Trusting Our Senses

In class last Friday, Dr. McCoy warned us to watch for “traps” in Octavia Butler’s work – traps that will provoke us to think or say something that we may not actually mean or believe –that will cause us as readers to think critically about what Butler is trying to say about society. I found myself in one of these traps fairly early in Fledgling: when Shori kisses Theodora for the first time. To say the least, I was caught off guard. In order to explain my thoughts about this trap, I first want to discuss the gender roles and relationships in Fledgling to provide some context for the trap. Then I want to unpack the trap itself and how I reacted to it, and finally, I will discuss Shori’s memory and how her instincts and physical senses act as functions of her memory in order to illustrate what I think Octavia Butler is trying to tell us in this part of the novel.

I was surprised when Shori kissed Theodora party because of what – or rather, who – Shori was doing just a few sentences earlier in the novel. She “enjoys sex” with Wright, taking “delight in leaving him pleasurably exhausted,” and she seems to make it clear that she is attracted only to him: “It seemed necessary to take small amounts of his blood often. I felt a need for it that was something beyond hunger. It was a need for his blood specifically. No one else’s” (Pg 37, 38). In this case, she uses the word “need” in a sexually fulfilling way: she has already visited other humans – including Theodora – for blood, but she doesn’t get sexual with any of them; she needs blood from other humans for nourishment, not in the same way that she needs Wright and his blood. In fact, when Shori encounters Theodora the first time, Shori immediately notices that Theodora “didn’t smell as enticing as Wright had,” she continues, “I didn’t like her age, and I thought she was too thin” (Pg 24). Shori carries on the distinction that Wright’s blood is for sexual fulfillment and Theodora’s is for nourishment when she adds that what is “most important, though, [Theodora] could feed me without harm to herself.” Shori ignores her disinterest for Theodora so that she doesn’t have to harm Wright.

Not only does Shori say she solely wants Wright, but when Wright – a model of masculinity, described as big, tall, strong, furry, and having a blue collar job – initiates sex with Shori, she recalls other men – or at least, another man: “he was already erect and eager,” Shori narrates, “I had seen a man this way before. I could not remember who he had been, could not recall a specific face or body. But all this was familiar and good to me, and I felt my own eagerness and growing excitement” (Pg 22). Wright’s masculine characteristics stimulate Shori’s memory, and she doesn’t recall being with other women, she only recalls enjoying sex with a man.

Shori’s recollection of another man is the other part of why I was so caught off guard when Shori kissed Theodora. To the extent of my knowledge from her memory, she had only been interested in men. So when they kissed, I was confused. I wondered why Shori, would kiss Theodora, if she was so attracted to Wright. I had two thoughts: the first, that Shori’s amnesia caused her to forget about things like the stigma of a relationship that does fit the socially defined limitations of “heternormativity” (I hope this doesn’t sound offensive to anyone – this statement is exactly why I felt trapped, I found myself saying something incredibly wrong with the world), and second, that Shori simply acted on something that felt stimulating, felt good, felt right. So I was trapped, because my first thought is a disturbing one – and at the core of it, the belief in “heteronormativity,” is not a belief that I endorse in any way; even using the word “heteronormative” in a sentence sounds pretentious and rude. But, if in our society, someone who identified as straight was randomly kissed by someone of the same gender who identified as queer, the person who identified as straight probably wouldn’t kiss back – simply because they aren’t attracted to people of their gender. So to return to my first question, I wondered why Shori kissed Theodora. And for whatever reason I didn’t think the answer was as simple as Shori indentifying as queer. After falling into this trap, I took a few minutes to think about what Octavia Butler was saying about sexuality and “heternormative” relationships.

To carefully examine Butler’s commentary on sexuality, I want to examine the use of Shori’s memory in the novel. Our knowledge is limited to what Shori remembers, which at the beginning, is practically nothing. As the novel progresses and she remembers past events, the memories are passed onto us. However, sometimes in the story, we learn things about Shori and the Ina through her actions – that is, without Shori explicitly stating a memory. What we learn from Shori’s actions is later reinforced by an explicit statement. For example, after Shori interrogates Raleigh, she comments explicitly on her morality: “whoever I was before, it seemed I had strong beliefs about what was right and what wasn’t,” but we see Shori’s morality demonstrated just moments earlier when she realizes how much pain she is putting Raleigh through, and decides that she owes him an apology. Another example, when Shori gets in Wright’s car, she “doesn’t have the words to describe how good he smelled,” then hears consent in his voice when it is arguably not given, and says that she hoped Wright enjoyed Shori taking his blood as much as she enjoyed taking it. It is obvious that Shori is attracted to his scent, and she reinforces her attraction for him later when her eagerness and excitement grows as Wright takes his clothes off. So far in the novel, Shori has been able to trust her instincts, and we as readers, limited to Shori’s memory, learn to trust her instincts as well.

It probably seems like I’m going off on tangents, but stay with me just a little longer. Not only do readers learn to trust Shori’s instincts, but we learn to trust her senses. Senses – evolutionarily speaking – were developed to protect humans (and most likely Ina) from harm. If something tastes bad it may be rotten or poisoned; if something tastes good, it is probably safe to eat. Likewise, Shori uses her senses to protect herself and others – her senses and her instincts are all she has; she forgot everything taught to her by her family and by society that is supposed to keep her “safe”. When she cannot see yet, she smells the deer carcass rotting and knows she cannot eat it. She can smell guns and know that a gun is being pointed at Wright, about to be fired. She can hear people breathing and know where to enter a house so that she will not be caught. She can feel the pleasure of having sex with Wright. She can feel the pleasure of kissing Theodora, feel the pleasure of holding Theodora in her arms, feel the pleasure of pleasuring another woman.

Perhaps by giving Shori amnesia and forcing her to trust her physical senses, Octavia Butler is telling us to forget everything society has told us about queer relationships and instead, trust our instincts, trust our senses. Do what feels right. And most importantly, do what feels good.

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