A black woman travels back in time to save the life of one of her ancestors who is the son of a plantation owner. But how can a woman from the 1970’s can adapt to a completely new life in a time where her skin color could be her death sentence?
Last year, Mayri from Bookforager and I buddy-read Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, the book famously known as the first science fiction story written by a black woman. Kindred is a classic that have been collecting virtual dust on my shelves for years and reading it with Mayri was the perfect motivation to finally read it.
Kindred is a hard read as it deals with a lot of dark topics but it’s a classic for a reason. Butler’s writing is sharp, to the point and thematically dense, which means it’s the perfect book to buddy-read! And discuss, we did: our Google doc for this buddy-read is 12 pages long! 😂
However, we’ll spare you the12 pages (even if you’re missing out, the full read-along discussion is very interesting) to focus on our final discussion.
As always, our book discussion is in two parts, the first one is here on The Curious SFF Reader while the second part in on Mayri’s blog here.
Do you have any expectations about Kindred?
Maryam: Kindred has been on my reading radar for many years and I have only heard excellent things about it so I have high hopes this is going to be a new favorite! It took me so long to put it on a TBRt because I tend to reserve books that I know I am probably going to love for the perfect time. I don’t know why I do that to myself all the time but I decided that 2021 would be the year I would finally read this book and I’m very excited to read it with you! It’s probably going to be a very interesting book to discuss and, especially after the discussion we had about Lovecraft Country and reading Own Voices stories! 😀
Mayri: Ah, I do that sometimes too – save a book for the perfect moment. Some books are just so much better for the waiting.
What am I expecting? I’m expecting a fascinating, moving story. I’m also expecting it to be emotional, and not necessarily easy to process. And yes, after our Lovecraft Country buddy read, I think this’ll be a cracking discussion.
Maryam: It’s true that some books are so much better for the waiting but sometimes I wish I didn’t do that! 😂
Is this your first Octavia E. Butler book?
Maryam: I have read one short story but Butler years ago (The Evening, The Morning and the Night, from the anthology Sisters of the Revolution, PM Press) and it was fantastic! I still think about this story to this day! However, it’s my first time reading one of her novels.
Mayri: I haven’t read anything by Butler before (*hangs head in shame*) and only heard about her when I first started blogging, which is criminal, I know. I can say nothing in my defence…
Maryam: I also heard about Butler when I started blogging and I thought she had only published Kindred! I only realized two or three years ago that she had published a number of novels and short stories…
Mayri: … well I feel a bit better now. I did go and look up a list of her work after we agreed to read Kindred and was happily surprised to see that there’s plenty more by her to dig into.
Beware, this discussion contains spoilers.
So, Kindred is about a lot of different kinds of connection between people, the main one being that between Dana and Rufus, her ancestor. How did you feel about the development of their relationship throughout the book?
Mayri: At the beginning, meeting Rufus as a young boy with a stern bully for a father and an over-affectionate, cloying mother, I understood Dana’s sympathy for him. And I believed, like she did, that she could perhaps make a difference to his way of thinking. Even as he grew up and became a more and more questionable adult, it took me a long time to lose my sympathy for him because of Dana’s continued compassion. It’s a testament to Butler’s incredible writing that I still felt some dregs of sympathy in the last third of the book, even if not for long.
Weirdly, I didn’t want to let Dana down by hating Rufus. And I only allowed myself to really hate him when he made her write his letters for him, which was so thoroughly manipulative that she couldn’t stab him soon enough for me! I hate that after everything she did for him he still never quite saw her as a human being.
Maryam: I had a lot of sympathy for Rufus at first and I was able to forgive him when he said offensive things to Dana (like using the n word) or when he spoke badly to his mother because he was a young child, growing up as the son of a slave owner in the 19th century and he was a product of his time.
However, when he grew up my sympathy started to wither quite quickly. The moment I started seeing him differently was when he tried to rape Alice the first time. That was when I realized that Dana wasn’t going to change him like she wanted to at first. I understand that Dana wanted Rufus and Alice to be together so that she could be born but still, it was a giant red flag and things only went downhill from that. But I agree with you, I still couldn’t hate him completely because Dana didn’t. She saw him as a young boy and she saved his life too many times to hate him sooner (and I still think she didn’t completely hate him when she stabbed him, I think she did it to prevent herself from becoming the new Alice if that makes any sense?).
Mayri: Yes, that makes complete sense.
I keep thinking now about what you just said there, that Rufus “was a product of his time”. I feel like Dana always has a grasp of that in a way that I can’t.
How do you feel about Dana’s many difficult decisions? Was there anything you wanted her to do differently?
Mayri: I’m asking this because I felt like there was no right or wrong way in which Dana could have responded to so much of what happens to her and those around her. The whole situation is so completely and utterly wrong that there’s no way not to be tainted by it. Does that make sense? Let me think of an example … perhaps healing Alice is the best/worst example I can give. Dana has a good idea what Rufus is like by this time and in healing Alice she hands her to Rufus. Alice’s ultimate fate is bound up in Dana’s decision to heal her. Just as Dana’s ultimate fate relies upon Alice’s survival. In one sense, there is no kindness in helping Alice live and I was gutted again and again by each part of Alice’s story because Dana helped it all happen.
Maryam: That’s a great question! I don’t exactly know how I feel about it because I really don’t know how I would have acted myself if I had been in her place. As you said, everything is so wrong about the whole thing that it’s hard to highlight specific difficult decisions.
I wish she had tried to dissuade Alice from going to Rufus’s room but then that might have prevented Dana from being born in the first place so it’s hard to say!
Now, if you want to know our thoughts about the character work in Kindred and the depiction of slavery in fiction, you better go check the other half of the discussion on Mayri’s blog! 😉
Have you read Kindred? What do you think about this book? 😀