Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Gender

Trading Consent

Dawn (Xenogenesis, #1)Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was utterly compelled. When I got to the end, I was so hungry for the next book I was actually frustrated not to have it to hand. The last book I enjoyed nearly this much was The Lathe of Heaven so I guess I need to give in and accept that speculative fiction with feminist consciouness is my true love.

I love that Lilith is angry with her captors, that she doesn’t lose her drive to be free, ever. In many ways I felt the book was about consent – what does consent really mean when your options are constricted, when you know you are powerless? Lilith uses violence – for the first time – to prevent a rape. The victim was kicking and screaming in the grip of her captors, who urged ‘it’s your duty, you don’t have the right to resist’. Lilith says ‘nobody here is property, nobody has the right of use of anyone else’s body’ but this assertion is almost ironic considering the group’s predicament. Butler does not spend time giving Black Feminism 101. Come on reader, you can do that work on your own. The material is here: control of fertility, stolen children, Lilith’s weary expectation of forced breeding. The nuances of love and male violence. Even the misgendering of the Oankali has feminist resonance – the ooloi are read as male because they appear in authoritative roles and because they arouse men’s sexual jealousy. Butler takes her investigation of consent to a whole new level through the Oankali’s ability to read human chemistry but not thought, to the idea of chemical consent.

I love that Butler takes emotion seriously at all levels and fills Lilith’s dilemma with conflict, with arguments for both sides. The Oankali have saved the species, regenerated the destroyed Earth, they are culturally attractive. When they offend human scruples, they almost know not what they do; sexual shame is alien to them. We are not expected to accept the assertions of Jdaya and Nikanj ‘I know you, I’ve studied you…’ this is the White man’s voice, and the epistemology it rests on is challenged in the way the story unfolds: you’ve studied my history, but you haven’t lived it, so you don’t know it as I do. You’ve studied my body, but you can’t read the whole of who I am there. On the other hand – how dispiritingly disappointing the other awakened humans are! One of the hardest things to accept about the book is its pessimism about humanity. It was impossible not to agree that the humans need help; the argument in my heart is how to feel about the price.

I wouldn’t have fought for my freedom at all I think, which is a bit worrying. Bring the Oankali I say! I am already a vegan anarcha-eco-feminist; I am ready for the non-sexist non-hierarchical life-venerating invaders. Butler won’t countenance such uncritical acceptance. The Oankali are not anarchists in my view, because they coerce, not vegans, because they use other animals (including humans). They are compelled, as we are, though differently, by their genes. I am reminded of Daniel C Dennett’s writing on genes and their agendas – when Jdaya says I am as committed to the trade (of genes) as you are to breathing, I don’t quite believe – I think it may be closer to the commitment to breeding. This leads me to a big question her book left me with – what about me? I’m not heterosexual. This possibility of sexual diversity among the Oankali (who are of three sexes) is not mentioned, but the same is true of the human group. Butler tells us ‘there were no voluntary vegetarians’ but is silent on the possibility of same-sex desire. Maybe I’ll find out in the next book. I can hardly wait!

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