Is it Possible to Misread Octavia Butler?

This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler’s  birthday. See all the posts here.


“Bloodchild” is one of Octavia Butler’s most haunting, disturbing, and memorable stories, and is also one of the greatest things she ever wrote. And I know that I am not alone in having completely misread the story and entirely missed what Butler had accomplished.

The titular tale in Butler’s one and only short story collection, “Bloodchild” describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses one child from every family to be impregnated and “host” Tlic eggs inside their body. In exchange for this service, the Tlic “allow” the humans to live inside a special compound and ingest sterile Tlic eggs, which work as a kind of opiate, keeping the humans calm and happy. Oh, and the humans are banned from possessing any weapons, for fear of an uprising.

In this world, a boy named Gan has been chosen to host the eggs of T’Gatoi, the Tlic in charge of relations with humans in the compound. T’Gatoi lives with Gan’s family, sedating them with her sterile eggs and repeating how lucky they all are to have her living with them. When an injured and impregnated man is found outside their house, Gan watches in horror as T’Gatoi surgically removes the Tlic eggs from the man’s body to prevent them from eating him alive from the inside out. Gan realizes the danger he will be in if he lets T’Gatoi lay her eggs inside of him, but she declares that if he won’t be her host, then she’ll just use his sister instead. Gan chooses to be a host on the condition that T’Gatoi doesn’t report the illegal firearm Gan has been hiding.

The first time I read this story, I assumed Butler has written “Bloodchild” as an allegory for slavery in North America. It seemed so obvious: the Tlic are the white enslavers and their controlling humans’ bodies for their own benefit, all while insisting the humans are fortunate to be subjugated.

But Butler had heard this interpretation many, many times before, and wrote in her afterward to “Bloodchild” that she was “amazed” people kept viewing her story through this lens. And although the story does includes a group of humans that are, in a literal sense, enslaved, this reading is a vast oversimplification of what Butler was doing with the characters and their motivations.

As Butler noted, “Bloodchild” is a love story, a coming-of-age tale, and what-if scenario about a man becoming pregnant with a weird, alien, bug-creature. In the afterward, Butler states she wanted to explore a scenario where a man could become pregnant not by accident or out of curiosity, but by love. Gan chooses to host T’Gatoi’s eggs even though he knows the danger he is putting himself in and the agency he is giving up. He sacrifices his own safety and well-being for his family, choosing a path for his future that is an uncertain as it is unfavourable.

It’s also important to note that while Gan has every reason to fear and hate T’Gatoi, he still loves her. She has been a staple in his family, providing comfort and assurance in spite of her position of power over them. The story delves deep into Gan’s psyche as he is conflicted over his lack of agency in his relationship with T’Gatoi and his strong familial bond with her. In the end, he still feels a sense of maternal affection for the brood of eggs inside him, knowing he will care for them even though they will be born into a world of inequality and tension between species.

In this way, Butler explores gender roles within the family unit and societal structures. Gan takes on the traditional role of female not only in birthing offspring, but making a powerful decision in a scenario where he has very little power to begin with.

Of course, this isn’t to say Gan made the right decision. Butler leaves the story open-ended, as Gan chooses to continue supporting a system of procreation-based oppression but still holding on to a dangerous weapon he plans to use for… what? Ultimately, all we’re left with at the end is an uneasy feeling and more questions than answers. But that’s the power of “Bloodchild” as it asks us to rethink our relationships and social structures, just as Gan has to rethink his.

Butler stated that she always felt that what people bring to her work was “at least as important to them as what [she] put into it.” So that’s not to say reading a slave narrative onto “Bloodchild” is completely invalid, but we have to make sure we don’t miss the character growth, emotion, and sacrifice Butler emphasizes throughout the story. In truth, “Bloodchild” can be equally applied to the era of American slavery as well as to our own. It’s an amazingly powerful story that discusses love and birth in the context of social inequality. So long as as the love we feel for others is complicated by societal pressures and imbalances, Butler’s work will remain timelessly haunting, disturbing, and memorable.

 

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