Octavia Butler’s Afrofuturistic Visions: Reframing Identity, Culture, and History (Seminar)


American / Anglophone

Ji Hyun Lee (Cornell University)

Lilith Acadia (University of California, Berkeley)

In 1979, Octavia Butler juxtaposed the neo-slave narrative form and the science fictional device of time travel to create Kindred, a transdisciplinary novel that made slavery viscerally real to more than half a million readers. Forty years later, Butler’s work remains highly relevant in our culture—with Ava DuVernay preparing the first screen adaptation of Butler’s work—and political climate—Butler’s prescient Parable series seems to have predicted our current world. Butler’s writing is the subject of significant and varied cross-disciplinary scholarly inquiry.

As a founding voice of Afrofuturism, Butler challenged and reframed the hegemonic understandings of identity, history, and even territory in her fiction, employing a literary arsenal of aliens, mutants, vampires, time travelers, and new religions. What do these concepts mean to a modern African-American woman who is whisked back in time to the era of antebellum slavery whenever her white, slave-owning ancestor is endangered (Kindred)? How are these ideas destabilized for an immortal shapeshifter who traverses continents in his quest to mold humanity to his image (Seed to Harvest)? Or how perpetually fluid are identity, history, and territory to an ancient race of space-faring, gene-trading extraterrestrials whose DNA is rewritten with every new partner species (Lilith’s Brood)? In light of such questions, this seminar invites abstracts for papers that explore Butler’s unique approach to transculturation, especially how she utilizes the generic conventions of science fiction to subvert traditional ways of looking at and understanding the world. Papers may incorporate themes from current Butler scholarship, including: Afrofuturism, biopolitics, defining the human, disability studies, ecocriticism, knowledge creation, power structures, distinguishing nature and culture, the female hero/protagonist, the apocalypse in literature, race and social critique in literature, Butler’s writing process, and archival research into Butler’s papers.

As one of the founding voices of Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler challenged and reframed the hegemonic understandings of identity, history, and even territory in her fiction, employing a literary arsenal of aliens, mutants, vampires, time travelers, and new religions. This seminar invites papers that explore Butler’s unique approach to transculturation, especially how she utilizes the generic conventions of science fiction to subvert traditional ways of looking at and understanding the world.