Before The Underground Railroad, there was at least one other gritty and acclaimed novel with a fantasy twist about slavery: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.
Similarly to the Colson Whitehead, Kindred is bleak and violent and written for a modern reader, and it explores the awful realities of a plantation in Maryland in the first half of the nineteenth century. Butler’s novel is written in the first person perspective of Dana, a young woman who is unintentionally pulled backwards in time whenever her white ancestor – an owner of slaves (including her great great great grandmother) – is at risk of death.
The novel contains six episodes of time travel, each one increasing in length, with Dana understanding more about where and when she is until she has gathered enough information to survive – unhappily – until time travel sucks her back home to the 1970s and her white, significantly older, husband.
What the novel does impressively is explore the psychology behind slavery: Butler was a writer of genre fiction and, according to an essay by Robert Crossley included at the end of the book, this is her only novel not set in the future. Butler’s literary positioning within the science fiction genre doesn’t mean that her writing is uncomplex or unsuited to this serious scenario, though, and though the text in Kindred isn’t lyrically beautiful, it is [increasingly] psychologically probing as Dana begins spending months and months of time as a slave. Her ancestor is unaware of their blood connection, though he does understand that Dana is a protector and that she is, somehow, invested in protecting him. Dana, alas, will not let him die until he has – however violently – made Alice (an enslaved person) pregnant with their daughter.
To survive both as a black woman in a slave state and to survive as a descendent of an as-yet-unborn woman, Dana has to increasingly act against her own autonomy of thought and her sense of humanity: Butler dramatises with tension and insight the psychological journey a person goes on when enslaved: fear of violence leads to docility which leads to self-recrimination which leads to internalised self-hatred which leads to risk-taking behaviour in an attempt to escape which leads to enacted, horrendous, violence, which leads to fear of more violence, which leads to et cetera. It is a dehumanising system created and structured to dehumanise and even though Dana is intellectually aware of this fact, she is unable to resist the power of the violence and its psychological after effects:
it doesn't matter what you know and what you feel and what you understand because violence is violence is violence and - Butler seems to suggest - violence is more powerful when levelled against those who are unused to it than it is to those who fear it despite its familiarity
Dana, as is inevitable in any book exploring this topic, is tortured, threatened with torture and then tortured again. She is kicked and punched and abused verbally, physically and psychologically, and so too are all the people she meets and cares about in the past. Children are sold away from their parents as punishment; friends away from each other, lovers, partners, siblings, too: everything is cruelty, and instability is used as a destabilising means of control.
It is abuse it is abuse it is abuse, and Dana’s ancestors – both the rich white boy who becomes the rich white man she is summoned to rescue and his (simultaneously better and worse) father – excel at it. They have learned how to be slaveholders and they degrade others without regret or shame.
As a novel, Kindred is moving and highly successful, though I did find its ending abrupt: as soon as Dana is certain the time travel is over (the vague circumstances of which become inevitable from quite early in the novel) the book ends after maybe one more chapter. Although Dana and her white husband travel to contemporary Maryland to visit the places she spent time in the past and to search for evidence of her progenitors (both enslaved and not), this doesn’t feel like enough of an exploration of the physical and psychological legacy Dana’s time spent in the past had on her. In particular, Butler doesn’t explore the after effects on her marriage which – I think deliberately – appears dubious from the start. Dana’s husband is almost 20 years older than her, he is freshly rich and successful and he must have been negatively affected by the five years he spends – like Robin Williams in Jumanji – trapped in the past after hitching a ride on Dana.
Maybe I’m just making this criticism because I didn’t want the book to end, and also because I wanted a narrative “happy ending” via the cessation of this bad marriage. There is no happy ending to slavery though, and I think (other than one brief conversation about race-related nomenclature) the fact that this 1970s novel hasn’t dated at all is a sign that the problems are fucking huge and the problems are fucking serious.
A great novel, I’d recommend it and I’ll certainly read more Butler soon! #genreboy
This was a birthday gift from my lover, who makes a habit of indulging my secret hunger for time travel.
Scott Manley Hadley was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2019.
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