Decades after the books were published, Octavia E. Butler’s work finally gets its moment.
ome writers are inseparable from the places that inspired their work. Anne Rice and New Orleans. Beat poets and San Francisco. Haruki Murakami and Tokyo. But what about Octavia E. Butler and Pasadena, California?
The late Butler was a visionary Black novelist, winning every major award for science fiction and a prestigious Macarthur genius grant, the first science fiction writer to ever do so. She’s also considered to be the mother of literary Afrofuturism, with writing that looks toward the future through a Black cultural lens.
Butler spent most of her life in Southern California, the daughter of a maid and a shoeshine man, finding solace in the local libraries, shopping at Vroman’s Bookstore, and winning her first writing prize at Pasadena City College.
But if you don’t already make the association between her and the City of Roses, you likely will soon, thanks to Octavia’s Bookshelf, a new bookstore that’s scheduled to be opening this month, the people Butler has inspired within Pasadena and beyond, and the enduring power of her work.
Gaining a Broader Readership
First, there was the TV adaptation of her speculative novel Kindred, which debuted on Hulu in December 2022. Published in 1979, it’s the story of a Black woman in modern Los Angeles who is pulled back in time to antebellum Maryland.
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Butler’s novels grapple with the pressing issues facing society, like racism, poverty, misogyny, power structures, and the effects of climate change, which is why they feel so resonant today. They are prescient to the point that some readers have speculated Butler could predict the future.
But she was simply observant, said Lynell George, who spent years immersed in Butler’s archives at The Huntington Library in nearby San Marino, California, and wrote the book, A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler. “She wasn’t clairvoyant; she was accurate,” George said.
Butler addressed this herself in an essay titled: “A Few Rules For Predicting the Future.”
“I didn’t make up the problems,” she wrote. “All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.”
Since she never learned to drive, Butler often rode the bus or took long, looping walks around Pasadena’s lefty neighborhoods beneath the rugged San Gabriel Mountains. This was an essential part of her writing process, a time to watch, process, and imagine.
“I think about the notes she took on her walks and how she moved through these neighborhoods, going up into the hills and looking down at the city and this majestic perspective she had. I know it influenced her work,” George said. “She could see with her own eyes how climate change was affecting Pasadena and extrapolated what that meant for others. So, when climate change pops up in Parable of the Sower [Butler’s 1993 post-apocalyptic novel], you know this was her inspiration.”
Though Butler would have been a writer no matter where she lived, “there’s something undeniable about the contrasts of the urban/wild component in this part of Southern California,” George added.
The Bookstore With Her Name
Nikki High grew up in Pasadena too, and like Butler, she had a childhood that involved libraries and bookstores.
“I felt safest around books, because they gave me a chance to fantasize about realities that weren’t mine,” she said.
Now that High is opening a bookstore of her own, she wanted to acknowledge the writer who inspired her and so many others.
“Being from Pasadena, Octavia Butler is a writer that I’ve been interested in since I was a teenager. So, in opening up a shop, I had to give a nod to her,” said High, the founder of Octavia’s Bookshelf. “As I started to go deeper into this venture, I thought about Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and all these amazing women that I read repeatedly, the women who gave me such hope. We all have an Octavia in our lives.”
Another Octavia in High’s life was her grandmother, who passed away unexpectedly in May 2022.
“My grandmother believed in my dreams without any sort of hesitation or reluctance,” High said. “It wasn’t that she wanted me to be the CEO of a company; it was that she wanted me to be happy. So, when I said I wanted to sell books, she said of course you should do that, of course, you’ll be successful, of course, people will want to buy books from you.”
After her grandmother passed, High said she thought about all the things her elders might have wanted to do but didn’t have the access or opportunity. So High left her customer relations communications director job for Trader Joe’s and embarked on a new journey to open a brick-and-mortar store.
“It hit me after [my grandmother] died that life is short,” she said. “It was time for me to believe in my own dream.”
Having a Vision for the Future
Though Octavia’s Bookshelf is a self-funded venture, High said she is usually reluctant to ask for help and wanted to remedy that.
“A friend once told me that when I don’t let my loved ones help me, I’m denying them the pleasure of investing in me,” she said. “But it’s a bad habit I have, not letting people help and trying to do everything on my own.”
High set up a GoFundMe as a practice in learning to let other people contribute — though she admits, “I thought, ‘Who’s going to do this?’” Soon enough, the donations trickled in, and High went viral.
Replying to a tweet that asked people to brag about their 2022 accomplishments, High tweeted: “I took the leap and quit my job to open up my very own bookstore. Octavia’s Bookshelf will open in February and features books written by BIPOC authors in Pasadena, CA.”
That’s when there was a significant uptick in interest. The support hasn’t been solely financial either. Some people have reached out to say they don’t have cash, but they can swing a hammer or help move books. The offers have been warmly received.
“It’s one thing to have an idea in your head,” she said. “Then, when the tweet went viral, it felt so affirming to know that so many people across the country and in other parts of the world are rooting for me.”
High signed a lease for a 621-square-foot space at Hill Avenue and Washington Boulevard, a bustling intersection near a coffee shop, an acai bar, a breakfast spot, and a pilates studio. The space maintains a cozy feel, with the natural sunlight flooding the shop through skylights.
The intersection is along a route Butler used to walk. It’s not far from the college where she won her first $15 for writing. It’s just east of the junior high that Butler attended, a STEAM-focused school recently renamed Octavia E. Butler Magnet.
“Immediately,” said High. “I thought this is where I’m supposed to be.”