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.


Happy Birthday, Jack

“I walked up a hill, up California past Chinatown, someplace I came to a white garage….and this guy in a swivel chair wanted to know what I wanted, I understood all of my moves as one obligation after another to communicate to whoever not accidentally but by *arrangement* was placed before me, communicate and exchange this news, the vibration and new meaning that I had, about everything happening to everyone all the time everywhere….” — Jack Kerouac born OTD 1922 .


.. Image: Jack Kerouac by Jerry Yulsman, 1957

Live at the Whisky A Go Go

THE OTHER big news really came out of the blue.

I wrote the album notes for the fancy re-issue of  Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go and got the news that the essay received a Grammy nomination. To say that I was surprised is an understatement.  I’m really happy that it puts Redding’s legacy in the spotlight. Truly gone too soon.

Here’s a short reaction interview that  appeared on the Angel City Press site.

Awards announced this year in New York City, January 28.



AT FIRST, I watched this commercial out of the corner of my eye, thinking — I already know what it’s supposed to be representing. I’ve seen ‘it’ too many times, so I don’t need to look again.

But only in the last week or so have I really paused to sit down and study it closely. It isn’t quite the same old story.

Cars are so much about status, particularly in a place like Los Angeles where we don’t often brush up against one another directly. People here then aren’t just judging a book by its cover, but by the shrink wrap covering the cover. In this sense telegraphing who you are is tricky.

Ultimately, what pulled me in was that the on-the-face of it imagery plays with our pre-conceived notions. Where is this young man “on his way to” with that intense, steely expression? You’ve got that deep-bass blooming around the edges, a foreboding soundtrack coupled with his difficult-to-read side-glance to the “little homies” on the sidewalk? What’s he up to?

Sure enough, where this young man is “going” is back home. To his mother’s arms. (Those “little homies”? He was one of those little boys, not so long ago.) And the car — Chrysler wants us to believe — telegraphs that he hasn’t forgotten what “home” means: dependable, familiar, practical — but with a little bit of down-to-earth American style. His face melts when he sees her — his Mom, and then moves toward her open arms — their smiles connecting them before their embrace.

It’s subtle and layered and surprising. A far-cry from the pop candy J-Lo commercial for the new Fiat 500 that often seems to be running in the same rotation, but sends exactly the opposite message: this flashy car says, “Yeah, I’m all that. Loud, bright and then some…” I’ve grown weary of it already. Make it stop.

Chrysler’s quiet message is built for times like this. Keeping it together is keeping it real.

Life in the Cloud

ON MY living room floor, next to the front door I have a short-ish stack of Sunday New York Times, still sheathed in their blue, plastic jackets. Not in a “hoarding” way, just four or five papers resting atop my magazine rack. People discreetly eye them as they enter, but are polite enough not to say anything, but I know what they are thinking.

Though that stack contains “old” news, and I’ve read the most salient pieces already online — as the news cycle, we know, thunders on– I can’t yet throw away those papers until I page through them in the old-style I’d grown up with, letting my eye and mind wander. It’s an old newsroom habit, and I wasn’t even around the newsroom in the golden years, but I was around to make note of the ritual — the turning of pages the desks piled with newsprint from cities across the country and globe.

It’s so different now. It’s “all” at our fingertips. I surf and scan and click and leap and still feel I don’t quite know enough about what’s happening — particularly the why — there is something about going through the news in your hand and feeling, even if it isn’t at all accurate, that you’ve have a sense of where the world is today. For that moment, until tomorrow.

Serendipity aside, my online habits are like many people’s I know: I tend to navigate to and read what I’m interested in — it’s filtered — on paper, of course, my eye might be caught by some odd buried brief — that might bloom into a story. Yes, this can happen online too, but I read faster online, with purpose and very seldom in the leisurely way I’d become accustomed to entering into the Sunday news.

But this isn’t just about newspapers. It’s not just the medium or the platform that’s changed, it’s how we collect and store our information; and too the ritual of consuming the information has evolved as well — where we read, how we read. It isn’t just news but books and music. When I was younger, like most, I listened to music in my bedroom, door closed, on the floor, letting the music — the drum and bass in particular — seep inside. It was a private matter. As I got older, college and graduate school, that ritual survived in tact but I’d often listened with others now — friendships grew around not just particular artists, but specific songs or genres so music became more communal, although, it was always necessary to listen quietly, uninterrupted and on my own if I was really trying to absorb or understand where the music was taking me.

With the communal ritual came the notion of collection — or the displaying of the collection — and this, I know was key to a corner of my generation’s way of defining itself. This carefully collected, consumed and now displayed music (or books, etc.) was something you built LP by LP, Grove paperback by Grove paperback. You proudly displayed your interests, passions, obsessions. You pulled them out to show the very best of them to people you felt would understand them. Often you were on the money about the choices of who would understand these things that often words didn’t adequately address. A different sort of sharing.

Late last week, in a big way, I’ve been hearing, daily, about Spotify, another streaming service that promises to change the way we buy, organize, listen and share music. Already, I’ve been a member of LaLa and Pandora and now Rhapsody. I put in my request for an invite for Spotify because, I feel as if I want to know. A musician friend of mine has shifted from “concern” to “resignation” — no money in it for the artist if you aren’t on the top tier. All those inexpensive loss leader CDs we used to buy back in the 70s and 80s — compilations of back catalog B-sides with a smattering of hits that might bring the consumer back to the artists’ earlier work, this is what’s happening to that. No one expects Gen-Y and beyond to listen and collect as we had — that’s done, but he asks: “Now, tell me, who is going to be interested in listening to that old Laurel Canyon stuff?”

Well, it’s clear: It’s the people who have bought those albums already in various formats — LP, 8-Track, cassette, CD, digital — and really would rather not buy it yet again. Spotify apparently is arranged, looks and “feels” like iTunes so, as one music writer friend said to me, “You already know how to use it.” Catalog and backlist at my fingertips. That Howlin’ Wolf song I just heard the other night that snaked down my spine in the documentary I was watching? Yep, In the middle of the night, I could pull it up and put in on my playlist. It’s “Mine” in that sense as is so much else looming on those “virtual shelves.”

Rhapsody works for me in a practical sense, in that since I write about music and sometimes need to hear something to reference and double-check, it’s more often than not there. There are holes, to be sure; some albums with only a limited amount of tunes available for streaming; some not at all. I have to say having some of my collection in various places on someone’s cloud or another — has helped in keeping the collection manageable. I haven’t gotten to the place where I feel I can jettison my collection — there are so many odds and ends, weird finds, one-offs, limited pressings — that I feel like I want to have even if I don’t listen to them again — more for sentimental reasons that I can’t find words for at the moment.

Last week I had dinner with a friend, a writer, a book and music lover much in the same way I have been most of my life, and we spent a lion share of the time discussing re-adapting. Reading on Kindles and iPads, listening to music that was “ours” but wasn’t. What is this thing about owning something tangible that makes it feel more like yours — or more real because you can not just possess it, but hold it, fall inside of it — the creamy pages of an old book, the photographs and liner notes on albums we began to love cut by cut. These things, we have held, the books, the records, will just become, said the musician-friend, interior design, knick knacks. There’s some truth to that: Shelter magazines feature spreads with books shelved spines against the wall or grouped by color for some aesthetic reason not having to do anything with genre, author, fiction or nonfiction. You’ve long been able to buy frames to showcase album cover art. And I suppose, for the generation who will not grow up with the same sense of owning and building, (playlists, though personal, are very different) these things are just that — “things” — relics and curios. It’s the essence that you’re after — of the tune or lyric, or the protagonist’s voice — that you will cary with you, like that penultimate paragraph of a favorite novel, the chorus of a summer song from a decade so far in the past it doesn’t seem like your own life anymore. In your hands or in the cloud: if it matters, you still carry it with you, always.

Tick-Tock: Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”

LAST NIGHT, very late, a friend and I ventured to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on a whim, to see what essentially was a 24-hour film montage as art piece — “The Clock,” in which time is, literally, the essence. Artist and composer Christian Marclay edited together hours and hours of film — foreign, domestic, blockbuster, art house — moments that reference time and builds a narrative constructed by bits and pieces of incidental dialogue that, more often than not, reference a specific time or anticipates what might happen when that “time” arrives.

The piece functions as a visual clock — where each hour, minute and second is accounted for. In other words, we, the audience sitting here in Pacific Daylight Time, is synced with the film’s internal clock — to the second. And so, when, say, an off-the-round number time was referenced by one of the actors, audience members checked their cellphones (and some old-schoolers like me, my watch). We were right on the nose. What a feat in L.A. to have to “go off” right on time. I was struck by the en-masse slumber party feel in the Leo S. Bing Theater on the museum’s grounds — excited but reverent. It reminded me of the old movie marathons the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Filmex) used to throw annually more than three decades ago.

Last night, there were people who clearly were just filing in for a moment to get a sense of the concept and move on as if it were an installation under plexiglass, still others who wanted to have more complete sense of what the piece’s trajectory — and still others who were in it for the duration — with their blankets and had snuck-in snacks. We stayed about three hours and shoved off into the rain. But long enough to watch the big clocks edge slowly to midnight — and see the beautiful watch and clock faces, the filagree hands, the gorgeous clock towers — registering time, counting down our days. That run up to midnight was greeted with elated applause.

The feeling you are left with is how much time it is we think about time — how it functions in our lives as both an abstract and a tangible dividing line between present and future, success and failure, life and death, chance and destiny.

Here is a little backstory about the project and Marclay here from the BBC.