Tag Archives: Octavia Butler

Nontraditional References (Part II)

By: Timothy Shiner, Senior Associate Dean, Student Support Services

My kitchen table, Pawtucket, RI

Back in 2005, I was asked to write a brief informal reflection as part of a journal published for students and alums of my graduate school program. At the time, I was working at the University of Vermont Women’s Center, focusing largely on sexual violence prevention and response, and my self-care skills were not very good. While I had been out for many years, I was struggling with my identity as a queer man and where I fit in the LGBTQ community. I was burnt out and carrying a lot of personal and vicarious trauma. There was so much inequity and injustice in the world and having finished my graduate degree and worked a few years in the “real world”, I was disappointed to learn that “adulthood” didn’t mean inherent stability, peace of mind, or an ability to control my circumstances and prevent bad things from happening to me or others.

I didn’t really know how to write such a reflection at that moment. Being aware of even a fraction of the struggle which happens in the world, I had never really been able to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” But I had become deeply impacted by feminist and womanist thinkers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Ursula LeGuin, and Gloria Anzaldúa and I had come to believe that whether things happen for a reason or not, we can make meaning out of the most difficult circumstances. And while I had been looking to these and other sources (some of them accepted as “scholarship” by the academy) for comfort during that difficult time, it wasn’t until a series of moments outside the traditional academy; an art show, a performance art piece, reading a series of children’s novels; that I started being able to make a little meaning of my own. The reflection I had been asked to write became an outline of my process at that moment; an exploration of Nontraditional References and how they can help us make meaning.

Fifteen years later, like many of us, I find myself catching up on shows I’ve been meaning to watch, returning to old favorite works, and spending a lot of time in the kitchen. One of the shows was the first season of the adaptation of those same children’s novels from 15 years ago; HBO’s His Dark Materials. The adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s books is very good, I think, but it is a later point in the novels that the viewing reminded me of and that I have returned to again and again over time to reground myself in difficult moments (so minor spoiler alert…).

In my piece from 2005, I wrote, “In Pullman’s fantasy world, children are being severed from their spirit. A force called Dust fights for consciousness, for the end of oppression, and for balance and harmony with other humans and with the world itself” (Shiner, 2005, p. 137). As the novels progress, this force of Dust is endangered and is being siphoned away but near the end of the story, a wise character tells the protagonists:

Conscious beings make Dust – they renew it all the time, by thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on. And if you help everyone else in your world to do that, by helping them learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious…Then you will renew enough to replace what is lost…” (Pullman, 2000, p. 491-492)

This moment in a fantasy novel, this charge, continues to bring me purpose and hope in difficult moments and to remind me of the simple goals of why I work in education. Whether in novel or television format, this work of fiction has helped me make meaning for almost two decades.

The worlds of science fiction and fantasy have always been a lens of meaning making for me and no one has shaped my worldview with this tool more than Octavia Butler. She wrote words and captured ways of thinking I return to again and again. “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change” (Butler, p. 81). In this world that seems changed beyond recognition, how do we make meaning? Butler reminds me that change is constant, and that I need to accept that. I need to accept that I cannot control change. But I also need to bring intentionality about the way I impact every person I interact with as everything that you touch, you change.

One of the things that has changed dramatically for me in the past 15 years is that I no longer view my life in terms of work only. The simple things of life that restore me have become just as important as the meaningful work which I do each day on campus. And nowhere does this practice feel more salient than in my kitchen. For me, cooking and baking ground me. It is an opportunity to be creative, to feel the satisfaction of working with my hands, and to engage in a practice that nourishes my body and my soul. And, it is a deep connection to my mother.

Mushroom lasagna with bechamel sauce, a variation on how mom taught me to make it.

As a child, I was often in the kitchen while my mother (and on many occasions, my grandmother and aunt) cooked. Whether it was a nightly meal or the once annual two-day process of canning grape jelly from the vines in my great aunt’s yard, the warmth, aromas, and conversation were “home.” The recipes she taught me are still part of my rotation: oatmeal scotchie cookies, cornbread and chili, and my all-time favorite meal, homemade baked mac and cheese. But now it is an exchange of recipes and conversation, we are mother and son, but also friends. She calls me from 2000 miles away when I’ve had a rough day even if I didn’t tell her I was having one. She just knows. During this time of isolation, we are speaking every day. Our conversations range but we always talk about what we are cooking. The food and the relationships nourish us both.

A television adaptation of my favorite books…returning to writings that have shaped my worldview…a recipe and a conversation…nontraditional references continue to help me make meaning out of difficult moments in life. They help me to find peace of mind, to let go of things I cannot control, to feel grounded and connected. They help me to hope.

I closed my 2005 piece reflecting on a performance art piece I had seen by Arab-Canadian feminist author Joanna Kadi entitled Hope is a Four-Letter Word. As I try to make meaning in this moment, to find peace of mind, and to reground myself, her words seem more important than ever.

We are plunked down at the crossroads of past, present, and present. Not past, present, and future. A crossroad is comprised of two places, not three. We need to let go of the future. We need to let go of the 8,741 negative, scary, awful futures we have been composing in our minds night after night. We need to look at the ground under our feet…touch Mother Earth, touch healing soil, seek prairie remnant. Understand our past, understand our present, understand that we are not present in the future. Make our choice about whether to include hope in our present. In the actions we take to change the world, to create the world, in the personal movement we make and the larger movement we make, let us bring hope with us, let us insist on her presence. Above the door write, “Seize hope all who enter here.” (Kadi, 2004)

Image credits: Banner image by maradon 333/Shutterstock.com; lasagna image by Timothy Shiner


Butler, O. (2012). Parable of the Sower. Open Road Media.

Kadi, J. (April 20, 2004). Hope is a four-letter word. Live performance at the University of Vermont, Burlington, VT.

Pullman, P. (2000). His dark materials: The amber spyglass. Alfred A. Knopf.

Shiner, T. (2005). Nontraditional References. The Vermont Connection, 26, 136-141.

Lessons from Octavia Butler

By: Matthew Guterl, Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies

Providence, RI

I have been teaching a small undergraduate seminar on Black speculative fiction. It has been, for me, an extraordinary honor to work with this small group of dedicated young people towards a better understanding of this genre, and to do so, from the start of the semester, in light of the nation’s racial retrenchment under the current President, and now, just as tragically, in the midst of a global pandemic. I won’t speak for the students, but for me this class has been a gift – a weekly reminder of the power of imagination to draw up futures that center Black life, and to disrupt what seems possible or pre-determined.

As much as I have felt anything over these past few weeks, I have missed these people and our conversations.

In hindsight, everything we read and watched seems like a parable for the present, but one novel – Octavia Butler’s Kindred – stands out. The book, originally published in 1979, is the story of a Black woman named Dana who is inexplicably and repeatedly transported back to the antebellum South to save her ancestor, a white slaveowner named Rufus. Whenever Rufus’s life is threatened, Dana is yanked backwards in time without warning. She appears out of thin air, dressed in modern clothing, embodying modern Blackness, and causing quite a stir. She rather pointedly refuses to pretend that she is an enslaved person. She won’t stay in her “place” as determined by the slaveholding regime or accept that she “belongs” in antebellum South. Calmly and soberly, and against the grain of her surroundings, she insists on both her Blackness and her humanity. Over time, her reappearances keep Rufus alive and by extension ensure her very existence. By the novel’s conclusion, both Dana and Rufus are fundamentally changed by this recursive experience, leaving us to wonder about causality and inevitability.

Binding the past to her present, Butler’s text was meant to answer a simple question: what would you have done if you have been forced to confront slavery? She had heard many Black men and women of her generation insist that they would rise up and rebel, that they would die fighting against their enslavement. And she wanted to dramatize what she saw as the overwhelming totality of slavery, the impossibility of simple, straightforward resistance. Along with the importance – the deep and foundational importance – of knowing your history.

When we met as a class, we talked a lot about Dana, who is nonplussed by her time travelling. Practical and level-headed, she routinely confronts what would be horrific with thoughtful planning. In her California home in the present, she has the forethought to wisely assemble a bag of necessary supplies and ties them to her waist, so that they might travel back in time with her. When that bag gets lost, she quickly makes another. She brings maps and history books from the present into the past, destabilizing the certainties of slavery’s expansion. She brings knives and painkillers, soap and toothpaste and clothing. Like the author who created her, Dana is a woman of lists, a champion of organized thinking in the face of what should be overwhelming crises. This faith in relentless practicality saves her life. In the end, the knife she brings back in time – the kind of weapon denied to any enslaved person, the kind of weapon she knew she might need – is what she uses to kill Rufus in the novel’s final pages, when he loses sight of her humanity, moves beyond redemption, and comes to see her only as a slave.

Dana is prudent, canny, discerning, prepared, and willfully committed to her own survival. She is the hero we need right now, in an age of singular uncertainties. And my deepest hope is that the students who are enrolled in AFRI 1100X, and who are now zooming into our meet-ups from bedrooms, kitchen tables, and patios in almost every conceivable time zone, and who might feel displaced, buffeted, and even scared, can find in Dana’s steely determination to plan and organize her way out of trouble a practical model for their own everyday survival. Don’t hide, she might advise. Make a list. Organize your stuff. Keep it close. Be ready. What you are living through is not normal. Cool-minded preparation will save you.

Image credit: Michael Kraus/Shutterstock.com