25th May, 2022, Toronto
I am now unemployed and sitting on the small terrace outside of my apartment as the movers (paid for by my lover’s new public sector employer (what a waste of the taxes I’d be paying if I earned enough money to pay taxes in the UK!)) pack up the vast majority of our possessions to then be shipped across the ocean on a literal ship. They are expected to be in transit for 2-3 months, so I have selected a small pile of books to see me through that interim, including all five of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series and all four parts of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I also have the new Verso biography on Winston Churchill kept aside to read on the plane: I shall not be arriving in the UK with any illusions!
What this impending locking away of my library has meant is that I’ve been running through numerous small books as a way to economise on space as bags will also have to be stuffed with the varied clothes I might need to wear during the unpredictable British summer.
The weather is lovely here.
It’s a bad time to leave Toronto, as the summers are beautiful and summer is just beginning. Then again, maybe that’s an overly generous reading and I just feel like I like the city more because I haven’t had to go to work for a few days and the weather’s been nice??? Who knows???
Bloodchild by Octavia E Butler is a collection of short stories originally published in 1995, with this expanded edition from 2005 containing two additional stories, two short “craft essays” as well as – a masterful touch – a brief page or so afterword (from Butler) to every single piece that explores and explains the contexts of writing/publication as well as her thoughts on the work from a distance.
This is similar to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, the fourth (I think?) book in Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos, a novella about climate disaster on an increasingly unliveable planet, followed by an essay in which Lessing discusses her lifelong interest in polar exploration, interests in climate change and – I realise now unnecessarily but didn’t when I read it – a lengthy justification for the use of genre fiction/elements of genre fiction to discuss serious and deeply significant elements of what it is to possess personhood.
Butler knows she doesn’t need to justify her choice of form/genre, but it is definitely phenomenally my thing (as someone who prefers digressive narrative nonfiction about the creation of “Art” out of all the types of writing – see my own hip-hop-o-crit) to get to see a little more about Butler than one sees in her fictions. Tho her books do – of course – contain recurring themes/characters/ideas, are all very much not about a pioneering Black science fiction writer from America (except for the very last piece included in Bloodchild) living in a realist world.
Butler’s fiction is about aliens and vampires, time travel and spaceships, plagues and impossible technologies, and that’s fun and exciting and (in Butler’s hands) can be used to express great emotionality and humanity, but ultimately I think I enjoy writing that directly speaks to reality rather than that which alludes to it.
I like the non-realist where it connects with the realist, and these micro-essays tying Butler’s lived experiences to the content of these seven pieces of short fiction – for me – enliven and enrich the stories tremendously. I recall the feeling I felt when I read the final few pages of Knausgaard’s A Time to every purpose under heaven or whatever that angels book was called that at the end collapsed the whole thing into a [meta?]fictional piece of writing about seagulls and family mythologies and lost human connections.
What I want in writing – whether it’s mine or it’s other people’s – is that sense of truth, of reality: I don’t like to read something and know that it definitely didn’t happen, and tho Le Guin, Butler, Jemisin, etc (the good genre writers I’ve read) are able to pretty effectively document how people would actually behave were they to be in the impossible (by virtue of current technology, current understandings of laws of nature (e.g. no magic no time travel no light speed travel no telekinesis and so on), the suspension of disbelief doesn’t extend beyond the end of the book.
What can – and does – persist, tho, are the emotions and the meanings, and I find those easier to hear and easier to hold inside an explanatory essay that ties the story I’ve read to the person, the author, who produced it.
To believe that a piece of writing, that any piece of art, can exist outside of the context of its creator and their life and circumstances is fucking facile, is undergraduate in the worst ways… I would go so far as to say that Barthesian thinking is nonsensical and stupid. To state that you think the context of a work doesn’t matter means YOU PRESUME ALL CREATORS HAVE THE SAME CONTEXT. The only way to truly believe that who created something and where and when they did so is irrelevant is if you think that the human experience, reality, is identical for all. It means you do not believe in institutional prejudice and discrimination, it means you do not believe in the effects of trauma, of significant cultural differences between different parts of the world and different political systems, it means you don’t believe that class and race and sex and gender and sexuality affect how a person lives, and the only way you can think this is if you’ve never met anyone who isn’t fundamentally identical-ish to you and been able to recognise their humanity.
Seven stories, including two naturalistic pieces, a story about a writer meeting god, a tale of human-alien synergy, and much much more of the Octavia E Butler type things that one would hope to find in a collection of short stories by Octavia E Butler.
Honestly, this might be the most I’ve ever enjoyed a collection of short stories, and I don’t know if that means that this is an exceptional book of short stories or if the little essay things at the end of each story need to be glued into other ones for me to be able to enjoy them properly.
A great read, a perfect small book.
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