Octavia Butler – Master Cultural Translator

The following essay appears in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Editors: Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal. Twelfth Planet Press, August 18, 2017. Print and epub.

Luminescent Threads received the Locus Award for ‘Non Fiction’ and it was nominated for Hugo, British Fantasy Award, and William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review.

Dear Madame Butler,

You know as well as I do that language is ill equipped to carry the true weight and meaning of the stories and sentiments that swim around in our heads. You probably chuckled when I called you “Madame” bringing to mind images of French aristocracy or of exotic occupations like fortune-telling – and how, at least, in colloquial English, it is the chosen term of endearment for female owners of brothels.

But I am Vietnamese – and when I say “Madame” – I breathe the Vietnamese word, “Ba”, from my mother’s matriarchal tongue for the highest respect given to a distinguished woman. In that single title is the connotation of dignified elegance, ancestral veneration, spiritual connection, and universal respect.

These are the things that have been lost in the translation of “Ba” to “Madame.” Language alone fails to encompass the richness of the underlying culture. The same can be said of “Cultural Translation” which refers to the translation of cultural knowledge. Even within the confines of our shared language, English, are cultural significances that can be magnified and misunderstood, possibly leading to injustice.

Cultural Translation was something you were a master at – you had the ability to translate the cultural wholeness of a peoples. You were a genius not only for your ability to translate ideologies, modes of being, and the narratives, struggles, and joys of a peoples onto the pages of a tale but also for your ability to elevate storytelling as a vehicle of social examination and change.

You did this in Kindred where you were able to achieve two momentous goals: you conveyed the realistic cultural context of the horrors of slavery and you connected the racial tension of present day America to that history. Now, nearly three decades later, Kindred is still relevant where, in the year 2017, African Americans are still disproportionately discriminated against in education, employment, police violence, and domestic and sexual abuse.

Through Kindred, we can see that attempting to write off the current chronic loss of young black male lives to police violence as unrelated to a history of severe racism is not only ignorant, but dangerous. By failing to confront that history, we fail to find the best solutions to address present day injustices. Oversight of the police force and implicit bias training is not enough because it is executed within a vacuum that fails to consider the social constructs that created the devastating social situations and power dynamics that we currently face.

As a Cultural Translator and a storyteller, you also posited new ways of seeing and of being that carried the imprint of your essence the same way that a sculptor’s handprints trail their creations. You challenged readers to question their societies’ ideologies. In Kindred, you resisted white America’s narratives about slaves that lumped them into an indistinct group, affording a comfortable distanced view – divorced from responsibility. Instead, you crafted a slave community that was culturally rich and socially strong and then you connected them to characters that lived in the current era. By doing so, you demanded accountability of present day society for the tyranny of that era.

Many of your stories also presented social dilemmas of peaceful coexistence – that between human societies and between humans and aliens. Your stories reflected the experiment that was America – complete with social hierarchies, power struggles, catastrophes, failures and then solutions and triumphs. In Lilith’s Brood, you explored sexuality, gender, race, and inter-species relationships, again paralleling the story of African slaves in America and the complexities of their integration into a discriminatory American society.

But cultural translation is a two way street. It requires the sensitivity of the reader as well. Oftentimes the vestiges of colonialism and racism run deep. This is where I found myself before I ever discovered your books. At the age of four, I had fled from the homogenous war that was Vietnam to the racialized battlefields of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Growing up, Vietnamese was spoken at home, English at school, and Spanish in the streets. In between all those languages was the stuff of life that wove three races of people – Vietnamese, Latinos, and African Americans – into one community. As a youth, I was ignorant to the white world outside of the enclave of the apartments and schools that defined my community.

Other than books, television, movies, magazines, and an occasional teacher or GATE student, “Go home gook!” yelled at me from passing cars was the only contact I had with white folks. Once I came of age, I managed to wrangle my way onto a local university where I suddenly found myself studying alongside more white folks than I had ever encountered in my life. It was a culture shock of immense proportions and I found that my words and my language failed me often – even though I was fluent in English – it wasn’t the “right” English.

It was not long before the brown and black folks on campus found each other.  Within a few weeks of my freshman year, students of color were congregating like a mushroom colony in a vast meadow. While secured in this inner circle of brownness, I was assigned to read Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It was the first book I had ever seen or read by a person of color.

It was in the pages of Achebe’s book that I came face to face with racism that came not in the form of rocks thrown at me or bullets shot through the window of my house. Rather, I found it in the private confines of my own mind.

Things Fall Apart followed the life of Okonkwo, an Ibo leader and local wrestling champion in the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia. To my dismay, despite knowing little else in the world but the intimacies of my diverse neighborhood, I could not, for the life of me, picture Achebe’s characters to be anything but white. In NIGERIA! In the continent of AFRICA!

With every passage of Achebe’s book, my mind painted only fair skinned blue-eyed “Africans” with blond Afros. I tried desperately to fix this. I took the image of Okonkwo in my mind – ridiculously pale skinned – and I literally colored him – inch by inch – I brownified his skin, I blackified his hair, I Africanified his features and his life.

But it didn’t work! The images in my mind would only revert back to Onkonkwo as a white man with a blond afro. How was it that I, who had Vietnamese biological parents, African American adoptive parents, and an entire neighborhood of Mexican friends and families, failed to populate the characters of Achebe’s book with my own experiences?

I asked myself ‘had I, as the colonized, the refugee, the other, been trained through popular media that all that was “American” was not me, or my parents, or my community?

Had I been brainwashed to believe that the only translation for “America” was “white?” 

I took a step back and examined every aspect of my subconscious life – my imagination, my dreams, my “norms” – even my sexual fantasies and I came to the realization that if the language and images of the stories that we were exposed to consistently minimized and failed to reflect us, we would eventually find ourselves erased within our own culture and eventually in history.

It was then that I embarked upon the task of re-embedding all that had been lost in translation. This journey took me to a bookstore in search of other authors of color. That is where I picked up Wild Seed and, in doing so, changed my life forever.      

In Wild Seed, you translated the Onitsha culture that I read in Achebe’s book and brought it to life through Anyanwu, your Igbo heroine. In your carefully woven words, I read, studied, and ingrained into my mind the intricate nuances of culture, race, politics, and power that were liable to get lost in translation. Then I, a geeky immigrant kid with a penchant for alien invasion stories and the supernatural, promptly scoured all bookstores within bussing distance for all of your other books.

I devoured in a span of days your stories not only for their hypnotic tales but also for the cultural translation imbued within them. I inhaled your stories like new air finding the daily struggles of my life reflected in your heroines. Through your stories, I readjusted my subconscious cultural filter and I was able to see, for the first time, a place for myself, my families, and my communities in the fabric of America.

The most precious gift your stories gave to me, however, was a vision of a future where my words and my stories had both validity and the ability to engrave the narratives of my many communities into the literary history of America and beyond. Thank you.


Z.M. Quỳnh