a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Deborah Wood Holton
Musings on Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993)
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Earthseed: The Books of the Living (Butler Parable of the Sower)
Change is God, according to Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist in Octavia Estelle Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993). [i] And, what is Change, but Ashé? Ashé[ii]. Ashé is the dynamic power of movement. It is the invisible potential that moves us to move. To flow. To go. To grow. To change. At the 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the Black Aesthetic, artist-scholar Arturo Lindsay defined Ashé as being “a concept that is seminal to the Yoruba belief system grounded in the principle that all things —animate and inanimate—are vested with a life force. The Yoruba are a loosely identified ethnic group in West Africa that share a common worldview and language. . . . Yoruba aesthetics is inextricably linked to the divine” (Lindsay). Lindsay makes direct connection between the Yoruba belief system and its pervasiveness in our world, citing the work of Sheila Walker who “asserted that Yoruba cultures so greatly impacted other enslaved Africans and their descendants that the result has been a virtual Yoruba-ization of the African Diaspora.” Further, says Lindsay, “Yoruba art historian and theoretician Rowland Abiodun confirms Walker’s hypothesis in his article “African Aesthetics” identifying the presence of ashé in U.S. African American secular and sacred spaces. He writes: ‘In African American culture [ashé] is more implicit than explicit’“ (Lindsay; Rowland).[iii]
When Butler speaks of Change through the words of Lauren Oya Olamina she implies Ashé. That is, Change with purpose; Change that makes a way for the “Next Thing.” This notion of the Next Thing and the volition that it demands artist-scholar Moyo Okediji addressed at the Discussion of a Black Visual Art Aesthetic this past summer held at the Carter Presidential Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Preparing for what is to come, being ready, anticipating Change, to survive enslavement and to thrive amid adversity—this has been and remains a feature of the Black Aesthetic (Okediji).
Change anticipates the Next Thing. Change is responsible for the spiritual foundations of humanity. What it means to be human is to be conscious of change, responsible to, and a shaper of change. It is will-filled change, hidden from view yet ever present. Change is the essence of Ashé.Butler called the will, the drive, and the persistence to strive for the Next Thing in pursuit of Ashé “positive obsession.” It was a quality her character Lauren recognizes in her self and observes as being necessary in order to accomplish great things. It was also a quality Butler used to describe herself (Butler “Positive Obsession”; Butler Parable of the Sower). This is what Lauren says:
Prodigy is, at its essence,
adaptability and persistent,
positive obsession. Without
persistence, what remains is an
enthusiasm of the moment. Without
adaptability, what remains may
be channeled into destructive
fanaticism. Without positive
obsession, there is nothing at all. (1)
Butler has said in several interviews that she deliberately writes herself into all of her work in some way. As a writer Butler constantly included people of African origin as agents of change, as her novels such as Kindred (1979), her only mainstream and perhaps most widely read novel, and Wild Seed (1980), a science fiction novel that is also speculative fiction attest. Sower provided a way for her to alert society about the destructive trajectory she observed, while offering one possibility for change. Using the religion, Earthseed, Butler sowed hope in light of a diminishing future (Mehaffy and Keating).
In 1985, at the “Black Woman Writer and the Diaspora” conference at Michigan State University in East Lansing I had, along with several other women presenting at the conference, the opportunity to lunch with and hear Octavia Estelle Butler’s (1947-2006) keynote address. It was an event that brought me not only closer to her work, but also far more appreciative of, and inspired by, her journey as a creative writer. Butler had written six novels by that time, among them Kindred and Wild Seed. Butler’s encounter with us women at the conference was memorable for her as well, for she mentioned being a significant moment for herself as a black author (Rowell).
Almost ten years later and with a worldwide audience rooted in literature, science fiction, feminism, and the African diaspora, Butler published Sower, a Nebula Award finalist (Rowell; Potts and Butler). It was her tenth and the first in the Earthseed series.Sower is a coming of age story about a teenager girl who, inspired by a woman astronaut and repelled by the religion of her father, decides to found her own religion, Earthseed, so that she and her converts can survive the post-apocalyptic horrors of life as she and they know it.
Set between 2024 and 2027, the novel’s title comes from the Bible’s New Testament parable of the same name found in Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:2-9; and, Luke 8:4-8. The Christian parable is a story about four different kinds of planting: among the rocks where nothing will grow; among the weeds where the seed will choke; on hard ground vulnerable to the pecking birds; and, in fertile soil where seed can grow and flourish. In Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; and Luke 8:11-15, Jesus interprets the story to mean that God’s Word is similarly received. Only those who are the “good ground” have the capacity to receive the Word, for only within those who are both ready and able can the Word sprout and flourish.
For Butler, the biblical parable served as a metaphor for our perilous times. For Sower’s Lauren, said Butler, religion is a “tool. So I use that tool as something that [Lauren] can use [sic] to help people who follow her and those who are influenced by them, to save themselves” (Mehaffy and Keating). Through Lauren’s diary entries that include poems, which are the holy words of Earthseed, we come to know how she and the companions who follow her journey together through charred and vile terrain to found their religious community (Williams; Cobb).
In an interview with John C. Snider (Snider), Butler summarized Lauren’s background and intentions that ground the religious aspects of the two Earthseed novels, Sower and Parable of the Talents (1998):[iv]
Well, the character [Lauren] who comes up with the religion is living during a near-future time that’s gotten very nasty; the U.S. has collapsed economically and ecologically, and things are going very badly. People, if they’re surviving with any degree of comfort, are living in walled communities. Her father is a Baptist minister, and she feels that he’s a good man in his religion. There’s nothing wrong with it, except that it isn’t really preparing people for what they have to deal with today. What she comes up with is a religion that gives people a goal. It helps them deal with what’s going on in their day, but it also gives them a future goal. Actually, the goal is to go to heaven, but she means it literally. She says the destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars. She helps people deal with the changes that have happened and the changes that will happen. She kind of points the way as she sees it, and describes things as she sees them. It’s a fairly harsh religion, because there’s no one to worship, and there’s no one who’s going to pull you out of hot water if you get into it (Snider, 215).
Influenced by the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, but also the space program of her youth, Butler drew from the turmoil she witnessed from her home in Pasadena, California; regionally, as she traveled the country; nationally, as she perceived trends and broken promises; and globally, as she reflected our impact on the earth, and at the stars that hold our future (Jackson). In the Reader’s Guide at the end of Sower, as well as in numerous interviews that followed the novel’s publication, Butler shared thoughts about her influences, and the concerns she had that motivated her to write it as she did, (Butler “A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler”; Burton-Rose; Cobb; Kenan; Mehaffy and Keating; Rowell; See; Williams; Brown).
A “news junkie” by her own admission and a member of several environmental groups, Butler paid close attention to the impact global warming had on the environment, and the legislation that turned our attention away from discerning its spiraling effects around the globe. She felt strongly that our survival will depend on our ability to find solutions to the increasing affects of global warming. She worried about the privatization of education, the corporate sponsorship and competitive trends that she saw shifting the goals of education from learning to profit. The enslavement of the poor and marginalized she monitored closely, recognizing the new ways slavery appeared increasingly under different guises, such as throwaway labor, debt slavery, and indentured slavery (Cobb; Williams). Embracing diversity and inclusivity, expanding our definitions of community, these will be, she felt, just as religion can be, critical strategies to overcoming the problems we have created. Our future, our destiny, will be shaped by our ability to embrace other possibilities.
To illuminate her concerns, Butler gave us in Sower a set of “what-if” scenarios typical of speculative fiction. What if the 2024 “drug of choice” (as methamphetamine is for over 24 million world-wide today) promoted invincible feelings of not only euphoria but also a hunger for arson and the deadly ribbons of fire it produces, the rush and the burn? What if there were another drug that made you smart fast, guaranteed an Einstein like intelligence without your having to do any thinking or learning the hard way the value of persistence? What if I, she seems to ask, intensify the violence? Intensify the poverty. Intensify the raping (in Sower, anyone is fair game, children, adults, the elderly). Intensify the murder. Intensify the disregard for human life (cannibalism is alive and well). Intensify the slavery, all kinds. Intensify the indifference, the intolerance, the moral decay.
Butler was quick to say, though, that Sower is not prophetic. In her interview with National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” with Juan Williams, she was adamant that her intention was instead “a warning”: “These novels [Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents] are, ‘If we are not careful’ you know, ‘if we carry on as we have been, this is what we might wind up with.’ The problems that I write about are problems that we can do something about. That’s why I write about them” (Williams).
In her interview with Publisher’s Weekly’s Lisa See, Butler reflected on how just thinking about and writing about these topics with such intensity produced for her a “’literary menopause,’ more commonly known as writer’s block.” Said Butler in the interview, “I knew I wanted my . . . book to be about a woman who starts a religion, but everything I wrote seemed like garbage” (See). Using poetry to introduce diary entries was the key to breaking her four-year block. “’I’m the kind of person who looks for a complex way to say something,’ [Butler] explains. ‘Poetry simplifies it. When I started to write poetry, I was forced to pay attention word by word, line by line. . . . I didn’t want to make fun of religion. Lauren’s father . . . is neither a fool nor a hypocrite. He’s a decent man who can’t cope with the situation he’s in. Lauren feels about religion the way I feel about writing. For her it’s a positive obsession, even when she realizes it’s ridiculous and impossible’” (See; Butler “Positive Obsession”). Said Butler:
I think one of our worst problems as human beings is our lack of foresight and our denial. Educated people behave this way so they can keep their jobs. Uneducated people do it by doing drugs and taking too much alcohol. I used to think that we’d all die from nuclear war. Now I see that we’re not going to do that, but it wouldn’t be much different from drinking ourselves to death. So for the book I looked around for a force that nothing could escape. One of the first poems I wrote sounded like a nursery rhyme. It begins: God is power, and goes on to: God is malleable. This concept gave me what I needed (See).
Lauren’s diary begins on the eve of her fifteenth birthday and covers a four-year period, with sporadic entries that are divided further into months or days. The second half of the book takes place in 2027, within a three-month period. In the first half, Lauren writes about the community in which she and her family lives and the burning and murder of her family that propel her to leave. Throughout, her diary describes the erosion of society and its most basic systems; the moral decay that has taken hold of their communities; the relentless impact of global warming; the people she cares about; her deepest desires and aspirations; and, her own delusions.
The delusion Lauren suffers from is called hyperempathy. People who are afflicted with it believe that they feel another’s pain and have physical reactions that correspond to what they see, although they do not bleed when another bleeds or die when another dies. The other side of her syndrome allows her to believe she’s experiencing pleasure between others, something that doesn’t happen often enough for her. Lauren’s mother died in childbirth. “Thanks to Paracetco, the smart pill, the Einstein powder, the particular drug my mother chose to abuse before my birth killed her, I’m crazy,” Lauren writes (11). For Butler, the ability to feel another’s suffering and pleasure was a crucial characteristic for Lauren. For hyperempathy makes Lauren vulnerable to the potential of violence and dangerous conditions that surrounded her every moment of every day, but also it makes her sensitive to the emotional experiences of others. It makes her stronger, too; for when Lauren was young, and with full knowledge of the pain it would cause her, she made sure that her cruel brother or unintentionally harming friends thought better of even trying to cause her to suffer (9-10). Butler calls this “biological consciousness,” a condition that requires that if a person gives pain that person also receives it. It also means that the person experiences pain far more acutely and more frequently, which fosters a heightened awareness to human suffering (Cobb).
Because of her unusual insight, foresight, intellect, and commitment to her new god, Change, Lauren is aware that in order to survive the inevitable, in whatever destructive form it takes, she will need to prepare and plan and learn. When drug-addicted arsonists burn down the community, rape and murder the inhabitants, and plunder what remains, only Lauren with two others from the community escape. Lauren takes her stored-away belongings hidden amid the smoldering rubble and scavenged remains of her home and sets out to survive first, then fulfill her Earthseed destiny. With her two unlikely companions following her lead, Lauren searches for better safer ground, sharing with them the maps, food, water, and guns she had saved. To keep herself safe and to protect the others she decides to travel as a man; tall and dark like Butler herself, Lauren keeps her gender hidden as much as she can. Even her name, which could also be the masculine Loren when spoken, does not give her away. She continues to write, and shares a few select passages of Earthseed for conversation and comfort with her companions.
Soon after when a man old enough to be her father, Bankole, who is an African American doctor, joins Lauren and the growing number of followers, she gives up her disguise. His last name and hers, both West African in origin, bring the two closer (206). Soon Bankole and the now eighteen-year-old Lauren fall in love. Bankole tells her about the land he owns and his intention to settle there; Lauren is in search for a place to plant her Earthseed colony. Bankole, although not a believer, gives Lauren and her companions the land to live on, companions who like him have at the least agreed to Lauren’s rules for joining them or at the most have taken the Lauren’s Earthseed texts to heart in the formation of a new religion. Lauren’s last diary entry describes the ritual she has asked Bankole to allow on his land, one in which they all can share. Through it they establish the first Earthseed community:
So today we remembered the friends and the family members we’ve lost. We spoke to our individual memories and quoted Bible passages, Earthseed verses, and bits of songs and poems that were favorites of the living or the dead.
Then we buried our dead and we planted oak trees.
Afterward, we sat together and talked and ate a meal and decided to call this place Acorn (295)
I was immediately drawn to Lauren not only because she, like Butler who deliberately attributed to Lauren her own stature and other aspects of her own appearance, reflected myself back to me as a black woman, but also because of Lauren’s Yoruba namesake, Oya. Curiously, although Lauren’s full name is Lauren Oya Olamina there is only one reference to Oya in Sower and that is in Lauren’s own naming of her Earthseed texts; otherwise, she is known as Lauren. No doubt Butler’s research into Yoruba mythology, her investigations of the Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery systems, and her formidable knowledge and study of African American culture and history came into play. We only need turn to Kindred, that centers on American slavery, and Wild Seed (1980), that sets the struggles of two deities of African origin within the context of the Atlantic Slave Trade on both West African and American shores, to appreciate how deft Butler is (Kenan). In Sower, however, Butler has made implicit her extensive knowledge and research. That Butler does not have Lauren make reference to Oya beyond the first page is revealing to me.
Oya is an Orisha, a Yoruba goddess, the goddess of lightening, of the hunt, of the masquerade (Gleason). Lauren will disguise (mask) herself as a man to protect herself and her growing band of followers as she leads them in their hunt for better ground. Even her name, Lauren, is easily confused with its male aspect, Loren, another “masking” device on Butler’s part.
Consider Judith Gleason’s description of Oya:
The goddess Oya, Orisha Oya, of African origin, manifests herself in various natural forms: wind, . . . especially strong wind, escalating into tornadoes; fire both generative and all-enveloping, but especially quick, nervy, directional lightening; the river Niger, especially that part of it that runs around the island of Jebba, Oya’s island in Nupe, a place of transit on the way out of the Yoruba world, this world, and on to the next. . . .
Oya plays an essential role at traditional funerals, and wherever and however the link with those who have gone before is established, there you will find Oya; but you may not recognize her unless you’re privy to those secrets. To the leader of the market women in Yoruba communities she offers special protection and encouragement in negotiation with civil authorities and arbitration of disputes among peers. Thus one may speak of Oya as patron of feminine leadership, of intelligent persuasive charm. . . . Oya speaks her mind. Always a purifying element, in social situations, especially tense ones, she clears the atmosphere of bad faith and mystification. Although she is associated with pointed speech, most of what she’s up to is obscure until it happens. More abstractly, Oya is the goddess of edges, of the dynamic interplay between surfaces, of transformation from one state of being to another. . . . What is especially interesting about Oya in Yoruba cultural context is her refusal to stay out of the enclaves of ideology and social control long, long ago preempted by men (Gleason).
Oya, then, is strongly associated with the male force. And, she does not bow to male authority; she will “speak her mind.” According to Tobe Melora Correal, “in the [Orisha] pantheon, Oya is the goddess most closely associated with chaos and sudden change. . . . Although Oya’s chaos is primarily a force for destruction, it is important to remember that many things are born of chaos and much of life emerges out of darkness. . . . Oya’s lesson is that we too . . . can be reborn though chaos and renewed in the generous . . . hands of darkness. . . . Oya uses chaos to create an opportunity for rebalancing by destroying old frameworks and for reorganizing things within a new structure” (Correal). Oya, in each and all of these aspects, is the goddess of Change. Is she not recognizable in Butler’s Lauren “Oya” Olamina? Like Oya, Lauren cares for the living as well as the dead, burying the bones of those newly departed and creating rituals for the living to remember them, celebrating lives lived—life itself—as they embrace a new beginning together. That Lauren embraces change, prays to Change, and does so charged with the forces of ancient divinity, is therefore not surprising at all. And so in Sower we are with Lauren Oya Olamina, an eighteen-year-old hyperempathic prodigy endowed with biological consciousness, a poet, a leader of both men and women, one who will stretch beyond her boundaries to found a new religion, Earthseed, a religion that worships the god,
Change, the divine Ashé. Says Tobe Melor Correal, “Ashe [sic] itself is neither good nor bad. . . . Regardless of how ashe is expressed in nature or how humans use it, ashe is a neutral energy. And all ashe is always holy.”(Correal) Because of Lauren’s volition the tender Earthseed movement grows to form the religion in the next parable, Parable of the Talents. Lauren is a force that cannot be stopped, for she is the embodiment of Oya, of Ashé, moving on to the Next Thing—to take root among the stars.
In Sower, then, Butler planted the seeds of both possibility and hope, but also seeds of warning so that we might change our current trajectory toward apocalyptic destruction, so that we may seek and find the Next Thing, that place where the human spirit can thrive, flourish, grow. And, what did Butler hope? “I hope people who read Parable of the Sower will think about where we seem to be heading—we the United States, even we the human species. Where are we going? What sort of future are we creating? Is it the kind of future you want to live in? If it isn’t, what can we do to create a better future? Individually and in groups, what can we do?”(Butler “A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler”)
We can change. We must change—embrace the Next Thing. Change. Ashé, Ashé, Ashé.
[i]I will refer to the novel as Sower from now on. Pages referring to direct quotes from it will appear parenthetically.
[ii] While there are different spellings of ashé throughout the essay they all refer to the same concept.
[iii]I am indebted to the scholars and artists with whom I studied and worked during my participation in the 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Black Aesthetics under whose auspices some of my ideas about Butler’s work sprouted. Any views findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
[iv] Butler’s second Earthseed novel, Parable of the Talents (1998) won the Nebula Award. Butler planned more novels for the series—“Parable of the Trickster, and then a book for each of the other names of god: Teacher, Chaos, and Clay.” See the Amazon interview for her intentions for Trickster. Octavia E. Butler, Octavia E. Butler Plants an Earthseed, 1999, Amazon, Available: http://web.archive.org/web/20070927084544/http://www.cyberhaven.com/books/sciencefiction/butler.html 2014.
Deborah Wood Holton is a Fellow Emeritus of The Black Earth Institute. Her scholarly work explores a range of topics, such as African American representation and interpretation in the American theatre, transformative learning, and adult learning, while her creative work re-envisions African and women-centered folklore, myth and culture. An associate professor at DePaul University’s School for New Learning and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute Fellow, Holton lives in Chicago, IL.
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