Literature

The Butler Effect: How Octavia Butler Changed My Life

Excerpt from a new anthology of writing about sci fi author Octavia Butler and her power to transform lives.

1. I’m at a fashion show in my junior year of high school, a biracial Congolese-American geek surrounded not by Africans, but by African Americans. I don’t look out of place, but I feel it. Even the book vendor’s tables have nothing that represents my experience: second-generation halfrican raised in middle-class white suburbia.


‘What do you like to read?’ the vendor asks as I turn to leave. I pause and tell him, sure he has nothing for me – if there is spec fic with black anything, I’d have found it by now. To my surprise, he puts a book in my hands and says, ‘You need to read this. This book will change your life.’

I take it, sure he’s wrong, but see a bald, beautiful, proud black woman on the cover. I read the back of the book. The woman is African. I read the first paragraph and surface pages later: yes, she is African, older than my grandmother’s grandmother. Her journey will take her to America alongside the slave trade, and a race of black, mutant-superpower-wielding human beings will spin out from her and the man she meets in that first encounter. And the writing is good. Like, really good. I make myself stop reading and buy the book: Wild Seed. It’s the only Butler book he has. Some part of me must already have believed what the book vendor said, because those few minutes are fixed in my memory as a turning point, a revelation.

After Wild Seed, I devoured every Octavia E. Butler book our library had – perhaps why it didn’t strongly register that so few of the books I read for school were about black people. After all, in Butler’s worlds, I was represented: most protagonists were women and men who looked like me. I knew her characters, empathized with them, aspired to be them as they struggled through hardships and rolled and stumbled with the punches of living with other people and having superpowers. Butler taught me to write real people, to write flaws fearlessly, and to never pull punches on protagonists. She made me want to be a better writer. I learned from Bloodchild’s essays that Butler was a hardworking black woman who wanted to be a writer all her life. Those glances into her process gave me hope and inspired me to write as much as I could. She wanted me to write, her essays said, and if she could persist in her writing and write black protagonists in science fiction while being a black woman and do it all to critical acclaim, then maybe – if I persisted and worked hard – I could too.

2: I’m visiting Smith College, meeting women I don’t realize will remain some of my best friends to this day, and see an Octavia E. Butler book on my host’s bookshelf. It’s been signed. ‘She came to our Science Fiction class earlier this year,’ Mel says. ‘I think she’s friends with one of the professors.’ If that’s true, I think, she might come again, and I can meet her, and she can sign my books, and I can thank her for everything she has been to me. The next year, I take that class.

Before Butler, I wasn’t consciously aware that no one in the books I read – black or white – shared both my skin tone and cultural experience. I didn’t realize some speculative fiction was shelved with African American Interests because bookstores assumed such interests were necessary to read books with black protagonists, no matter the genre. It didn’t occur to me to question why my school assigned books with predominately white, male protagonists and authors; or why I, too, began in high school to write stories with predominately white, male protagonists.

3: I walk into Science Fiction with Bill Orem. We’ve just finished Imago. Hope, already at her desk, says, ‘Did you know Octavia Butler died last night?’ And I realize: I will never meet her now, can never thank her now, can never read any more than what she’s published. She was so young.

After Butler, I returned to female protagonists, and even started writing black and multiracial protagonists, people who looked like me, shared my experience, but lived fantastic lives. They had interracial queer romances and mixed families, they solved mysteries and dealt with racism and sexism and people they didn’t agree with, they rolled with or collapsed under the punches Butler taught me not to pull. Butler’s books gave me permission to write what I knew while still writing what I loved. I’d been reading white female protagonists all through elementary school thanks to teachers’ recommendations, and even written Japanese and Hispanic protagonists before the literary canon derailed me. But until Butler, it never occurred to me that a blind spot I had as a reader and writer was people who looked like me. My cultural experience was missing, and it belonged in speculative fiction.

4: I’ve been accepted into Clarion’s class of 2016, but can’t be happy about it yet; I’m still waiting to hear whether I’ll get the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. Tuition is expensive – I can’t afford it – and my mother is willing to pay my way, but I see how hard she works for how little she gets, and I know it’ll cost her more than money. I slump into my car, tired from working closing shift at a local grocery chain for not much money myself, and check my email. I’ve been awarded the scholarship. I am an Octavia E. Butler Scholar. Adrenalin and joy wash over me. My name is associated with hers. Nothing can erase this. This connection is mine. To top it off, some of my tuition will be paid. I read the rest of the email, wondering how much I’ll still owe, and find out: nothing. It’s a full scholarship. I can live this dream without the guilt of borrowing tuition from someone who can’t afford it. I feel a sudden weightlessness with the threat of tuition gone. For the first time I am unequivocally happy about going to Clarion. Octavia E. Butler’s memorial scholarship has saved me. Once again, she is changing my life.

Butler dreamed of sending writers of color to Clarion, of enabling us to enter the speculative fiction field successfully, of throwing down ladders for us to climb. I found out being a Butler scholar was like being a king or queen of Narnia: once was for always; we were her legacy. I am so proud to be in that number, so proud and admiring of her goal to nurture young writers who, like her, wanted to write science fiction and fantasy, and deserved to have their stories heard. I went to Clarion to become a better writer and editor, and gain a community of classmates. I didn’t realize until my arrival that Clarion would connect me to a still larger community of previous graduates, spec fic writers and authors and editors, and a legacy of Butler scholars; it would open doors. Butler wanted that for writers of color. She dreamed of bringing us with her into the fold. All writing is political – it cannot be divorced from the society it comes from. Butler’s decision to write her experience as a black American into the dominant narrative of science fiction paved the way for others to do the same.

Like the little black boy who rubbed Barack Obama’s head, thrilled to discover the President of the United States had hair just like his, I read Octavia E. Butler and began to see myself in speculative fiction. Nowadays, most of my protagonists – and, thankfully, more of the protagonists I’m reading in romance and spec fic – are black or multiracial. Part of me does it to write what I know, but part of me feels obligated to put more stories with black protagonists out there, to push demographics in speculative fiction closer to representing the American population. I’ve also realized that while my experience as a black person is different from what people expect when they look at me, it’s no less valid in the social narrative – and if I don’t write it, it may never be heard. I’d be erasing myself. Writing, like the scholarship, doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

The push by We Need Diverse Books and others, the studies about representation and its effects on identity and aspirations in children, the statistics showing the disparity in demographics in TV and film versus the American population, the outpouring of joy when Obama became the first black president (he’s biracial, but this is America) – all of it points to the danger of media displaying a single, dominant narrative, and the necessity of changing it to include many voices, stories, and narrative threads. Octavia E. Butler dreamed of science fiction that reflected her experience, and made it reality. In doing so, she sowed seeds in the minds of others: you belong here, this can be your reality, there is a place here for you. The Butler Effect continues in me, and in every writer she enabled to dream of adding their voice to the literary narrative of speculative fiction. Butler bid the silenced speak, and we spin out from her, a powerful legacy.

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This sample comes from Australian Publisher, and champion of under-represented voices in fiction, Twelfth Planet Press, and is published in their upcoming collection of essays and letters dedicated to Science Fiction pioneer Octavia Butler, titled Luminescent Threads. Edited by award-winning Senior Editor Alexandra Pierce and Editor Mimi Mondal, Luminescent Threads is now available for pre-order from the Twelfth Planet Press website, and launches 15 Aug.

Twitter - @12thPlanetPress 

Photos

This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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Film
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!

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Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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