by Jamal Stone
Kindred, Octavia Butler’s 1979 best-seller, defies genre conventions. It is an intensely emotional novel that blends elements of sci-fi time travel with an antebellum first-person slave narrative. The novel takes African American protagonist Dana back to slave times at seemingly random intervals, leaving her to survive in a cruel world as she tries to figure out why she’s been put there.
But is Kindred wholly fiction? The weight of Kindred’s emotional impact comes from its core of non-fictional elements: the pastoral, almost pleasant descriptions of the land surrounding the Maryland plantation; the pervasive smell of sweat and blood in the fields; the allusions to Frederick Douglass’s memoir. Butler’s rigorous research reminds readers that these horrorscapes are not dreamt up dystopias–this is the US’s past, revisited.
Butler’s bibliography is usually more cut-and-dried science fiction (thus the two Nebula and Hugo Awards in her trophy case). For Kindred, however, Butler’s consolidation of different genres presents a challenge to readers–how do you define a novel that resists classification? As we consider this question, we turn our attentions to various catalogers of the literary world.
The Library of Congress, full of experts in cataloging, offer a thorough, if inelegant, solution:
1. African American Women–Fiction. 2. Los Angeles (Calif.)—Fiction. 3. Southern States—Fiction. 4. Slaveholders—Fiction. 5. Time travel—Fiction. 6. Slavery—Fiction. 7. Slaves—Fiction.
Clearly, these classifications are pretty exhaustive. There is one unifier, though—they all fall under the guise of fiction. If we’re taking the time to differentiate “Slavery,” “Slaves,” and “Slaveholders,” perhaps we can also acknowledge the kernels of truth that we find in historic fiction.
Alright, let’s see how the publishers define Kindred‘s spirit. The book’s latest edition comes with Beacon Press’s descriptor, “Science Fiction/African American Literature,” plastered in caps-lock on the back cover. Whereas the Library of Congress’s classifications were tiring, Beacon Press’s solution suffers from precisely the opposite problem.
For the author’s part, Butler never defined Kindred as science fiction; she even argued that there’s “no science in it.” For example, the time travel elements are never fully explained (or even explored, really). There are no technicalities in Kindred, no nerdy marriage of physics and sci-fi to be found. Instead, Butler described Kindred as “a sort of grim fantasy.” Grim fantasy –a genre that reflects the story’s bleak tone but perhaps diminishes its historicity.
We’ve now seen wildly different classifications for a novel from the library, the publisher, and the author. Why such a discrepancy?
It might come down to a different sense of goals. For the library, excess in categories can translate into easier access for patrons, which is why a novel like Kindred can be classified as “L.A. fiction” even though less than a fourth of the novel takes place there. Publishers, meanwhile, strive for attention grabs. As reductionist as “Science Fiction/African American Literature” feels, it also could conceivably pique a lot of interest by jamming two genres together. Octavia Butler understood the concept of “genre” in market terms, as a method to funnel readers towards certain books. “You know how we are,” she told Stephen Potts, talking about the writing world, “if we kill off some [generic marketing categories], we will invent others.”
So who, exactly, are genres for? Is it for the reader to establish expectation? For the publisher to sell? For the author to define? Kindred may not offer any concrete answers, but it does have strong storytelling to go alongside its genre-bending. The evasiveness of Kindred’s label shows that Butler’s voice was unique in literature. And, with all the literary excess, that might be the only label you need.
Find out more about Octavia Butler and her works here.