Week 10--Reading Kindred

Anne Dalke's picture
We're reading Octavia Butler's "feminist didactic," the novel Kindred. Describe your own reading experience. Then imagine how one of the recent theorists we've encountered--Stryker, Butler, hooks, Canon, or Garland-Thompson--might respond to the novel.
hslavitt's picture

I didn't hate Kindred, but I

I didn't hate Kindred, but I definitely wasn't a huge fan. I'll give it credit...as cheesy as the premise was, while I was reading I bought the gimmick...suspension of disbelief and whatnot. I think it brings up interesting issues, but doesn't explore any one of them in any meaningful way. In terms of reading this as a feminist novel, I think there is merit in finding parallells between the oppression of enslaved Africans and the oppression of women. The break down is clear; at the top white males (Rufus, Kevin), then white women (Rufus' mother), then black men and then black women (Alice, Dana). When we talked about disabilities we talked about how many ways on others themselves...almost like a strike system. White men have no othering characterisitics, white women have a strike against them for being female, black men for being black and it is black women like Dana, our storyteller who has both working against her.
Ann Dixon's picture

Kindred as dream(s)

Her time travel is (to me) obviously dreams, and her physical alterations
post-travel are metaphorical....the clue is when Kevin says she always
comes back when she's in fear for her life--"everyone knows" you don't
experience your own death in dreams.

Ann '83 

gail's picture

Symbolic

Having read Katie's Canon and other essays from women of color, I now realize that there is a "community consciousness" ( which Katie gathered as a necessary canon). Anyway....

With this background, perhaps the scars and injuries  with which Dana returned  are symbolic of cultural or psychological scars carried from the past into the present. Usually when something in literature appears two dimensional , it may be time to read with symbolic interpretation.

 

llauher's picture

Bugged the crap outta me...

Nora- In my opinion (which really only matters if you stay in the Abby/Weezie camp), Book of Salt was incredible. I got overexcited and read ahead...

So, I know we did this in class, but I thought it would be interesting to take a quick peek at Kindred from the point of view of Stryker, since I got to be Judith Butler on Tuesday. However, while I think that the queerness of the characters in the novel is valid and definitely exists, it is in such a way that it makes it hard to isolate and recognize on any level I find valuable. As I may have said, the flatness of the characters really caused me grief. I feel like any discussion of the novel is really limited by the strange and (on my part) unanticipated lack of character development. I don't really read much science fiction, so I am not sure if this is a characteristic that is univeral in the genre, in Octavia Butler's work, or in only this novel, but I was frustrated with the idea of choosing this novel to explore through the feminist lens.

 

The novel hinted at a lot of interesting events that were sadly underdeveloped. As sarahcollins brought up, Alice escaping with Isaac could have completely altered the course of Dana's life, and yet I didn't really grasp the importance of keeping Alice and Rufus alive and together to produce Hagar. The issue arose at different times, but always seemed to fall by the wayside. I just didn't grasp the desperation that I feel the novel needed and was trying to communicate, in any way. Flat, flat, flat. Here's hoping I can tackle Book of Salt from Stryker's point of view, since I find it much more worthwhile.

gail's picture

The Book of Salt incredible

I too read ahead  and could not put The Book of Salt down.

I agree with you, the writing was indeed incredible!

 

matos's picture

I'm gonna have to say that

I'm gonna have to say that I agree with alot of people when it came being frustrated with the writing. I felt it from the begining, when Dana goes on her first trip and she has her "omg what just happened to me moment". The script is overdone, I've seen it a billion times before and it gets boring.

 

However, besides the "been there, done that" feeling I got from it, I think Kindred brought up some interesting issues, specifically the one I brought up in class as bel hooks. It was jarring, and sort of frightening, to see the accusation that race relations haven't changed since the slave era. Because of couse they did (I probably woulnd' t be here if they didn't) but is my 21sth century mind making me greatful for rights I don't really have?

Also, talking about scary, I'm also in the you can't blame Dana for self-preservation instincts camp. It's like a horror move (how far would you go to stay alive) but for here it wasnt' just staying alive but it was preserving your existence. If she didn't save Rufus, she wouldn't even have been a blip on the universe's radar. That's a terrifying thought.

Abby's picture

Family heals history: thoughts on Kindred

I think my distaste for this novel stems primarily from a literary place.  I just can't swallow a text like this and feel satisfied.  To say nothing of Butler's feminism/ethics in the novel, I just need COMPLEXITY (not that simplet things can't be quite complex) and at least some believable dialogue to take a book like this seriously.  And even though I found myself getting strangely invested the fate of poor Dana and Kevin, by the end of the book I felt as though I had been manipulated into caring about characters that might not have been worth caring about.  The ending really didn't do anything for me so I was left a bit ticked off that I had gotten so worked up for nor good pay off!

As far as "deeper" questions are concerned, I still feel the need to offer a shamelessly postive reading of this novel and in particular the centrality of the marriage relationship.  Lydia brings up a great point about questioning the importance of Dana's own existence in the face of so much suffering and injustice that she could possibly help alleviate.  Though I don't think Butler entirely fleshes it out I think she gives a huge amount of importance to the existence of Dana and Kevin and in particular their union as  way to mend the wounds of the past.  The title of the novel, Kindred, is a word that speaks to family.  The whole concept of kinship and kinship through love is a central aspect of the novel.  I think Butler is making a statement about the necessity of the mixing of blood in order to heal a history of bloodshed.

The more I think about it, the most effective scenes in the book are concerned with the body: the violence done to it, it's resilience, it's capacity to withstand, it's capacity to love and repair.  I'm thinking about the potency of the beating scenes and even some  of the moments in the cookhouse.  Sickness is given much descriptive attention as well.  Those moments seem very immediate and tangible in contrast with much of the book.  And throughout all the crazy time traveling Kevin and Dana must carry the weight of their experiences in their bodies.  They can't escape that.  This reminds me of the point brought up in Tuesday's class about the "immutability of the flesh," a gesture towards connecting this novel with disability studies.

 I can't say I'm sorry to see Kindred go...

 But, The Book of Salt = YUM

EMaciolek's picture

Kindred

While I did really enjoy Kindred, I do understand where everyone's frustration comes in. The characters (particularly Dana and Kevin) were definitely flat, but maybe we shouldn't judge Butler too quickly. The topic of slavery is such a heavy one, especially when the narrative is in the first person and describes numerous cruelties of the time, that flushing out the characters would have fundamentally changed the message of the novel (or at least would have thrown a shadow over it).

The thing that bothered me the most, was the epilogue. She killed Rufus knowing full well the consequences of the action, but she did it anyway. If she knew all the slaves were going to be sold and families would be torn apart, how could she go and kill him? Then when she finds the newspapers and sees their names and where they were sold the narrative doesn't even really reflect on that tragedy. It's just summarized as if it didn't matter since they were back in the 1970s. Plus she had such a strong relationship with many of the people on the plantation that it seems to be a huge discrepancy within the text.

Another thing that was just kind of annoying me - if Kevin wanted Dana to come back to 1815 all he would have had to do was threaten Rufus' life. Not seriously, just enough to scare him. I feel like that was a big "duh" moment that Butler overlooked.

About the discussion on how Dana felt her life was so important that she could ruin the lives of all the other slaves just so she would be born - jrizzo, you're thought is interesting that the reason is so that she could write what had happened to her, but I'm not sure they ever refer directly to anything like that. I know they mention how it was impossible for her to write once she had returned from one of her trips, which could imply a mental block that would only be broken once the whole thing was over, but it's never a focus the novel takes.

Also, I definitely agree with Sarah about the point that Dana had tried to let Alice escape with Isaac, which would have prevented Hagar's birth. Yet another discrepancy.

So essentially, the miscongruities of the novel are annoying, but overall I found it to be a good read.

sarahcollins's picture

I'd probably have had the

I'd probably have had the same negative reaction to Kindred as other people if I hadn't read Parable of the Sower, another book by Butler (Anne mentioned it during class as the story about the empath) last year for C-sem. Reading Parable, I was turned off at first by the writing style; the characters were flat and didn't appear to have recognizable, human emotions, and at times I felt like I knew the kind of people they were better than Butler (has anyone had that experience?) After reading on though, I began to see Parable as kind of a (very) dramatized, science-fictive depiction of what it's like to be deeply deeply introverted, except Butler made introversion into a mental power/ability. I might've read it completely wrong, but that's what struck me while I was reading it. It helps to clarify some of Butler's choices, as far as characterizing and describing people and events goes. And I don't necessarily mean for this comment to comment on what we've said earlier in class about intro-/extroversion, just to shed light on Butler's style, since this is a novel, although that could be interesting as well.

Anyways, Kindred doesn't seem too concerned with preaching a feminist message, at least, but it's a little heavy handed in dealing out other lessons. The question of whether Dana is being selfish by saving her ancestor's life and not the slave's is interesting. Practically speaking, I think it's just a plot device to keep the suspense up; both of them, Rufus and Alice, die soon after the all-important off-spring has been born, and then the novel ends. Isn't it natural that a person would be first concerned with preserving their existence before moving on to more complex things, like ending slavery? The time-travel set up works so that is all Dana can really do - Dana loses her time-travelling ability once Rufus dies, so she can't linger to free Sarah and the rest. If she succeeded in letting Alice escape with Isaac, she equally would not be born, right?

ndegeorge's picture

Kindred

I have to start out by saying that I was definitely in the Abby/Weezie camp when it came to reading Kindred. I strongly disliked this book and though I know we're not supposed to make academic judgements based on our likes and dislikes I found it hard to use the novel to legitimatize any claims about feminism specifically. Kindred reminded me of the kind of book I would have read (and possibly enjoyed) when I was fourteen. Meaning that I found the writing to be unsophisticted and the depiction of a historical time period to be elementary. The flat characters were irritating and the style didactic, like some morality play trying to teach us a lesson about racism. Yes, I think we already know that the past affects the present and that we really haven't come as far as we like to think we have. I don't think Dana's anachronistic ideals and the other slaves' reactions to them are a new idea.

I guess you could claim that the characters were forced into adopting the social constructs but I think that's par for the course in most sci-fi/fantasy novels... Women (white, black, poor, intelligent, whatever) had little or no status in that time. That's just stating a fact. If Butler wanted to make a statement about that she should have showed more of a contrast to the "present." Personally I can't find one driving argument in the novel. There are plenty of ways that you could mold it to fit different arguments (as we did in class) but for me that takes away from it's overall "impact" or message about feminism or race relations. I wouldn't put it in my feminist canon.

I hope The Book of Salt is better...

smigliori's picture

Kindred: A Feminist Text?

I'm posting my comments as a reply to ndegeorge's, largely because they follow the same basic theme. I went into the novel expecting a feminist text which I didn't find. Of course, I find it extremely possible to do a feminist reading of the text, but what text can't have a feminist reading of it?

Though I generally think of myself as somewhat of a sci-fi fan, I'd never read any of Butler's works before, possibly because, if her works can be judged by this one, they are too closely comparable to what could be termed "historical fiction" for my tastes. When I think of feminist science-fiction, I consider texts more along the lines of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series (although I'm sure someone would question my placing of that, and it might be there at least partly because of my strong connection between the freedom of gender expression and the freedom of non-heteronormative sexualities.)

Overall, I found myself largely unsatisified with the text, and, if I were to construct a feminist canon (which, as a proliferation of canons makes me nervous because of the seeming counterproductiveness, in a way similar to my consideration of a lack of usefulness for a proliferation of gender categories, I am loath to do) I don't think this book would make the cut.

jrizzo's picture

How slaves are made

I am very interested in the point Lydia raises about the value of the protagonist's individual life vs. the good she might have done had she possessed the courage to put herself at risk.  Some further reflection on this question has led me to think that perhaps by making Dana a writer, Butler has attempted to make it implicit that her protagonist must survive in order to tell the tale, to write about her extraordinary and important experience.  This might begin to justify what looks like selfish behavior of Dana's, but the author does make it difficult to pin down by discussing only the difficulty both Dana and Kevin will face attempting to write again.  Either way, I still didn't feel completely satisfied with this answer, and I think this is where the issue of two-dimensional characters actually becomes important.  If Dana had seemed like more of a real person to me, I never would have doubted her instinctual drive to survive.  Since Dana was mostly a collage of observations, her deciscion to fight for her life by keeping Rufus alive seemed very calculated. 

But maybe this is part of the point Octavia Butler is trying to make.  Maybe by intentionally reducing her central character to a stick-figure with wide open eyes, she is encouraging the readers to concentrate on some of the larger questions at play in the novel.  How many times does Dana muse to herself, "How easily slaves are made...?"  Dana doesn't answer her own question about how this hideous transformation occurs in words, but her actions provide sufficient information for me to come to a conclusion.  That basic human selfishness that prompts each of us to guard our own lives against assailants, regardless of what happens to anyone else, that is what makes people slaves, or keeps them slaves.  We can't say they are trapped.  They have choices.  They can either refuse, rebel, and be destroyed, or submit and survive.  If we take into account the power of human survival instinct, we can see that people are less free to make this choice than we might think.  Maybe Butler is trying to minimize the importance of the individual, show us how in a society where basic survival is an all consuming concern, no progress can be made unless we stop caring about our own survival. 

But I can't blame Dana for being concerned for her own survival, and I certainly can't blame Alice who has no reason to hope for anything beyond the current state of her life.  I wonder if this novel is saying anything about how we understand survival?  What do we perceive as neccesary to our own survival?  Dana's concept was radically altered in a few seconds by force of circumstance, but by the end of the story, she has yet to make use of her expanced knowledge and conciousness.  Alice had no reason to fight when she believed the future held only more of the same.  Is Butler, by allowing us a view of the past, emphasizing the importance of trusting our visions for the future?

YJ's picture

Reading "Kindred"

I will start off by saying that I had pretty mixed feelings about the novel. While I was almost thoroughly engrossed reading it (this may also be because I've barely read any real novels since coming to college), there were many times in the book that I felt that I couldn't quite buy into the whole sci-fi concept. Though I can understand Butler's resistance to neatly explaining all the odd occurrences, I really, really wanted a better one. Or at least more of a gesture towards a plausible explanation. I will say that I am biased because I generally am not a big fan of sci-fi, though I did think Butler's concept intereting. Her actual execution of it, however, I had more of a problem with. There were definitely times when I felt like I was recieiving a middle school history lesson, like when she's talking about the map, or the treatment of slaves.

I do think, however, that Butler's treatment of the emotional tensions between the characters was much more believable and the more interesting aspect of the book to me. Her relationship with Ron was, of course, the most dramatic instance of this tension. They need each other, and yet she hates him for his racism, his sexism, his cruelty. It must be hard to help somone who raped your ancestor, though of course, if she doesn't, it's her own life she risks in the process. I think what most frustrated me about Ron was that he definitely had the potential to be a better person, but was more comfortable reaping the advantages of his situation as slaveowner and white male. He had all the power, so why give it up?

I think that this book would be an interesting addition to "Katie's Cannon," in that it really pushes the boundaries of both the novel form and examines a critical period in black history. It also examines the power dynamics on many different levels and raises issues still relevant today. Butler's most powerful (for me, anyway) moment in looking at the history, was when Dana questions how much her and Kevin have possibly already bought into the mentality and system that pervaded during antebellum America, how easy it was for them to forget where they really came from. It's hard to say how any of would have fared in that situation and in some respects, in order to survive at all, Dana has to buy into, at least a little bit, the system. I wonder if we're not doing the same now-buying into a system because it's just so easy to.

lvasko's picture

Class Notes

Yesterday's class began with a discussion of Yoo Jin's posting on the connections between race and body, disability and colour. If we can take pride in our selves because we are of a certain colour, race, or gender, why should we not be taking pride in another form of "disability".

Alex brought up an interesting point about choice and feminism. If feminism struggles to gain the ability to choose, why aren't we, as feminists, giving agency to those who have a choice to choose and allow them to make their own decisions about their own bodies without passing judgment?

Then we began our discussion of Octavia E. Butler's novel Kindred. The class appeared to be somewhat split between those who loved it and those who found it preachy and didactic. Everyone agreed that the characters were two dimensional and difficult to empathize with and understand. Nevertheless, some affinities were found with Alice, Sarah, Dana, and even Rufus.

We were asked to consider what it meant that the characters were two dimensional. How did it affect the reading and ideology of the novel? We found that the novel placed more emphasis on what Dana was experiencing, rather than on Dana herself. Because of the flatness of the characters, the reader is forced to focus on the events within the novel and the interactions between characters. In class we discussed an interesting parallel that develops between Dana-Alice, Kevin-Rufus, leading us to discuss the possibility that Butler was making a comment on the nature of the inter-racial marriage or, at the very least, inter-racial relations.

But is Kindred a feminist novel?

We broke up into mini groups in order to discuss the novel from the perspective of different feminist theorists: Spivak, Cixous, Butler, Hooks, Stryker, and Garland-Thompson.

Though we had some very interesting discussion about the nuances of the novel, and worked through the likes and dislikes many of the theorists would have with the novel, we did not really reach a concensus about the novels' feminism.

I had a few questions of my own while reading the novel. Every time Dana went back to the 19th century and experienced the horrors and hardships of slavery, she always seemed torn between wanting to kill/get rid of Rufus and needing him to stay alive so that her ancestor could be born. But I couldn't help but wonder, why does Dana feel her own life is so important? What is the reason that Dana must survive? If able to be born, would Dana do something great with her life, life saving and life changing the way killing Rufus would be life saving and life changing? What was Butler's reason for saving Rufus and Dana?

I couldn't help but feel that the entire novel was driven by selfish intentions. Dana wanted to help the slaves, and did, but only so much as to not hurt her own chances at freedom a century and a half later. Every time Dana returned, it was not to help the slaves, it was to save Rufus and to save herself. In fact, the nature of the Dana-Rufus relationship is rather Hegelian: master dependent on slave, slave dependant on master. Destroying the master would destroy the slave.... and strangely enough, the slave's chance at freedom.

gail's picture

Great Summary

Thank you for this summary.

It helped me a lot to understand what went on in class.

Thank you for your efforts. 

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