Vampires and Women: Octavia Butler and the Literary Canon (An Essay from 2015)

This is a new series that I am doing where I find old essays I wrote for college, and I am republishing them here. Some of the compositions are rough, some of them are random, but I thought this would be a fun place to publish some edited versions of these old English papers. I hope you enjoy them!

 

Vampires and Women

Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling, written in 2005 was a force to be reckoned with. Butler, who is an acclaimed Black female writer in the science fiction and fantasy genre, wrote the first of what would have been a trilogy though she had died in 2006 before she could finish the last two novels. Fledgling is about a Black female vampire named Shori who wakes up alone in the woods, with no memory of who she is or what she is. Throughout this book, she is tasked with rediscovering her roots and making connections with forgotten family members along the way. Butler’s novel Fledgling and the short story Bloodchild should be included the canon of Women’s Literature because it deals with the complex issues of love, sexuality, and friendship within the literary veil of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Octavia Butler is a Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author. She became one of the first African-American women to gain fame within the genre of science fiction. Gilbert and Guber, writers of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women stated; “According to many feminist and African American scholars, Octavia Butler transformed science fiction conventions by grappling with the racial and ecological problems that today confront all human beings.”(Gilbert, Guber 1307) Not only did she tackle the robust ideas of race and religion, but also her writing deals with the views of love, sexuality, and friendship heavily.

The theme of love is prominent throughout this book. In many of Butler’s works, her depiction of love tends to be on the unconventional side. Renee/Shori’s (the protagonist in the novel Fledgling) relationship with Wright is the perfect example of the theme. Wright finds her walking on the side of the road, and immediately Shori/Renee feels drawn to him.

“I surprised myself completely by instantly wanting to go home with him. I went around to the passenger side of his car and opened the door.”(Butler 8) This moment isn’t quite loving yet but an infatuation a longing. Shori/Renee is a vampire, she is a woman alone, small, and has lost all of her memory. But in her the initial contact with Wright she holds power. Shori/Renee has agency of herself and knows that she has the power to control the situation. She sees Wright and her infatuation is determined and based on her extreme hunger. But after she feeds, she feels a deeper connection; “He tasted wonderful, and he fed me without trying to escape or to hurt me. I licked the bite until it stopped bleeding. I wished I could make it heal, wished I could repay him by healing him.”(Butler 12) Similarly in Octavia Butler’s short story Bloodchild while unconventional, love plays a major role in that text. The story that takes place in a colony on another planet. We follow a family who is dealing with the struggles of cohabitation with another alien race called the Tlic. Gan, a boy chosen to be a carrier of T’Gatoi’s young. “‘Yes.’ I leaned my forehead against her. She was cool velvet, deceptively soft. ‘And to keep you for myself,’ I said. It was so. I didn’t understand it, but it was so. She made a hum or contentment.”( Butler 2.1320) In both the short story and the novel, there are examples of complex relationships. Relationships that aren’t easily defined, Butler, use the genre of science fiction and Fantasy to manufacture relationships that on the surface seem strange and “inhuman” but show a complexity of love that transcends into something relatable to the reader.

In Fledging the theme of sexuality oozes through. Nothing goes hand and hand with vampires more than sexuality. In the novel, Shori/Renee has to have what they call symbiotes to survive. Symbionts are what vampire’s call the humans that they choose to be in their, family and they feed on them to survive. They need around three or four to make sure they have a healthy rotation (pun intended), to not bring any harm to their humans. The act of taking blood is depicted as a very sexual experience. When Shori/Renee first meets Wright (her first symbiont), they immediately participate in the ritual. “A moment later, I bit hard into the side of his neck. He convulsed, and I held on to him. He writhed under me, not struggling but holding me as I took more of his blood. I took enough blood to satisfy me…He sighed and held me, leaning back in his seat and letting me lean against him.”(Butler 12) The act of taking blood can be a metaphor for women being able to partake in sexual fulfillment and not be ashamed. She says she is “satisfied,” Butler uses that word to bring emphasis to her fulfillment.

The relationship between Shori/Renee and her symbionts is one she gives full agency to them. In the case of Celia and Brook (two of her new symbionts) who both were apart of Shori/Renee’s father’s, and brother’s family, who were both murdered. Because the bond between a Symbiont and their Ina (Vampire) is for life, (they are physically bound to one another) Shori/Renee gives them a choice on whether to join them or not. “‘If you know any other Ina, and you would prefer to got to them, you should do it now, while you can,’”(Butler 108)

Butler gives all her female characters agency in their relationships. She has Shori/Renee present the offer, instead of having her bite the two girls without their consent. The relationship between the Symbionts and their Ina (vampire) isn’t just one based on sexuality alone. Octavia is sure to show the development of trust and friendship throughout the novel, depicting a loving relationship between all members of Shori/Renee’s surrogate family. That isn’t often seen in literature between male and female characters. Shori/Renee’s family is one made up of Wright (male), Celia(Female), Brook (female), and Joel (male). Butler uses this odd family dynamic to show the difficulties of human relationships and especially the challenge of friendship between genders. “I glanced at Brook, feeling almost angry with her. ‘Ask me questions when you want to know things. Tell me whatever you believe I should know. Complain whenever you want to complain. But don’t talk to other people when you mean your words for me, and speak the truth.’ She shrugged. ‘All right.’”(Butler 122) Butler shows the hard part of relationships, especially new ones. They doubt Shori’s strength and ability to protect them. In this, she lays out the rules for Brook and doesn’t shy away from saying the hard stuff. But after this rough patch, Butler shows the friendship and trust beginning to grow. “ ‘ I didn’t ask what you knew. I asked whether you believe that I or my people murdered my families?’ He glanced back at his fathers and brothers. ‘I don’t. I don’t even believe you could have.’

‘Then stop scaring my symbionts. If you have questions, ask them.’

‘You’re a child,’ one of the older men said. ‘And the two women with you are not your symbionts.’

I looked at him with disgust. He had already heard me answer this. I repeated the answer exactly: ‘They were my father’s and my brother Stefan’s. They’re with me now.’”(Butler 145) Butler uses the line “They are with me now.” Twice in the text, Shori/Renee takes ownership and then claims them as her family, friends, and lovers. At this moment in the story, she truly accepts her matriarchal role in this mismatched family.

In the short story, Bloodchild friendship is depicted as between characters as something strained. In the world she creates, friendship doesn’t thrive due to the circumstances of colonial life. “One of my earliest memories is of my mother stretched alongside T’Gatoi, talking about things I could not understand. Picking me up from the floor and laughing as she sat me on one of T’Gatoi’s segments. She ate her share of eggs then. I wondered when she had stopped, and why.”(Butler 2.1308) This failed friendship, and the burgeoning one in the novel shows how Butler’s writing seeks to introduce readers to the idea that there isn’t just one side to personal relationships. But several levels that can’t be defined by pure emotions. Both Fledgling and BloodChild show this dynamic of love and family in its genuinely complex form.

Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling and short story Bloodchild should be in the Women’s Literary canon, because of what the texts add to the literary canon in regards to the themes of love, sexuality, and friendship. Butler uses science fiction and fantasy to show the complexities of life through a fantastical lens. Her use of unique relationships and her new handling of would be stereotypes; Is what makes her a writer that should not only be included in the canon of this survey class but also in the broader canon of Literature.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. “Bloodchild.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women – The Traditions in English: Early Twentieth Century Through Contemporary. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 1307-320. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. Fledgling. New York: Seven Stories, 2005. Print.

M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 57-65. Print.

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