Welcome to my new guest post segment, Stories That Built Me. Each of these posts will be done by a guest (authors, booksellers, bloggers, and more?) who will talk about how different stories shaped them.
This post is from Karen Strong, whose book Just South of Home I cannot WAIT for (Black-ish meets Goosebumps!?!?!?!?!?!) Plus, she is just wonderfully lovely and she’s going to tell you all about Octavia Butler.
I wasn’t sure why I didn’t discover Octavia E. Butler until I was an adult. I had joined a book club and our first selection was KINDRED. I was immediately drawn into this time-traveling novel that brought forth questions I had as a black woman. What would it mean for me to travel back in time? Back to the Antebellum South where I would be considered chattel? What would I do if I had to protect my slave-holder ancestor?
During this time in my life, I hadn’t told anyone that I wanted to be a writer. I had only taken a few classes at an arts center. There was so much to learn about the craft. But now I was intrigued. Butler had shown me a compelling and complicated black woman on the page. She sparked something in me that made me want to be more than a reader. Butler made me want to create tiny worlds of my own.
I devoured all of her books after reading KINDRED. Particular moments stay imbedded in my mind. Like in WILD SEED with the beauty of Anyanwu’s joy when she shape-shifts and swims with a school of dolphins. Every time I’m at the ocean, I think of Anyanwu.
Eventually I took the plunge and enrolled in a graduate school to pursue my dreams of becoming a writer. I kept Butler’s short story collection BLOODCHILD on my nightstand. I read her essay “Furor Scribendi” frequently to soak in the knowledge she shared about writing and always lingered on that single word at end: Persist.
By the time I met this phenomenal author, I had dropped out of graduate school. The writing workshops had been brutal and didn’t favor genre writing. I was disillusioned and the odds were slim that I would ever be published. But I was still an avid reader and supporter of Butler’s work. I still remember feeling the power of her soft-spoken presence when she signed my copy of KINDRED.
I re-read IMAGO after my father passed away. When I came across the paragraph where Aaor lay dormant in a river after being tormented and rejected, I had a visceral reaction. It wasn’t empathy but familiarity. The feeling of immeasurable sadness. I also wanted to dive into the depths and change into a boneless form. The grief Aaor felt reflected my own grief.
After my father’s death, I decided to pursue writing again. Remembering Butler’s advice, I dispelled the preconceived notions of inspiration, talent or even permission. In the afterword of the Furor Scribendi essay, Butler said persistence could be applied to anything that is important but difficult and frightening. A writer creating a tiny world is all that and more.
As a reader I found Butler’s stories captivating but her life story inspired me even more as a writer. Butler showed me what was possible through dedication and determination. She manifested her own author existence with the thorough belief that it would happen. She laid claim with her affirmations what she wanted for her books with the mantra of “So be It! See to it!” A powerful thing for me as both a writer and a black woman.
I still have much to learn on this writer journey but I feel blessed to have Butler’s stories and her legacy to guide me along the way.
Born and raised in the rural South, Karen spent most of her childhood wandering the woods, meadows, and gardens on her grandmother’s land. A graduate of the University of Georgia, she is an advocate of STEM with a career in software product development. An avid lover of coffee, flowers, and sour candy, Karen lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Her debut middle-grade novel JUST SOUTH OF HOME will be published in Spring 2019 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
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