By Emily A. Phillips
In Octavia Butler’s Dawn, the first novel in the Xenogenesis trilogy, Lilith, an African American and Butler’s central female character, begins a process of transformation that will alter her body dramatically. The Oankali, gene-trading aliens whose survival depends on breeding with other species, enlist Lilith to first learn and then teach others about the Oankali and their need to procreate. Because of the Oankali manipulation of her genes, Lilith gains tremendous strength and the power to heal from wounds faster than what is normally possible for humans, making her an Oankali-human hybrid, a monster, who is capable of both the protection and destruction of her fellow humans.
Lilith’s powers are a source of disgust for her fellow humans. In Part III of the book, titled “Nursery,” other humans are awakened from a period of suspended animation. When they see that Lilith has been given the power to manipulate the walls around them, she becomes alien to them, a monster who appears to be human but who has powers far beyond their own. Like many superheroes in American literature, Lilith is viewed as a monster by her peers and is thus doomed to be the subject of fear and loathing.
Her monstrosity is further compounded when her abnormal strength is revealed. During the attempted rape of Allison, a human woman who refused to pair off though other women before her had, Lilith intercedes and effortlessly subdues the group of male aggressors. She twists one man’s arm, breaking it, and throws him aside, “not caring that he hit a nearby wall,” before hitting another in the stomach, “doubling him, toppling him,” and knocking yet another unconscious (178).
Although Lilith uses her strength to save Allison, this portrayal of strength only works to further isolate her from those who cannot accept her abilities. Even Allison, who does thank Lilith for her help, cannot help but ask, “Are you really human?” (180). Lilith answers that her humanity is what makes her protect Allison from being raped, juxtaposing the true monstrosity of the would-be rapists with the perceived monstrosity of Lilith.
At the end of the novel, Lilith is pregnant with an Oankali-hybrid “construct,” a product of Lilith, her (now dead) human lover Joseph, and the Oankali alien Nikanj. Impregnated without her consent, Lilith’s procreation with the alien species using her dead lover’s sperm further separates her from what is “normal,” and she calls the child within her “a monster” (246). Butler leaves her audience questioning the definition of monstrosity and whether it is better to be a “normal” human, capable of such horrors as rape and murder, or a “monster,” who transcends the limits of human genetics and culture to become something potentially more, something better.
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Emily A. Phillips, a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE, is currently pursuing her PhD in American Literature at Saint Louis University.