What the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Meant to Me: Amin Chehelnabi

When I first received the Octavia Butler Scholarship in 2014, I was both surprised and overwhelmed. Admittedly, I didn’t know who Octavia Butler was, but the name fascinated me. I felt obligated – no, impelled – to find out about this person with whom I knew very little but who had given me so much. As part of my prerequisite reading material for the other instructors, I added Octavia Butler’s work to the pile.

Hers was the first I read. I consumed Blood Child. I thought to myself, “How is it possible that I hadn’t known about this author until recently?” Her work blew me away, literally. I felt an immediate connection with her words and her stories. As an Australian-born gay Iranian I’ve always had a love for speculative fiction that pushed the boundaries of gender, sexuality and religion, encompassing other cultures and the minority voices they had come from.

I came to understand that the underlying theme in my writing had to do with humans and their relationship to the divine, in all its nuances and guises, and reading Blood Child empowered me. It told me that I am someone whose voice can be heard as well, an Iranian perspective hitherto unrecognized and unknown. Octavia approached the same issues that I wanted to address; she took risks with her fiction to the point that it became something completely “other” in relation to other speculative fiction writers, and because of that she stood out, and deservedly so.

I collected my thoughts (as one does with such things) and recognized that receiving the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship meant that my writing had in some way associated with her late work. When I think about the two stories I submitted to Clarion UCSD, it made even more sense. I submitted two stories that pushed boundaries to the point that I still fear even today it might rub a conservative Iranian the wrong way, or potentially cause Iranians or Muslims to lash out against me. I guess Clarion gave me the freedom to write them, and the Scholarship the relevance and acceptance that, yes your voice is a valid voice and must be recognized and heard.

There’s one fundamental thing with Octavia Butler and her work that stuck me. It continues to touch the hearts of different cultures, and the minds of those minority groups who have so much to say yet who feel their voices are stilled by their circumstances or their upbringing. This is what’s so wonderful about the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship: it allows those people a chance to make their voices heard, to give people a broader understanding of different cultures; we as human beings to identify with their beauty and tragedy, their nuances of emotion and situation, and awareness to issues that are still taboo in their culture or country; and all through the lens of speculative fiction. The Scholarship is therefore a worthy thing. It equals validation and purpose, a rising fire in the gut, purifying and empowering, and it has meant so much to me, and will continue to do so until my last breath.

Amin Chehelnabi is an Australian-born gay Iranian with a strong interest in the Speculative Fiction field. His work ranges from historical and dark contemporary fiction set in the Middle East, to horror and fantasy fiction. He is a graduate of the Clarion UCSD Writer’s Workshop, and a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Award in 2014. In the same year he had a horror story published with Innsmouth Free Press, which was given an honorable mention in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven. Amin had also been a panelist at the Shaping Change Conference at UCSD regarding Octavia E. Butler and her work.