Monday, 12 June 2017

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

*Spoilers Below*

I am trying to get back to writing reviews a day or at most two after I finished a book, so I'm sitting down to write with the experience still vivid. With Parable of the Talents, though, I just couldn't. I had to sit with the book for at least three or four days after I was done, and it's only today I feel like I can finally maybe take a crack at summarizing why I felt what I felt. What I felt was strong and immediate, but there's so much here to unpack that I had to let the emotions subside a bit before I could think about it.

So. Let's start with the emotional and then some thoughts about what and why. I loved this book. I mean, just adored it, responded to it so strongly, as I often do to Butler's works. Damn, this woman could write, and more than that, it's always so complex and tricky and often troubling that I feel wrung out and it takes me a while to figure out why.

I was also so, so angry at one of the characters by the end of the book - I wanted to wring her neck, I was so upset. That's the part I had to sit and think about - why I felt that way, why Butler wrote her that way, why that part is included at all - how that discomfort and anger changed and really enriched this experience of reading in delicate and powerful ways.

So, what's the book about? It's a sequel to Parable of the Sower, which was the first book by Octavia Butler I ever read, and also knocked my socks right off. If Lauren Olamina has the idea for Earthseed in the first book, the second is about the early days through to its eventual success. We get into the story in a different way, this time. We're given snippets from a journal Lauren kept during these times, interspersed with a book her husband wrote, one her brother wrote, and a lot of editorial comment from her daughter, Larkin. Or Asha Vere. There's some question about her name, and that's the core of the book.

Reading the more dystopic parts of the book were chilling and far too timely, now perhaps more than ever, with a radical Presidential candidate who promises, I shit you not, to "make American great again." Now, this fictional President is doing it through a radical Christian fundamentalist lens, but in a world where people are hurting and scared and want a strong man to tell them they will be safe, and who makes it okay to lash out at those who appear different and tells them it's justice...well, you see the resonances.

We see the community she founds, Acorn, and how it is destroyed by men who the rest of the "Christian America" movement will disavow, even while including them and fostering them and teaching that what they are doing is rooted in sound theology. Her baby is ripped away from her, and adopted by a Christian American family. She finds and frees her brother from slavery before her community is broken, and he leaves in anger because he can't convert her people to his version of Christianity, and finds a home within Christian America.

And what he does then, over years and years, makes me want to scratch his goddamn eyes out. Worse is when her stolen-away daughter discovers what he has done, and sides with him. It is so frustrating, and so much deeper than just the old saw that a prophet is without honour in his own country.

To tell the truth, I read this book not long after my mother died, and I have a deep response to Earthseed, and to the larger notion of reacting to change and pain with openness and movement, not curling in and lashing out.

So the framing device is the daughter, and we know from the beginning that she holds a grudge against her mother for loving Earthseed more than she loved her, but we don't know why. You start reading the book, waiting to find out what probably very human thing Lauren does that hurts her daughter and turns her against the movement.

Then you realize, bit by bit, that Larkin/Asha condemns Lauren Olamina not for having done anything, but for not having found her. Not not having tried to find her, because there's plenty of evidence that she looked for decades, that she put herself in danger over and over and never stopped looking for her daughter. The attempt doesn't matter to Larkin. The result does.

And interestingly, this is where we get into the very knotty part of the book, the part where I struggled with anger at this daughter who embraces the man who hid her from her mother for decades, lied to her mother's face for decades that he had no idea where she was, and did everything to keep his niece as his family, not hers. It's such an unforgivable act, and Lauren never does forgive her brother, but Larkin never blames him.

And the question becomes, why? Butler's doing something deliberate here, and I had to sit with it and figure it out, and what I've come up with is this: Larkin/Asha, although she doesn't consider herself part of Christian America anymore, is so permeated with their worldview, which includes seeing her mother's vision of extraterrestrial settlement as a cult, that she can't get beyond it. And particularly, when it comes to the one family member she has had a positive relationship with, she can't even begin to let herself think that he did wrong, even when it's fairly fucking obvious that he did.

She'd rather vilify her mother for trying and failing, than her uncle for deliberately hiding the truth from both her and her mother. And in a way, this is a microcosm of the clash of worldviews - there will be people that are so wrapped up in division and need to see themselves as right or righteous, that others will be held up to impossible standards, and differences becomes proofs of inadequacy. That abundance itself can seem threatening, and open-handedness an abomination.

And the thing she seems to have blamed her mother for most of all was not hiding her talents, not having given up her dream of Earthseed in favour of safety that Lauren clearly identifies as not that safe anyway.

Whether what Lauren founds is a cult or a philosophy, it has a specific and achievable goal, and she does achieve it. But she loses her daughter along the way, and there will never stop being a younger woman who blames her for not hiding away and being proper.

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