"The other one he loved like a slave, like a madman and like a beggar. Why? Ask the dust on the road and the falling leaves, ask the mysterious God of life; for no one knows such things. She gave him nothing, no nothing did she give him and yet he thanked her. She said: Give me your peace and your reason! And he was only sorry she did not ask for his life."
That’s Lt. Glahn speaking, in Knut Hamsun’s 1894 novel, Pan.
Later, John Fante would take one of the phrases there for the title of his 1939 novel, Ask the Dust:
The dust, of course, is unlikely to render many answers, and yet it has been a preoccupation of literature since its beginning…
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
Book of Common Prayer
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
King James Bible, Genesis 3:19
Surely then there must be a fear in us of that inevitable return to dust…that breaking down of the individualised self into minute grains of incalculable, disparticulate matter…in which form we can only be blown by the winds to the Earth’s four imagined corners, shorn of identity, of will, of consciousness itself…
Here is a writer:
(Photo courtesy of Nikolas Coukouma/http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/legalcode)
Octavia E. Butler.
The daughter of a cleaner and a shoeshine man.
When she was 13 her aunt told her, “Honey…Negroes can’t be writers”
But, by then, her mother had already bought her a typewriter with the little spare money she had from her cleaning jobs.
And, later, her mother would give her the money she had been saving for dental work, so that Butler could attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where she sold her first stories.
Octavia E. Butler wrote about hierarchies, intolerance, institutional violence, the death drive, biophilia, gene manipulation, survival, redemption, miscegenation, hybridity, disenfranchisement, exploitation of minorities and the weak, alternative communities, extraterrestrials, vampires, social power, extrasensory powers, injustice, and the need for change, stating later:
"I began writing about power because I had so little."
After her death in 2006, her papers were left to the Huntington Library in California.
Among them, was this handwritten note made on the inside cover of one of her journals:
“I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not.
This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months (at least two). Each of my novels does this.
So be it! See to it! I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it!
My books will be read by millions of people!
I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood.
I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer's workshops
I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons
I will help poor black youngsters go to college
I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself
I will hire a car whenever I want or need to.
I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose.
My books will be read by millions of people!
So be it! See to it!”
Her work went on to win the following awards:
2012: Solstice Award
2010: Inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame
2005: Langston Hughes Medal of The City College
2000: Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the PEN American Center
1999: Nebula Award for Best Novel – Parable of the Talents
1995: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant of $295000
1988: Science Fiction Chronicle Award for Best Novelette-"The Evening and the Morning and the Night"
1985: Locus Award for Best Novelette- "Bloodchild"
1985: Hugo Award for Best Novelette – "Bloodchild"
1985: Science Fiction Chronicle Award for Best Novelette – "Bloodchild"
1984: Nebula Award for Best Novelette – "Bloodchild"
1984: Hugo Award for Best Short Story – "Speech Sounds"
1980: Creative Arts Award, L.A. YWCA
In 2006, the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship was established in Butler's memory by the Carl Brandon Society, providing “an annual scholarship to enable writers of color to attend the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop and Clarion Writers' Workshop, descendants of the original Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania, where Butler got her start.”
The dust swirls on and on then, perhaps. Individuals rise up from it here and there, take form and shape for a while, only to fall back again to the earth when the time comes.
“In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.”
Octavia E. Butler, 1947 – 2006