Monday, December 05, 2005

My Encounter with Author, Octavia E. Butler

After twenty two years Miami’s version of a book fair, with all of its international flavoring drawing from South America, the Caribbean, Mexico and parts of Europe you’d get a delectable mix and quite a different spin than others. This year, the modus operandi didn’t change but a few alterations were at the fore. I wondered and worried whether charging an entrance fee would curtail the most diehard fan to think otherwise, or if our topsy-turvy year of weathering several hurricanes had finally took its toll. From my observation, attendance definitely was down and it seemed on the surface at least that perhaps there people would be reluctant to buy a book in lieu of protecting further against the ravishes of yet another hurricane looming somewhere off of Cape Verde heading our way. You see, our hurricane season isn’t officially over until the first of December! This notwithstanding, Hurricane Wilma shut our offices down for a week, but the facilities made it though the storm without any major damage. The fair went on and we were able to enjoy another all-star cast in the African-American persuasion from the likes of Terri McMillan, ReShonda Tate-Billingsley, Martha Southgate, John Hope Franklin, Zane, Octavia Butler, et al. Readings, panel discussions, book signings, and the after parties were all the rage as all of the authors made themselves available. Octavia Butler journeyed all the way from the Pacific Northwest to give us a try, and what time we had in her presence. I was the room host and moderated her session, as well as introduced her. I give my account of that experience below:

The Butler did it!

The science of fiction can truly be misleading…and I saw her long before I would approach this statuesque woman formidable in her stead, and quite imposing to boot. Pure fact has ways of hitting you square in the face with reality. Bushy Afro hairdo and all, her seemingly conservative dress and simplistic demeanor wouldn’t begin to defy the eloquence and wit she would later exude. More on that later. As I neared my subject, I wondered how would I present myself, and what would I say. All I knew was that I was assigned the task of being a liaison between author, book fair and the audience during her stay at this formidable literary event. Here I was quite a few hours early (by design) endeavoring to escort her to the hospitality suite that was the designated area where authors had the chance to mingle, rest, and gather their thoughts before being ferried to their respectful literary sessions. As a longtime volunteer with this being my eleventh year doing so, I still find time to be awed by the electricity of so many people – all for the love of books!

The Miami Book Fair International is a prestigious event, and considered to be the granddaddy of them all, requiring volunteers as well as staffers to adhere to protocol and represent. All of us are required to avail ourselves wholeheartedly to the betterment and success of each yearly offering. This is our 22nd year, and my bailiwick and penchant for volunteering will never diminish. When I found out that I was given Octavia E. Butler, I took it with a grain of salt and turned my thoughts to other pending matters. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ I told myself…until it dawned on me the task I had before me, to soothe the crowd, filibuster as needed, and keep the throng at bay with chatter becoming a Room Host who was expected to ‘moderate’ and coddle. “Surely I can handle this”, I implored as the time neared for me to turn my attention back to the matter at hand as I slowly made my way to her. My knees began to wobble, my heart pounded with nervous energy and the adrenalin flowed profusely in the form of sweat from my brow, but I trudged on. Didn’t I do quite well in performing the same tasks for the likes of Toni Morrison two years ago, and meeting Walter Mosley for the very first time in 2001? I’m admonishing myself and trying to be convincing to my own lukewarm ego. After all, I truly would be in the company of an icon, a literary diva and a force within her genre that command respect…all I’d have to do was stay composed, I mused to myself.

“Excuse me, may you be Octavia Butler?” I stammered realizing that she was almost as tall as I was! She gave a pregnant pause all of 3 minutes before answering, “I have been for the last 58 years, and who wants to know?“ Without missing a beat because by now my heart was way down in the feet, I managed to introduce myself….and sensing my discomfort, she laughed heartedly and said, “relax, will ya. I AM Olivia, and I’m just an ordinary writer that happened to have written a few books that someone has believed in over the years.” With that, I escorted her to the place where she would be holding court oblivious to the many gawking fans and curious onlookers, wondering what I could say next to carry the conversation. As I mentioned, I was early. I wanted to meet her beforehand to engage her in conversation to see how would be the best way to introduce her. When I asked, she said that she didn’t care one way or another as long as I didn’t mention that she’d won the McArthur family’s 1995 ‘Genius Award’. Fearing stupidity would render my next and obvious question obsolete; I decided not to ask why. Just to be on the safe side, I found a little ditty online that I felt would be appropriate and light enough for a good intro. What made my find such an enamoring muse is the fact that she quotes in an autobiographical sketch the perfect sound bite for a good segue for me:

“I'm a 58-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm also comfortably asocial -- a hermit in the middle of Seattle -- a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.
I've had twelve novels published so far: Patternmaster, Mind of my Mind, Survivor, Kindred, Wild Seed, Clay's Ark, Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago, Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, my latest Fledgling, as well as a collection of my shorter work, entitled Bloodchild. I've also had short stories published in anthologies and magazines. One, Speech Sounds, won a Hugo Award as best short story of 1984. Another, Bloodchild, won both the 1985 Hugo and the 1984 Nebula awards as best novelette. Parable of the Talents won the 1999 Nebula for Best Novel.”

The discussion went well…so well that I hated to end it, and was castigated in a jovial way for not being considerate to her fans afterwards! Lively and upbeat, the questions flowed. Sharing the stage with her was Latin writer, Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea, no slouch himself in the Hispanic literary world was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and member of the Latino Hall of Fame, but when paired with Octavia Butler he made the best of it and, frankly added comedic relief to a situation that could have gone in a different direction. Long after the discussion, and after every book was signed from the long lines, I surveyed my time and didn’t feel at all like a Fledgling (her latest book), and somehow felt that the Butler not only knew, but also winked!

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