Some days it had to feel like moonscape, or the outer edges of some yet-to-be-understood terra incognita. Octavia E. Butler never asked to be here, may not have picked it if she had had the druthers, but she made do. Pasadena. Crown of the Valley. Earth.
How did she, I’ve come to wonder, endure the atmosphere? The picket fences. The rolling, manicured lawns. The uniformity. The predictability. The breezy conviviality. What was it like, Octavia, to feel earthbound?
People think they know Pasadena because of television’s establishing shots: the football games, the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, and that famous turn at Colorado and Orange Grove Boulevards, where the extravagant flora-draped floats lurch by for their close-up—all of it backdropped by a startlingly bright blue January sky.
She knows the world is conversant in this perception. Pasadena, “Hometown Pasadena?” as she herself once quipped, “Where everyone is rich—right? Of course. People used to tell me this all the time.” Pasadena, she was well familiar, has many guises and many faces: the ones the world sees, the others you come to know once you navigate it for yourself.
The city appears to be a simple-to-parse grid except for an unexpected—and somewhat dramatic—direction shift, at which point Orange Grove Boulevard bends from south to north to west to east, leaning eastward where it crosses Fair Oaks Avenue.
Here, at this compass point—Orange Grove and Fair Oaks—just a few walkable blocks north of the sparkling upscale tourist destination, Old Pasadena, with its Tiffany outpost and Apple Store (both of which would most likely surprise even the sibylline Octavia), you cross into a determinedly working-class stretch. It’s abuzz with heavy daylight-hours foot traffic: pedestrians on the stroll, schoolchildren and uniformed adults (line cooks, doctors’ assistants, mechanics)—daydreaming or phone scrolling—waiting for buses. Sometimes you might glimpse a flock of bright parasols shielding women like Octavia’s now-long-gone mother who do daywork from the harsh sun. Parked beneath the shade of magnolia trees, street vendors sell fresh melons and mangoes—some dusted with ground cayenne peppers.
Continuing north on Fair Oaks, the landscape is still, at this writing, a not-yet-gentrified collection of mini-malls that house laundromats and “Louisiana Chicken” and fish joints that advertise “You Buy, We Fry.” Churches abound, all manner of denominations and sizes. Some are freestanding edifices, others are storefronts bearing grandiloquent names. Tricked-out bicycles whiz by convalescent homes and locked-tight former beauty shops, their frosted hand-painted signage still evident; the char of fast-food burgers and taco trucks spices the air. This western spine of Northwest Pasadena, just east of the famous Rose Bowl Stadium, is where Octavia, a native of Pasadena, spent some of her earliest years struggling under the weight of expectations—or the lack of them—in Southern California, where “normal,” like the classrooms and work that teachers tried to coax out of her, felt like a prison.
To begin to fully grasp Octavia Butler is to sink into the worlds from which she came. Southern California: the landscape, the people, the yearnings, the lean-years struggle, and all of the other necessary bits and pieces that it took for her to collage together a public self.
Octavia Estelle Butler, science-fiction writer, MacArthur “genius,” and visionary, spent incalculable hours in the service of putting words on the page—stumbling onto a thread of inquiry, letting ideas germinate, then sail around her imagination. She dreamt of alternative habitats and fleshed out heretofore unseen characters, giving them purpose, language, and agency. Equally if not more important, however, was Butler’s time and attention to crafting her most complex and unique creation: her life.
Excerpted from A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, by Lynell George, copyright © 2020 Lynell George, used by permission, Angel City Press.