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Octavia Butler's Pasadena: The City That Inspired Her To Create New Worlds

"A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler" by Lynell George. (Courtesy)
"A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler" by Lynell George. (Courtesy)

Have you been trying to find a way to connect during this pandemic, to find meaning in the day-to-day?

One of host Tonya Mosley’s neighbors makes it a point to walk clear across Los Angeles every once in a while to free his mind and find inspiration in his surroundings. Mosley isn’t quite there, but she does enjoy a daily stroll along the majestic, tree-lined streets of Pasadena, California. Walking the same route every day is an exercise in staying present. 

Pasadena is the kind of place where kids ride their bikes in the middle of the street and the manicured lawns and shrubs rival those of the Midwest. For Octavia Butler, one of the most celebrated science fiction writers of our time, Pasadena was the spark that lit her flame.

“There is something about this mix of urban and wild,” journalistLynell Georgesays. “[Butler] was constantly looking at these interactions of how we use, you know, wilderness in space and nature.”

The title of George’s book “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler” comes from Butler’s description when asked what it takes to write science and speculative fiction. The book explains that early on in Butler’s life, she used the limited world around her — only where she could get by on foot or by bus — to create new worlds and possibilities.

An “avid walker,” Butler journeyed around Pasadena and wrote down what she called “walk thoughts” in a notebook, George says. Butler examined the climate and noted small changes over time.

“That environment was a huge part of forming her imagination about a sense of place in her books,” George says.

Butler died in 2006. Along with her award-winning work, she also left a blueprint of sorts: notebooks, journals, letters, to-do lists and countless library slips.

Now in an exhibit at the Huntington Library and Art Museum, these artifacts gave George a clearer picture of how Butler’s struggles also shaped the worlds she created through her stories. George was given access to all of this material, which is shown through photographs in the book. 

The “intimate” collection includes diaries and shopping lists, George says. Butler contemplated whether she could afford to pay her rent and electricity bills and if she needed to pawn her typewriter.

Looking at calendars helped George understand Butler’s daily life as a freelance writer juggling other jobs and trying to make ends meet.

“You realize so much of her life was such a complex calculation,” George says, “but she made something magnificent out of these small things.”

Excerpts of Butler’s journals contain the contracts she made with herself in explicit notes that basically said, ‘Here are the things I need to do, in order to have the space to do what I love most.’ And for Butler, that was to write.

Before turning 13 years old, Butler decided she would figure out how to become a writer, George says. She planned out what she needed to make this idea a reality: a typewriter, paper, books, more time spent reading. 

An investment in oneself takes a certain amount of confidence. But George also learned that Butler had insecurities.

People put Butler on a pedestal but she struggled with writer’s block and self-doubt during her career, George says.

“I think the lesson that I took away is this idea of habit: You just sit in the chair and you do it and it may look horrible, and it may feel horrible, but you did something that day,” she says. “And the fact that you did it means you are a writer.”

The subjects Butler wrote about were often set in the future. “Parable of the Sower” of the “Parable” series, for instance, was released in 1993 and set in 2024. The novel showcases a dystopian future — a society largely collapsed by climate change, growing wealth inequality and corporate greed.

 Part of what made Butler an iconic figure is her intentional creation of alternate universes where Black girls and women were at the center of forging better futures. She was the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and several Hugo Awards.

With all of this in mind, George says being a voyeur of Butler’s mundane journals and notes makes the possibilities of creating a better future attainable for all of us.

Without advanced degrees or trips to “fancy writer’s retreats,” Butler struggled in her life, George says. But Butler focused on what she had instead of what she didn’t — whether it was a diary she found in a dumpster or a book from a friend without a cover.

“I think that for all of us who feel like, ‘If only I could get this grant. If only if I could get’ whatever it is you think is the missing piece of your recipe for success, she shows us that you don’t need the thing that sometimes you think you need,” George says. “You need to look at what you have and utilize that.”

Since reading George’s book, host Mosley sometimes takes a notebook on her daily walks and writes about what she sees: A flock of parrots piercing the sky, cloud formations, life cycles of the trees and flowers in bloom, other people trying to capture their own “handful of Earth and handful of sky” — enough to help us love, live and create during what often feels like the darkest of times.

George jokes she’s in a pandemic pod with Butler, who never learned to drive and traveled as far as a bus or her legs could take her. Butler knew that “inspiration is absolutely everywhere,” George says, whether it’s sitting on a bench eavesdropping or listening to a story on the radio.

“She loved the notion of serendipity,” George says. “And serendipity is something that absolutely happens when you are in a place and you are looking and it’s this very focused looking, you know, being absorbed and present in the world.”

Walking Butler’s path to get to that presence of mind requires slowing down, George says. As a child, people told Butler she was slow. The comment was intended as a negative criticism but George thinks of it as a “meditation” where Butler observed connections in the world around her.

“The slowness was absorbing and listening and being in her here and now,” George says, “and that absorption allowed her to see.”


Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.