Every now and again someone I respect recommends this novel. It has a reputation of being a sci-fi story, and indeed Kindred is based on time-travel. Dana, the main character is a Black writer living in Los Angeles in 1976, who finds herself pulled back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War. The story is narrated by Dana, and the reader follows her story as she tries to negotiate her way back to 1976 from the experiences of the Weyland Plantation on which she finds herself. Her colour determines her fate.
I delayed reading it because it was labelled as sci-fi, but I should not have delayed. It is a convincing and fearsome exploration of the practices and tools of enslavement and racial inequality.
When Dana finds herself thrown back into Maryland in the years before the US Civil War, she takes with her the experience of racially integrated California in the ‘70s. Much of the novel, therefore, is a contrast between Dana’s contemporary life and the experience on the Maryland plantation in the early part of the 19th Century. One of the first contrasts is the language, for she is routinely described using the N word. The Black people she meets are mostly enslaved, and even the free Blacks are in danger of being forced into slavery one way or another.
I found the first few chapters rather wooden as the scenario was set up. She is at home when goes dizzy and comes round to find herself rescuing a small redheaded boy from the river. She gives him artificial respiration so that he is saved from drowning. She returns to 1976 when the boy’s father is about to shoot her. Not long after, she returns to find the same boy, but older, in mortal danger from a fire. And so it goes on. Dana – and on one occasion her husband – spend longer and longer in the past saving Rufus. As a Black woman with no papers she is assumed to be a slave as she repeatedly visits the Weyland plantation and treated as such.
No explanation or mechanism is ever revealed to explain this time travel, but the first few chapters must convince the reader that Dana is going back in time. As the story progresses, we get more caught up in Dana’s experiences and her time on the plantation. After a few visits to the Weyland Plantation, Dana realises that her visits are arranged to keep Rufus Weyland from death. Dana realises that one of Rufus’s slaves, Alice, may be her ancestor. She also must keep Alice alive to ensure that she will be born. The mechanics of her travel became less important than seeing slavery through the eyes and experiences of a woman from the ‘70s.
Her contact with the Black Power Movement led Octavia E Butler to investigate why the black people of the past apparently acquiesced to their enslavement. One of the strands of the novel is to show how different characters made choices which meant adapting to the conditions to avoid whipping, sexual assault, their family being ripped apart, or being sold to passing traders: choices for their survival.
Kindred is a searing explanation of how the slave economy was maintained, highlighting the violence, dehumanising violence, and for Black women there was the added threat of sexual violence. Slaveholders were not required to pay any attention to family ties, and children and partners could be sold away from the plantation to coerce or to punish or for economic benefit.
Another form of control was to keep enslaved people in ignorance, prohibited from learning to read or write. Dana, as an educated woman, in ante-bellum South posed a great threat to the white masters. In secret she taught some of the children to read.
Octavia E Butler’s sources for Dana’s experiences were the many accounts by enslaved people who escaped. She felt she had to tone down these narratives to make it more believable to her readers.
Eventually Rufus is killed, and Dana loses an arm in her final return to 1976, which reminds us of the physical danger that reaches out from the past. Today’s readers have to add their own present day to their understanding of Dana’s time travel. How much have things changed for Black people in the half-century since 1976? The past continues to provide a legacy of physical damage and social and economic inequality. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a testament to that. What this novel said to me so bitterly was that those instruments of enslavement and repression were still employed in the US in the ‘70s are still used today. The violence, the sexualisation of black women (and men in a different way), the economic differences (starkly revealed by the Coronavirus epidemic) still exist. Poorer housing, poorer health care, poorer education and violence.
Octavia E Butler
Born in California in 1947, Octavia E Butler was raised in Pasadena, Ca which was racially integrated, although the lives of the inhabitants were very different based on race. Her mother worked as a maid, and her father died when she was eight. She was a shy child and took to writing and visiting the library. She had early success as a writer and met both encouragement and challenge.
One of her achievements was to widen the scope of sci-fi stories to include the experiences of woman and people of colour. She claimed, ‘I began writing about power because I had so little’. She won Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, and Kindred, in particular, is regarded as a classic.
Kindred by Octavia E Butler, first published in 1979. I read the paperback edition from Headline, published in 2018. 295pp