This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 7.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today, John Jennings joined us to talk about Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, and R.F. Kuang picked The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsuka.
John Jennings is a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside. His work centers around intersectional narratives regarding identity politics and popular media. Jennings is co-founder/organizer of The Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem, the MLK NorCal’s Black Comix Arts Festival in San Francisco, and SOL-CON: The Brown and Black Comix Expo at Ohio State University. His current projects include the art collection Cosmic Underground: A Grimoire of Black Speculative Discontent, The horror anthology Box of Bones, the coffee table book Black Comix Returns (with Damian Duffy), the supernatural crime noir story Blue Hand Mojo, and the Bram Stoker Award and Eisner Award winning, New York Times best-selling graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s classic dark fantasy novel Kindred.
My name is John Jennings. Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler is my recommended.
I remember the first time I read Wild Seed was probably in the early 2000s, which is really difficult for me to think about because I’m from Mississippi originally. I went to the HBCU, Jackson State University. I have to admit, I had never come across what will be considered black speckled culture at all. We definitely read a lot of classics and things in the Harlem Renaissance, etc., but it took all that time for me Octavia Butler’s work. I remember just how amazing it was to read such rich characters. She has such a facility for using almost like the best words. It’s very sparse and direct language to paint just the most beautiful tapestries of how these characters interact with each other. I was really blown away.
I think the way that I was introduced to Octavia’s work was I stumbled into it just from overhearing or maybe seeing it online or something like that. It definitely wasn’t for a class. It was probably just my own curiosity around science fiction. I’m a huge science fiction fan, and I was just aghast. I had never heard of her before until that time.
Wild Seed is about two ancient African immortal beings, Doro and Anyanwu, both from the West African Continent. Doro actually is thousands of years old because he is an entity that can actually jump into different bodies and he feeds on different bodies, so he can actually look like anyone and has had probably thousands of bodies by the time he bumps into Anyanwu.
The story takes place in about the mid-1600s to the late-1800s. Anyanwu is the protagonist. Doro to a certain degree is the antagonist. A lot of the tension comes between multiple things, things around like colonization, eugenics, the struggle between men and women. It’s a really beautiful allegory about all these different things. Essentially, Doro is trying to create a master race based off of a eugenics program he’s been doing for thousands of years. Anyanwu is actually a healer and a shape shifter.
For the first time in their lives, they found people that they can actually maybe be with, except for the fact that Doro is actually extremely cruel and has been doing these really insidious experiments where they’re forcing people to mate with each other and has created this incestuous pool of powerful super beings.
Basically it’s about the tension between these two characters, trying to work out how they can actually exist because Anyanwu is immortal as well, as long as she’s not mortally wounded and so she could actually shift from one body to the other, and she can turn to any person or animal. Whereas, Doro is actually jumping from one body to the other. Even the way that they’re thinking about the manifestation of these powers actually has is a really interesting polarizing aspect about who these beings are.
As far as favorite characters go, it’s hard not to really be intrigued by Doro. I remember reading somewhere that Butler said that Doro was her favorite character too. I think Doro, even though he’s insidious in his methods is an extremely powerful and well-developed character, and even though he’s the antagonist to a certain degree, he does change over the period of time. He actually does soften. Actually, the thing that’s most powerful against him is probably his love or his respect for Anyanwu and he learns how to do that over so much with so many centuries of them interacting.
As far as a favorite scene, I really love the section of the book when Anyanwu becomes a dolphin and she’s actually swimming and she just lives as a dolphin for many years, and she actually has a dolphin mate, and she has dolphin family. I thought that was really, really well done. I was like, oh, look at how she has a whole section just about her being a dolphin. I really enjoyed Anyanwu’s shape shifting into becoming this other creature. I think it definitely makes you appreciate what it means for someone to exist like this. I thought that was a really powerful scene.
A lot of you don’t realize this, but actually originally Kindred I think was supposedly a part of the Patternist series as well because there’s some manuscripts at the Huntington Library where her papers are that actually have Doro, one of the main characters from Wild Seed, actually in Kindred, which is trippy to see. He’s actually interacting with Dana, the main character from Kindred.
I would say that because of the fact that Wild Seed takes place over many, many centuries and deals with the slave trade and also with issues around black history, I would say it’s a speculative black history story about the differences and tensions between black men and black women. Because a lot of it deals with those issues, and because the historical aspect is so well-researched because she was well-known for her research, she had just tons and tons of books that she would read just to even start writing something. That would be a really good way to segue into it, someone who loves history but from a different standpoint. I would look at it as an alternative history story. That would probably be my way to spin it for people.
The other thing too, it’s like a speculative romance novel because there is this really weird romantic connection between Doro and Anyanwu that’s very compelling. It almost feels like Wuthering Heights or something. It’s on that level of dark, compelling romance. You know what I’m saying? This is with shape shifters and people who can eat people’s souls.
I actually did assign a project based off of Wild Seed in one of my graphic design classes. The students had to do a Doro self-portrait. The idea was that they actually had to interview people around them. Being that Doro can jump from different bodies, it actually poses a really interesting thing about what he looks like. A lot about discrimination and race and other types of ideas around other are centered in our embodiment and the physical body that we’re in. We’re talking about a character that basically wears a body like a suit.
The assignment was to actually basically take pictures of 10 or more of your close friends What we did is we combined all the class portraits together and made one big giant Doro portrait. It really opened up a lot of conversation about learning about other cultures, about really thinking about who you’re hanging out with or why don’t you actually have more friends from various backgrounds? These types of conversations. It was in Buffalo, New York, which unfortunately is a really segregated space, like a lot of cities in America, so it was a really interesting way to open up discussions about identity politics and about reaching out outside of the norms, so to speak, to meet more people.
Honestly, I think Wild Seed is probably one of her most popular books. It does actually, even though it’s part of a series, it actually has a very contained narrative. For me, and I’ve actually talked to several people about this, I think whatever the first book of Butler’s that you read, it probably becomes your favorite book. I think that’s how it goes. It was my first book, and so it’s still my favorite book.
Thanks again to John Jennings for joining us and recommending Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. You can find Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, published by Abrams ComicArts, wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at JIJennings.
AD READ: Home and Away by Candice Montgomery
R.F. Kuang immigrated to the US from Guangzhou, China in 2000. She has a BA in International History from Georgetown, where her research focused on Chinese military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. She’s a 2018 Marshall Scholar, and a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writing Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel, The Poppy War, is the first installment in a trilogy that grapples with drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century.
My name is R.F. Kuang, and the book I’m recommending is “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka.
“The Buddha in the Attic” is an interesting novel in that there is not a single main character. It’s a plurality of characters, and they all represent anonymous, nameless, Japanese women who come over to the US as picture brides.
For readers who don’t know Japanese picture brides were these women who were basically chosen from catalogs, or so Japanese men would already be in the US working mostly on farms, and they would want a women to come over from Japan to marry them and form a households with and have children, so they would write letters and send picture of themselves, and Japanese women back at home would respond to these letters. It was often women who were in pretty bad situations of poverty or like life back at home wouldn’t have barely been better than an unknown life abroad, so they would respond with their own picture and then go meet them in California. When they’re shipped off would be the very first time that they ever saw their husbands. Obviously, the pictures often would not match up. Their husbands would be much older or look very different from the images they sent.
That’s sort of where it starts, and then it details these women’s lives as they work as migrant farmers or … I mean a lot of them were migrant farmers, but that’s not the case for everybody. They have children, and they learn English and become accustomed to life in the US. Then, World War II breaks out, so then they’re forced into Japanese internment camps. That’s sort of where the novel ends.
There are no spoilers because this was just a period of history, but it’s this lovingly intricately detailed portrayal of so many different lives and experiences from a very specific demographic that I think a lot of American readers have never heard about, so I think it’s pretty cool.
It’s interesting because there’s no one character that you can follow for the course of the book because once they’re introduced in a sentence, you get a sliver of their life. They don’t have a name, and there’s no context for where they are, so you never know if you’re catching up with them again. It’s like dipping your toe multiple times into a river and getting a ton of different experiences all at different points in time.
I read it this past May, and I remember being blown away I do modern Chinese history. I also write novels based on ancient and modern Chinese history, but this was sort of a first time that I’d read historical fiction about an Asian experience that wasn’t speculative. It was everything that was written about happened, but it was so, still so creative, and so compelling. I remember just being very wowed by this format because I’d never seen that subject material handled that way before or this specific way of writing where you don’t have one main character, and it’s 100 different stories being told at once, so I thought that was really cool.
There’s this one chapter I really resonated with when they started talking about their children. These children were being raised in America who grew up speaking primarily English, and these women were lamenting the fact that they were feeling this distance from their kids. They were growing further and further away from them because they were ashamed of their poor Japanese-speaking parents. They didn’t want to bring their friends home. They didn’t want to come home themselves. They just wanted to integrate.
I’m a Chinese immigrant, so it’s a little bit different, and my parents were not migrant workers, but I also felt that same sort of distance, just sort of embarrassment at being Chinese and just wishing that I could blend in and be like my white classmates, so it really struck me reading that passage from I imagine my mom’s point of view and thinking about how she must’ve felt when I came home and said one day, “Oh, I don’t want to be Chinese. Can we just stop talking about that?”
Reading “The Buddha in the Attic” made me think really hard about the human impact of sweeping historical trends. I know that this should seem obvious because I mean they’re like character in my work, and they are impacted by things, and they make decisions, but I think there’s a difference between the great men and women of history theory, like the people who are driving events and then sort of like people who are not making decisions that affect the lives of thousands of other people but who are living full and rich inner lives and who are equally affected by war and peace and foreign policy and trade negotiations as everyone else.
I think the importance of a book like “The Buddha in the Attic” is to demonstrate the human impact on the lives that we don’t think of as heroic or epic or worth examining in popular fiction because it is tragic and brutal. I think when we get so caught up in heroic adventure narratives, we forget about all the people who are suffering as the consequence of actions that we think are really cool, like, “Oh, my gosh. Warfare, how awesome,” right? But what about the people who are starving? What about the refugees and the migrants and people who are losing fathers and brothers and sons to army recruitment.
Because like this book doesn’t even have a main character. and it’s not about one person’s journey. It’s about the impacts of horrible things on anonymous people. Recognizing the importance of that I think adds texture to the narratives I’m writing now. I think it makes me a little less irresponsible about just being like, “Oh, then this dam broke, and it was really great military strategy. A lot of people died, but it was good way of stopping the enemy.” I think that as authors, we can often have that tunnel vision when we’re writing epic fantasy focusing solely on the protagonist’s quest and not everybody who’s affected by that, but … I mean that is an overwhelmingly important calculation, so I think yeah, that sort of attention to detail and the consequences I think has stuck with me.
Since I’ve read “The Buddha in the Attic,” I’ve gotten really interested in Asian-American experiences that are not Chinese-American experiences because that’s what I grew up knowing about. I mean I focus on Chinese history so I just sort of did not read so much about Japanese Korean Filipino experiences, but during API Heritage Month, I thought that was a massive oversight, so I started reading a lot of Asian-American histories.
I read a lot of really good stuff, and I don’t think that I ever would’ve found it if I weren’t deliberately searching for it because I think that Asian-American literature still is not seen as super mainstream. In my local Texas library, all these books are categorized under ethic, which I think is unfortunate, but this is like really good literature and should be celebrated on its own merits rather than being a niche Asian-American field, so I wish more people would dive into those authors.
Thanks again to R.F. Kuang for joining us and recommending The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. The Poppy War, published by Harper Voyager, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at kuangrf.
Next week on Recommended, one author recommends a book with a unique structure:
The novel is a single sentence. At first that seemed bizarre or a party trick, but what you realize as you’re reading it, is that in every way, it’s a success. It’s rather enthralling like a tightrope walk that’s walking. You begin to forget the tightrope and realize this is part of the dance is that it goes on this single line of, there’s no periods. Yet grammatically, and rhetorically, syntactically, it’s all very successful.
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