Kindred by Octavia E. Butler [book]

“Books could be awesome mysteries to her, or they could be dangerous time-wasting nonsense”

CN slavery racism & also spoilers……

I just finished reading Kindred by Octavia E. Butler and I was really moved by it. This book is about time travel but it is so much more than that. It’s about slavery, race, class, love, power dynamics and the transformative nature of education. I have a LOT of feelings to unpack here and they are quite disjointed so please bear with me…

The story follows Dana, a 1970s black woman who finds herself transported to another time. She is drawn to a young, white boy called Rufus who she discovers is – SPOILERS – her ancestor. She realises that she must protect him at all costs for the sake of her bloodline, whilst trying to survive the antebellum/plantation (slavery era) south.

I won’t talk much about the story but am instead going to unpack the themes…

Slavery & education: In slavery times, it was discouraged/illegal for black slaves to be educated. Enslavers believed that educated black slaves were dangerous… Octavia also says in Kindred that “repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas” like liberty and autonomy and this is SPOT ON… I was reminded that education is an absolute privilege and something we cannot be complacent about. Even today, the disparity in levels of education benefits the (overwhelmingly white) elite, rich and powerful whilst minorities are not given the same consideration or opportunities. Racism and classism still exists today. Slavery still exists today around the world, which still impacts the lives of People Of Colour. In Britain, the government until very recently were still paying corporations for ‘loss of earnings’ caused by abolishing slavery in the UK, as if those corporations had any right to those earnings in the first place… I think that says a lot about how recent it all was, and how it is all just barely below the surface…

The book also made me think that it’s extremely important we know how grim history really is so that we can be better now and in the future, and how woefully inadequate history lessons at school are to speak honestly of our past. Unfortunately, history looks to white-wash over reality so that we don’t realise how abusive colonialism/slavery was and the generational trauma that it caused. Instead we are taught little ditties about Kings and Queens…

Style & Technology omissions & Power: Regarding the style of this book, I know that others have criticised it for being too conversational and also not explaining how Dana came to travel through time or why. Firstly on the style of writing, Dana is an author and mentions writing her story down so I truly believe the style is a reflection of that. We’re hearing the account from Dana’s perspective as if she is reading out the account she wrote down. Secondly, I really enjoyed not having the technology side put on a platter for me, and indeed I believe that this speaks to Dana’s lack of power. There are frequent references to power dynamics throughout. I believe that if Dana knew why this was happening, if she knew the science of it, she would be able to stop it but she is powerless so she must accept her fate and the reality that she may never know what happened or why.

Love: And lastly, this book told of great love. The love between mother and child. Love beyond limitations of time and space. Love that protects. Love that bonds. And on the flipside, we see the abusive, possessive, dysfunctional love that the Weylins exhibit both among themselves and towards Neil, Alice and Dana. It was inferred that Dana should be thankful for this so-called love, that she was being treated differently because of it, but love cannot exist in such a power struggle. I really think that Dana believed that the education and love she brought would be enough to change history, but did it? Great change only comes to those who want it, to people who are open to accept love and have a willingness to change which comes from an awareness that they are somewhat broken. The irony that the book was called Kindred was not lost on me. Kindred has many meanings. It, of course, means family but it also means similarity as in ‘kindred spirit’. However, there was little kindred spirit between Dana and Rufus. Instead she found family and love in those around her who had a similar, shared trauma that she had and by rejecting the so-called love Rufus would go on to give her, she really risked her own survival.

Questioning my own ancestry: REWIND. For those who don’t know me and my background, I’m mixed and sci-fi was something I reached for to make sense of feeling this otherness. I know that my ancestors/relations were definitely slaves and I believe there may have been slave overseers in my black bloodline (though to the naked eye, I am white passing). I personally felt very uncomfortable feelings reading this book because of my own bloodline but there’s a lot of growth to be had in uncomfortable feelings so I really am thankful for it.

In conclusion, I loved this book. It is profoundly important. Due to the intentional conversational style of writing, it makes it a super easy to read. I was touched by the love that came off of the pages, despite the traumatic story. It reminded me that I am privileged to be educated and I should never forget it, and it made me question my own ancestry and what I can learn from the past to create a better future. This book should be on the national curriculum.

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