Down Time: Grouper on Finding Solace in Octavia Butler Books

Illustration for article titled Down Time: Grouper on Finding Solace in Octavia Butler Books
Photo: Helge Bundt, Screenshot: Barnes & Noble

Down Time is a series in which we ask our favorite artists and authors what art, books, and activities they’re turning to in this moment of isolation and uncertainty. Here Astoria, Oregon-based ambient and visual artist Liz Harris (Grouper) tells us what she’s been reading after having to cancel her tour schedule.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

We’re self-isolating here, but with an interesting flavor. It’s the Northwest coast and everyone here is already a little intentionally dropped out, ready to survive, preppers. I’m connecting more, whether it’s just checking in with senior buddies or family or friends of mine who may not be able to make rent next month. I’ve been sending a lot of postcards to friends because it also forces me to draw more, which I’m trying to get back in to my routine. It gets me off the phone.


I coincidentally picked up a series of books that I read a decade or two ago to reread right as this stuff happened and it’s really uncanny, all the sync-ups. The Earthseed Series by Octavia Butler. I just finished the first book, Parable of the Sower, and in today’s context, it’s pretty uncanny. I just whizzed through the first book and now I’m reading the second Parable of the Talents, and she even has this corrupt, charismatic political leader who uses the line “Make America Great Again.” She wrote this in 1998!

I don’t know, the sync-ups are kind of too heavy. It’s that funny mix of titillation that’s also slightly terrifying, like listening to true crime podcasts. She was such an outlier at the time, first of all as a woman sci-fi writer but also for years the only African-American woman sci-fi writer. You read these male writers and they’re talking about planet Blip and all the names of faraway galaxies. She’s like, science fiction is about future-telling and being a mirror alongside society to predict the future. It’s rational and real—what is this shit really going to look like?

She talks about recognizing that change and chaos are inevitable; it’s about how we come together to shape it. I think that’s really apt for people to think about right now, because humans fall so easily to greed and self-protection first. A lot of people need help right now, but I’m also seeing a lot of people with their hands out who I know their parents could pay the rent if they needed it. It’s been cool to see how many mutual aid programs are centering the folks who were already marginalized by capitalism.

With the [canceled shows], besides just having your plan suddenly disappear and the mental whirlwind that leads to—obviously there’s a loss of income. I don’t play very much right now and so it’s just a handful of shows, but it’s the only shows I had planned this season. I’ve been having a plan B, C, D, N, E for maybe 10 years now. I’m smart about saving, I own the majority of my own rights, I have diverse income streams like royalties, etc. I worry more about people who work behind the scenes at festivals or venues or other types of art spaces. A lot of those folks only work a few big events a year, and that’s most of their annual income.


Clarification: This post has been updated for clarity.

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel

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hester bangs

I love this woman, I love Astoria, I love the Oregon/Washington coast... how cool to see her get a well-deserved shout-out here, thanks Hazel.