On Saturday, July 29th, 2023, friends, former neighbors, and fans of acclaimed science fiction author Octavia E. Butler gathered at the intersection of NE 165th Street and 37th Avenue NE in Lake Forest Park to celebrate the renaming of the stretch of 37th Avenue NE to “Octavia Butler Avenue.” Octavia spent her final years on this quiet street in a neighborhood north of Seattle before her untimely death in 2006.
Caren Gussoff Sumption (CW ’08) received the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship and spoke of Butler’s impact, personally and professionally:
Everything I’ve accomplished in my writing career is in her debt. Overblown as that may sound, her influence fundamentally and tangibly shaped me. I was 12, a misfit — a lonely, mixed-race, undiagnosed Autistic kid — when my school librarian first handed me Kindred.
While the nuances in the novel flew over my head — I was 12, precocious or not, 12 — the frank exploration of power, gender, and race, as well as the gorgeous prose and terrifyingly compelling plot, even the love story, at 12, which was icky — affected me deeply.
I wasn’t exactly like the characters in this novel, but growing up with a marginalized identity and a sense that my way of being in the world was fundamentally different from the community in which I was raised made me treasure any depictions in which I could even find pieces of myself. Representation is important.
I could list 50 more ways Octavia shaped me, but I’ll skip to 2008 when I received the Carl Brandon Octavia E. Butler Memorial scholarship to attend Clarion West, Seattle’s Iowa Writers Workshop for Speculative Fiction.
I’d been writing professionally for 8 years by then but found myself at the proverbial crossroads, personally and in my career. The scholarship came with this owl pendant — the original made for her, and all made for scholarship winners since, by Laurie Toby Edison.
It also came with a nod from beyond to keep going (as Octavia would write to herself in her journals, I will! So be it. See to it).
Keep going, even though it’d gotten hard. Even though I was tired.
In my culture, the owl is associated with death. But this owl brought me life. Octavia spent many happy years here, on this quiet, beautiful street.
She’s finally gathered all the many accolades she deserves.
But I know this one would be special to her.
As she wrote in Parable of the Sower:
“The child in each of us knows paradise. Paradise is home.”Caren Gussoff Sumption (CW ’08)
Other speakers included Lake Forest Park Councilmembers Phillippa Kassover and Tracy Furutani, who spearheaded the project to rename the street, and neighbors: Professor Sheila Liming and fellow artist, musician Terry Morgan. She was remembered by her neighbors as a shy person who occasionally accepted rides home from them when walking back from the grocery store and who might have been embarrassed by all of the fanfare of the ceremony.
Butler attended the original Clarion Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania in 1970 and went on to publish science fiction novels and short stories deemed “prescient” and “visionary.” In 1995, she received the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “Genius Grant”) for fiction. Butler relocated from Southern California to Lake Forest Park in 1999 and lived there until her passing.
She taught many times at the Clarion and Clarion West workshops.
In 2005, when I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, she was our first-week instructor. I remember her as having quiet confidence and an unflinching eye for a story’s goals. During our brief one-on-one time, I found her warm, with words of encouragement I will always hold close to my heart.
She might have been embarrassed by the attention at the ceremony, but I hope she would have been proud to walk by the new sign every day and see one of the many new ways the impact of her work is being recognized — in her own neighborhood.
Since 2007, the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, awarded by the Carl Brandon Society, has provided a scholarship to BIPOC writers attending Clarion and Clarion West.
For more information about the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, see the Carl Brandon Society.