The language surrounding artistic marginalia is predictably prepositional: posthumously published notebooks promise a look behind, beneath, inside. In 2016, Dustin Illingworth extolled the material in writers’ diaries, journals, and archives: “Far from the intimidating polish of more august work, the author’s journal reveals the human substance beneath the cultural effigy.”
Yet what of those who want a different perspective: a look over? Through, near, along? Imagine reading a book that uncovers the psyche of a vaunted figure rather than excavates her artistic remains. Where might such an approach take us? What could it reveal? The questions sit at the center of Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler.
Butler was born and raised in Pasadena and essentially willed herself to become a writer. When she died in 2006, her contributions to science fiction and the American literary canon were well established. The author of more than a dozen books, she was the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a number of Nebula and Hugo Awards. In the years since, her reputation has only grown.
It’s easy to find Butler quotes on Instagram, converted into pithy memes. In February, Ava DuVernay and Amazon Studios announced that they would partner on an adaptation of her 1987 novel, Dawn. Just a few months later, author Tananarive Due and scholar Dr. Monica Coleman hosted a series of webinars called “Octavia Tried to Tell Us: Parable for Today’s Pandemic,” which used Parable of the Sower (1993) to engage the systemic issues that COVID-19 had exposed.
George’s book offers a portrait of the writer that is neither biography nor a collection of annotated ephemera. Instead, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky defies the typical language of literary investigation to hover above and around the work. To read it is like watching a researcher—George herself—as she pores over the traces Butler left.
In her books No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (1992) and After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (2018), George, an Alta contributor, examines the history and psychogeography of Black Los Angeles. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky builds upon that work. Five years ago, she was commissioned by the Los Angeles arts nonprofit Clockshop to construct a posthumous interview with Butler for Radio Imagination, an exhibition commemorating the author’s life. The interview was published in 2016 and paved the way for this more extended inquiry; George spent four years delving into the hundreds of boxes of Butler’s effects at the Huntington Library.
George establishes the parameters in her introduction. “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky,” she writes, “is not a biography, nor is it a study of her literary legacy. It is…a book of ideas, prescriptions, and possibilities. It’s an example of a life map, a model. It can serve as a whisper in the dark for anyone attempting something that feels impossible, anyone trying to make something out of nothing.”
Incorporating images of many artifacts—notebooks, plane tickets, library call slips, a novelty ID called an “artistic license,” scribbled envelopes—A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky feels like a fusion of ontology and a set of liner notes. Beyond honoring Butler’s creative steps, her attention to form, George has written a love letter to indexing and process.
As the book develops, her voice and Butler’s become thoroughly enmeshed. The resulting text feels especially intimate because it’s not marked by the footnotes of a traditional exegesis. Instead, Butler’s words are interwoven with George’s text, allowing every page to feel free, unencumbered, clear.
While not a biography, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky does move chronologically, from Butler’s earliest jottings to those from the end of her life. It also serves as a corrective, most powerfully in how it addresses our current sense of Butler as an icon:
What happens when you become an oracle? More accurately, what happens when you are seen as such? When, once again, those in positions of power affix you with yet another label?
She is not clairvoyant, Octavia has always maintained. She just examines humanity squarely and then hypothesizes. Yet, increasingly, the cognoscenti have come to suspect that she reads the sky, like leaves in the bottom of a teacup.
In an interview with Bomb about the Clockshop project, George observed, “I started looking at the marginalia because I was getting a sense of wanting to know what was on her mind while she was writing in her journals.” Something similar is at work here. George’s intricate look at Butler’s intellect feels more immediate than a strictly analytical work, since it allows her thinking to develop on the page.
Process again, a more human portrait, which emerges by taking Butler off the pedestal and picking up one of her notebooks instead. “Many days, staring down at the paper, she’s an entity without skin, a flurry of nerves and emotions—ideas crashing against one another, a story without form,” George writes. This is the stuff of perception, gleaned from study, years of research. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky reads like the work of a writer flitting around the edges of another, peering over her shoulder, watching her. To use the predictably prepositional language, the book provides a glimpse alongside Butler’s genius, the kind of empathy inspired by looking: a shared creative consciousness.
Butler was interested in this kind of empathy, too. In a 2002 essay, she recalled spending time with Baba, a cocker spaniel that belonged to the white family for whom her mother worked. As they interacted, Butler found herself looking into his eyes. “Eyes reminded me that someone else was there,” she wrote, finding a life lesson in this trans-species connection. “It is better to look into their eyes with open curiosity and learn once more about someone else.”
In A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, that’s what George has done. It’s as if she is saying, Someone else is here, and I see your work similarly. I see how and why you have done what you did. For all the prophetic language attached to Butler, I wonder if that sentiment is better applied to what George has achieved. A “seer,” after all, is many things. Whoever said writing is like channeling a muse was onto something.
Niela Orr is a deputy editor of the Believer, a columnist at the Baffler, and a contributing editor to the podcast The Organist. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Buzzfeed, Elle, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.