Octavia E. Butler was a powerful and pioneering voice in science-fiction. The first black woman acclaimed as a master of the genre, she was known for vivid, expertly crafted tales that upended conventional ideas about race, gender and humanity. Although her creations were bold, Butler, who grew up poor in Pasadena, was “a private, reflective person who struggled with shyness and self-doubt,” said Natalie Russell, curator of a new exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA.
How such struggles influenced her life and art is one of the themes explored in “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories.” Russell said the show uses an invaluable resource — the author’s archive — to examine both her published work and “who she was as told through her personal papers.”
Butler, who died at 58 in 2006, willed the Huntington 354 boxes of materials, a bequest Russell describes as “huge and unedited because Octavia kept everything and passed away unexpectedly after a fall.” She said the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 7, presents about 100 items, including manuscripts, photographs and notebooks filled with writing and self-motivational notes, including one that reads in part, “My novels go onto the bestseller lists. … So be it! See to it!”
Butler started writing science-fiction as a child. She spent years working to establish her career — and a new vision of what’s possible in a genre dominated by white men. Along the way, Russell said, she needed reassurance and reinforcement.
For years HBO has been criticized for its pattern of featuring shows spotlighting the stories of white women while ignoring the creative voices of women of color. While “Sex and the City,” “Girls” and “Veep” have been solid hits, they have also been blasted for sidelining ethnic characters. “Girls,” created by and starring Lena Dunham, has particularly come under fire for its focus on young white characters even though it is set in New York City.
Starting Oct. 9, the premium network will enter more diverse territory, courtesy of Issa Rae, a former YouTube sensation who is starring in and executive-producing “Insecure.”
The half-hour series explores the friendship between two African American women who deal with their sometimes stormy relationship while also grappling with conflicts inside and outside black culture. Much of the humor has a raw flavor, and does not hold back on sexually frank situations and dialogue.
She was born in Notasulga, Ala., but she didn’t like the way her story started, so she rewrote it and claimed Eatonville, Fla., as her birthplace instead. She wasn’t too partial to 1891, the year her mother delivered her, so she remixed it, and for the rest of her life, she took liberties with the mathematics of her age, knocking as many as 10 years off if the notion felt good to her.
Zora Neale Hurston was a master of creative invention and reinvention, from the personal details of her own life to her artistic catalog, which included four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and dozens of short stories, essays, articles and plays. She was an original black girl unboxed.
It’s appropriate today, on what would be Zora’s 125th birthday, to honor the social and cultural freedoms she cleared for black female writers who stand on her platform and use our words to tell our own stories instead of allowing them to be told to and for us. She made it OK to be bold and conflicted, to wrestle with our identities and explore our differences as we chip away at the monolith, even to sometimes contradict ourselves and swerve, midaction, without apology.
Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor, both literary geniuses, have credited Hurston as an inspiration, as do others, the famous and not so famous among us, who strip away pretense and dig into our personal wells of realness when we sit at a keyboard. We awe at the musicality of her prose and absorb what she said even in between the lines. This is what Hurston taught us, the black women creatives who came up in her shine.
You don’t need anybody’s permission to love who you uniquely are.
“My mother had a number of books from the canon of black women’s literature. Among them was I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, Alice Walker’s anthology of Hurston’s work. Just the book cover and the quote did so much to shift my thinking of what it means to be a woman. Her whole damn self is inspiring, a woman who loved herself at a time when self-hatred was expected of her. I find her to be contrary, instructive, insightful, bold and a perfect guide of who I can be if I dare.” —Writer and painter Kiini Ibura Salaam
Be audacious whenever appropriate, which is pretty much always.
“I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in college and fell in love. The lyrical prose, dynamic black female protagonist, fresh use of humor and powerful affirmation of sisterhood all bewitched me. Zora’s personal narrative, however, scared me. I aspired to write, had already started publishing some of my work, and the experience of silence and invisibility both in Zora’s work and in her life freaked me out. I was inspired by her resistance to erasure, her insistence on voiced expression, but the last years of her life seemed so tragic. I was haunted by fear of a similar kind of dispossession, even as my own writing took off after college and graduate school. Then I read Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd. She helped me understand Zora wasn’t dispossessed at all. She was free. And she could free me.” —AuthorEisa Nefertari Ulen
Your talent will stretch across as many mediums and platforms as you will go.
“She refused to be pigeonholed into a single genre and craft. She was an amazing storyteller and cultural curator, as interested in collecting stories as she was in crafting them. Our creative lives are similar in that we study our people, culture and spirituality and write about them in plays, novels, stories and essays.” —M. Shelly Conner, Ph.D., writer and English instructor at Loyola University Chicago
You can’t do black womanhood one way, and you can’t do it wrong.
“I’ve often said Zora Neale Hurston saved my life. My mother gifted me her copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God when I was 16 and immersed in agoraphobic depression. Reading Zora kept me afloat and made me realize my life would and could be bigger than my sorrows. Because she wrote so powerfully and honestly and amazingly about love and oppression and navigating turmoil from the perspective of a black woman, I wield my pen as a sword to cover the same terrain.” —Evette Dionne Brown, freelance culture, race and gender writer
Know that the minutiae of everyday life can be woven into literary tapestry.
“Zora was the first writer to make me feel like I could tell a story that mattered, a story that people would listen to. Her words have so much power, she makes me feel like mine do, too.” —Author Shameka Erby
Say what you have to say in only the way you can say it.
“Zora Neale Hurston was fearless. At a time when being black was frowned upon and many writers were hoping to appease white America, she reveled in our culture and wrote in its voice. Whenever I question my voice, or whether or not I should ‘tone it down’ for the ‘mainstream,’ I think of her, and I write.” —Britni Danielle, freelance journalist and novelist
Speak for the people who don’t have the opportunity to be heard.
“Her work was honest. She wrote based on her experiences with people and provided voice to the voiceless through her characters. She was a true ethnographer depicting working-class black folks through her writing. Like her, I hope to give voice to the women that I write about in my scholarly endeavors.” —VaNatta Ford, Ph.D., visiting professor of Africana studies at Williams College
Trust your own (unconventional) approaches.
“It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much influence Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work had on my own life and work as a young ethnographer. The more I learned about and read her lesser-known anthropological work on black folklore, the more I realized that she, too, struggled early on to find her voice in academia. But what made her a significant influence to me was the fact that she lived by her wits, intuition and imagination. She continued to document black life even when academics criticized her approach. She trusted herself.” —Tara L. Conley, ethnographer and doctoral candidate, Columbia University
Outfit yourself in resilience and perseverance.
“My heart breaks knowing she died in poverty, buried in an unmarked grave. And yes, I know the great Alice Walker found the grave years later and purchased a headstone. Her end-of-life story, however, reminds me that literary notoriety is fickle and arbitrary and, as African-American women writers, we can help redeem the final chapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s life by never giving up in word or deed. That’s how her life and writing inspire me. Never give up. Keep going. Don’t stop. Ever. Always.” —Author Patricia Raybon
ABC has bought a Baghdad-set military drama project from “Grey’s Anatomy” veteran Zoanne Clack and Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland production company.
The untitled show is set circa 2004 among an U.S. Army Medevac team who work out of a base camp in the Iraqi capital. The series revolves around team members who “get on each other’s nerves, sleep with the wrong people, navigate ‘office’ politics and party like there’s no tomorrow.”
Clack is writing the script for ABC Studios and Shondaland. Clack, Rhimes and Shondaland’s Betsy Beers are exec producing for ABC Studios, where Shondaland is based.
Clack has worked her way up the ranks at “Grey’s Anatomy” since that show’s inception, rising from story editor to executive producer. She’s repped by CAA and manager Alan Rautbort at Circle of Confusion.
Shondaland has two comedy projects and another drama in the development pipeline this year at ABC.
PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) — The papers of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison are now part of the permanent library collection of Princeton University. Princeton made the announcement Friday, shortly before the 83-year-old Morrison took part in a forum at the school where she served on the faculty for 17 years.
The renowned author’s papers contain about 180 linear feet of research materials documenting her life, work and writing methods. They include manuscripts, drafts and proofs of many of Morrison’s novels. Materials for her children’s literature, lyrics, lectures, correspondence and more are also part of the collection.
Additional manuscripts and papers will be added over time, beginning with the manuscript of Morrison’s next novel, which is expected to be published in the spring.
Morrison, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Beloved” in 1988, came to Princeton in 1989 and was a member of the university’s creative writing program until she retired in 2006. In 1994, she founded the Princeton Atelier, bringing together undergraduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations with acclaimed artists and performers.
“Toni Morrison’s place among the giants of American literature is firmly entrenched, and I am overjoyed that we are adding her papers to the Princeton University Library’s collections,” Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber said. “We at Princeton are fortunate that (Morrison) brought her brilliant talents as a writer and teacher to our campus 25 years ago, and we are deeply honored to house her papers and to help preserve her inspiring legacy.”
Morrison received an honorary doctorate during the school’s 2013 commencement.
According to Variety.com, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” has added Leslie Jones, a member of its writing staff, to the cast. She’ll begin in this role as regular performer starting with this week’s Jim Carrey-hosted episode.
The comedian was a contender in the search for a new cast member of color last fall. The spot went to Sasheer Zamata, but producers decided to bring Jones on as a writer. Jones is the latest “SNL” cast member to be plucked from the writing staff. Michael Che, the new Weekend Update co-anchor, was also upped from his spot as a writer earlier this season.
Jones has appeared several times on SNL’s Weekend Update segment, including one in the 40th season premiere, proving her onscreen chops. She also starred in her own comedy special, “Problem Child,” for Showtime.
Comedy Central’s The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore has found a head writer.
Robin Thede has been tapped to lead Larry Wilmore‘s upcoming late-night show, which replaces The Colbert Report in January when Stephen Colbert segues to CBS’ Late Show.
Thede was most recently head writer on syndicated daytime talker The Queen Latifah Show and also wrote for Chris Rock when he hosted the 2014 BET Awards, as well as the NAACP Image Awards. She was previously a writer on BET’s satirical comedy Real Husbands of Hollywood,which starred Kevin Hart, Boris Kodjoe and Nick Cannon for the first two seasons.
A Second City and Improv Olympic alumna, Thede’s sketch/improv credits includeI n the Flow With Affion Crockett,Mike Epps‘ sketch comedy series Funny Bidness and Clunkers. She has appeared in BET’s Second Generation Wayans, Fox’s Goodwin Games, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, UPN’s All of Us and Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, in addition to the Marlon Wayans film A Haunted House.
The Minority Report,like the Daily Show and The Colbert Report, aims to provide a comedic look at news, current events and pop culture from different perspectives not typically seen on television.
The news comes three months after former The Daily Show showrunner Rory Albanese was tapped to head up the 11:30 p.m. show, reuniting him with Daily Show corespondent Wilmore. Jon Stewart also serves as an executive producer. Wilmore, a veteran producer in his own right, transitioned from his duty as executive producer/showrunner on ABC’s black-ish, which earned a full-season order this week, in September to focus on launching Minority Report.
J. California Cooper, an award-winning writer whose black female characters confront a world of indifference and betrayal, but find kinship there in unexpected places, died on September 20th in Seattle. She was 82. A spokesman for Random House, her publisher, confirmed her death. She had had several heart attacks in recent years.
Ms. Cooper won an American Book Award in 1989 for the second of her six story collections, “Homemade Love.” Her short story “Funny Valentines,” about a woman in a troubled marriage who repairs an old rift with a cousin when she moves back home, was turned into a 1999 television movie starring Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine.
Writing in a vernacular first-person style, Ms. Cooper set her stories in an indeterminate rural past permeated with violence and the ghost of slavery. The African-American women she depicts endure abandonment, betrayal, rape and social invisibility, but they survive.
“Some Soul to Keep” (1987), her third collection, includes over-the-back-fence tales. One story tells of two women who become close friends after one woman’s husband dies and the other’s leaves. They learn that long-lived rumors of their dislike for each other had been fabricated by their husbands. Another story is about a blind girl who is raped by her minister, gives birth to his son and raises him alone because, she explains, he makes her forget she is blind.
Ms. Cooper’s 1991 novel, “Family,” one of five she wrote, is narrated by the ghost of a slave woman who committed suicide before the Civil War and who follows the lives of her descendants as they mingle and procreate in a new interracial world, marveling at how “from one woman all these different colors and nationalities could come into being.”
Ms. Cooper was clear about the religious values that informed her stories. “I’m a Christian,” she told The Washington Post in 2000. “That’s all I am. If it came down to Christianity and writing, I’d let the writing go. God is bigger than a book.”
In an interview on NPR in 2006, she said, “What I’m basically trying to do is help somebody make some right choices.”