Coming into Dr. McCoy’s Major Authors class, I thought I had a steady and quasi-holistic view of the world and how I fit into it. However, while interacting with Butler’s tests, I began to realize some darker truths, such as the heteronormative, cisgendeered and ableist society I lived in. I would say that I “bought into” this idealized and discriminatory view of the world, but that would suggest that I had consented and consciously interacted with these societal ideals, when, in fact, I had only been blindly indoctrinated with them. I was ignorant that they even existed in my schema. It was Butler’s insistence that humanity or personhood is not static or one-dimensional that changed my view of the world and the people I came in contact with every day.
The first critical backlash I experienced was my preconceived and blind ableism. Reading Fledgling, Clay’s Ark and Lilith’s Brood challenged my definition of personhood and made me aware of the visual regime I was ignorantly participating in. The first barriers I was pushed up against were the physical aesthetics and perceived ability of characters. For example, we learn very early on that Shori from Fledling looks like a little girl. However, for all intents and purposes she is not a child and enters into a mutually consensual and physically intimate relationship with a matured human man. Shori and Wright had a physically and emotionally mature relationship. The only problem was that Shori looked like a child. This lead me to consider just how many people, and in turn how many relationships, I judged on the basis of physical appearance and an adherence to how the ideal couple should look. I found myself trying to restrict Shori inb the confines of human normativity when she wasn’t human but a different species all together, Ina. I began to realize how occular perception and human categorization were so fallible and reductive, and yet so crucial to my interaction with the world. My vision both aided and impaired my interaction with others—it entrenched me in a visual regime and human superiority complex that I had never consented to abide by or participate in.
Instances like this kept occuring. For example, in Clay’s Ark, the extra-terrestrial microorganism made its host look skeletal and sickly. The “infected” people, however, only had the appearance of illness. The microorganism increased their hosts’ senses, abilities and appetite, but besides these side-effects, few of the other side-effects would be considered harmful or destructive to the host. The human hosts were not in physical pain, though fighting the spread of the microorganism brought them mild discomfort, and were not in mortal danger. So I began to truly question why I was so disgusted by the characters with the Clay’s Ark microorganism living in them.
It wasn’t until a class where we discussed the characters of Clay’s Ark, what they looked like, and how their children appeared that I realized that I didn’t hate the characters, I hated how they looked and what their appearance indicated to me. I unwittingly thought the parents’ gaunt appearance and their children’s feline characterization put them in the role as “other.” But I didn’t realize this immediately. In class I shared that I thought Rane was afraid of feline-esque Jacob and his touch because his hands were hard and compact and therefore Jacob could not genuinely experience humanity and all of the interactions and purposes our hands are so important for. Dr. McCoy pressed back on that idea by asking if people without hands, whether they were born or they lost their hand(s) later in life, were therefore not as human as the rest of us. The question tormented me for the rest of the day. How could I have missed what denying humanity to Jacob because of his appearance and the description of his hands truly meant about my perspective? I was being ableist and visually discriminatory without even realizing it.
The last encounter that I had with breaking the visual regime already ingrained in me was in Lilith’s Brood which challenged me to accept an alien race that had a radically different physical appearance. Just as Lilith struggled to first accept Jdahya’s appearance, I struggled to allow myself to truly see him the way he was intended. The virtual picture I should have seen was a “humanoid” with “no nose—no bulge, no nostrils—just flat, gray skin. It was gray all over—pale gray skin, darker gray hair on its head […] Medusa. Some of the ‘hair’ writhed independently, a nest of snakes startled, driven in all directions” (Dawn 13). This description was disturbing and scary, so I molded Jdahya to better fit my tastes. I imagined him as having tentacles, but they didn’t move and behind those tentacles there was a pleasant face. For the entire series I fought to accept the Oankali species as they were.
This could have been explained by Nikanj’s statement that “’Different is threatening to most species’,” but as I read futher into Lilith’s Brood I could see that the Oankali weren’t so fundamentally different from the humans (Dawn 186). The Oankali had different abilities, different interests, different customs and different appearances, but they still had the very human desire for connection and community. I remember being disturbed by the characters Aoar and Ahajas, Oankali-Human construct ooloi, who had an utterly ambiguous existence. They didn’t have a static gender or a standard appearance. They were creatures that were always becoming and transforming and I found that unpleasant to contemplate. But as I saw what happened to Aoar when it could not find human companions—how it reverted to a mollusk-type state and almost disintegrated –my heart broke for the creature. I realized how unfair it was that my human desire for categorization and physical normativity had denied a kind-hearted creature true personhood.
So as I walk away from this course, I find myself leaving with more questions than I came into the course with. I’ve found myself stopping to ponder my word choices and reactions. Do they deny personhood to anyone? Does my language enforce a visual regime and ableist perspective that I now find morally damnable? I’ve found that these questions have made me more compassionate and more aware of the world. I’m even more aware now of how my small-town, conservative upbringing has effected and in some ways hindered my values and opinions. My language is more thoughtful. And my views are more considerate. As Butler often says, she does not write “good” or “bad” characters. This has challenged me to relish in the complexity of people who are inherently flawed and hierarchical, but cannot be written off for this imperfect nature. I believe that I’m walking away from this course with not only a better understanding of speculative fiction and Octavia Butler’s literary style and works, but also a better understanding of myself and others.