Friday, September 28, 2012

In Search of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed Manuscripts

By Erin Ranft

My writing and research project takes me in and out of disciplines (Literature, Women’s Studies, African American and Chicana Histories, etc.), and the materials associated with these disciplines are at times overwhelming, and at other times minimal. Though there are myriad resources related to literary criticism, and specifically analyses related to my chosen primary texts, it is sometimes difficult to locate archival materials that relate to these works. While I am privileged to be located in a town close to the archival collection for Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana feminist scholar and author, I am struggling to complete a thorough analysis of Octavia Butler’s works because her archives are not yet open to the public.

Butler’s archives, tentatively scheduled to open some time in 2012, are located in San Marino, California, at the Huntington Library. That the library is cataloguing and compiling Butler’s work is wonderful, but the process is time-consuming, intense, and requires patience, individual and institutional commitment, and funding – the latter is perhaps the most meaningful requirement as it impacts how many people are involved in the process, and for how long. My correspondence with the library staff and curator makes it clear that they are dedicated to this project and that they are working tirelessly to prepare Butler’s materials – but I am anxious to get into those archives so I can get my hands on anything and everything related to Butler’s different science fiction texts!

Why? It is apparent to me, after doing some varied archival projects (for courses offered by Professor Joycelyn Moody and for my own research) that having access to the materials in archives can greatly change and impact directions and foci of research projects. Seeing an author’s hand-written notes, in addition to the different instantiations of a particular manuscript, illuminate the ways authors compile and write texts, as well as the development of particular ideas by the author. Sure, I can analyze Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed without seeing her manuscripts and notes, but I believe that additional information will only enrich my analysis and add depth to my understanding of her work.

Wild Seed (1980) is a prequel in Butler’s Patternist Series and covers a range of topics related to Black women’s identities: US slavery, racism, sexism, physical trauma for women, reproduction, and more. Why did Butler choose to examine these issues in a science fictional context that spans centuries, and how did she shape her ideas for the progression of the text? Gaining access to artifacts such as manuscripts for this text and hand-written edits and notes by the author may only solidify my own ideas about the text, but these materials may take my research, and the research of others, in a completely new and exciting direction that addresses the development and progression of Butler’s novels.

Literary artifacts help to broaden and inform our understandings of different print cultures, and add numerous layers to the ways we can investigate and research specific texts, authors, and publications.

Erin Ranft writes about feminist science fiction, Black and Chicana feminisms, and the oppressions of US women’s bodies in the 19th and 20th centuries. She is a member of the UTSA Reading Collective.

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