literary awards

A book of love letters to writer Octavia Butler (co-edited by an Indian) could win a Hugo for sci-fi

Co-edited by the Indian speculative fiction writer Mimi Mondal, the book is ‘seamless experience of thanking, mourning and expressing indebtedness’.

For a book of love letters to an author – Luminiscent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler – to be nominated for an award among bundles of academic compilations is a rare feat. A book dedicated to a beloved science fiction writer, Luminiscent Threads is not just as a Hugo Award-nominated book, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, it is also a seamless experience of thanking, mourning and expressing indebtedness to a writer who challenged and changed the face of science fiction writing.

A black, feminist science fiction writer, Octavia Butler has dismantled the idea of science fiction as a white boys’ club. Butler has breathed into her fiction a sense of struggle, anger, beauty and redemption in a genre that is popularly associated with vampires and monsters, also throwing in a complex treatment of race, feminism, power struggles, and hope.

As a woman who has spent her working hours in buses and transforming ordinary places into magical ones where black history, diversity and monsters coalesce, Butler had inspired millions of writers, readers and teachers to open their minds to worlds they had never known. The letters carry their own diversity. A dyslexic man, a struggling woman writer plagued with self doubt, a reader who has spent her toilet breaks sifting through Butler’s prose, and a woman angered and lost in her utopic fiction.

At the intersection

Many letters explore the questions around a reader’s subjective gaze of Butler’s fiction that often narrates the struggles of black people and other minorities. Is this black fiction, or is it science fiction, or both? Can the two co-exist? Discovering that many books assigned to students of creative fiction and high school students are predominantly white, male and privileged writers, they acknowledge that Butler’s work urged them to write real, flawed characters and seek out speculative fiction that affirmed their cultural experiences. Her work has a word of its own – Afro futurism – an amalgamation of black history, the neo-slave narrative and fantasy.

Some of the letters admit that the writers had discovered her late, regretted that they did, or searched endlessly for her name in libraries and bookstores, to rarely any avail. Some recount their awkward fumbling when they managed to meet Butler, their speechlessness and stuttering, and some discovered her work only after her demise. Butler also encouraged black and minority writers to join the Clarion workshop, a workshop for speculative fiction writing, opening up a new world for future enthusiasts, majorly black, to take the plunge.

It is important to talk about the political nature of the Hugo Awards. One writer recounts Sad Puppies – a campaign that influences the Hugo Awards to nominate specific novels. White men, mostly right-wing, often feel that critics favour women of colour, and toil to reinstate what science fiction writers across ethnicities have known to be the “status quo.”

Sad Puppies want good old nostalgic science fiction, fiction that takes them back to its roots – roots that exclude minorities – not fiction that celebrates social complexities, people of colour and diverse narratives that break the status quo. Unsurprisingly, Luminiscent Threads has irked and invoked wrath among Sad Puppies, and high drama is expected this year.

Strikingly, the book was released soon after Donald Trump became the US President, and is peppered with rage and hopelessness. Alluding to Butler’s fiction, such as “Kindred” and “Parable of Talents”, the letters are rife with political commentary and emotional responses to what writers consider a reality version of Butler’s predictions of a dystopic future. Her books, writers and readers believe, were warnings of what was to come. Imagining Butler’s responses and rage at the election of President Donald Trump, the writers of these letters read between the lines of what Butler’s literature was trying to tell them. Fight. Fight with the pen as a sword and paper as armour.

What Mimi Mondal wrote

Mondal’s essay wasn’t in the book, and was instead published in Uncanny Magazine, a magazine of science fiction. When the call for submissions for the book was out, Mondal hesitated and finally refused. She didn’t, in her words, feel comfortable sharing her story, concerned by the act of exposing herself to a horde of people who have witnessed the exclusionary, contrived and white-washed nature of science fiction for years.

Mondal is a Dalit, queer, feminist writer, and touches upon her identity as a minority writer who is plagued with the fear of not being good enough, of the history of those before her, and as a non-native speaker of English, of the seething discrimination she has faced both outside and from within herself, a harsher critic.

But the part of her letter than will haunt and linger for years to come is her experience with self-rejection that pulls in and comforts every minority writer who has ever picked up the pen. It has often been an unspoken rule that when Dalit and other minority writers write, they write carefully for fears and anxieties over what will be their tomorrow. Will their families be safe? Will their work remain as unhinged as before? Mondal explains this internal debate in one sentence – “Backspace happens to be the most worn down key on my computer.”

Luminiscent Threads can be, and chooses to be, many things. It is, in Mondal’s words, a social justice book, a triumph over the backspace key. Among the ethnic majority of science fiction writers, it is assumed to be a bunch of letters you write to your teachers when you graduate. In academia, it is a wildcard entry into the Hugo nominations. What it chooses to be is a literary equivalent of a slab littered with thousands of candles as an ode to Butler’s legacy and compassion. In bold letters, the second chapter best sums up the book – “Your work is a river I come home to.”

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