Growing up in Pasadena, Octavia Butler had dreams of succeeding as a science-fiction writer, a field that had long been dominated by white men. Yet she didn’t let her status as an African-American female deter her from reaching for her dreams, and by the time of her untimely passing in 2006 Butler had become a multiple recipient of the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards and became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
The Crown City played a major part in her development, both for its major role in the space race via Caltech, JPL and the Carnegie Observatories, and because of the fact it was racially integrated long before much of the nation. Her archives are collected at the Huntington Library in San Marino, having formed the basis of a popular exhibition in 2017 and remaining one of the hottest collections for researchers there.
“Pasadena was a major inspiration, and part of that has to do with JPL being in her backyard, right over the hill and being so close to the space race and growing up with that had to have piqued her interest,” says Theresa Russell, assistant curator of literary collections at the library. “I think Butler felt it was a very diverse place. She talks about her novels not just being filled with black people, but people of all colors. There were white, black, Asian students at Caltech, and it seemed natural to her that the future would be the world she was seeing, filled with diversity.”
Russell also notes that the Pasadena area or a version of it appears in some of Butler’s works. Her novel “Kindred” offers a particularly strong example, as it focused on a writer living in Altadena amid an early career as a writer, and the novel “Mind of My Mind” features a city called Forsyth that was modeled after Pasadena. Yet Russell notes that the dystopian novel “Parable of the Sower” has the most intriguing connections of all to the City of Roses.
“It starts in Pasadena and shows what the city might look like if humans continue down the path they’re going,” says Russell. “It deals with water issues and drought, and part of it is a road story where the main character sets out from Pasadena and hiking north, trying to find her utopia. Pasadena is literally on the page as part of works she created.”
The library’s “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories” exhibition about Butler featured about 100 items of the 8,000 catalogued items in the collection, with many spotlighting her determination to succeed. Of particular note were numerous self-motivating notes she wrote herself throughout her life, willing herself to believe she was a bestselling writer and a desire to own a home in Santa Monica.
She indeed overcame humble beginnings as the daughter of a housemaid and a shoeshine man, as well as struggles with dyslexia, paralyzing shyness and bullying. That shyness led her to immerse herself inside the Pasadena Central Library as a teen, both reading voraciously and writing constantly in her notebooks.
At age 10, her mother bought her a Remington typewriter to facilitate her writing, and by 12 she was creating stories because of her belief that she could write better than the cheap science-fiction films that played on television. She began submitting stories to science fiction magazines by the time she finished high school and earned her first pay as a writer when she won a college-wide short story contest at Pasadena City College during her freshman year.
After she graduated from PCC, Butler opted to take temporary jobs rather than pursuing a steady income so that she could wake up at 3 a.m. to write. Breaking into the male-dominated world of science-fiction proved difficult, however, until she met famed author Harlan Ellison while attending a class of his in the Open Door Workshop of the Writers Guild of America. Ellison bought one of her stories for an anthology he was curating, and gave Butler the mentorship and confidence that carried her through to her publishing breakthrough at the age of 29 in 1976 with “Patternmaster.”
“The impact of the collection itself didn’t end with the exhibit,” explains Russell. “It introduced Butler to a lot of people now familiar with her work, and it’s quickly become one of the most researched and utilized archives in the library, where it’s the third most used overall collection and the most used literary collection.
“We have multiple requests for research every year and a regular turnover of scholars looking at her work,” Russell continues. “The archive is so important and it continues to be a real touchstone of how it ties into their work across a number of disciplines. That’s what’s interesting about that. The archive is continuing to inform scholarship and is so large and so rich that we’ll see more stories and ideas coming out, understanding more about how Pasadena and California figured into her childhood.”