Octavia Butler wrote a 'Parable' that became a prophecy — now it's also an opera
Octavia Butler's sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower was published 30 years ago, in 1993. This Afrofuturistic book about a dystopian America set in our time now seems positively prophetic — and a new musical interpretation of Butler's novel is touring the country.
On a warm recent evening in Manhattan, we're sitting at rehearsal amidst 170 community singers who are part of the Parable performance at New York's Lincoln Center alongside professional musicians. They're learning a chorus that includes the opening words of Octavia Butler's novel.
"All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change," they sing.
Parable of the Sower is set in 2024. There's a climate crisis driving people out of their homes. Gun violence and drug use are rampant. In the sequel, Parable of the Talents, an authoritarian politician promises to "make America great again." (It's a phrase that Butler observed Ronald Reagan using on the campaign trail during his successful 1980 presidential run.)
Against all this chaos, the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina, hungers to shape a very different reality. The words the chorus sings are the building blocks of a new religion that Olamina has envisioned, called Earthseed.
The opera version of Parable of the Sower was created by singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and her mother, activist and singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and is now retired.
Toshi Reagon says she and her mother share a deep love of Octavia Butler's writing. Their first joint opportunity to explore Butler's work through music came in the 1990s.
"Toni Morrison asked my mother to come to Princeton to do the Princeton Atelier," Reagon explains. "It's an opportunity for an artist to teach at Princeton for a semester. Mom was really busy at the time, and she was like, 'Maybe Toshi can do half the classes!' I was like, you know, young in my career. And I was like, 'Woo hoo, I'm going to go teach at Princeton for Toni Morrison — yay, it's so cool!'" she laughs.
Eventually, mother and daughter began writing their own musical interpretation of Parable of the Sower. Luckily, the Reagons got free reign from Butler herself, who died in 2006. As in Butler's work, the Reagons' music references centuries of African-American history and culture, moving back and forth between the past, present and future with ease.
As Octavia Butler told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1993, her Parable novels were about the use and abuse of power in a broken society. "They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable," Butler said. "And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it."
There's a lot of sheer brutality in Butler's narrative. But fans also find a lot of comfort and solidarity in Butler's vision of resistance. They include four-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin, who began reading Butler as a young woman and wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of Parable of the Sower. Jemisin sees many parallels between Butler's imagining of 2024 and today's social and political climate.
"In those books, Butler goes through the whole issue of trying to live within a society that is disrespectful of your needs, even your bodily autonomy," Jemisin observes. "I'm needing that hope, I'm needing that encouragement, that reminder that these things go in cycles and that the cycle will at some point end and we will push back."
Some readers have taken Butler's work and the character Olamina's concept of Earthseed as spiritual texts. "I am not a practitioner of Earthseed myself," says Jemisin, "but I see the appeal of it. I see the power of it. It is less a faith than it is a codification of the things that survivors need to survive — the beliefs that will keep you going, the beliefs that will keep you fighting."
Toshi Reagon sees Butler's writing as inspirational guides to thought and action.
"Parable is the wake-up call: 'Hey, y'all, stop messing around," she says. "This is what's going to happen in 30 years if you don't really do something about yourselves."
Reagon says she finds guidance in how to navigate life communally in the Earthseed groups that the main character creates. Reagon says we see this kind of instant community in real life — in bad times and in good.
"When there's disasters, people get together and start to create together and figure out how to survive," she says. "I love videos from festivals where nobody's dancing, and then one person gets up and starts dancing, and then somebody else comes in. Next thing you know, it's like 500 people dancing. There is immense possibilities for joy in communities. Personally, I think the more joy, joy, joy, joy, joy, the better for us!"
This brings us back to the importance of singing in community: that's why the Reagons decided to retell the Parable of the Sower in music.
"Singing this story evokes all of us in the space to be in a vibrational relationship so that we can really feel like we're not alone like we are not by ourselves," Toshi Reagon says emphatically. "We are breathing; we are alive; we are together. We have the opportunity to shift and change in the ways that we can in our lives."
And so, Reagon says, her work is an invitation, just as Octavia Butler's writing is: to imagine and create a different world.
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