What the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Meant to Me: Dennis Ginoza

I discovered Octavia Butler’s work when I was in my thirties. I don’t remember how I came across Parable of the Sower, but in the days after 9/11, when it seemed we were lurching into a civilizational war, Butler’s dystopian novel was a revelation for me. It wasn’t just the themes she explored or the audacity of her ideas that thrilled, it was the perspective of her characters that truly engaged me. Growing up, I’d read lots of speculative fiction. While these works had always entertained, I’d never really connected with them at a more essential level, I could not recognize myself or the people around me in the fantastical books that I was reading. Perhaps that’s why, as an Asian kid who grew up in Hawaii public housing, I’d come to regard SF as a relic of my childhood.

Octavia Butler brought me back to speculative fiction. Despite the differences in our backgrounds, I recognized my own experiences in her work— the sense of being an outsider in your own culture, a sojourner in the only world you have ever known, a longing for something more, for connection and community. I began reading all of her books— Kindred, the Patternist series, the Xenogenesis trilogy. Each reaffirmed not only Octavia Butler’s extraordinary talent, but also her deep empathy for determined survivors trying to navigate oceans of brutality and oppression.

As I came late to Octavia Butler’s work, I also started writing fiction later than most at age forty. In 2011, I was honored to be awarded the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. Attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop was a powerful experience. As a Butler Scholar, I felt an added responsibility to contribute to the workshop. While I never met Octavia Butler, I like to think that she would have enjoyed knowing that the scholarship in her honor enabled an older, Asian-American writer who uses a wheelchair to be part of the very writing workshop she attended and taught. The sense of community I found at Clarion reflected the inclusive vision of Octavia Butler’s writing. I am, and remain, deeply grateful to have been part of the Clarion Class of 2011. It would not have been possible without the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.

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.

What the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Meant to Me: Jeremy Sim

Hi. My name is Jeremy, and I never really knew Octavia Butler.

Seriously. Somehow, despite being a nerd of the highest caliber, I didn’t grow up reading any of Octavia Butler’s books or stories. I never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and she passed away just two years after I had heard her name for the first time. I came to know about her only in abstract: I know she attended Clarion. I know that throughout her life she was a dear friend to the Clarion West community and many other writers in the Pacific Northwest. But not to me. At the time, I was still an outsider.

I used to be an lonely, stubborn, shy person. I say “used to”—but in many ways I still am. I came to writing like that: typing stories to myself in the dark, passively imitating writers I admired and stories I loved from afar. It felt good, like I was discovering a new world of my own. Maybe Octavia felt that way too, typing away on her Remington typewriter all those years ago. For me it was a kind of self-exile, I guess, taking myself out of the real world and losing myself in the pages and words of my own fiction. It was lonely, but at least it was satisfying. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all the while I was writing a thicker and thicker wall around myself. A wall no one could break through.

You want to know how all that changed? I got into Clarion West. I applied literally on a whim: I took the only story I had that was almost the correct length and sent it off without too much thought. When I got in, I had no idea what it meant. I was still an outsider, after all. Maybe I shouldn’t go to this Clarion West, I thought. It just didn’t seem like something that people like me did.

I remember clutching the phone to my ear on a scalding Los Angeles afternoon, with Neile Graham, the director of Clarion West, on the line. She said: “Jeremy, I want to tell you about the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.” I mumbled something along the lines of, “Oh, but that’s not for me, is it?” “It is,” she said. “And you’re welcome to apply for it, if you want. In fact, I’d encourage you to. I’m certain Octavia would want that too.”

I remember being distinctly surprised. It baffled me a little at the time, like my world had been flipped upside down. Someone wanted me? So with Octavia’s blessing still echoing in my ears, I went. I went to a writing workshop, and it changed everything.

To me, this scholarship was worth so much more than money. It was a rope, thrown over my wall where I could reach.

The most important thing I learned at Clarion West wasn’t how to write. It was this: that writing isn’t meant to be a lonely thing. Art is community. For the first time, I had writer friends. For the first time, I understood that it was about more than just me, that there were friends and allies and mentors and students and rivals and togetherness, not aloneness. And when I finally read Octavia Butler’s novels, Wild Seed and Clay’s Ark and the others, I realized she had known it all along. That community is everything. I saw the theme repeated over and over in her stories: the taking in of strangers and turning them into family. The acceptance of one’s self as a node in an infinite framework.

I don’t even know who to begin thanking for that. I never knew Octavia Butler, but now that I’ve read about her life, I’m starting to understand. I think of a shy girl whose Aunt Hazel once told her, “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers,” but who grew into a fearless warrior who broke through the walled gardens and worked to pull together the disparate strands of the writing world into a cohesive, inclusive whole.

She did so much to bring the marginalized into the spotlight, making herself an example to women and people of color who yearned to write great stories, but thought, “Oh, but that’s not for me, is it?” She stands proudly among the greatest of our writers, weaving herself into the tapestry and extending a hand out to others who would join her.

I’m still taking shaky steps up from the platform Octavia built for me. But I haven’t forgotten what she stood for, and what we all have to keep standing for. And one day, I’ll extend the end of the rope to someone else. Someone who’s on the outside, looking for a way in, but only knows how to sit alone and wall themselves off. I’ll tell them: “Here, this is for you.” And I’ll tell them that I came as far as I did because a long long time ago, way back in the twentieth century, there was a girl named Octavia Butler who started out on the outside, all alone, but broke through.

Adapted from my essay “Dear Octavia,” first appearing in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, ed. Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal (2017).