Christopher Caldwell Tells Some Octavian Truth

Christopher Caldwell received the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship the very first year we gave it out. Here’s what he can say about what that was like:

I read Parable of the Sower when I was sixteen. I was a queer, precocious teen struggling with faith in Los Angeles and here was a strange, precocious, teen narrator struggling with faith in a fictional Los Angeles suburb in the near future. It wasn’t so much that I felt seen by the work as the realization that stories like mine were also worth telling. Until that point, my writing had mostly been imitative of what I thought great literature should be: white protagonists, heterosexual relationships, middle class agita unconcerned with the hows and whys of the status quo. Kindred had cracked the world open for me a year before, and Parable drove a wedge into that crack. I wanted to be more authentically me on the page and in my life.

I read a lot. And I wrote a lot, much of it pretty terrible. But I kept up with Ms. Butler’s career, and bought her latest books as soon as they came out. I listened and tried to internalize advice from “Furor Scribendi” and “Positive Obsession,” essays she had written about writing. My twin mantras became “forget talent” and “persist.”

I knew that she sometimes taught at Clarion West and Clarion workshops, and I assured myself that one day, when I felt good enough, I would apply during a year that she taught. That day never came, because she passed away in 2006, far too young. The grief you have for someone you have never met is a strange thing. But I promised myself the next year I would apply.

In 2007, I did apply. I could only afford one application, and I picked Clarion West because Samuel R. Delany was teaching. I didn’t think I would be accepted. I didn’t know how I could afford it if I was accepted. I didn’t know how I would take six weeks off from my terrible, high stress, low paying job. I was working nights and writing in that gap in the afternoon until it was time for me to return to work again. I didn’t even know if it was any good, but I told myself to stop worrying about talent and persist.

I was accepted. And I was elated. I didn’t know how I’d afford it. Then a second call came through, congratulations, you’re one of the first recipients of the Octavia E. Butler scholarships. I didn’t care then how I would take the six weeks off. I had to go. It felt like a calling. I’m not a superstitious person, but this felt as much like a sign as anything. I was enough, imperfect as I was and remain, to be chosen to receive this honor in the name of the writer I respected most in all the world.

The workshop was hard. I cried more than once. “Forget talent.” “Persist.” I did both and I turned in a story every week, sometimes staying up for 20 or more hours to do so. I felt I owed my best effort, and I gave it.

There’s a lot people can tell you about the workshop experience. For some people it helps them understand new ways to work, others value the connections and networks they develop. Some people blossom, others stop writing. But for me, receiving the scholarship and attending the workshop was sort of a contract. I must persist.

I’ve kept writing. I’ve kept giving my best. I’ve kept trying to bring something true and authentic to the world, even if it’s dressed up in lies, which, after all, is the business of fiction. I hope, without expectation, that something I write will crack the world open for some queer, brown teenager the way Kindred and Parable of the Sower cracked the world open for me. But the hope exists because I was honored and trusted with the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.

Speak like a subaltern: Elizabeth Bear on writing the other

Writer Elizabeth Bear on creating characters outside your experience:

For one thing, stop thinking about this person you’re writing as The Other. Think of them as human, an individual. Not A Man. Not A Woman. Not A Chinese Person or A Handicapped Person or A Person With Cancer or a Queer Person. A person. Stop trying to make them universal, and make them unique.

Edited to add:

For more, deepad continues the discussion, here:

I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional; they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

Call for essays–Octavia E. Butler’s work

(Thank you to Kalamu Ya Salaam and his e-drum for the information.)

CFP: I’ve been a woman I-don’t know-how-many-times: A Critical Tribute to the Work of Octavia E. Butler

Essay collection, ed. Patricia Melzer

Over the course of twenty-five years, Octavia E. Butler published thirteen books and is the most widely known African American woman science fiction writer. The impact of her fiction has been significant both in popular and critical terms. Her compelling narratives reach audiences far beyond traditional genre classifications: she has gained dedicated readers outside the science fiction milieu and has achieved cult status across a variety of audiences, including feminist, African American, youth, and science fiction readers alike. Her narratives depict complex societies in which alien species force-breed with humans and humans mutate into alien forms, in which time travel and shapeshifters exist, and in which humans have telepathic abilities. Butler’s science fiction narratives are intriguing because of the complex and at times contradictory reading experiences they offer; they juxtapose affirmation of difference with experiences of colonization and slavery. At the center of her narratives, which Ruth Salvaggio defines as stories of power, are the struggles of strong female characters who negotiate the contradictions created by colonial encounters and chaotic social upheaval. Butler’s writing raises issues of how to resist racism, sexism, and exploitation in ways that elucidate many of the concepts we encounter in feminist thought, as well as in queer imaginations.

While not alone in re-imagining the ways in which race, gender, sexuality and nationality intersect, Butler’s work is set apart from that of most other writers in her challenging and pleasureable engagement of simultaneous discourses. Above all, her work has ignited a significant critical resonance across disciplinary boundaries as few science fiction writers have, in particular in feminist studies of utopian thought, African American literary criticism, postcolonial discourse, and genre literature.

Until her untimely death in 2006, Butler’s stories have inspired and influenced feminist debates, and they continue to impact readers’ lives today. This volume aims to bring together for the first time a comprehensive collection of critical essays on Butler’s writing. The anthology will combine previously published work that was influential in shaping much of feminist and — more recently — queer debates on Butler’s fiction with new scholarship engaging with Butler’s writing. Those approaches may involve readings of any of Butler’s works in terms of e.g. feminist theory, queer theory, science fiction studies, postcolonial theory, lesbian and gay studies, and critical race studies.

E-mail proposals for new articles as attachments to:

Patricia Melzer
Women’s Studies, Temple University
phone: 215.204.6953

Deadline for proposals (ca. 1000 words): March 30, 2007
Deadline for full manuscripts (ca. 8000 words): June 15, 2007

The editor, Patricia Melzer, is Director of Women’s Studies at Temple University and author of “Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought” (2006).

Dr. Patricia Melzer
Director, Women’s Studies Program
Temple University
1114 West Berks Street
816 Anderson Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19122
phone: 215.204.6953
fax: 215.204.9611

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