Monday, May 14, 2007

Kindred, Octavia Butler

It was the hauntology debate that motivated me to move this book higher on my to-read pile. In it, Dana, a black woman, a writer, living in Los Angeles in 1976 with her white husband, Kevin (also a writer), is mysteriously and repeatedly sucked back into the past, into the antebellum South. The trigger pulling her into the past each time appears to be some kind of threat to the life of Rufus, white son of a Maryland slave-holder. After her first visit to the past, Dana learns that Rufus is an ancestor of hers. She realizes that in order for her family to survive, she must continue to protect him. Over the series of visits, she develops a strange connection to him; he knows who she is and where she comes from, as unbelievable as that is. She thinks she can talk to him, try to change his attitudes. But each time she returns to his time, months or years have gone by (versus only minutes or days for her), and she watches in spurts as Rufus grows into a man of his time--ever more cruel, very much the slave-owner in a slave society. With each return, the act of "saving" Rufus becomes ever more indefensible--except that if he dies, she ceases to exist. Let me re-quote k-punk on this:
The deep, unbearable ache in Kindred arises from the horrible realisation that, for contemporary black America, to wish for the erasure of slavery is to call for the erasure of itself. What to do if the precondition for your being is the abduction, murder and rape of your ancestors?
Yes, that does come through. What also comes through is an almost journalistic (as well as memoir-istic) sense of the horror of slavery. Dana knows a lot about the history of slavery--names, dates, even details of slave narratives (occasionally the presentation of this information can feel like a fact dump)--but she is repeatedly confronted with the brutal truth that, before experiencing it for herself, she really understood nothing at all about it.

On one of her trips back, Kevin manages to go with her by grabbing on to her as she senses that it's happening. In their time there, they discuss the world around them. Kevin is surprised that certain aspects seem less brutal than he had imagined (he notices no oversight of the slaves at work, for example). Dana objects--despite himself, he is effectively minimizing the situation. She says:
"You might be able to go through this whole experience as an observer," I said. "I can understand that because most of the time, I'm still an observer. It's protection. It's nineteen seventy-six shielding eighteen nineteen for me. But now and then, like with the kids' game [they've just witnessed children playing a 'slave auction' game], I can't maintain the distance. I'm drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don't know what to do. I ought to be doing something. I know that."
Butler's (Dana's) prose is transparent, and her accounting of the events is straightforward and unadorned. The first line of the book ("I lost an arm on my last trip home.") dumps us uncomprehendingly into Dana's attempt to tell her story. This is very much a book in which the sequence of events pulls the reader along. What happens next? What happens? I said something about this to Aimée while I was still reading the book. She said, "I don't see what's wrong with that." Well, nothing's wrong with it, I guess. I wasn't complaining, really, just observing. We like to be told stories, we like to know what happens next. Dana's story is compelling, and she tells it well. The details are specific, horrible. And we feel we learn something about slavery beyond the basic facts, something about the experience of slavery itself.

Along with the horrible fact that Dana must seek to preserve the life of the increasingly awful Rufus, there is Dana's similarly terrible realization that when she is in the past she can't act as she would in her own time. As with her inability to maintain her distance, as in the passage quoted above, other aspects of her personality are fraught with peril. Her clothing (pants) is suspicious. Her very literacy puts her in danger. She is in the past for longer and longer periods before being somehow returned to 1976, which seems to happen only when she actually believes her own life is immediately threatened. Unfortunately for her, the dehumanization and brutality of slavery do not necessarily pose such immediate threats--but that doesn't mean she can't die from injuries sustained in a beating, whether she believed she was in specific danger or not. Since she doesn't know for sure, then, when her life is in actual danger, she finds herself forced to act as a slave in order to survive, to not draw undue attention to herself. She cannot be herself. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel come when Dana is struggling with this realization. She struggles to hold onto herself, to not lose herself in the enforced servility of the slave, even as she comes to understand and respect the varying techniques the slaves employ to live from day to day.



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