Octavia Butler Quotes on Writing and Human Nature

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006) broke ground in the white male-dominated genre of science fiction as a woman and as an African-American. Her quotes on writing and human nature reflect what was written about her by the New York Times, which described her as a writer “whose evocative, often troubling novels explore far-reaching issues of race, sex, power, and ultimately, what it meant to be human.”

“When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.” (from a New York Times interview, 2000)

“I didn’t like seeing her [referring to her mother, who worked as a maid] go thought back doors. If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.” (from a Publisher’s Weekly interview)

“We are a naturally hierarchical species. When I say these things in my novels, sure, I make up the aliens and all of that, but I don’t make up the essential human character.”

Octavia Butler

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Photo by Patti Perret

“I thought I was on my way as a writer. In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.” (on selling her first short story, “Childfinder,” in 1971)

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

(from Parable of the Talents)

“All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule? Who will lead? Who will define, refine, confine, design? Who will dominate? All struggles are essentially power struggles, and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together.” 

Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers.

“I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things.” 

“Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classic, and all the other ‘isms’ that cause so much suffering in the world.” (from the essay, “A World Without Racism”)

Embrace diversity
Unite —
or be divided,
ruled, killed
By those who see you as prey.
Embrace diversity
Or be destroyed.

(from Earthseed: Books of the Living)

“Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from ‘Hey, we’re here!’? (from an interview with Charlie Rose, 2000)

“I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction.”

“My writing can be a kind of therapy for me, and I’m sure some of their origins extend well back into my childhood. In a way, I didn’t want to write Kindred. The research promised to be grim at best—slave narratives and histories of the time.”

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” (Bloodchild and Other Stories)

“People have the right to call themselves whatever they like. That doesn’t bother me. It’s other people doing the calling that bothers me.” 

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” 

“If you want a thing — truly want it, want it so badly that you need it as you need air to breathe, then unless you die, you will have it. Why not? It has you. There is no escape. What a cruel and terrible thing escape would be if escape were possible” (Parable of the Talents)

“I’m a 48-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I’m also comfortably asocial — a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles — a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” 

“Fantasy is totally wide open; all you really have to do is follow the rules you’ve set. But if you’re writing about science, you have to first learn what you’re writing about.” 

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