Ruminations on Race, Power, and Memory in Fledgling

One immediate alarm for me in reading Fledgling, was Shori’s loss of memory and Octavia Butler’s constant reiteration of this occurrence, throughout the novel (including on the first and last pages). Some members of my group during Friday’s class even expressed irritation at this, saying it was tiresome how often it was mentioned. Initially, I interpreted these constant reminders similar to the way Daniel Burton-Rose seems to understand it, as he explains in his interview with Butler by saying, “There’s an apparent parallel between the way in which the African-American protagonist suffered a violence-induced cultural amnesia at the hands of European-Americans and the African-American experience as a whole” (203). Memory, of course, has much to do with identity and thus culture, and so can easily be tied to conceptions of race and power in the United States, in addition to Western conceptions of history. Although, not being able to remember relieves some of Shori’s pain, it also puts her in the vulnerable position of having to rely on others to relearn her past and move on with her life. In describing this circumstance she says, “What about my mothers and sisters, my father and brothers? What about my memory? They were all gone I couldn’t bring anyone back, not even myself. I could only learn what I could about the Ina, about my families. I would restore what could be restored” (310). To me, this appears as though it could be an allusion to the experience of minorities in early American history. And as she expresses her frustration at her precarious situation saying, “My family is gone!…My memory of them is gone. I can’t even mourn them properly because for me, they never really lived. Now I have begun to relearn who I am, to rebuild my life, and my enemies are still killing my people,” I can’t help but make an association to the continuous adverse treatment of black and brown people in the U.S. (and worldwide) today (265). As Fred Moten said at a recent Black Life Matters conference in Tucson, Arizona, “Despite the unprecedented Black presence in the U.S administration, the murder, mass incarceration and impoverishment of Black people continues.” In both cases, it seems there will be no end to the senseless demolition of people’s lives until justice is somehow served.

In response to Burton-Rose’s comment in his interview, Butler says, “If Shori did not have amnesia she would probably have more in common with the people who raised her than with, say, just an ordinary African-American. But because she has amnesia, she doesn’t have that much in common with anybody (203). I still don’t quite know what to make of this statement or, as a result, how to amend my analysis. Is Butler merely suggesting that Shori’s experience isn’t identical to that of an “ordinary” African-American or that parallels should not be drawn? What if any are Butler’s motivations behind Shori’s skin color and the racial epithets she experiences as a result, if connections aren’t meant to be drawn to the African-American experience? Butler seems to make the claim that the loss of memory is what isolates her from her family. But at the same time, Shori is blatantly discriminated against for being half-human, something that sets her apart from her family and from all other living beings. That being said, there are other facets of Shori’s life that make her difficult to identify with too. There were several points in the novel when I found myself thinking she is lucky. She finds honest people who are willing to aid her in learning and protect her to the best of their abilities. But also, she is not human. She has keen senses and heightened abilities. She is lucky in the fact that she can trust her instincts. She knows when someone is lying or telling the truth. She can smell an attacker before he strikes. Justice, it turns out, is served. Although the Ina system of justice, like the American justice system, seems to be riddled with similarly questionable procedures and traditions that could prevent justice from being served, the truth is always clear. Although Shori can only move on and will never regain her memory, the ending of the novel seems hopeful that Shori will be able to move on with her life in peace.

After reading Burton-Rose’s interview I began to look at different areas where discrimination is brought into focus in Fledgling, which further complicated my reading and understanding of what Butler is aiming for. For example, although Shori tells Wright that Ina “don’t care about white or black,” it’s clear that Katharine Dahlman garners her opinion of Shori, at least partly, from human society, seen when she warns Preston during the trial, “You want your sons to mate with this person. You want them to get black, human children from her. Here in the United States, even most humans will look down on them. When I came to this country, such people were kept as property, as slaves” (162, 272). Additionally, it seems that in this fictitious world Butler has created, “not everyone treats symbionts as people,” the Silks being a presumed example (131). And humans are not the only ones prey to discrimination and victims in power struggles. Iosif says, “…most Ina fit in badly wherever they go—tall, ultrapale, lean, wiry people. They usually looked like foreigners, and when times got bad, they were treated like foreigners—suspected, disliked driven out, or killed” (130). All of this led me to think of an article I, unfortunately, could not find anywhere, but am positive I read this summer (or perhaps I am remembering a lecture) in regards to the tensions between refugees and minorities in low-income neighborhoods in the City of Rochester. It spoke of shifting power structures and the paradox of groups that have historically been discriminated against (African-American migrants by whites, in the case of Rochester), abusing vulnerable newcomers out of fear for their position in society. That there will always be a vulnerable group that is resisted and preyed upon, in spite of the recent memory of similar violence being brought on the new aggressors. It’s also interesting to look at how the predominantly and purposefully white suburbs view this aggression towards the refugee community as compared to racial conflict in the 1960s, an illustration of how memories can shift and be manipulated to fit popular discourse.

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