Kinfolk, Kinship, Kindred

THIS HAS been a big week for Octavia E. Butler fans and stans, with the launch of “Kindred,” the limited series, on Hulu. I’ve only been able to see two episodes thus far and so there will be no spoilers here, no fear.

This week, my essay for Sierra magazine about Butler’s circuitous path toward publishing Kindred went live. Her manuscript was rejected 15 times by publishers, until Doubleday made a home for it in 1979. It became her breakthrough book.

In my piece, I reach back to the seeds of the novel, a story Butler told many times over the course of her life: While in college, she’d overheard a conversation in which another student claimed that if he were alive in the antebellum south and enslaved that he would have fought back. That declaration haunted with her. Would he have? Could he have? How would he know?

Bravery and survival looked like something different back then.

She started to investigate. To puzzle those “what ifs” out on the page. Drafts and drafts of pages in which characters, stakes, plot points and scenarios changed again and again.

From my piece:

When she was done, Butler had written a gripping, spectral, and genre-defying novel she called Kindred—the story of Dana, a 26-year-old Black woman setting up a household with her new husband, a white man, in 1970s Southern California. Dana, inexplicably, becomes unstuck in time. In an instant, she is transported back to a marshy riverside on a plantation in antebellum Maryland and must blindly feel her way around the territory to root out the extraordinary circumstances that not only landed her there but also continue to pull her across time and space.

I know many people who are meeting for watch-parties and post-screening book groups. I already knew that I was not going to be able to “binge” something like this, that it would have to be something I explored in chapters and so, it will take me a bit to get through. That’s okay. It took Butler years to distill and write and publish. I will honor that process.


We Have a Special Going On …


My publisher Angel City Press is offering a special deal through December 15, 2022 on A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler.

After the piece in The New York Times ran a couple of weeks ago, there was a run on books and it sold out at a *certain* online retailer. But fear not, there is not shortage! There books to be found.

You can order directly from ACP. Details below.

Follow this link to the store.

I just signed stacks and stacks of copies, so grab yours while the special lasts:

Catching Up With Octavia’s Prescience

Octavia E. Butler: Mural detail by Roberto Quintana

OCTAVIA IS everywhere.

Last Saturday, I was driving back across town after a book group conversation in Venice with the writer Dana Johnson. Our topic was Butler’s writing life. Minutes after I said my goodbyes and pulled away, I stopped at red light I looked up to see aa huge billboard advertising the new Kindred limited series, based on her 1979 novel, which premieres 12/13/2022 on Hulu.

Really, she is everywhere.

This has been a big year for Butler and her vision. I’ve been back in the archives at the Huntington Library researching and crafting new pieces. It’s been good to be immersed again. Even better to hear about people learning more about the writer, her work and her importance.

I”m often asked what is the most interesting or surprising thing I found in the Octavia E. Butler archive. That’s tough to answer. There is so much there that reveals, surprises or amuses—down to the briefest grocery list or research marginalia. Every time I open a notebook or open an old letter, she points me toward something new.

I loved the questions that came up about her during our book group conversation. So many engaged readers. We spoke a lot about how she worked so hard to keep her dreams in focus and dug deep inside to find her strength to persevere when the signals she received offered only contrary messages.

She kept going. Crafting her narratives while at the same time crafting her life.

I wish she were here to see all that her work continues to inspire.

Here’s a little roundup of links to some of the pieces I put together this year about Butler’s world, that help to illuminate the early years and the inspiration she found to keep going:

At the beginning of the year, I worked on this walking map of Butler’s Altadena/Pasadena for the Huntington Library.

In May, for L.A. Parent magazine, I wrote an essay and put together a bullet-point tour of Butler’s life here in Southern California, called, Octavia’s Footsteps.

And, last month, The New York Times‘ published a package, The Visions of Octavia Butler, that I’d been working on along with their Narrative Projects Team for many months. A wonderful experience, working collaboratively with this team—he early brainstorming so very essential to creating an experience—a world. The artist Ainslee Alem Robson not only ushered readers through Butler’s past, but also allowed us to travel through her imagination and into her imagined futures.

I hope you enjoy wandering through these portals into Octavia’s worlds.

The Books That Made Me

ITS BEEN so very long since I’ve posted here. Apologies.

I’m going to try to do a quick update of some pieces in the next few days.

I always enjoy working with Joe Wakelee-Lynch at LMU magazine. He enjoys knocking ideas around, the more abstract, the better. That gives the writer a lot of room to roam and daydream.

This piece was one of three I pitched. I had some stray seedlings of ideas swirling around in my head. I’d told him about another couple of pieces I’d been working on that felt a bit like archeology. He liked the idea of going back to foundational texts. During the first months of the pandemic, I found myself revisiting certain themes or authors (not necessarily the book that was on the syllabus or the very book I had once spent a summer with), but the re-reading took me back to the person who started out on this journey to be a writer.

It was an important journey and it has been wonderful to be in conversation with other people about their own foundational reading lists, their own “shelves of selves”

You can read the piece here with the most gorgeous illustrations by the amazing artist Melinda Beck. She captured the feeling of what it is to collage together a life of words.

Artwork by Melinda Beck

Thanks for the Memories

I WAS BEYOND honored to write this story for Preservation magazine about the deep history of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. The Chases played host to so many families and their functions over the decades and is still going strong. One of the biggest joys I have had in recent years is to to be able to take friends there for a special meal and tell my grandfather’s stories over a plate of red beans.

Many thanks to the Chase family for bringing this important history forward.

From the piece:

Leah Lange had let it be known that she didn’t much like to truck with musicians. Nonetheless, in 1945, she was swept away by Edgar Lawrence “Dooky” Chase Jr., a New Orleans jazz trumpeter, and had to shift ground on this score. The two met at a nightclub where Chase’s orchestra lit up the room. He’d somehow sailed past her defenses. Still in that whirlwind early the next year, they married.

Chase’s family owned a popular little spot in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood that served as a community hearth in one of the nation’s oldest African American communities. Established in 1939 and named after Edgar’s father, Edgar “Dooky” Sr., the business began as a street-corner stand selling po’boy sandwiches and lottery tickets. In 1941 the Chases moved across the street to the restaurant’s present location at Orleans Avenue and North Miro Street. Headquarters for key strategizing during the Civil Rights Movement, immortalized in song, this corner brick building with its two attached double shotgun houses has been a Tremé touchstone for five generations of New Orleanians.”

You can read the full piece here.

I Love the Way It Sounds …

IT WAS was a privilege to write this piece for Oxford American for their storied “Music Issue.” This year’s theme was “up south” and all of the writers were asked to contemplate the trail of southern music as it moved out of the American South and influenced and shaped how we play, listen, celebrate and grieve. I wrote about my New Orleans family and how they carried not just music, but food, language and ritual along with them. I grew up 2,000 miles away from New Orleans, but my relatives kept it alive inside themselves. The music is in my bones and heart. I was honored to be able to continue to tell my family’s story. There’s even a playlist to accompany the text.

You can read the piece here.. 


“You Were Here…”

I ALMOST missed the e-mail with the invite to “travel” for a story. My work inbox is a loud mix of music, arts, books  press releases and announcements and miscalleaneous musings, so I was happy that the editor pinged me a second time to make sure I’d seen the request to participate. 

I haven’t been back to San Francisco now for a couple of years, but I think about the city often.  I lived there for a short time in the late 80s and spent much of the 90s visiting friends and colleagues and trying to keep myself familiar with the changes — which were as rapid if not more as those I was experiencing here at home in Los Angeles. 

I hadn’t thought about that chapter in a long while. Not deeply. That required that I reach back into old journals (sparse evidence there) and photographs (a little more) to try to recall what it felt like. I told the editor that I wanted to write about ghosts and the names in the address book that don’t correspond with  streets and phone numbers any longer. But what triggered precisely where I wanted to go was happening upon a series of photographs on Twitter that depicted Caffe Trieste over the decades. That unlocked something inside me about rituals and how one sees oneself in a place.


Caffe Trieste, North Beach 2015


From the piece:


“Advancing through the frames, a half hour slipped away. An hour. More. Not until daylight fully faded did I stop myself: what sort of wish — or melancholy — sent me scrolling through scores of other people’s memories? Decades of regulars ringed around small tables, nursing the last swallow of a cappuccino; solo patrons’ eyes focused on middle distance; loose configurations posted just outside the entrance on Vallejo Street in animated conversation — stilled.

It wasn’t simply wistfulness that powered my search. Perhaps it was a shade of self-absorption or hubris, but I realized I was looking for myself. I was, without at first knowing it, hoping against hope to find some ghost of myself — part of this story, too. I was searching for evidence, not just that I had been there, but that it had moved through me.”

From there, I was able to drop down the rabbit hole, shadowing old routes, reacquainting myself with old selves. 

What a great experience working with my editor, Claudia La Rocco at SF MOMA’s Open Space. I hope to be able to work with her again. She took great care and was such a wonderful sounding board.

You can read the rest of the piece here. 


North Beach, 2011

My Life in the Sunshine …

APOLOGIES FOR being so behind on posting articles. Trying to play catch up. Things have been back-to-back.

This was a piece that I didn’t know I needed to write, but when the opportunity arrived I knew I had to wrestle with some themes that had been drifting through in conversations for years.

It’s an ode to a Los Angeles that is holding on with a very specific vividness and richness, but every time I revisit, I see features that appear slightly different, feel a rhythm that feels somewhat sped up or askew. At moments,, it’s difficult to put into words, but this is a reflection of what it is to be not just in a place but of a place.

The view North from the Avenues

From the piece:

As a journalist, I keep my eye trained on statistics — census numbers, pie charts, bar graphs — that indicate shifts that we may not detect with a naked eye. Therein blooms stories. As a Black Angeleno those charts and calculations aren’t abstractions. They are something you feel in your body, some sort of undertow in your day to day existence. Something has changed, power has shifted. Census numbers, like a Ouija planchette, pull attention toward power or possibility — the vote, the money, the influence. 

For many decades, Los Angeles had been known as a Black migrant “magnet.” Folks came for the promise and the sunshine. The Black population in L.A. has dropped 30% since 1990, according to census data.

Home is always in us…

My piece for KPCC/LAist on Nipsey Hussle and the soul and heart of Black Los Angeles is here.

Deeds and Words: The Legacy of Charles White

Charles White at LACMA
Charles White: A Retrospective, May 2019 – Los Angeles County Museum of Art 

LAST SUMMER,  when the country was surging with COVID infections and civil unrest, I  heard a protest moving its way through the main thoroughfare adjacent  to my home. Masked citizens carried signs and raised their voices in unified calls for justice. I wondered at once where they were headed to gather. Just a few taps and swipes on my mobile let me know that crowds were headed to Charles White Park. A fitting place for a protest calling for racial justice. 

White, the  artist, made the San Gabriel Valley his home for decades, dedicated his work and  life to addressing inequity and offering not simply uplift but examples and tools for the journey toward social justice.  In 2019, I made it  a point to get out to LACMA to see the wide-ranging retrospective of his work — the drawings, paintings, mural details,  sketchbooks—even early documentary-style photographs.

Immediately, I regretted that I had waited until the last minute to view the show. One slow Sunday morning, walking through the galleries simply wasn’t enough. This was one of those retrospectives that was meant to view more than once, to spend time with each period, medium, approach. The last show that I felt the same way about was the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA, and coincidentally but not entirely surprising, Marshall was a student of of White’s at Otis College of Art and Design.

“When Frustration Threatens Desire by Kerry James Marshall from “Mastry” at MOCA

UA couple of months ago, I was asked to write an essay for Otis on White and his impact on students and on Southern California. It was precisely the right antidote for the at-the-boiling-point trouble we were living in in the moment. White’s own path offered up a series of difficult hurdles, but he kept clearing them, time and again, and always reached back to help others strategize so they had a clear sense of how to clear their way as well.

From the essay:

It is possible to make a portrait with the gifts of legacy. Those deeds and words become textures, hues, strokes, and shadings. Memory assembles itself into an afterimage that reflects that richness, and the depth and breadth of the impact a single figure may have on people, place, and practice.”

As I was working on the essay, reading deeply, and connecting with people who either crossed paths with him in work or social arenas or who knew him as a teacher, most everyone commented on his commitment to recasting skewed narratives about Black people in the United States. Instead White set out to center his work around the celebration and documentation of the contribution of a people maligned and misunderstood: For both him and his subjects: “His art was a shelter and a balm.”

That piece is now live at here 


IN A MONUMENTAL year of swerves, set-backs and dead-ends, to hold this in my hands feels like a miracle.

This book is the fruit of many, many days, weeks, months and years of requesting boxes, thumbing through files, squinting at looseleaf pages filled with line after line of drafts. Reading. Absorbing.

The Pasadena-born writer, Octavia E. Butler willed her papers to the Huntington Library and shortly after the archive opened in 2016, I accepted a commission from Los Angeles-based arts organization Clockshop to work on a piece that was part of their “Radio Imagination” initiative, a year-long exploration of Butler’s work and legacy. As I was putting the finishing touches on my piece, I thought I was turning the corner of completing my work in the reading room, but instead I stumbled on a quote of hers that took root in my imagination. Butler was often asked: “What is science fiction to you?” An answer she settled on and often repeated was: “Science fiction is a handful of earth, a handful of sky and everything around and in between….” Science fiction allowed her the latitude to create a new reality, a new world, and ground that world, at first glimpse at least, in the familiar.

This quote resonated deeply. Mostly because I’d clocked in so many hours reading though her day-to-day prescriptions for clearing writing hurdles, solving a financial crisis and wrestling shape-shifting fear. Also, I held in my hands the often humble items — her bus pass, her library card, her dime-store notebooks and hand-me-down diaries — she used to achieve miraculous gains in her life

I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate subject to work with and through during a global pandemic. As I re-read her words about habit, grit and ultimately “bounce” — there was a message for today and the next day.

“A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” isn’t a biography nor is it an literary analysis, but you see the early paths, influences and obsessions. The book is a focused exploration of those tools and interior maps Butler utilized to create a life that was larger than anyone could have imagined for her.

The book publishes on October 20th and the first online event will be held that evening, hosted by Eso Won Books via Crowdcast. I’m honored to be in in conversation that evening with Ayana A.H. Jamieson who is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network

To hold a place, you can register here.

Also you can pre-order here from Angel City Press.