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Brokenness in Octavia Butler’s Kindred
Kindred is a story of brokenness. Octavia Butler’s semi-fantastical tale of a young women being periodically tossed back in time to experience the plight of the American slave has an almost allegorical tone. The heroine, Dana, is a black woman living a comfortable life when suddenly she is transported to a new world by powers beyond her control or comprehension, where she is treated as less than human. Her freedoms stripped away; she is forced to endure physical and emotional abuses along with her ancestor. This revisiting of her own history works together with the permanent disfigurement she receives to paint a picture of a woman scarred by not only her own past but the past of her people. The injustices of slavery from over a hundred years prior are still able to have a very real and damaging effect on her in her own time. Kindred is the story of a woman who is left physically broken to represent the damage done to an entire race of people.
Octavia Butler once said of the character Dana that she “couldn’t let her come back whole” (Crossley 267). The journeys Butler sends Dana on throughout the book can last for months, and yet mere minutes may pass in Dana’s own time. She can move on with her life as if nothing had happened, the psychological scars being the only things to change. Perhaps Butler felt that invisible emotional damage is not a potent enough metaphor; it is not congruent with the heavier symbolism present throughout the book. Butler needed something more to represent the fact that the end of slavery was not a clean finish. It did not put a stop the suffering and it did nothing to atone for the damage that had already been done. The end of slavery in America merely left an entire people disadvantaged, and so Butler disfigures Dana by having her arm, from the elbow down, not return with her on her final trip through time (Butler 261). Dana’s injury gives a physical representation to the pain of her experience and to the lasting effect which it had on her, all of which stand to represent the pain and lasting effects of slavery.
The time travel itself is a tool Butler uses to demonstrate the lack of closure experienced by America in the time after the abolition of slavery. Butler, a known science fiction author who has routinely shown more effort to explain away the impossibilities present in her writings as feats of technological achievement, gives no clear explanation as to the means of time travel in Kindred. It is presented as something that happens for no reason, or for reasons beyond what Dana, as well as the reader, can understand. This unapologetic form of time travel leaves the story “rough-edged and raw,” as essayist Robert Crossley explains (Crossley 267). This inexplicable form of time travel, the randomness with which it begins and ends, and the complete disregard for its methods creates an uneasy feeling in any reader who finds joy in the underlying mechanisms and mythologies of fictional works. This sense of unfulfillment, which Butler creates in her audience, mirrors the hollow victory that was the abolition of slavery, which left an entire people to deal with the effects of the damage done for years to come.
The disjointed and broken themes explored in Butler’s narrative emphasize the way in which African American’s in present times may still be affected by “the markings of the past” (Steinberg 468). Indeed, the only reliable indicator for Dana to be sent back to the past is a young slave named Rufus Weylin. Whenever Weylin is in danger, Dana may be called back to intervene and help him, as it is necessary for her to do since he is her ancestor. Here is the only point in which the story broaches the more common time travel tropes, and even still, they are not the focus. The presence of Weylin in the story serves to ground Dana in the realities of her past. There is a very real connection between the two characters as Weylin cannot die, or it will lead to Dana never having existed, and yet Dana must watch the psychological toll that a life of slavery takes on Weylin as he becomes a crueler person. She is forced to experience the atrocities committed against her ancestor, all the while being acutely aware of the fact that her entire existence is predicated on this man; her existence is predicated on abuse and oppression. In this way, the plight of the modern day African American is not only given a parallel with the plight of the slave but a connection. The story is allegorical, yes, but it is also more. The narrative does not merely draw one to one comparisons between two different topics, one real and one symbolic. Rather it draws attention to the fact that these topics exist on the same continuum, one inherently affecting the other.
The theme of brokenness recurs throughout the novel Kindred in either a very visceral form, such as Dana’s amputation, or a more subtle way that addresses the damages done throughout an entire culture. The use of the abrupt and jarring form of time travel employed gives a sense of violation and randomness imposed on the main character similar to what was imposed on her ancestors centuries before. The narrative, which makes no attempt to explain or defend itself, keeps the reader off-kilter and presses into the mind that of the trauma that develops as a result of pain without meaning. This theme all comes to a head with a side by side comparison between Dana and her ancestor Weylin, who change and grow throughout the story, one learning and one becoming bitter. And yet the kinder and more benevolent Dana cannot be left whole by the experience, and her brokenness takes on a physical form to show, in no uncertain terms, the damage that has been done through American slavery.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon, 2003. Print.
Crossley, Robert. “Critical Essay.” Reader’s Guide. Danvers: Crown Publishing, n. d. Web.
Steinberg, Marc. "Inverting History in Octavia Butler's Postmodern Slave Narrative." African American Review 38.3 (2004): 467-476. Web.