Three thoughts about Octavia Butler’s “Kindred“….
• This novel reminds me very much of Colson Whitehead’s recent “The Underground Railroad” — both find rawness in the experience of America’s enslavement and exploitation of black people through side doors: In Colson’s case, the conceit of a literal underground railroad lets him explore an alternate history with characteristics of our own world; Butler, however, chooses to have her narrator be a slave to time itself – whipped back and forth between the 19th and 20th centuries, the only way to fully control her destiny through self-harm. The result of these sci fi and fantasy tricks, though, is to draw us in in a way that, perhaps, simple history and biography don’t always do.
• That said, “Kindred” is a plainly told tale. I think this is on purpose. The artistry of novel-writing can be a wonderful thing, but it can also shield you from the emotional reality of a topic if you’re taking pleasure in an author’s word-smithery. “Kindred” is barely more artistic than a police report — but this, of course, is the key artistic choice: By giving us a straightforward account, the cruelty of racism comes much closer to our brains. We smell the sweat and blood, hear the screams, and witness the beatings. There’s no competing or compensatory pleasures here: This plainly told tale does nothing to hide you from the truth.
• None of us are untainted by the forces of history. Even the best of us end up complicit, by virtue of choices — even well-intentioned choices — that reduce the lives of others.
I recommend it!