As I read through my copy of Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower" Monday night, my phone buzzed with a Twitter notification: Japanese officials had just warned residents to take shelter after North Korea had reportedly launched a missile toward the nation of 125 million.
It was startling to read but not as shocking as it should have been. I'm not convinced anything surprises us today. Butler seemed to anticipate a world of calamity nearly 30 years ago when she wrote "Parable of the Sower," a dystopian tale that offers a grim projection of our future but also a warning from Butler, who died in 2006.
In this book, she seems to be telling the generations ahead that a true connection through our collective humanity is the only way to eliminate our greatest challenges.
Her book is the subject of Thursday evening's Mary Ann Key Book Club discussion — in partnership with the Hennepin County Library, the Star Tribune and the Friends of the Hennepin County Library. The virtual event — which begins at 7 p.m. — features a conversation with Tarshia Stanley, president of the Octavia E. Butler Literary Society, former dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences at St. Catherine University in St. Paul and the current vice president for academic affairs at Wagner College in New York City.
Following this conversation, we will host a panel discussion on Nov. 3 at Minneapolis Central Library's Pohlad Hall, which will be led by moderator Shannon Gibney, an author and professor, and panelists Maya Washington, artistic director for the Youth Performance Company in St. Paul, and JaNaé Bates, communications director for both Yes 4 Minneapolis, the initiative to change policing in the city, and Isaiah MN, a collection of faith leaders across denominations and religions fighting for racial and economic equity.
In our conversation with Stanley on Thursday we will discuss Butler's dystopian tale, which details the devastation of climate change, racial inequities, poverty, war, sexual violence and mental health challenges. Butler's book earned the New York Times' Notable Book Award in 1994, a year after it was written, but she could have released this tale today and it would have made sense.
Set in the year 2024, Butler's book centers the journey of Lauren Olamina, a Black teenager in a chaotic space. She is with her father, a preacher, stepmother and siblings at the start of the book. As she is beset by tragedy, however, she relies on her faith, a religion called Earthseed, which stresses our autonomy and ability to change as its bedrock.
"Many of her leading characters are young people, very young," Stanley said about Butler. "Most of them are people of color, so I think she wants to convey through Lauren this idea that there are solutions and answers and the way we move forward includes our young people. And they not only have responsibilities, they also have answers. They are still so hopeful. There is an energy we have to tap into. At the same time, she is building a character grappling with what it means to come of age and what it means to come of age in a society that is crumbling and has crumbled, so what do you do?"
It is not an easy read.
Butler's book does not hide or minimize Lauren's reality, which only becomes more challenging throughout the book. She is constantly trying to keep herself together while also leading others searching for solace.
It seems as if Butler's book asks a question more than it attempts to answer one: What are we going to do to prevent the future she describes?
"I think Butler is asking us to look around, particularly at that young generation and to include and listen to them in many ways," Stanley said. "I think every generation leaves the next generation chaos. I think what's different about this generation is we're so close to the edge of destroying the planet beyond anything we could recover from. …There is always a torch the next generation needs to pick up and carry, but I think, for Lauren, and the way that [Butler] uses her young protagonist, it is about a focus on the future — that there is a future and that there is something to fight for and to look toward. We just have to remember that, even in the midst of all the things that are happening."
While the book's themes are dark, Butler's message, Stanley said, is not. "I think she wanted them to feel like they had some responsibility to feel the deeper human connection because she creates a world in which many different people can see themselves, so I think she wanted us to find our connection to one another and to feel hope and strength in that," Stanley said. "I know a lot of people see this book as not hopeful, but I think it is very hopeful, and that's what she wanted from her work, for people to feel hope. They have an opportunity to intervene and make some changes, even if it's just in their household."
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.