4. Methodology
In researching towards a validation of my contentions, as presented in my research questions
section, I will piece together findings from Butler’s novels, on one hand, and her interviews and
lectures, on the other.
Despite her reputedly almost handicapping shyness, the author left behind a treasure of interviews
(TV stations, radio, web-based podcasts) that will certainly provide insights into my main research
questions:
a. How are religion and feminism connected, in Butler’s paradigm?
b. What is Butler’s solution to the gap between religion and feminism?
c. To what extent and how does the writer’s approach and her literary universe reflect a
concern for intersectionality?
Additionally to researching for answers to these questions in her interviews and reflections, I will
seek to pair this evidence with evidence in the actual novels and short-stories. Butler’s writing is
informed strongly by her personal values, as well as an incredibly sharp awareness of the world and
the social, economic and political systems that put it in motion. Luckily for the researcher, this
writer is incredibly coherent and builds constantly on the same foundations, thus allowing for great
reward in persistence.
As part of my methodological instruments, I will definitely develop a relationship and begin
cooperating with the Huntington - https://www.huntington.org/octavia-butler - a reputable
institution hosting all of Butler’s manuscripts, photos and other writer’s memorabilia, and who have
done an outstanding job of digitizing everything in a very short time. After Butler’s death, The
Huntington became the recipient of her papers, which arrived in 2008 in two file cabinets and 35
large cartons, comprising more than 8,000 items.
One final method I am proposing is to interview or collect the testimonies of people who met her,
given that her death is relatively recent, or individuals (writers, BLM activists etc) on whose life
Butler had a major impact, either through her work or through material support (grants etc). In this
respect, I have sketched out a list of potential research partners to contact in the event of this project
being admitted.

9
5. Relevance and Contribution of Project to Existing Knowledge

I believe that Butler’s pre-visionary denunciation of populism/Trumpism-before-we-even-had-it,


the projection of an apocalyptic demise of civilization through violence used as a means of profit,
under the disguise of democracy and progress, is worth discussing in conjunction with global
phenomena such as the more and more persistent denunciation and combating of colonizing
mechanisms and practices, the growing liberties and control of the state over the individual, the
affirmation of minority and indigenous identities through a less and less lip-service approach.
Despite her reputedly handicapping shyness, and self-declared fear of speaking in public, Butler’s
quiet persistence has become an example, indeed an icon of prevalence of wisdom and empathy
over panic and agression/submission. Her constructive treatment of subjects like sexuality and
religion, indeed their inclusion as naturally as if we were to say ‘love and marriage,’ is a standalone
example in science fiction, whose wider exposure and discussion in both literary and activist spaces
can only be beneficial.
Given the constant spreading of BLM-like movements among minority groups all over the globe, I
believe it would be relevant to explore Butler’s approach to social institutions - including education
- in the pre-math and after-math of disaster (the ‘apocalypse’). This will benefit Romanian
educators, as well as minority activists and feminists who are perhaps less aware now of the
possibility that religion and sexuality are not mutually exclusive topics. Currently, there is very little
scholarship of pedagogical worth in this area, and my project may well pioneer that in Romania.
There is also the discussion of Afrofuturism which is of great interest in the current global - and
Romanian - context. What I mean is that there is a global surge in affirming minority/indigenous
identities through arts and explicit/political discourse, and Afrofuturism is at the core of that, as the
inception movement of this global wave of anticolonial antifuturisms. Here in Romania too, the
phrase Roma futurism is beginning to be used in radical feminist contexts9, especially performances
- therefore I am assured that my paper will stir much interest among Roma and radical feminists
here, as well as radical and indigenous feminists in Europe.
My project aims to contribute to the birth of a faith-informed feminism that can be recognized as a
beneficial tool for education and social change. Too much nowadays feminism is associated with
the destruction of the family or the liberal freedom/promiscuity of woman, extermination of the
human race etc. Through the creation of a new religion as part of character and plot development,
Butler may have revolutionized not only science-fiction, but also feminism. Essentially, this could

9 Roma feminist artist Mihaela Dragan wrote a Roma futurist manifesto in 2019, for the second issue of Cutra:
http://cutra.ro/tehno-vrajitoarea-e-viitorul-manifest-pentru-roma-futurism/

10
well be 5th wave feminism: a spiritual, religious feminism, built on the empathy emanated by
women and their non-patriarchal counterparts. I hope what my project will mark is the beginning of
the end of the war between church and feminism. In the 21st century, so haunted by the scepter of
apocalypse brought about by pandemics, poverty, violence rooted in racism and fascism, such a
discussion will propose both feminism and religion as part of the solution, and this will be of
interest to lots of different actors in today’s troubled society.

11
Bibliography
Octavia E. Butler novels
1. Survivor (1978)
2. Kindred (1979)
3. The Patternist Series: Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984),
Patternmaster (1976)
4. The Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), Imago (1989)
5. The Parable Series: Parable of the Sower (1993), Parable of the Talents (1998)
6. Bloodchild (1995)
7. Fledgling (2005)
8. Unexpected Stories (2014)
Critical scholarship:
1. Bould, Mark. "The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF", Science Fiction
Studies 34.2 (July 2007): 177–186. JSTOR 4241520
2. Curtis, Claire P. “Theorizing Fear: Octavia Butler and the Realist Utopia.” Utopian Studies;
2008, Vol. 19 Issue 3, p411-431, 21p.
3. Foster, Frances S. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Vision.” Extrapolation 23 (1982):
pages 37-49.
4. Govan, Sandra Y. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
5. Hampton, Gregory J. “Vampires and Utopia: Reading Racial and Gender Politics in the
Fiction of Octavia Butler.” CLA Journal. Sep2008, Vol. 52 Issue 1, p74-91. 18p.
6. Holden, Rebecca and Nisi Shawl, eds. Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African
American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. Seattle, Washington: Aqueduct Press, 2013
7. McTyre, Robert E. “Octavia Butler: Black America’s first lady of science fiction.”
Michigan Chronicle, April 26, 1994, pp. PG.
8. Raffel, Burton. “Genre to the Rear, Race and Gender to the Fore: The Novels of Octavia E.
Butler.” Literary Review, v.38, April 1, 1995, p. 454.
9. Salvaggio, Ruth. “Octavia Butler and the Black Science Fiction Heroine.” Black American
Literature Forum. Volume 18, Number 2 (1984): pages 78-81.
10. Stevenson, Rosemary. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn,
NY: Carlson Pub., 1993, pp. 208-210.
11. Zaki, Hoda. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.”
Science Fiction Studies Volume 17, Part 2 (1990): pages 239-251.

12