Recently I wanted to try stepping out of my comfort zone of sci-fi and horror and read something that people wouldn’t sniff at if I mentioned it in public. So I dig through that list of “always meant to read” that most of us have tucked away somewhere in the back of their mind and came up with a handful of likely victims.
Deciding to read “on a theme” and being in a mixed race relationship for about twenty odd years I decided on Alex Haley’s “Roots”, Alice Walker’s “A Color Purple” and Octavia E. Butlers “Kindred” and the obvious theme that connects them.
These books I read in this exact order as the movie versions of the first two were favourites of mine when they were released, Roots being a series I watch every few years or so and one that I don’t think has lost too much of its power.
Unfortunately I wasn’t that impressed with Alex Haley’s and Alice Walker’s efforts, I didn’t think they were terrible but I don’t think they are all-that either. Both books had a great deal I thought was wrong with them and I think I’ll stick to the much better movie versions in the future.
For comparison I have reviewed Roots and The Color Purple, so you may want to listen to those first. Her thought I want to talk about Octavia E Butler’s Kindred…
Kindred is essentially a time travel story where a black woman from the 1970’s – when the book was written – is drawn back into the past – the 1830’s – to repeatedly save a far off relative, who is – as it turns out – a white man, and a slave owner.
We first meet this man when he’s a child and we see him grow into a man over the duration of 280-odd pages. This means that we initially grow to like him as we see the trials he has to go through to become the man we eventually learn to hate. The readers’ connection to him as a villain grows in relation to all this. It’s not so easy to discard his actions as just “evil” even though they obviously are, the reader understands too much of him and why he behaves the ways he does.
This isn’t meant to soften him or his actions, I don’t think anything COULD do that, but it often allows the reader to see the man as part of the tapestry of his times. As a white man I was disturbed to find how often I understood his motivations, I didn’t approve of them, more often than not they repulsed me, but I understood him often enough for me to see him as a human being rather than the
Though the bizarre relationship between these two people we see a racial tug of war take place where the idea of “ownership” begins to blur.
I think of another film here, another book too, in the shape of Fight Club and Tyler Durden’s insistence that, “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.”
In a way Kindred illustrates this idea. Our hero loses everything in her battle to keep the man who believes he can own her safe. His safety relies on her existence, not to mention her desire to help him, but HIS existence relies on his ownership of her.
He’s incapable of seeing her as his equal but it becomes impossible for him to see her as anything else.
Unlike the other two books I mentioned earlier, Kindred paints a portrait of two complexly interwoven characters that ultimately rely on each other not only for their existence but for the people they eventually become. The hero of Kindred is who she is because of her all too real villain. Without him she would simply not exist, and without the trappings of the history he created she wouldn’t be the person she was even if she did.
It’s hard not to see this as an allegory for modern race relations in the west. Regardless of what racists might think we are all so interwoven by history – regardless what you might think of that history – that we’re like a hedge-maze of some kind. It might be made of many different entities but you try to remove one and it ceases to function as intended and perhaps might even cease to function at all.
Even though Kindred take place at the height of western slavery it’s not a story about victors and victims and it doesn’t portray many hard lines at all between any of its characters. In fact many of its ideas are decided controversial and it even suggests a level of complicity between slaves and owners; a brainwashing of some kind that was necessary in order for a minority, the slave owners on each plantation in this case, to successfully control the greater numbers of black people around them.
For me this was the most horrible aspect of the book. It wasn’t the beatings and the forced servitude that got under my skin; it wasn’t even the acceptance that this was the way things were and the way things would remain. It was that our hero, a modern woman with modern values, slowly started to fall in line with those around her.
As she said herself, “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”
She doesn’t portray slavery as racially based but rather as a runaway capitalist endeavor that has effectively eroded the social consciousness into acceptance; and this isn’t just to the acceptance of just those benefitting, but to the acceptance of both master and slave alike.
And I think this is the core of what disturbed me about Kindred. Ultimately I’ve never believed slavery was about white or black, I’ve always believed it was about those with and those without. A rich man would never be a slave to a poor man, but a poor man is anyone’s slave; given enough time and motivation.
Inter-racial slavery adds the twist of racism of course, but racism is a blunt tool and there must be social acceptance of it for it to work effectively, which of course was easy to find back then making the “othering” of the people taken as slaves so much easier than it would have been otherwise.
Now, maybe none of what I just said is accurate. Perhaps none of it is true; but I’ve never been a slave to another human being and I imagine neither have you, and because of this the only way we can learn of such things is through research and contemplation; which is something that Octavia E Butler does very well in Kindred.
The book pulls few punches and shelters its reader from few ideas. It no doubt offends some who read it and enrages others, but this doesn’t, for me at least, deter from the books brilliance at creating a world that evolves into a rich, disturbing and ultimately engrossing read.
After reading the book I thing that there are many lessons to learn from it and others like it, because there will always be those with more and those with less, those with acceptance and those without; and we must all be very careful which side of these roads we walk down.
Give the book a read, let me know what you think.