Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Back to Butler: Kindred

After my excursion to Martha’s Vineyard via Richard Russo, I went back to Octavia E. Butler, this time via Kindred, the graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy (words) and John Jennings (illustrations). Kindred is perhaps Butler’s most well known work, and it involves time travel from 1976 back to the antebellum era in the American South. The time travel aspect may keep it in the science fiction genre, but it doesn’t rely on science nor provide any scientific mechanism or explanation for the time travel, and Butler considered it a “grim fantasy” instead. It is indeed grim and horrific in terms of its violence—physical and psychic—since a modern black woman travels back to a time of slavery, suffers in her new home/present, and has to keep figuring out why, and returning or staying in order to accomplish a particular important thing. You’ll want to read either the graphic novel or the novel itself to find out!

For me, Kindred is part of my education this summer in racism and anti-racism. Butler as author and Dana as main character, who is a writer like Butler, doing work she doesn’t like to support work she does like, has to confront her connection to white people through marriage and lineage. In this way the present is wrapped up in the past, depends on the past, can’t be extricated from the past—and there you have it: systemic racism (now) and the complexity of the human, social, and economic circumstances (then) that led to the Civil War and, alas, continue unresolved today and are emerging in hateful, newly violent ways.

Here’s an interview with the adaptors and here’s a wonderful reader response/comparison of novel to graphic novel by Rachel Rae’ on YouTube.  Rachel takes issue with Dana’s haircut and how it’s hard to tell if she’s a man or a woman. Since I had just read Wild Seed, with a shape and gender shifting central character, I was ready for the visual confusion and found it fit our current times, more fluid in gender identifications, definitions, and associations. 

Duffy and Jennings note that Dana’s haircut resembles Butler’s haircut, a way of visual representing the autobiographical similarities there. They also added some in-jokes, I think! One Dana's jobs is at Doro's Cantina, another at Clay's Chips. Doro and Clay are characters in the linked novels of Seed to Harvest. Interesting that Kindred, the graphic novel,  came out in 2017 and has gotten even more pertinent than ever. I hope it sends readers back to Kindred, the original, by Octavia E. Butler.

And it definitely prepares me for Antebellum, a horror film starring Janelle Monae, due out in August but Covid-postponed (?), with some basic plot similarities to Kindred. IMDB asks but doesn’t yet answer the question of whether the film is partly based on the novel. The main character is an author, like Dana, but her name is Veronica. The trailer shows me that the little boy from the past is now a little girl. Veronica’s husband is black, not white. But, indeed, sudden time travel places a black woman of now into a plantation of the past. Hmm.

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