Brontë’s 2020 Rereads: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, in which I find tangents on nonprofits and the utility of dystopia

I first read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower in the summer of 2016, and I have vivid memories of Lauren Olamina packing acorn flour into her go-bag (or, as I have started calling my own, a Butler bag), of her and her companions, Harry and Zahra, setting out after their community is destroyed, and of Bankole with his cart and his property to the north. Based on these remembrances, I convinced myself that I remembered most of the book in great detail and that reading this one again I would find a lot of it familiar. As it turns out, I had forgotten much, much more than I remembered. I forgot how much of the book takes place before leaving the town she grew up in. I forgot about all the ambient horror and dreadful anticipation of her daily life. I forgot about her brother Keith and his short, violent time in the world. And so, with so much to learn again, I approached this novel with fresh eyes and a different perspective (a lot has changed since the summer of 2016, and I have changed along with it). While I still appreciate Parable the second time around, I feel a lot more complicated about this book and its messages than I did 4 years ago.

The first surprise of the reread was Olamina’s hyperempathy syndrome, a central and transformational aspect of that book that was nowhere to be found in my memory banks. I immediately had to reevaluate everything I remembered about the novel and consider it through this lens of non-optional, nonconsensual empathy. Empathy is something I worked hard to teach through writing and critical thinking, something that I value highly, and something that I’ve always thought ought to be turned on more often than it ought to be turned off. But Butler calls into question always-on empathy in a world where physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual abuse are the norm and where empathy can be harnessed for subservience. And, as Bulter knew, we do live in a world where those abuses are not only ubiquitous, but often unchallenged, accepted as a natural and even beneficial part of our experiences. As resistant as I am to the idea that empathy could be a downfall, I see a lot of cautionary wisdom in the idea that we should guard it carefully or risk becoming subservient to it. The idea calls to mind our misplaced trust in the nonprofit industrial complex, which—by igniting our sense of duty to social, racial, economic, and environmental justice, etc. and by appealing to the deeply human social need for meaningful work and connection—does indeed take advantage of, if not downright abuse, our collective empathy while operating under a firmly capitalist model of wage slavery that begets intense burnout in activists while often slowing down a community’s ability to adapt and respond to change.

This certainly isn’t to say that all nonprofits are inherently bad, but they exist in a system that benefits from vampirizing empathy and threatens modes of activism that aren’t based on career-building efforts. Sometimes, as Lauren Olamina learns countless times, if we feel too strongly with others, the pain can overwhelm and incapacitate us.

Importantly, though, Olamina finds a path between hyperempathy and connective empathy. She doesn’t allow the danger her hyperempathy puts her in to keep her from building, finding, nourishing, and cherishing community. In many ways, this book is her journey through phases, levels, and understandings of trust and humanity. I find myself wondering how Earthseed evolved once she was no longer behind the relative safety of her hometown’s walls. I wonder what verses she writes after these experiences and how her vision of God might change. While she herself doesn’t seek to personify her deity of change, Bankole reminds her that once she transmits an idea to someone else, it’s no longer in her control. I wonder if, sometime after the events of Parable of the Sower1, Olamina’s God births a demigod of human relation. As the Brown Sisters said, this novel embodies the idea that “your people will find you,” and that, to me, has lower canon scripture potential.

For all the work that this novel does around empathy, though, I find Lauren Olamina to be concerningly unempathetic about certain exploited groups of people, and I can’t help but wonder what this says. In multiple instances, she speaks disparagingly and even hatefully of both “the poor” (a term that has many relative meanings in the stratified and crumbling world of Parable) and “addicts.” In most instances, she regards these people as menaces and threats, as one of the world’s great problems, rather than as symptoms of the world’s greatest problem. Given the situation of her world and the narratives she is raised in, this is a believable reaction for her to have, but Olamina spends the 300 pages of this book subverting and undermining the narratives of her world and trying to understand humanity’s place within the world and Butler’s work is never shy about challenging a perspective, so Olamina’s failure to consider the conditions of those poorer than her and her choice to portray them as barbarians just seems out of place and unexamined.

In the book club notes at the end of the copy I read, there is an interview with Butler from 1999. In it, she says that her goal in writing these books was, “to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us.” She says, “I considered drugs and the effects of drugs on the children of drug addicts. I looked at the growing rich/poor gap, at throwaway labor, at our willingness to build and fill prisons, our reluctance to build and repair schools and libraries and at our assault on the environment2.” Considering how horrifyingly relevant and familiar so much of this novel is, her efforts were greatly successful, and, whatever her methods of scrying into the future are, there is a lot for writers to learn. And amid the ongoing opioid epidemic, the impact of drugs on our myriad relations was indeed something that rippled out from the 90s, but what we see is not hoards of the drug addicted burning our cities and killing indiscriminately, but pharmaceutical corporations that pushed addictive drugs in order to turn over billions in profit, subsequently driving millions of people into poverty. The world is full of people who have been exploited and pitted against one another, and it seems odd to me that Olamina doesn’t make this empathetic connection.

I want to stay relatively concise on this post, but here’s a couple other things that I didn’t love and that deserve discussion:

  • Butler only ever refers to indigenous peoples once or twice, and does so in the past tense
  • Everything is, as always, more or less straight
  • The book often plays into dystopian tropes of violence and chaos that I find less and less convincing, and there is so little cooperation.

This last point is related to something Phoebe and I have written about in an essay forthcoming from American Review of Books, and it’s not something I fault Butler for in slightest, but something I think all of us need to consider as we write and read dystopias in a world where fascism and nationalism are on the rise, radical climate action is becoming exponentially urgent, and things are already, for so many people, so bleak and so desperate. So many live in dystopia already. More every day, it seems. So when dystopia is already here, what is the moral and ethical responsibility of authors crafting dystopian visions? At its core, I believe that dystopia, now more than ever, must offer modes of resistance and transformation. Butler certainly does this in Parable, but if she published this book today, I wonder how much different the book would look, if the resistance that Olamina and Earthseed create would be enough. I suspect that our job now is to take the map of resistance that previous dystopias have laid out and to take them a step further. As big a step further as we possibly can.

I want to see dystopias used to vision radical resistances that we can carry from fiction to the streets. As I read Parable of the Sower amid a daily-worsening global pandemic, I stumbled across the line where Olamina ponders how “it took a plague to make some of the people realize that things could change.” While the COVID-19 crisis shut down businesses and sent millions of people home from work for an extended quarantine, while governments ordered stays on evictions and released incarcerated folks from their penitential slavery, I saw some people beginning to realize that things don’t have to be the way they have been. I saw some people realize that their job was nothing more than a way to keep them occupied, that no one’s survival really depended on their working 40 hours a week. This all seems like a dystopia to me, and now seems like a crucial time to imagine freedom and to push back against anything that seeks to deny it to the world.

1I haven’t decided yet if I will venture to read the second book. Friends tell me it only gets sadder, and I don’t know if I want to put myself through that

2She writes after this passage about climate change in a complex and thoughtful way that is still rare and still so strongly resisted over 20 years later. Two decades of oil money and hierarchs fighting for their continued domination over peoples and environments is a hard force to counter with only strong words and good ideas.

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