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Arts and Entertainment

Inside The Octavia Butler Archives With L.A. Writer Lynell George

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On Tuesday, L.A. journalist Lynell George is taking over The Huntington Library's Instagram account to offer a peek into the archives of groundbreaking science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Butler's archives—which include extensive drafts, notes, and research materials for her novels, numerous short stories, and essays, as well as correspondence, ephemera, and assorted books—are housed at the Huntington, where they've been since 2008. The library, whose holdings include works from literary lions like Jack London, Christopher Isherwood, and Charles Bukowski, reports that Butler's archive is one of the most heavily used in their collection.

Butler, a Pasadena native who died in 2006 at the age of 58, was considered the most prominent African American woman in the field of science fiction. She wrote a dozen novels, won two Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Society, and was the first ever science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

Butler has also been the focus of "Radio Imagination," a yearlong project at Clockshop celebrating her life and work, and bridging her fiction with contemporary conversations about the future of Los Angeles. George tells LAist that the Radio Imagination project (named after a Butler quote) was the brainchild of Clockshop director Julia Meltzer. Clockshop commissioned ten projects from musicians, writers and visual artists, who all delved into the Butler archive and developed a piece based on their time there. The visual work is currently on view at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.

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"As I've been working in the archive, what I've been understanding is that [Butler] is really using science fiction as a way to create larger, fuller worlds for African American characters," George told LAist. "She's reimagining space and time and possibility through her characters and through her backdrops. It's been thrilling to watch as I move through the archives—to see how her thinking changed and to see what road she ends up walking down, due to something that sparked her imagination."

Butler's archive is massive: the guide to it alone runs 612 pages, and the collection itself is housed in 354 boxes, according to the Huntington's Kate Lain.

"After spending a few weeks just sort of listening to her on the page, what I ultimately ended up doing is a piece where she is interviewing herself," George told LAist. "She spends a lot of time sort of interviewing herself [in the archive], asking questions and answering them on the page, in marginalia, in between paragraphs that she's writing, and in letters, so I constructed a piece from that." George's piece, "Free and Clear," was presented at a Clockshop event in the spring.

"I was struck by how her brain worked," George said. "On one page, you might see a part of a manuscript and some note she's made because she wants to have a phone call with someone. Then, she's doing math trying to figure out if she can pay her rent for the month. And she'll have written down a quote. This will all be on one page."