Since everyone is doubtless beginning the scramble to finish their annotated bibliographies, I thought I would take a moment to blog about Nanda’s article “Power, Politics, and Domestic Desire in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood” – or as I have termed it, “The Worst Article Ever.”
The failings of this article are numerous, and I would like to begin by stating that I don’t think Nanda actually read the Xenogenesis series. On page 775, he describes Akin as “the first human-Oankali construct.” This is patently false: on literally the second page of the novel Adulthood Rites, Nikanj refers to Akin as “less human than your daughters” – which is a clear statement that Lilith has already given birth to female Oankali constructs. Akin is NOT the first construct, merely the first human-born male construct. The fact that Nanda misunderstands Akin’s importance on such a basic level blows my mind, but later in the article he one-ups himself. On page 777, he is talking about the implementation of the genetic trade and he describes the ooloi as “sub-adult Oankali.” I had to re-read this sentence several times, because it is so obviously wrong that I couldn’t believe that it got through editing. The ooloi are as adult as the males and females among the Oankali once they go through metamorphosis – how can Nanda not understand that? Does he actually think that three-way matings are mediated in this species by its pre-pubescent members? Has he been reading every ooloi in the series as a child this entire time?
The second thing I take serious issue with in this article is his unconscious sexism. He declares on page 780, “Men usually experience greater sexual desire than women.” In my paper copy, I wrote “What is this guy’s deal?” next to this sentence. I take serious issue with this idea because it feeds into the narrative that men are less responsible for their actions in cases of sexual assault and because it treats women as objects, as entities incapable of experiencing sexuality on equal terms with men and therefore entities to be exploited. The research I found was varied. Many scientific findings were statements like “women’s sex drives are more influenced by social and cultural factors,” “men seek sex more avidly than women,” and “women take a less direct route to sexual satisfaction.” These can all be viewed as symptomatic of a patriarchal system that conditions women not to take charge of themselves as independent sexual entities, and ideas like these that have scientific backing so poor that it does not investigate whether women are socially conditioned to conduct themselves the way they are observed only perpetuate these harmful ideas. Nanda goes on to congratulate Lilith on breaking this stereotype, but the way he phrased it reveals that he unconsciously perpetuates these ideas, and he has no business doing so in an article on the work of Octavia Butler.
On page 775, Nanda attempts to deal with Lilith’s situation as a captive. The text itself gives a better treatment of her predicament than Nanda’s article does, rendering irrelevant any function of literary criticism to enrich the text on which it is focused. Nanda goes on and on about how she is a “native foster mother” and thus simultaneously performs the functions of the state and works to subvert it. The Lilith Iyapo of the text is so much more rich than this interpretation that I have to accuse him of oversimplifying her situation and her as a character, and thereby erasing her. Lilith is a mother and in Dawn she does do the work of the Oankali in preparing the humans for Earth while feeling deeply conflicted about it. But she is so much more than that: she has genuine attachment and loyalty to Nikanj, she genuinely and consciously (if not unreservedly) buys into the Oankali’s vision, as exemplified when she tells Akin “when you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference” (329). Viewing her as a mere product of cultural forces is interesting but insufficient, and I think that in trying to explain Lilith in these terms Nanda is in way over his head.
The final thing I want to criticize about this article is that Nanda is not able to shake the narrative he came into reading these books with that “the Oankali evoke European traders in their initial forays into establishing a colonial empire. The Oankali adroitly camouflage their colonizing intent, enforcing restrictive reproductive rights on humans, in a rhetoric of altruistic salvation,” despite overwhelming evidence in the text that undermines this assertion (775). The Oankali are utterly unlike European colonialists – they are able to listen when Akin tells them that the human race deserves a second chance at independent evolution on Mars. This blatantly flies in the face of the history of European colonialism, which has never been able to truly “embrace difference.” It took no wars of revolution for the Oankali to stop their restrictive reproduction policies, showing that the Oankali are truly not ultimately motivated by a desire to consume everything around them. The Oankali seek difference, but they are capable of creating it as well, and that is where the comparison to European colonialism falls short, Nanda.
If you are considering reading this article for one of your annotations, I have one piece of sage advise – don’t.