OCTAVIA GAVE ME the idea that facing and using your fears is a great way for an author to explore the world. The emotional power of something you’re afraid of can be rewarding, and she challenged me to see that.
Her physical presence was arresting. You could look at a photo of her and see her features, but that did not convey the warmth, the grace, the charisma. She was very visible, and I think that’s important. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, there might have been Black science fiction writers, but they might have hidden their identity. Octavia was right out there. She was not trying to use initials to hide her gender. She was saying, “This is me. You’re gonna have to buy the story from me because I’m the one that’s selling it. This is my identity.”
Science fiction as a genre is losing some of the stink that has surrounded it in academic circles. And I think it’s a generational thing. People surrounded by new technology are not going to look down on stories that include new technology. She came into the field at a time when it was not as lucrative, but five years after her death, it started to pop off.
“Fledgling” is clear proof that she was influenced by the landscape here. For African American people, there’s this whole generational memory of fleeing to the North, first during times of slavery and then as the factories were hiring in the North. You know: “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
I was always aware that she was greatness personified. Because that was how she lived her life, was to let you know that you were receiving grace. I’m not saying she was arrogant — the exact opposite, in fact. Octavia was an atheist, and so she didn’t believe in an afterlife other than the thoughts and memories of those around her. So she lived to leave a good memory. And I got that right away. She was creating herself as an angel, in my mind, as she was living with me.