The nice thing about being married to someone who impersonates a white supremacist is that one does become more aware of what sorts of issues are arising in the white supremacist community. While maybe not the desired outcome of their energies, racist and misogynistic ire can serve the helpful purpose of highlighting individuals of whom one was (shamefully) unaware.
As, for example, when certain pockets of the “weird fiction” community became quite incensed at an emerging movement to have H.P. Lovecraft’s likeness removed from the World Fantasy award, in favor of a less divisive figure. One name being put forward to assume this honor was the female African-American author Octavia Butler. The moral of this story is that angry voices on the internet introduced me to Butler as someone whose work I should probably have read years ago. I recently finished Wild Seed, the first installment in Butler’s “patternist” series, and it was indeed unlike much of what speculative fiction has to offer. Not least because a book like Wild Seed by no means allows its audience to ignore issues of race, gender, and identity. But, like all good literature, it grounds such grander social themes in very human characters.
Wild Seed tells the story of two immensely powerful individuals–Doro, who kills and inhabits any body he desires, and the shape-shifter Anyanwu. Perpetually hunting for new people with “special” abilities to incorporate into his genetic breeding program, the three thousand-year-old Doro locates the centuries-old Anyanwu in her small African village. With promises (and threats!), Doro lures Anyanwu back to his New York community where he is the effective slave master to a collection of individuals who must obey him to have any hope of survival, and whom Doro treats as little more than breeding stock in his quest to forge a genetically superior human race. Having been born in freedom (and possessing power nearly rivaling Doro’s own), Anyanwu is “wild seed,” never able to be fully controlled by Doro.
So much could be said about Butler’s depiction of race and gender in these two central characters–from Anyanwu’s attempt to hold on to her native identity in a European culture, to the various sexual boundaries Doro forces his children to cross. But the heart of the matter is how Doro and Anyanwu relate to their respective bodies. Specifically how unlimited they are to one particular embodied experience. Doro is effectively bodiless. Anyanwu questions whether he is an embodied being at all, as he seems to be pure spirit, merely “borrowing” but not truly inhabiting the bodies he kills. Anyanwu is, alternatively, almost pure body–her ability to assume various forms stems from her intimate knowledge of her body down to the smallest molecule. And it is significant that, though she may take on any form she chooses, she willfully identifies with her original form — a young black female body. If Doro holds the position in Butler’s work as ultimate oppressor, it cannot be overlooked that he is a being in no way restricted by his body.
To be unlimited by bodily limitations is, in Bulter’s writing, the ultimate power. Not because Doro–or Anyanwu–possess great physical power. But because they are in some fundamental way immune from the reality every one of us faces–we must all nagivate this world as people with specific bodily experience. That fundamentally matters if we are part of historically marginalized groups. No man can understand what it is for me to live in a female body, just as I cannot imagine what it is like to navigate a white-dominated culture as a person of color.
Towards the end of the novel, Anyanwu herself spends several years living effectively as a white male plantation owner in 19th century Louisiana. Perhaps her most poignant observation comes when she observes to Doro that, though she will not own slaves, she had become oblivious to the horrors of the slave culture surrounding her plantation. As Anyanwu notes, living as a white person for too long blinded her to the plight of those she would never have ignored before.
If I remember nothing else from Wild Seed, it will be that passage. It is a subtle but powerful reminder to those of us who navigate our culture in bodies afforded the privilege of not needing to be constantly mindful of our racial identity. It is a challenge for us to do the hard work of being mindful of those whose lived experience differs significantly from our own.