Friday, May 21, 2021

A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler, by Lynell George (author), Adenrele Ojo (narrator)

Penguin Random House Audio Publishing, ISBN 9780593458617, May 2021 (original publication September 2020)

This is an account of how Octavia E. Butler became Octavia E. Butler, the wonderful writer we loved, and lost too soon. Lynell George gives us Butler's life and development into a writer through Butler's own eyes and words as much as possible.

Butler's full name was Octavia Estelle Butler; her mother was Octavia Margaret Butler. In her younger years, she went by Estelle. Estelle was a quiet, shy girl--and the more she pursued her ambition to become a writer, the more she realized she needed to develop a more assertive, outward-facing personality.

That greater assertiveness was necessary because black girls growing up in the 1950s and 1960s weren't expected to become writers, or pursue any intellectual careers. Some of the obstacles she faced included her slight dyslexia, teachers who didn't have patience or understanding for helping her overcome it, classmates who bullied the big, seemingly slow, socially awkward girl. Others included those who loved and cared for her most, including her Aunt Hazel, who told her, at thirteen, that "Negroes can't be writers." They were trying to protect her from disappointment and heartbreak, and to steer her towards "safer" careers like being a secretary, but Butler didn't give up.

Some of the advantages she had were that Pasadena was a racially and ethnically diverse community, and in taking the public buses everywhere, she encountered a wide variety of people of different backgrounds, cultures, and occupations. Another advantage was the accessibility of the Pasadena Central Library, that gave her access to all the books her hoarded pennies couldn't buy. (I'm a decade younger; I remember when 75¢ was a bit expensive for a paperback, and 95¢ was just outrageous. Pennies.) When she was in her teens and starting to submit her first stories, that library became her access to the magazine The Writer, that gave her access to the knowledge of how to format a manuscript, how to submit a story, and other essential details of the business of being a writer.

Along the way, Butler was determined to support herself, and worked a wide variety of temporary and part-time jobs, and started developing and trying out her more assertive "Octavia" personality in order to do the things she needed to do..

This is the barest overview of just the early part of her career, and George tells us better and tells us more. In doing so, she combines her own research with Butler's words from her own journals, and gives us an inside look at what a writer's life, at least this great writer from a seemingly unpromising background, is like.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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