Reviews: Octavia Butler’s powerful Kindred gets the graphic treatment
Octavia Butler, Damian Duffy, John Jennings,
The late Octavia Butler has, for me, been one of our most fascinating science fiction writers – the first SF author to win a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, winner of Hugo and Nebula awards and more, and with a body of work that still commands much study and discussion in academia and a lasting influence on readers and other writers (this adaptation comes with a touching foreword by Nnedi Okorafor – herself now an established and vibrantly different voice in SF&F – on how important Octavia and her work were to inspiring her as a writer). I think Kindred, first published in 1979, was the first of her books I ever read, a long time ago. It made quite an impact, being very different from anything I had read then, and it retains that raw power today, here given an extra impact through the visualisations of Duffy and Jennings in this adaptation.
“I lost my arm on my last trip home.”
Our first glimpse of Dana, a young black woman and a writer, the central character of Kindred, is not a gentle one: she’s propped up in a hospital bed, her left arm ended before the elbow in bandages. This maiming of her body – along with numerous scars we will she her endure as the narrative unfolds – becomes the physical, tangible symbols of what she’s endured, what it has cost to survive. The emotional and psychological wounds are even deeper. Dana has been time-travelling. Not long after moving into their new home with her husband Kevin, a fellow writer and also white (neither of their families approves), in California in 1976 (as the US celebrates its bicentennial year), Dana finds herself suddenly overcome with dizziness. As everything spins around her she finds herself somewhere else. And sometime else…
Recovering from the giddiness, Dana finds herself somehow in a rural setting rather than their apartment, but she has little time to try to comprehend what has happened to her, as she hears cries and sees a young boy in trouble in a nearby river. Diving in she pulls him to the shore, where the boy – Rufus – appears not to be breathing. His mother appears, hysterically screaming and hitting Dana, accusing her of murdering Rufus, but fortunately Dana is able to resuscitate the boy, before she is once more threatened by a local convinced she was attacking the boy. The dizziness kicks in again, and this time when her vision clears, she is back in her apartment, literally re-appearing in front of an astonished Kevin.
And this sets a pattern – somehow Dana and Rufus are linked across time, and when he is in trouble she is pulled unwillingly from her modern day back to the days of the pre-Civil War South. Not a good place or time to be a person of colour. Dana has no idea why this time slippage is happening to her, only that it has to do with Rufus; months or even years in the past may flow away yet on returning to 1976 it has only been moments. Knowing at any moment she could be ripped from her own time, Dana fears going out – what if she was pulled away while driving? She makes an emergency kit bag to take with her, but she knows her visits could leave here in the past for quite a period of time, she seems to have little control on exactly how she triggers her return. And then it becomes more complicated when she finds out Rufus, and some of the free and enslaved black men and women on his plantation, are connected to her own ancestry. When Kevin tries to hold her, he too is dragged through time with her, and it becomes even more complex.
The story – part sci-fi time travel tale, part historical drama, part romance – draws you in, but in truth it is the shocking, visceral experiences Dana encounters in the 19th century, slave-owning culture of the South that give Kindred such memorable impact, and indeed outright horror. This is a society where black people are not treated as human, merely chattels, tools, “property”. The utter wretchedness is gut-wrenchingly observed, Jennings walking a fine line, his art giving the brutal treatment a raw power, without over-stepping the mark into “horror porn”. There’s nothing glamorous about this violence, it’s raw and horrific, the fact that it is just a taste of what actually happened to so many in real history just makes it all the more sickening.
But it isn’t just the physical side of being a slave – being at the mercy of a master’s whims, used and exploited with no thought for humanity or decency, liable to be beaten, raped, sold, split from your family. It’s the mental side of it, and Dana comes to understand the mindset of not just the masters but the slaves in this awful relationship, and the things she – and they – have to do to survive them. How much of yourself can you bite back, hold down, because if you don’t, if you say or do what you want to, you will be hurt, hurt badly, and so may those around you? Dana isn’t just reading history, she’s experiencing it first hand, and it is giving her a new perspective on what that period did to people of colour, how they had to endure it to survive, for their families to survive. What would you or I do? It’s fine to say I would stand up for myself and not let them treat me like that, but faced with the hard reality of it, when doing that would mean torture or death? Or would you turn on your abusers, hit them back, slip a knife between their ribs because they deserve it? Perhaps they do, but what would that do to you, to your soul? How much of your sense of self will you sacrifice to stay alive?
Kevin too has his eyes opened – he’s a good man, and he clearly loves his wife and to hell with the fact that both of their families don’t like the “races” mixing. But he’s a bit oblivious sometimes to the advantages he has in society being both white and male, which sometimes rubs Dana up the wrong way. And in the past those privileges are brought into starker focus, the way he has to act even around Dana, hating it, loathing it, knowing he has to play the role for the safety of both of them, and also that he cannot, must not lose himself and start accepting those societal norms of this time and place.
And for Dana it becomes even harder, not just the beatings and abuse, mental and physical, but the emotional side becomes so tangled. Each time she returns more time has past, Rufus is older, and sometimes she seems to be reaching him, to teach him to be better than his father and other plantation owners. He can show understanding and compassion. And then he can turn unbearably cruel, every inch the white slave master, loving the power he has. And the other slaves she befriends, teaching some of them, covertly, to read, and she bonds with them, shares their experiences, their strategies for coping with servitude, the little acts they do to try and preserve some sense of self.
Reading Duffy and Jennings’ adaptation of Octavia’s novel I found my mind travelling back across the years to when I first read her book; this was a remarkable and powerful way to re-experience Kindred. Duffy adapts the narrative and prose with sensitivity to suit the comics form, and Jennings delivers visuals that capture the little joys and the brutal horrors equally, both writer and artist working hard to maintain what Octavia did with her prose: give us not just a story, not just a glimpse of a history many happily airbrush over, but give us real people, a real sense of them all, both masters and slaves, not some caricatures. And that feeling of realness binds the reader more emotionally with them, giving this story so much raw power to touch the reader and engage them more personally with this vicious period of history.
You would hope that by this point, the 21st century, that we would have moved on more on these fronts of ethnic and gender identity and equality, learned from these histories and grown from them. But in recent months when we’ve seen neo-Nazi white supremacists openly flaunting their hatred in democratic societies and women having to march in their millions because a man who is now a world leader thinks it is okay to grab them as if they were playthings, it is clear that the messages here are still important, and that we still need them, still need to learn and try and understand a bit more. In a time as troubled as our modern world has become Kindred becomes even more powerful and emotional, and even more important.
Jennings and Duffy are to be commended for crafting such a moving, powerful, empathic adaptation of one of the great works of science fiction, and I heartily recommend it to you. And if this is your first experience of Octavia’s work then, please, do seek out her novels after reading this. She was taken from us far too soon, with more stories still to tell, but the works she left us with remain remarkable and unique and important.