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Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.

She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.

The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland – a very dangerous place for a black woman – the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.
I’ve had this classic of African American genre fiction on my shelves for a long time, and was finally prompted to read it by the release of a graphic novel which spins off the work – asking Nnedi Okorafor if I should read the book or the comic first, the definitive answer was the book, so I have! (Thursday’s review will be of the comic).

Kindred is one of those books that I, arguably, should not be reviewing, and should just be describing. It’s about experiences essentially foreign to me, not because of fictionality, but because of reality; I am spared much of what happens in the novel not because it is fictional, but because I have privilege – white privilege, often perceived male privilege, and the luck to be born in 1989, not 1789. On the other hand, Butler’s intent in the novel seems to be as much about making immediate and personal the impact of slavery for the modern white reader as anything else, so I might be the perfect reviewer.

On that score, Kindred is brutally brilliant. It drops us, with our 20th century understanding of how the world works (1976, so things have changed even since then), repeatedly back into the world of the antebellum Southern States; Dana, our narrator, has to adjust to the survival strategies of a black slave in 1819, instead of the survival strategies a middle-class black woman married to a white man needs. Butler doesn’t let the brutality go unmarked, talking about the difference between seeing it on film (as, perhaps, in the earlier seminal TV series Roots) and witnessing it in person – the way more senses are drawn in and it becomes more viscerally appalling; she also then goes on to demonstrate the brutality of it directly on the body of Dana herself. Kindred doesn’t shy away from the parts of slavery that are often covered up, either; rape by the master, whether violent or otherwise, is an everpresent threat in the novel, and it isn’t sexy, it’s appropriately horrifying, shocking, and damaging. Nor are the consequences of rape pretended away; that is, the children that resulted from rape are, in fact, an instrumental plot point in the novel, and also something Butler grapples with powerfully in terms of their modern legacy in the United States of America.

Linked to this is Kindred‘s empathetic approach to the psychology of slavery. Slavery colours every interaction in Kindred, both past and present, changing and altering the power dynamics, the human dynamics, the boundaries of behaviour, the approach of one person to another; it changes people’s motivations in ways small and large, and what they have to consider in terms of consequences to their actions. Butler really lays out the way white slave owners dehumanised and stripped the agency from all black people, slave or free, while slaves had to consider the cost of every action weighed against the punishment and consequences for themselves and everyone around them. It’s conveyed subtly and more strongly as Dana spends more time in the past, and as the mentality of a slave increasingly changes her thinking about the world she is in; Butler builds it up subtly, only at the end having Dana really explicitly talk about it but making it an undercurrent running throughout Kindred.

The other thing Kindred powerfully grapples with is modern gulfs in understanding; this is a time travel novel with a black protagonist, after all. Kindred delves into what that means with Dana and Kevin, her white husband, having fundamentally different experiences of and understandings of the past; their present experiences are similar, but their experiences in the 19th century underline just how much racism still persists in the modern day, by drawing out the point. Butler never hammers the point home in a blunt conversation, but just throughout the novel allows the theme to emerge of how different the experiences in history of black and white people were; it’s a powerfully effective approach.

Kindred isn’t the only book about slavery out there; but it’s one of the most effective I have ever read at getting across the psychology of both slave and master in a slaver society, and Butler’s novel should keep being read, if not be made required reading.

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1 Comment

  1. […] format into a visually stunning work for a new generation of readers. ~~~~~ Earlier this week, I posted my review of Octavia Butler’s seminal 1979 novel Kindred; this is a slightly odd review because rather […]

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