Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 November 2020
Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death consider environmental catastrophes structured as narratives of captivity and escape, and propose a problematized feminist teleology. Reading Butler again in the age of Trump with economic disparities, the denial of the global climate crisis, and the backdrop of the extended fire season (stretching into nearly the entire year) in southern California, continent-wide brush fires in Australia, and years-long drought in southern Africa makes her all the more prescient. Commenting in 2017, Okorafor stated, ‘After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid's Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it's definitely in Octavia's work’ (Modern Ghana). Okorafor's novel – regardless of its use of the fantastic – explores the violence consuming a world that has undergone an undisclosed but cataclysmic event. Or perhaps it is the world that many are currently facing, and have faced. Belonging to different generations, and occupying different spaces within the diaspora, Butler and Okorafor examine the world as depleted spaces, ones which have been written by the histories of enslavement and colonialism, and where those histories have become the very terrain and time we move in. These novels provide urgent responses to what Kathryn Yusoff argues is the erasure of blackness, the ‘lack of recognition of race’, from the Anthropocene, and ‘a prioritization of white biopolitics’ (17). Butler and Okorafor thus intervene in the narrative of the Anthropocene, expanding the presumed ‘we’ reflective of ‘a specifically racialized territorialization of the earth’ (Yusoff 105).
Butler and Okorafor share specific genealogies: not only do they draw upon the narrative constructions found in slave narratives, but their work foregrounds reading slave narratives as also narratives of the Plantationocene. Here Charles Ball's narrative Slavery in the United States. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man is most illustrative. Butler and Okorafor, while writing into the future, also demand a re-reading of the past. Christina Sharpe proposes that individual black ‘lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery’ (8).