Book Club Questions: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. 

Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned across the years to save him. After this first summons, Dana is drawn back, again and again, to the plantation to protect Rufus and ensure that he will grow to manhood and father the daughter who will become Dana’s ancestor. 

Yet each time Dana’s sojourns become longer and more dangerous, until it is uncertain whether or not her life will end, long before it has even begun.

We’d been meaning to try Octavia Butler’s writing for a long time, and finally made it in reading this book. While the book itself is far from an uplifting read, we were both glad to have read something from this wonderful author at last. Kindred is an excellent book that raises lots of interesting (and tough) questions about the delineation of power, our responsibility toward our kin, and the ways in which our modern worldview has altered our perspective on the historical realities of slavery.

Discussion questions below the cut!

Time travel narratives often deal with trying to change the past significantly or not change the past at all (for fear of those dreaded paradoxes). Octavia Butler seems to blow right past these concerns, as does her main character. Is this a “time travel book”? How would you characterize it for a potential reader?

A master/slave relationship can never be anything other than an imbalance of power. However, are there other types of relationships with power imbalances that we still consider just today or even sometimes positive?

“Kindred” and “kinship” can be used to denote similarity or a feeling of “like calls to like” (to steal a phrase from Leigh Bardugo). Dana remarks on similarities between Rufus and Alice. What similarities do Dana and Rufus share, if any? How about Dana and Alice?

Dana forgives Rufus and Alice a great deal – Alice her verbal abuse towards Dana herself, Rufus his physical abuses towards others. She talks about how she thinks of them as her siblings, and they are, in fact, her kin. A familial bond often allows us to forgive more than we would from a friend or stranger. Do you think Dana’s forgiveness comes from this familial bond or from her feeling of responsibility for the relationship between Rufus and Alice?

Compare Tom Weylin and Rufus Weylin. Is Rufus an improvement on his father in any way by the time he takes over the plantation? How, if at all, is Dana’s influence visible in the adult Rufus?

Dana and Rufus have an “agreement” that protects her in some ways until the very end of the book. However, we have seen earlier in the book that Rufus is willing to lie to Dana in order to get what he wants. Do you think Dana should have seen his lying about sending her letters to Kevin as a larger sign of the futility in trusting him to keep his side of the agreement? What would you have done in her place?

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the autobiographies Octavia Butler read for her research, the author Harriet Jacobs remarks on her own life as a slave: “Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.” Did you ever feel like criticizing Dana for her actions during the novel?

A common problem with “outsider” authors writing fiction about oppressed groups is that the members of those groups become faceless or stereotyped victims, rather than characters with their own lives and agency. What does Octavia Butler do to give real voices to the many victims of slavery in this novel?

Dana remarks on how 1815 starts to feel more real to her than 1976. How can this be seen as a commentary on the way racism in our current time is often ignored or brushed off?

Kevin ends up having to play the role of master when he is transported back to the 1800s with Dana. Although Kevin tries to maintain his 1976 sensibilities, Dana often has to open his eyes to what is happening on the plantation (hidden from his white view). Additionally, a few times in the book she momentarily confuses Kevin for Rufus. When we are in a position of systematic privilege, we can try to educate ourselves and work hard to become a better person. However, is it ever possible to fully leave behind the role of oppressor if the larger system still exists?

At the end of the book, Rufus’ body becomes a wall as Dana travels back to her own time, and in order to free herself from that wall, Dana has to leave a part of herself behind permanently. Often, we see heroes burst through or break down the walls that surround them, rather than painfully pull themselves free leaving part of themselves behind. Is one more realistic than the other? Which would you prefer to read about as a child? As an adult?

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