The only place that there is room for me—and for the world I yearn to know—is in the impossible. The fiction—and maybe even the science fiction. The places where we make up the world so that we can breathe the kind of air we need to breathe. What do these fantastical worlds look like?
Sometimes they look like Narnia, and sometimes they look like a dystopian future California, sometimes like a fictional New York, and sometimes they are the interior of a dark living room, the moment after the last person’s heel passed the edge of the doorway on the way up to bed.
I have always written fiction because the place I am trying to make for us is not real. It is not currently possible. It is not somewhere we can rent for the weekend, or take a train to, or find on a map. It is not a frame of mind, or a hope, or a dream either. It is purely and totally the lie I make up to find a deeper truth. I did this before I learned from James Baldwin that the job of fiction is to lie to get to the deeper truth.
We are Earthseed
The life that perceives itself
It is also the lie I look for to understand the world in which we live. That lie is theological while also being fictional. Our theology is so filled with story that I have had a hard time telling the difference until I realized there wasn’t one. During this COVID season of seeing the failures in the American experiment and what I dream of as a reorganization of the world in which we live, I have been re-reading Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, and I am not the only one.
Two of my favorite cultural heroes, adrienne maree brown and Toshi Reagon have created a podcast called O Parables, where they are re-telling the story of the two books and thinking them through in our current context. They make the impossibility of fiction into a clear path to the possibility of worlds where we can breathe. Toshi and adrienne start their episodes reading the Earthseed sections of the Parables books.
During this COVID season of seeing the failures in the American experiment and what I dream of as a reorginaztion of the world in which we live, I have been re-reading Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents and I am not the only one.
Earthseed is the religion that Butler created for the novels and for her character, Lauren Oya Olamina to forge, disseminate, and live. I am quoting from it here as I go, putting it as it exists in the book, as epigrammatic or paradigm shifting capsules of reality offsetting the rest of the work. Lauren creates it based on what she sees but also through what it is she hopes to see that in the current world is completely impossible and alive.
Prodigy is, at its essence,
adaptability and persistent,
Did Jesus walk on water? Did Miriam make a well for her people? Did the Red Sea part for the Israelists or was it actually the Reed Sea, and just a tide? Did Buddha really sit under a tree for all that time? Did the Prophet hear an angel? Do magic spells really work?
I never understood why it mattered to ask those questions. I have never understood why people look at stories and ask if they are true instead of asking if they make enough room for us to inhabit.
We are called to the impossible by the Mothers of Light and Shadow, those goddesses I found in my graduate school Sanskrit study who came from the cultures of the Black and Brown people, those goddesses who lived lives we would recognize as oppressed by the patriarchy, oppressed by the actual Aryans after which our modern day Aryans mistakenly name themselves.
These Mothers of Light and Shadow survive. As heroines, they always survive. That’s what my Sanskrit teacher said. Heroes die. Heroines have to survive and deal with the aftermath. They survive in every story in impossible ways by doing improbable things that subvert the narrative and change all the meaning in the world.
Heroes may die, but the Mothers of Light and Shadow are always, always there, and then, the world is different.
There simply is not room in this world, no matter what view I take of it, for so many people to be who they are in their fullest flourishing. I create worlds where I can ask, “What would happen if?” Those worlds are impossible and true.
We are fighting to come to our senses against the drift of "reality," and it is heavy and pervasive and has very little give. This is where Octavia Butler steps in. She knew all that, she saw it, and se used it to create a fissure, an opening, an impossible possibility big enough to reach to and for the stars.
In those worlds, we drink the blood of our enemies, we give birth through parthenogenesis, we are hidden as birds, we are there when the dust settles. That world is impossibly gorgeous. This world we call the “real” is possible but deeply and unmistakably wrong.
Intelligence is ongoing, individual
adaptability. Adaptations that an intelligent
species may make
in a single generation, other species
many generations of selective
selective dying. Yet intelligence is
If it is misdirected by accident or by
intent, it can
foster its own orgies of breeding and
The systems are fucked. The game is rigged. The land we live on is stolen. The differences between us are handed to us through history and custom. The way we think and respond are pre-programmed. We are fighting to come to our senses against the drift of “reality,” and it is heavy and pervasive and has very little give.
This is where Octavia Butler steps in. She knew all that, she saw it, and she used it to create a fissure, an opening, an impossible possibility big enough to reach to and for the stars. She created Lauren Oya Olamina, who created a new religion called Earthseed where the principles are so simple that they shatter structures.
All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change, Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
God is Change.
How do we bring the impossible into our possibly deadening world? We do it by making change. We do it by shaping change. We do it by creating fissures where there were none and stepping into them.
When I was ten years old, I would have told you that I could do magic. That I could be the fictional characters I loved and worshipped and trained to be in my mind. That my curly brown hair would flow behind me as I practiced moving stones with my mind on the bank of a creek that had frozen edges. It was cold, the ice formed a porous border with the creek, and the water moved through it cold, brown, grey, and clear.
At any moment we could have fallen in, frozen, died, taken downstream through the tunnels and into the pond a half mile away, to rest, sodden, at the bottom while our families searched for us. Hair like seaweed, flowing with the current, under the suburban streets and into the future or the past.
But we knew better. We were the danger, not the landscape. We were the ones building ominous power that would launch us into a flow no one could control. We were the ones harnessing the cold and the air and the water and the earth to make something no one had ever seen before.
It took magic, futurism, power, belief in the impossible, an ability to ride the story in another direction to grow into who we really were. To outgrow the limits of our velour sweatshirts and Adidas tennis shoes and to morph into humans who held things that the world had never seen. Could not see.
It was a magic power to be bigger than the visions possible at the time.
When I was older, that magic took other forms. I realized I could get away with living another life right under the life set out for me, I had powers beyond my parents’ control. I got A’s and did Debate, and played oboe in band, and went to sleepovers, and had friends, and created a façade as safe as the world pretended to be.
I knew it was not safe at all, that hands groped you, and people shattered the world with their actions, and people disappeared into the creek under the bridge, lodged in the sewer never to be seen again, till I wondered if their names even still existed.
Octavia Butler's characters are also those Mothers of Light and Shadow, making due with the people in front of them as they survive the apocalypse, learning the skills and the tools they need to grow a future even if it is as far away as the stars.
I knew that some people had keys other people did not, and those keys took them to other worlds called privilege, not into the manholes.
I also knew the Mothers of Light and Shadow who grew me with stories of vampires and rabid squirrels, who fed me real and spiritual food, and who taught me spirituals and reality. Those women, who worked their whole lives in the service of families like mine, were the ones who survived.
They were the ones who brought to my childhood the stories of impossible survival where drinking blood would have been easier. Where the enemy was everywhere and the route to survival narrow, but their whole lives were a testament to threading that needle.
The Mothers of Light and Shadow saw into possibility; just enough to keep themselves alive. I was raised by those Mothers of Light and Shadow, who made me their child, though that was impossible, too.
They filled me with the plot twists that moved around the present system, and they made items in my house magical even if they had to hold an iron to get there, or a rag, or a mop, or the car keys. They knew what I needed to know. Real evil existed. They survived it.. They knew that escape was not really possible, even once you thought you’d gotten there. They knew that survival was an achievement, but to thrive was the best revenge.
Octavia Butler’s characters are also those Mothers of Light and Shadow, making due with the people in front of them as they survive the apocalypse, learning the skills and the tools they need to grow a future even if it is as far away as the stars. The death that Lauren has to survive, the death of what she knew, the death of people, the death of her world, felt comfortingly familiar to me when I found it.
A victim of God may,
Through learning and adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
I knew that real violence existed, that real saviors rode motorcycles, and that someday someone could show up in your driveway, dismount, slowly and with gravity move up to your door with an upturned and empty helmet and hand it to you. You would weep as though the world had ended, because for your lover, it had. I knew this because it happened and did not need to be explained.
I knew that no one else in my family was observing the world. No one else saw yet. They still saw the Mothers of Light and Shadow as maids, when I knew them as heroines who had done remarkable things. So I tried little things to act out what I felt was real. They went unnoticed.
I kissed my best friend. Even she made it possible when I knew it was impossible, by saying we were practicing for boys. I knew it was impossible that we could do that and survive where we were, but no one saw us, because no one was looking. I was hidden in the light as well as the shadow.
I became a magician of the impossible. I moved through the world broken, starving, and torn apart, and no one noticed. Because to notice would be to admit that there were lush places where the impossible resides, and no one could do that outside of books. The power went wrong, sometimes, and I did things. I still feel prickly in my chest when I think about them. I had no guard rails. And no one noticed.
No one noticed a girl with braces, glasses, and a book, sitting under the piano reading while the party was going on. No one noticed her slipping out through the coal chute door and into the night with a skateboard and a Walkman to create dangerous situations.
No one noticed when I did not come home because I was eating French fries in the dark in the back of the only place open after midnight in a ten mile radius, laughing with people who were part of some other reality. They did not live near me, go to my school, or accept the rules that anyone I knew accepted. No one notices when I rode my three speed bike into the places we were told not to go. No one notices when I did the same with my heart.
There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.
The beautiful part of all of it was that I didn’t even know I was doing it. I had a streak of stubbornness that I learned from the Mothers of Light and Shadow who raised me and that was only reflected back to me when I started reading Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemison, Nisi Shawl. When I found heroines who simply could not do anything but be themselves, no matter what the cost.
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you—
If you will learn.
Lauren Oya Olamina creates a religion that feels true to her and it feels so true that people (adrienne maree brown for instance) tattoo parts of the wisdom of that tradition on their bodies. We shape change, we are change, God is change, and we are here to make change in the face of an impossible system that wants complicity more than it wants freedom.
God is Change.
God exists to shape
And to be shaped.
Forget everything Aristotle told you, it is not about learning from people’s stories, so that you don’t have to do it yourself to get the lesson, though that is an option. It is about watching the trainwreck that is people being themselves even when it makes the whole world crash into them, and realizing that it is possible to survive. It is finding a way to shape the world even when the system is rigged against you and ending up with a new religion, as Octavia Butler shows us.
It is finding a way to shape the world even when the system is rigged against your and ending up with a new religion, as Octavia Butler shows us.
In that Sanskrit class, my professor gave those Mothers of Light and Shadow another name: Jivita. It means longevity. It means the necessity of surviving the story where the hero is the center and you are, you are not. You learn a lot watching from the shadow.
Survival, I learned from the Goddesses, is possible when there are not other options. The Mothers of Light and Shadow taught me that survival is possible and flourishing is an act of magic done, as Audre Lorde tells it, when we put down the master’s tools. Survive your own trainwreck without being destroyed the way people want you to be. That is the magic that we learn from stories. You can survive everything that happens to you while you are being yourself, even when it looks horrific.
Know the past.
Let it touch you.
I cannot say that as an adult I believe in magic any less, in fact as the world feels more impossible and as the realities that I only sensed as a child come crashing down on all of us, I lean more into the impossible and find more impossible women, more Mothers of Light and Shadow, more paths and more into the fact that we live in a world we constructed. We made it this way.
The system is working when more of us are excluded. The system is working when the wealth and power gap grows. The system is working, but not for us. Because of Octavia Butler and her world in the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents, I think I know where we are going. I don’t find the horror of this year surprising. I don’t wonder how we got here, and I am not naïve enough to be surprised.
I see that the magic in this world, which is the theology and the story, comes from worlds created in resistance to the deathly present. We can survive the nihilists and narcissists who stand opposed to our existence. I feel the weight of what I owe to the Mothers of Light and Shadow come due. Sitting at the round table in my childhood kitchen, listening to stories is now purely fiction. It was then too. But then, someone else was paying into the possibility and now, it is my job to build a world there. I owe these Mothers of Light and Shadow, the ones who raised me, the ones who live in stories, the ones I found hidden in Sanskrit poems, my life. I think we all do, as impossible as that sounds. Where we have survived, a Mother of Light and Shadow has been there before us. Now we find the next impossible task, to pay what has come due.
Adulthood is both sweet and sad.
We are men and women now.
We are Earthseed.
And the Destiny of Earthseed
Is to take root among the stars.
sections in italics are quotes from Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler