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Time Travel in Kindred (guest lecture by Shannon Brennan)


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Guest lecture kindly prepared and given by the wonderful Shannon Brennan.

Seventeenth lecture for my students in English 192, "Science Fiction," summer 2013 at UC Santa Barbara.

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Time Travel in Kindred (guest lecture by Shannon Brennan)

  1. 1. Kindred, Octavia Butler, 1979
  2. 2. Claim: “Time travel isn’t merely a device, but is particularly suited to ‘doing’ a history of slavery” 1. Because of the unique temporal situation created by slavery -Phenomenological -Genealogical 2. Because time travel disrupts the basic beginning-middle- end assumption of narrative -And narrative is often used to reify particular social formations (the nation as “natural,” cultural mythologies) -Butler troubles this, specifically for a U.S. American context 3. Because “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (William Faulkner; often quoted – including in President Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, 2008)
  3. 3. Slavery and the experience of time: Ontology and Phenomenology “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday…” -Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1852)
  4. 4. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, that I was about seventeen years old.” -Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), Chapter 1 “I have now reached a period of my life when I can give dates. I left Baltimore, and went to live with Master Thomas Auld, at St. Michael’s, in March, 1832.” Chapter 9 “…They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry- time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.
  5. 5. Opening of Kindred “The trouble began long before June 9, 1976, when I became aware of it, but June 9 is the day I remember. It was my twenty-sixth birthday. It was also the day I met Rufus—the day he calledme to him for the first time.” (12)
  6. 6. Dana’s Birthday “How old are you?” He asked. “Twenty-six, sir.” “You say that like you’re sure.” “Yes, sir, I am.” “What year were you born?” “Seventeen ninety-three.” I had figured that out days ago thinking that it wasn’t a part of my personal history I should hesitate over if someone asked. At home, a person who hesitated over his birthdate was probably about to lie. As I spoke though, I realized that here, a person might hesitate over his birthdate simply because he didn’t know it. Sarah didn’t know hers. (90)
  7. 7. “Proving” one’s age “It was eight days, time before last. And about three hours last time. The intervals between trips don’t mean anything.” “How old was he last time?” “He turned twenty-five when I was there last. And, though I’ll never be able to prove it, I turned twenty-seven.” (244)
  8. 8. Slavery and the experience of time: genealogy (Relation of temporal structures, familial structures, property structures) Matrilineal Genealogy vs. Patrilineal Genealogy 1662 Virginia enacts law of hereditary slavery 1664 Maryland is the first colony to take legal action against marriages between white women and black men
  9. 9. “Sold them. First my man died—a tree he was cutting fell on him. Then Marse Tom took my children, all but Carrie. And, bless God, Carrie ain’t worth much as the others ‘cause she can’t talk. People think she ain’t got good sense.” (76) “There was a woman on Weylin’s plantation whose former master had cut three fingers from her right hand when he caught her writing. She had a baby nearly every year, that woman. Nine so far, seven surviving. Weylin called her a good breeder, and he never whipped her. He was selling off her children, though, one by one.” (191) “A few days after the baby’s birth, though, Weylin called him into the library and gave him a new dress for Carrie, a new blanket, and a new suit of clothes for himself. ‘See,’ Nigel told me later with some bitterness. ‘’Cause of Carrie and me, he’s one nigger richer.” (161) “The boy had spent his short life calling his father ‘Master.’” (253)
  10. 10. Claim: “Time travel isn’t merely a device, but is particularly suited to ‘doing’ a history of slavery” 1. Because of the unique temporal situation created by slavery -Phenomenological -Genealogical 2. Because time travel disrupts the basic beginning-middle- end assumption of narrative -And narrative is often used to reify particular social formations (the nation as “natural,” cultural mythologies) -Butler troubles this, specifically for a U.S. American context 3. Because “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (William Faulkner; often quoted – including in President Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, 2008)
  11. 11. The historical novel Novels set in a period of time recognizably ‘historical’ to the moment of writing. The subject matter of the historical novel tends to encompass both public and private events, and the protagonist may be either an actual figure from the past or an invented figure whose destiny is involved with actual events. Major practitioners include Walter Scott (often seen as the genre’s founder/popularizer) and James Fenimore Cooper. The historical novel often merges with the national epic, insofar as certain events can be seen as inaugurating and justifying the nation state.
  12. 12. The Historical Novel, Georg Lukács (1937) The classic historical novel, while including major historical figures, focuses on smaller characters. The novel shows history to be a conflict between social forces. It comes out as simultaneously sympathetic to history’s “losers,” while also showing the “historical necessity” of the “winners.” It thereby upholds the notion of human process (and casts as inevitable history’s actual historical development.)
  13. 13. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936) “I read books about slavery, fiction and nonfiction. I read everything I had in the house that was even distantly related to the subject—even Gone With the Wind, or part of it. Buts its version of happy darkies in tender loving bondage was more than I could stand.” (116)
  14. 14. Though Gone With the Wind romanticizes the antebellum south (Dana’s complaint), it also naturalizes the progression of history. By making the Union victory, the end of slavery, Reconstruction and its failures seem inevitable, the novel presents the present as a time of progress and as a telos to history’s process. Kindred, with its insertions of modern and contemporary parallels to slavery (South African apartheid, the atrocities committed by the Third Reich), suggests that the passage of time does not, of itself, suggest progress. Telos: an ultimate object or aim
  15. 15. Intertextual Critique and Kindred “The book was Robinson Crusoe. I had read it when I was little, and I could remember not really liking it, but not quite being able to put it down. Crusoe had, after all, been on a slave-trading voyage when he was shipwrecked. I opened the book with some apprehension, wondering what archaic spelling and punctuation I would face. I found the expected f’s for s’s and a few other things that didn’t turn up as often, but I got used to them very quickly. And I began to get into Robinson Crusoe. As a kind of castaway myself, I was happy to escape into the fictional world of someone else’s trouble.” (87)
  16. 16. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719.
  17. 17. Literary parody and Kindred “We had finished Robinson Crusoe long ago, and Kevin had chosen a couple of other familiar books from the library. We had already gone through the first, Pilgrim’s Progress. Now we were working on Gulliver’s Travels.” (102)
  18. 18. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1726 (amend. 1735)
  19. 19. We can read Gulliver’s Travels as a critique of British “civilizing” narratives like the one featured in Robinson Crusoe. In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,a British slave trader finds himself shipwrecked on an island where he re-creates the things of civilization (including clothes and an umbrella!), makes a friend/manservant of the “savage” (to whom he gives a temporal name, “Friday”), and eventually returns to England. While Crusoe encounters cannibals and “uncivilized” persons on his voyages (thus allowing him to emphasize the primacy of “civilized” England), Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver encounters a series of countries that have their own courtly civilizations. His final encounter with the Houyhnhnms, an enlightened society of horses, leads him to regret his eventual return to England, where he encounters human depravity.
  20. 20. We might understand Kindred to be engaging critically with the historical novel in the same way that Swift critically engages the eighteenth century travelogue. Note, for instance, that Swift’s text is an early proto-science fiction novel, featuring the “extraordinary voyage.”
  21. 21. Re-writing history/the historical novel, on to a specific individual’s (slave) experience When we remember that the specific assumptions regarding history (linearity, progression, genealogy, even calendar dates) were often denied the slave, then this alternative mode of history doesn’t only involve the investigation of a mode of time proper to the experience of slavery; it also involves making the slave’s time (and the slave’s experience) a part of the national experience.
  22. 22. Dana’s personal history history as national history - Dana’s Birthday (chapter 1) and the Fourth of July (chapter 6) - Plantation as home (Dana’s return to the past) - Bicentennial – p. 64 (quarter solidifies truth of time travel) - Return to Maryland (novel’s conclusion)
  23. 23. The slave narrative as a way of writing the individual against/within the nation “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” – note bitter irony of title -Writing as a mode of subject-formation -Literacy as path to (individual) freedom -Amanuensis (note repeated requests to Dana) -Necessity of representing slavery as an institution while also conforming to demands of rigid verisimilitude (often established through use of body)
  24. 24. Personal history, national history Octavia Butler, interviewed by John C. Snider, SciFiDimensions (2004) OEB: Well, of course I did a lot of library research, and I went off to Maryland and did some on-the-spot research. I talked to members of my family, and did some personal research that didn't really have anything to do with the time and place I was writing about, but that gave me a feeling of the experience of being black in a time and place where it was very difficult to be black. sfd: If I my memory is correct, Alex Haley's Roots (at least the mini-series) came out about the time you were writing Kindred... OEB: Actually, I don't think the mini-series had come out yet, but the book had come out and was a bestseller. When I was traveling around in Maryland, I kept running across little "Alex Haley was here" signs; you know, advertising that he had done research at that particular place. I was writing a completely different kind of book, so it didn't bother me. It at least let me know that I was in the right place to do research. *Haley’s work did not influence me+ because I really was doing a completely different kind of book. I wasn't trying to work out my own ancestry. I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.
  25. 25. Dana’s Epilogue: Historical Tourism, Heritage Sites “We flew to Maryland as soon as my arm was well enough…We went into the countryside, into what was still wood and farmland, and found a few of the old houses…But Rufus’s house was gone…I was the one who insisted on trying to find his grave.” (262) “ ‘He could have left a will,’ Kevin told me outside one of our haunts, the Maryland Historical Society.” (263) “ ‘You probably needed to come for the same reason I did…To try to understand. To touch solid evidence that those people existed. To reassure yourself that you’re sane.’ I looked back at the brick building of the Historical Society, itself a converted early mansion. “ (264)
  26. 26. Heritage sites: Mapping personal genealogy, national genealogy onto place (Tourism as time travel?) • Contemporary heritage site tourism (Eichstedt and Small note that furniture is mentioned 31 times as often as slavery at heritage sites) • Redford, Somerset Place Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage (1988), largely inspired by Haley • National monuments as result of slave labor
  27. 27. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852 “Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout – “We have Washington to our father.” Commemorative sites: combining narrative, time, and place