30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #3 Octavia Butler

You would think that writing novels might sate your appetite for reading them, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. There seem to be countless numbers of novelists out there, writing dazzling books.

As the November 1 publication date approaches for my own novel, Her Own Vietnam, I’m writing about 30 of my favorite women novelists. I dare you to read their books and not become a fan.

The majesty and mystery of Octavia Butler

First, that name. Octavia Butler. There’s majesty and mystery to it. Someone knew something when that child was born. And that makes sense, because Octavia Butler’s books are full of people who have special ways of knowing.

You could call her a science fiction writer, although I don’t actually think of her that way. I think her books ask the universal question of all fiction: “What if?”

However, she certainly swept the top literary awards for science and fantasy fiction, winning both the Nebula and Hugo awards – twice.

Octavia Butler wrote 12 novels that comprised three different series, and two additional stand-alone novels. Many of these books unfold in worlds different from our own, with characters that are not strictly human.

Creating new worlds and reshaping familiar ones

Her most famous novel, Kindred, takes place in a completely familiar world. It has one small wrinkle, though: the main character, a young African American woman, keeps being flung back in time to a plantation in rural Maryland. There she is both enslaved and entrusted with a mission to save the future, including her own.

I am not a big fan of science fiction or fantasy, but I am a fan of Octavia Butler. Her books create other universes that serve as mirrors to examine what is most human in us. How do we understand and respond to race, gender, otherness? What makes a family? What is the purpose of power? How thin is the line between what we know and what we fear?


Octavia Butler herself seemed fearless. As an African American woman and a lesbian, she broke new ground and demanded respect in the predominantly white, male field of science fiction. She was the first writer in that genre to win a MacArthur Fellowship, which we all secretly think of as a genius grant.

She was an imposing woman, 6 feet tall, yet shy and introverted, according to her own description. I had the privilege of hearing her speak several months before her death in 2006, and she was witty and humble as she addressed an adoring, standing-room-only audience.

Octavia Butler died at 58. Who knows where else she might have taken us with her words?

Octavia Butler (Photo by Leslie Howle)

Octavia Butler
(Photo by Leslie Howle)


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