Octavia Butler’s Pasadena: the city that inspired her to create new worlds
Have you tried to find a way to connect during this pandemic, to find meaning in everyday life?
One of host Tonya Mosley’s neighbors makes it a point to drive through Los Angeles from time to time to free her mind and find inspiration in her surroundings. Mosley isn’t quite there, but she enjoys taking daily strolls through 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 the kids ride bikes in the middle of the street and the manicured lawns and shrubbery rival those of the Midwest. For Octavia Butler, one of the most famous science fiction writers of our time, Pasadena was the spark that ignited her flame.
“There is something in this mixture of urban and wild”, journalist Lynel George said. “[Butler] was constantly looking at these interactions about 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 in Butler’s early life, she used the limited world around her—where she could only get around on foot or by bus—to create new worlds and new possibilities.
An “avid walker,” Butler traveled around Pasadena and wrote down what she called “walking thoughts” in a notebook, George says. Butler looked at the climate and noted small changes over time.
“That environment played a huge role in shaping his imagination about the sense of belonging to his books,” George explains.
Butler died in 2006. Along with her award-winning work, she also left something of an outline: notebooks, journals, letters, to-do lists, and countless library cards.
Now on display 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 had access to all of this material, which is shown through photographs in the book.
The “intimate” collection includes diaries and shopping lists, George explains. Butler wondered if she could afford to pay her rent and electricity bills and if she needed to pawn her typewriter.
Examining the calendars helped George understand Butler’s day-to-day 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 beautiful out of those little things.”
Excerpts from Butler’s diaries contain the contracts she made with herself in explicit notes that basically said, “Here are the things I must do, in order to have the space to do what I love the more.” And for Butler, it was writing.
Before she was 13, Butler decided she would figure out how to become a writer, George says. She planned what she needed to make this idea a reality: a typewriter, paper, books, more time to read.
An investment in yourself requires 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 over the course of her career, George says.
“I think the lesson I learned was this idea of habit: you just sit in the chair and you do it and it may sound awful, and it may sound awful, but you did something that day- there,” she said. “And the fact that you did means you’re a writer.”
The topics Butler wrote about were often in the future. “Parable of the Sower” from the “Parable” series, for example, was released in 1993 and is set in 2024. The novel presents 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 his intentional creation of alternate universes where black girls and women were central to forging a better future. She was the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and multiple Hugo Awards.
With all of this in mind, George says being a voyeur of Butler’s mundane diaries and notes makes the possibilities of creating a better future accessible to us all.
Without graduate degrees or trips to “fancy writers’ retreats,” Butler struggled in life, George says. But Butler focused on what she had instead of what she didn’t – whether it was a journal she found in a dumpster or a friend’s book with no cover.
“I think for all of us who are craving, ‘If only I could get this grant. If only I could get what you think is the missing piece of your recipe for success, it shows us that you don’t need of the thing you sometimes think you need,” George says. “You have to look at what you have and use it.”
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, the life cycles of trees and flowers in bloom, other people trying to capture theirs. “a handful of earth and a handful of sky” – enough to help us love, live and create during what often seems like our darkest times.
George jokes that she’s in a pandemic pod with Butler, who never learned to drive and has traveled as far as a bus or his legs could take him. Butler knew that “inspiration is absolutely everywhere,” George says, whether it’s sitting on a bench listening or listening to a story on the radio.
“She liked the notion of serendipity,” George says. “And serendipity is something that absolutely happens when you’re in a place and you’re looking and it’s this very focused gaze, you know, being absorbed and present in the world.”
Walking the Butler 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 to be a negative review, but George considers it a “meditation” where Butler observed connections in the world around him.
“Slowness was absorbing and listening and was in her here and now,” George says, “and that absorption allowed her to see.”
Cristina Kim produced and edited this broadcast interview with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.