Friday, August 16, 2013

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

"Dana, don't make me talk to you like that," he said wearily. "Just do what I tell you."

I added this book to my feminism Amazon wishlist when I saw it on a The Atlantic book list titled "21 Books Written By and About Women that Men Would Benefit From Reading," but seeing that Chris had read it made me pull the trigger and read it myself.

Ugh, I wish I hadn't.

The story was reasonably entertaining, but the messages were gross and unsettling.  The short review on The Atlantic promised social criticism, but as far as I could tell the only constructive social criticism in Kindred was, "slavery was pretty awful," which I kind of figured beforehand.  In addition to this insight, we also had flagrant rape apology and a vivid, but uncondemned, depiction of domestic abuse.

The story revolved around Dana, a black woman from 1976 who keeps being transported back in time to save the life of her distant ancestor, Rufus, a white son of a plantation owner who also owns an undetermined (but large number) of slaves.  Dana figures our pretty quickly that her forebear is the daughter of Rufus and a free (at least initially) black woman named Alice.  As a result, Dana consistently saves Rufus, who proves to be brutal and cruel when you remove Dana's rose colored view of him, and is complicit in his continued torture and rape of Alice.  Dana reluctantly tries to help Alice every now and then, but the message is clear: Dana will only help her to the extent that her own eventual existence is assured.  This makes sense in this context; obviously Dana wants her ancestors to be born.  However, it's also eerily reminiscent of the politicians claiming that babies born from rape are "gifts" and pro-life activists saying, "aren't you glad your mom didn't abort you?"  I think Butler just wanted to add some drama to her story, but the drama functionally excused the torment and continued rape of poor Alice.  It would be terrible to see the story through her eyes, especially if she realized this other woman was taking these measures to ensure her continued abuse.

Speaking of abuse, the relationship between Dana and Rufus is a textbook abusive domestic relationship.  Though there is no romantic relationship between the two, Rufus acts like a batterer throughout.  He has Dana beaten (and eventually beats her himself) or has other slaves beaten or sold to punish Dana, but always apologizes afterward, and Dana always lets him off the hook! He threatens suicide (in his story-specific way, a classic abuser tactic) and accuses Dana of "making him" do what he does.  And still she has a kind of affection for him!  His kindnesses are exaggerated (even when the kindness is that he wasn't as bad as he could have been) and his transgressions are minimized because he didn't mean it or he was a product of his upbringing or some other excuse.  This could have been a very sharp commentary on domestic abuse, but Butler only (spoiler alert; btw, thanks, Christopher, for putting the spoiler alert in your review, it saved me) sees fit to give Rufus his comeuppance when he tries to force himself on Dana sexually at the end.  This would feel like a real condemnation of his behavior (rather than a convenient way to end the story) if he hadn't already 1. brutally beaten and whipped her, 2. sold her friends into slavery and separated them from their familes, and 3. lied to her about contacting her husband to have him come rescue her.  What makes it different this time, other than it was convenient now that the ongoing rape of Alice had productively created Dana's ancestor and neatly wrapped up that storyline.  And Dana even gets punished for giving the monster what he deserves, somehow (Butler is a little light on the sci-fi explanation on this point) losing her arm above the elbow for her troubles. (disclaimer: those of you who know me/have read my reviews for other books know that I am staunchly for due process/against the death penalty, but for illustrative/allegorical purposes this asshat had to die).

I don't know why The Atlantic thought that men would benefit from reading this book, unless they want men to think that a. it's ok to rape someone because you kind of love them and they might have a kid, b. even pregnancies that result from rape should be carried to term because what about the feelings of the progeny that result? and c. domestic abuse isn't that bad as long as you don't really mean it and apologize for it later.


There also were a lot of complicated dynamics between Dana and the other slaves, who hated her for being "too white," by which they meant both well educated and seemingly allied with Rufus against the other slaves. I don't really know enough about this subject to intelligently comment on it, but it seemed like it was an important part of what Butler was trying to say, so if anyone has some insight I'm definitely interested.

There was also some great male/white privilege from Dana's husband, a white man, who is brought with her on one of the trips back to the 1800s.  When they first arrive, Kevin figures it'll be fascinating to explore this world.  He assumes that because he will be with Dana and protect her, that it won't be that bad, not realizing how perilous it is for a black woman to be in the South in the antebellum period, no matter what his circumstances.  Y'all, it's important to recognize your privilege!


Christopher said...

Thanks for your perspective, Bill. I have to teach this book and I think I'll take your position from time to time even though I don't agree with it.

I think what struck me about this plotline is that, at first, we see that the young Rufus and Alice had a positive and friendly relationship. I think Butler asks us to consider the way in which the institution of slavery sours that relationship, even to the point of rape. That's the dynamic that's repeated at the end, when, with Alice dead, Rufus seeks to sexually assault Dana.

To what extent is Dana complicit in Alice's rape? I think that's an interesting question, and one Butler hadn't really meant to ask. The rape occurs "off-stage," of course, but Dana does aid in maintaining the relationship between Rufus and Alice after the initial rape occurs. What is the range of Dana's choices? What does she not do for Alice that she might have done?

I said in my review that I think Rufus (and the Rufus-Dana relationship) is the most interesting part of the novel. Yeah, Rufus gets what he deserves in the end. But why does Rufus the boy turn out to be Rufus the man? How is Rufus' attitude and behavior towards his slaves prescribed by the institution itself? Stopping well short of moral absolution for Rufus, I think Butler is asking us to see the way that slavery could pervert and corrupt even the better parts of human beings. That is, the moral disease is much bigger than Rufus' own depravity.

On a sidenote, this is the essay that was always at the back of my mind while reading Kindred: Hortense Spillers' 'Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe.' Spillers makes some really interesting observations about the relationship between slavery, sexuality, and possession, and how that relationship resounds today.

billy said...

I think you are correct about Butler's intentions; I think she was trying to show the corrupting influence of the institution of slavery and I do not think she was trying to touch on the themes of rape, choice and domestic violence that I noticed. However, do you think Rufus had enough of a character arc to really demonstrate that he was corrupted by the institution? I thought Rufus the boy was as rotten as Rufus the man. He is petulant and vindictive, almost setting fire to the house because his dad (correctly) accused him of stealing. The other characters tell Dana throughout the book that Rufus is a monster and that she shouldn't trust him, they don't lament the fact that he was a sweet little boy and turned into an ass as he gained more and more control of the fates of his slaves. I think his relationship with Alice is as much destroyed by him hitting puberty as it is by slavery. That's why I got more of an impression of domestic violence from Rufus's relationships. He's not going to change, and he wasn't better before, regardless of Dana's selective memory.

I also don't think Dana's lack of action in support of Alice is the aspect that makes me so uneasy, it's the context. The "grandfather paradox" is such a familiar sci-fi/time travel trope that the reader by default roots for Dana's forebears to be born so she will eventually exist, and I don't think Butler does a good job of exploring the means required for that end. At the end, it's tempting to think, "well, sure, Alice was raped over and over and mistreated for her whole life, but it's ok because Dana made sure she eventually had Dana's great great etc grandmother, so the story has a happy(ish) ending." Either way, Alice's bodily integrity and choice is secondary, not just to Rufus (because, obviously, he doesn't care about that), but to the reader as well.

Christopher said...

I think if Alice's body integrity were secondary Butler would not have chosen to have her commit suicide.