You read a book like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and you get to thinking some bleak thoughts. Published in the 1970s, the ‘fantasy’ novel follows Dana through a time travelling slave narrative. Opening in the 1970s the reader is immediately hooked as Dana travels back in time to the pre-civil war South and finds herself – a black woman – among slavery. The mechanics of time travel in the novel are explained by virtue of the ‘kindred’ connection between Dana and her 1800something ancestor, Rufus: Dana is called back to the past each time Rufus is in danger of dying so that she can save his life; Dana is called back to the present each time her own life is in danger.
The majority of the plot is set in the era of slavery, though there are scenes filling out Dana’s present and her relationship with her – white – husband. By moving back and forth the novel reveals the continuity between the two eras and the extent to which the past is forcefully imagined as ‘over.’ While the physical violence of the slave plantation appears confined to the past, Dana’s experiences in the present reveal the separation of violence in time to be measured in degree, not kind.
I suggest it could make a reader feel bleak because the novel’s call to acknowledge (and act on) continued racially motivated hate and violence feels as urgent in 2016 as it might have in its year of publication. If part of the work of fantasy (or any novel) is to reveal the anxieties of the moment of its creation and to allow readers a space to question and consider, it gives this reader pause that this novel feels so current, so necessary.
The novel signposts the responsibilities of readers in the role of Kevin, Dana’s partner. In a twist of plot, Kevin finds himself thrown back in time with Dana. Their ability to navigate – or not – the expectations of the interracial relationship in the era of slavery, and the extent to which Kevin is called upon to act given his enormous privilege as a white man in this temporal moment, calls on the reader to reflect on her privilege and responsibilities in the present. It would be a mistake to think Kevin is the only – or even the most – significant source of resistance or power in the novel. Dana’s character is one of complexity and agency. From within the absurd confines of her racial and gendered position, she exercises resistance in acts small and grand, from teaching fellow slaves to read to coordinating escape to wearing pants. Not that the novel lauds only those who take action; it presents a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of those who – for reasons of fatigue, or fear, or disinterest – find themselves unable or unwilling to take action. Resisting judgement for non-action and reorienting responsibility for past-present injustice from those who experience it to those who perpetrate (and read it).
While you might find the time travel aspect a somewhat clumsy mechanism for the work all historical fiction does (making clear the continuity and perpetuation of the past in the present), okay by you I mean ‘me,’ I cannot fault the novel for making entirely explicit and overt the extent to which the violence of slavery is intergenerational and living.