Welcome back to Read a Fucking Book Club, a book club where we read together, apart! We’ve just finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, a haunting novel about a climate-damaged America just four years in the future from now and Lauren Olamina, the teenage protagonist who gives rise to a new spiritual movement. Be aware, while this post tries not to contain spoilers, this is the post discussing the book. If you’re looking for something to read before digging into your own copy, check out this intro post!!
Megan, Jehan, and I all had so many thoughts (shared in more detail below), but we were all struck with just how in touch with reality this novel was. In the Montessori-based Sunday School class I sometimes teach, we talk about prophets as people who take what they know to be true and share it with the world. This work, Butler, and Olamina are all prophetic. The core of the book is sharing truth and embracing change. These are two vital things that will help to guide us always, but especially now, when the globe seems closer to Butler’s science fiction reality.
This book consumed my life for a moment in ways I didn’t expect. I did end up needing to take a few breaks, however, because there are points in this story that leave a pit in your stomach deep enough to lose yourself in a little if you don’t watch your step.
One of the most eerie moments I experienced happened right off the bat, in the opening quote of the first chapter. As a practicing absurdist, one of the core underlying principles of my personal philosophy is that change is one of the only real constants we experience in our lifetimes. I found myself wondering as I got farther and farther into the book if the primary reason for the differences between my stance on the mechanics of change and hers is that the power differential between change and any given person in Lauren Olamina’s world is so much greater than it is in our present timeline. I began to wonder if, in a bleaker moment in time, believing that you could harness chaos would be the only way someone with such a belief could persist to see a brighter day.
I read long into the night on the evening I’d only planned to start the book, because I saw in its protagonist a roughshod determination that was deeply human in its flaws and a world that was strangely similar to our own. In the morning I ordered the sequel- somehow, for all that Parable of the Sower is a heavy read in trying times, it managed to leave me wanting more.
In hindsight, I was overly optimistic about my ability to read anything approaching leisure at this current time. This crisis has had an incredibly disruptive effect that’s rippling through my day job and my family in a way that makes it hard to keep both feet on the ground. Thank goddess for Audible though! While I haven’t finished just yet, the audio book is narrated by the one and only Lynne Thigpen — whose voice is buttery smooth and soothing.
But even with that silky voice in my ear I was ready to give up on this book within the first 20 minutes of listening because SHIT. IS. REAL. The book opens a mere four years from now in a reality that feels eerily tangible if the world continues on this downward spiral. But I was reminded that a friend of mine has some of Parable of the Sower’s opening words tattooed on her arm: “All that you touch, you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” That reminder and the power of Butler’s words spurned me on and now I am hooked. Butler is a masterful storyteller, and her ability to create a world as real as its inhabitants is her truest gift. Laura, as the protagonist and the narrator through her journals, is the friend I need in these times; the friend whose uncertainty and inherent belief in both her power and her vulnerability speaks to the dualities within each person and the ways in which we can channel the vulnerability into another source of empowerment.
While I haven’t finished just yet, I’m obsessively listening to the audiobook day and night, both terrified by a world that seems more prediction than fiction, and emboldened by a sense that we can still persevere no matter what shape our world takes.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower reminded me just how poverty, sickness, abandonment, abuse, seem to slowly and then all of a sudden ruin one’s life. How, when you’re marginalized, you find a way to make it work until one day, you cannot because your house gets burned down, your brother is killed, your father disappears, or your neighborhood is damaged beyond repair. While most of us don’t live quite in that reality just yet, we’re so close to it. That’s what I kept finding myself thinking while reading: this could be us next month, next year, ten years from now. This could be us in my lifetime.
And just like Lauren knew she had to leave, but also knew that was the scariest possibility, I feel similarly. Change, as Earthseed teaches us, is God, is inevitable, is everything. But change is also so damn difficult to embrace. I found myself so angry with Joanne for telling her parents all of Lauren’s ideas when she trusted her so much and her willingness to just move to Olivar, but at the same time… I felt a strong conviction about her character! I get wanting comfort and security and knowing what’s going to come next. I get sacrificing what only feels like a little freedom for convenience. And I also ultimately get why that isn’t the way that will save us.
What saves Lauren? Trusting people she wouldn’t have originally trusted. Listening. Writing down the truth when she observes it, sharing those truths with others. Understanding that with a belief system often comes the willingness to fight to protect that system. She gains community throughout the book through knowing the truth and relying on that. I do not fully know what is true for me yet, but she, and this book, have guided me towards uncovering and living my own truths.
Now this is a book club, gays and girls, and we want to hear from you! Here are some discussion questions to get your thoughtful brain thinking, if you need them, but we want to know any and all of your thoughts, even if they aren’t directly question-related!
- Who are the Joannes in your life? Who are the folks who are more comfortable with the easy fix? How do we get them to want to be a part of our work?
- How does Parable guide us in thinking about building networks/pods, especially when others might not share beliefs with us? Must we all believe the same thing to build together?
- How would the novel have been different if Lauren wasn’t hyperempathetic? What do we learn from her because of her heightened state of reality?
- “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.” How does this novel ask us to think about rootedness in the midst of a climate-induced global panic? How can we be both rooted and open to the inevitability of change?
- Asked in 1999 what she would like readers to take from the novel, Octavia Butler replied: “I hope people … will think about where we seem to be heading — we the United States, even we the human species. What sort of a future are we creating? Is it the kind of future you want to live in? If it isn’t, what can we do to create a better future? Individually and in groups, what can we do?” What can we do?
This was tough to read right now since it seemed like Butler was writing about the present—the president, the state and international borders, the economic disparity, and what happens when a majority of people don’t have access to housing, healthcare, and jobs. My biggest takeaway at first was how tough surviving (let alone thriving) is and how I do not have that kind of stamina.
the presidential stuff was SO hard! especially the sentiment that all of the folks Lauren knows have stopped voting and that’s…almost where I feel right now. feeling so disheartened about our presidential elections. it’s scary to think in 4 years they’ll be totally useless to almost all of us
The small glimpses of wealth and technology (like window walls) were also terrifying because it wasn’t some futuristic wasteland, it was very much just a small step forward where the rich have gotten richer and pretty much everyone else has gotten poorer. The fact that there were still billionaires and expensive tech toys kept the realistic feeling not sci-fi or future fic. Everything felt very much like right now or four short years away. Unsettlingly easy to picture.
Jehan, sorry to hear how rough this crisis has been treating you and your family. I hope that everyone is safe. If you feel like you need a lighthearted break from reality (which this book will definitely not provide), I recommend taking four minutes to watch Dulce Sloan roast the media’s homes. It gave me a few moments of joy and laughter.
2. While I was reading the book, I kept thinking about who was getting invited in to the group, who they protected themselves against, and who got passed by. The group had a pattern, for the most part, of offering some kind of help to a stranger, which gave the stranger a reason to trust them; observing something about the stranger’s needs, demeanor, or possible motivations; inviting the stranger to join them in a way that spoke to these needs or motivations; and not insisting that they join, but letting the stranger choose. I think what stood out to me was the importance of building a sense of trust and reciprocity. While the particulars don’t all apply to me/us/our current reality, I do think fostering trust and reciprocity can help us. And the book shows so beautifully how fostering trust isn’t about insisting that someone behave the way you want them to, but about offering something(s) without condition, setting boundaries about what you are and aren’t willing to offer, and giving those who respect your boundaries a chance to earn your trust.
I also love what Al(aina) said: “What saves Lauren? Trusting people she wouldn’t have originally trusted. Listening. Writing down the truth when she observes it, sharing those truths with others.”
“offering something(s) without condition, setting boundaries about what you are and aren’t willing to offer, and giving those who respect your boundaries a chance to earn your trust.”
To me, the way they offered help was very in line with modern mutual aid funds- it’s the idea that it’s not charity, it’s the opportunity to join a community where all members support each other
Lee, I love your summary: offering something(s) without condition, setting boundaries about what you are and aren’t willing to offer, and giving those who respect your boundaries a chance to earn your trust. Beautifully put.
I reread Parable of the Sower because a friend and I were having an online discussion about Lilith’s Brood. The first time Parable of the Sower didn’t really stick with me; this also may be because I accidentally read Parable of the Talents first. This time I found myself drawn much more deeply into it.
I find it beautiful but challenging for me because at the end of the day, my perspectives on the human species line up much more with the Oankali’s conception of us than Lauren’s. My friend offered Parable of the Sower as a more hopeful vision, of humanity scattering to the stars and forming new communities. At the end of the day, however, that vision is more dystopian to me; as Lauren points out, humans are fleeing a world we ourselves have destroyed. I have a hard time imagining humans undergoing such drastic change that we don’t destroy whatever future worlds we inhabit in Lauren’s universe.
Lauren also, from a very young age, seems very rooted; willing to trust herself, able to articulate her beliefs, able to identify behaviors and actions in line with her beliefs. I don’t have that rootedness in myself, which makes it hard for me to relate to. I admire it.
My Joanne is my girlfriend right now. She wants to be with me long-term but I don’t always think she understands what that would mean. My best friend and I are making plans; we want to be in a place to care for ourselves and offer care for others as US society continues deteriorating. She has a hard time listening to me when I talk about it.
thanks for this space and the encouragement to reread this book!
gays and girls: the opera of parable of the sower will be live streamed on wednesday april 22! https://www.nyuad-artscenter.org/en_US/events/2020/octavia-e-butlers-parable-of-the-sower-the-concert-version/?fbclid=IwAR1gN-MHs1N1-hzeo_stFF_NicMwsDRA2Zdhxq1D9ePdiszI8pn4ngD3iH8