An Unusual Accommodation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1673

‘‘I tried to write a story about paying the rent— a story about an isolated colony of human beings in an inhabited, extrasolar world,’’ Butler explains in her afterword to ‘‘Bloodchild.’’ ‘‘Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um . . ....

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‘‘I tried to write a story about paying the rent— a story about an isolated colony of human beings in an inhabited, extrasolar world,’’ Butler explains in her afterword to ‘‘Bloodchild.’’ ‘‘Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um . . . their hosts. Chances are this would be an unusual accommodation.’’ In ‘‘Bloodchild,’’ Butler has created a compelling imaginative world where adolescent boys give over their bodies to carry the eggs of insect-like natives of a distant planet—this is the ‘‘unusual accommodation’’ to which Butler refers. Readers of the story, as well as characters within it, try to sort out the meaning of this extreme measure. In this essay I will look at several analogies for the arrangement between Terrans and Tlic, working toward an understanding of the story’s unsettling psychological drama.

Perhaps because several of Butler’s novels, Kindred and Wild Seed, deal explicitly with the historical institution of slavery, some people have interpreted ‘‘Bloodchild’’ as a parable about slavery, wherein the accommodation the Terrans make is to be the Tlics’ slaves. Upon reading the story, one can see why slavery might come to mind, for Terrans like Gan must allow the more powerful Tlics to use their bodies, and Terran sacrifice leads to Tlic gain. Gan’s brother, Qui, can be seen as the voice of this interpretation within the story. Despite the fact that he has not been chosen to incubate Tlic eggs himself, he deplores the social and biological arrangement between the Terrans and the Tlic. Qui tries to run away from the area of the Tlic planet set aside for Terrans, the Preserve, until he realizes, in Gan’s words, that ‘‘there was no ‘away’.’’ The only place away from the Preserve is the Tlic society outside—which is, in Qui’s eyes, the territory of his exploiters. Personally he feels trapped and, as a member of the human race, he feels exploited and dehumanized by the use of his kind for Tlic reproduction. Terrans, he argues, are nothing but animals to the Tlic.

However, the slavery interpretation is one to which Butler herself has objected. And upon careful thought, it does not really hold up. After all, Qui’s experience with the Tlic is limited. It is the protagonist Gan who has been chosen to live outside of the Preserve with the Tlic T’Gatoi and to one day incubate her young, and it is he who dramatizes most fully the complexity of the humans’ unusual accommodation. Gan sees T’Gatoi as a family member rather than a master. While Gan’s experiences over the course of the story’s actions cause him to question his role as an incubator, his initial bond to T’Gatoi survives the trauma and is transformed. With full knowledge and new maturity he consents to the implantation. If he were merely a slave, to be used as an animal, his consent would be irrelevant.

So if ‘‘Bloodchild’’ is not a story about slavery, how can we understand the strange power dynamic between the two species? Butler offers a series of clues. In her afterword, she describes ‘‘Bloodchild’’ as ‘‘a love story between two very different beings,’’ ‘‘a coming of age story’’ and a ‘‘pregnant man story.’’ She then goes on to spend most of the short essay describing the habits of botflies. Botflies are parasites—animals that live on the body of another animal, called a host, from which they obtain the nutrients they needs to live. Botflies lay their eggs in the wounds left by other insect bites. When the eggs hatch and become maggots, these live on the flesh until they mature and are able to fly away. Once occupied by the botfly, a human host would be ill advised to squeeze the maggot out, for the maggot is so firmly attached to the flesh of its host that if it is removed, part of it stays behind and rots, leading to infection. Butler had spent time in Peru, where botflies are common, and the concept for ‘‘Bloodchild’’ grew out of her intolerable fear of them. The Tlic are botflies writ large.

Butler’s afterword is fascinating, but also confusing. If ‘‘Bloodchild’’ is a love story, how can this be understood in relation to its inspiration—the disgusting habits of a reviled parasite? T’Gatoi and Gan do—as would characters in a conventional love story—love each other, face a crisis in their relationship, and transcend their difficulties, culminating in Gan’s impregnation. However, the love Gan and T’Gatoi share is neither romantic nor sexual. T’Gatoi begins this ‘‘love story’’ as a mother, telling Lien to eat her eggs and chiding Gan that he is too skinny. However, there is a strange doubleness to these nurturing nudges—she wants Lien to eat the egg so that she will give up Gan with less protest, and she wants Gan to fatten up so that he can nourish her eggs on his blood. In a way she seems caring and giving; in another she seems menacing and selfserving. Here, the unsettling figure of the parasite comes to mind. Mothers nourish their families and parasites steal nourishment from their hosts. T’Gatoi does both.

T’Gatoi’s need for human hosts can be defined as repulsive and exploitative only if she is conceptualized as different, alien. After all, babies occupy and are nourished by the bodies of their mothers (who are by definition of the same species) in a way that is analogous to how parasites occupy and are nourished by the bodies of their hosts (which are by definition of a different species). T’Gatoi occupies a paradoxical position as completely familiar and, at once, completely foreign. Butler’s descriptions of T’Gatoi may evoke fear or disgust in the reader, who recognizes her as a giant insect, while they show that Gan sees her as simply part of the family. ‘‘One of my earliest memories is of my mother stretched alongside T’Gatoi, talking of things I could not understand, picking me up from the floor and laughing as she sat me on one of T’Gatoi’s segments.’’ T’Gatoi is characterized as something with segments—that is, totally inhuman—and, at once, to Gan, as a trusted aunt. While T’Gatoi’s many-legged embraces are a testimony to her familiarity, her delivery of grubs renders her alien and thus fearsome. Gan’s view of T’Gatoi changes when he witnesses Bram Lomas’s alien ‘‘labor.’’ The birth process is terrifying. Gan watches as T’Gatoi cuts into Lomas’s flesh. He is horrified when he sees her bite the egg case in his abdomen and lick the dripping blood as she removes the grubs, fat and red with human blood. ‘‘The whole procedure was wrong, alien. I wouldn’t have thought anything about her could seem alien to me.’’ He fears her because he suddenly sees her as different from him.

Clearly the biological metaphor of parasitism, like the sociological metaphor of slavery, is too simple. Both slavery and parasitism are too oneway to describe the bonds and dependencies between T’Gatoi and Gan. Returning to Butler’s afterword, it is important to note that she does not say that ‘‘Bloodchild’’ is a story about parasitism, but rather writing the story was a way to ease her fear of them. ‘‘When I have to deal with something that disturbs me as much as the botfly did, I write about it. I sort out my problems by writing about them.’’ ‘‘Bloodchild’’ may then be understood best as a love story, a coming of age story, a male pregnancy story, and a story about overcoming the fear of difference.

The story is resolved when Gan accepts the role of human host out of loyalty to his sister and also out of love for T’Gatoi. He recognizes her as an alien species, capable of cutting into a man’s abdomen and licking his blood, but he also recognizes her as a part of a new improvised, adaptive kind of family that the two species have made together. Gan’s father incubated T’Gatoi in his body and T’Gatoi in turn helped to raise Gan and to strengthen him with her eggs. Gan accepts her egg into his body as a continuation of this cycle. He makes this decision with a full knowledge of how she is different from him, and with a new mature love that accommodates this difference. Different beings need not have different interests. At the story’s conclusion, two vastly different beings have seen their differences and have chosen each other anyway.

There is good reason make such a choice, Butler implies. In the climactic scene when Gan confronts T’Gatoi and threatens to kill himself rather than incubate her eggs, saying ‘‘I don’t want to be a host animal,’’ T’Gatoi reminds him that the relationship between their two species is mutually beneficial—symbiotic rather than parasitic. Terrans have saved the Tlic from extinction, she acknowledges, but the Tlic have also saved Terrans by sharing their planet with them. ‘‘[Y]our ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them—they survived because of us,’’ Butler writes, referring to the divisive kinds of fear of difference that exist within human society. By asking him to incubate her eggs T’Gatoi is asking him to be a host, but by acknowledging Terrans as people and sharing their planet with them, the Tlic have already acted as hosts themselves. The word host has a social definition as well as a biological one. A host is an organism that harbors and nourishes a parasite, but it is also a person who entertains and provides for his or her guests. In ‘‘Bloodchild’’ Butler creates a world where the biological and social go hand in hand.

Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, ‘‘An Unusual Accommodation’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Would You Really Rather Die Than Bear My Young?: The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler’s Bloodchild

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

Emphasis on the metaphoric impregnation of human males in ‘‘Bloodchild’’ makes the process of gynesis central to the story. In a 1986 article on Butler in Ms. magazine, Sherley Anne Williams reports that Butler ‘‘gleefully’’ describes ‘‘Bloodchild’’ as her ‘‘pregnant man story.’’ Williams interprets the story as an exploration of ‘‘the paradoxes of power and inequality,’’ as Butler portrays ‘‘the experience of a class who, like women throughout most of history, are valued chiefly for their reproductive capacities.’’ I’d add that this ‘‘class’’ must be examined through issues of race and species as well as gender; however, Williams describes well the imaginative feminist space which makes the story so compelling a site for the study of gynesis in popular culture. Although human women tend to have more body fat—thus reducing their risk of damage or death at the bloodsucking mouths of the Tlic larvae—we learn that only men are ‘‘implanted.’’ Human women are left to bear human children, especially sons for future Tlic usage and, at least superficially, human family bonding and happiness. Without such bonding, both species fear humans would become little more than pets or breeding stock.

One of the primary ways in which ‘‘Bloodchild’’ encourages a view of the Tlic power structure as a metaphor for human gender relations under patriarchy is through its depiction of men suffering the pains of childbearing (and when ‘‘birth’’ means removing grubs from around your internal organs, the pain can be intense). Even more powerful, however, is the suggestive complication of traditional gender roles during intercourse. Consider a description near the end of the story, as the young human male Gan recounts being drugged and ‘‘implanted’’ with T’Gatoi’s eggs:

. . . I undressed and lay down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the blind probing of the ovipositor. The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine.

The image of the female penetrating the male and impregnating him clearly complicates the traditional gendering of sexual imagery. The undulating body of T’Gatoi, forcing the egg into Gan’s body, recalls human intercourse from both female and male positions: T’Gatoi’s action embodies both possession of the female egg and male penetration and ejaculation. To this is added a representation of acquaintance rape in Gan’s passivity, despite his agreement to be implanted. This example of popular cultural gynesis invites consideration of the gender complexity of the ‘‘pregnant man’’ and the ‘‘impregnating woman.’’

My argument that representation can destabilize the reencoding process, thereby providing readers with images (if not language) to reject limiting and misleading categories of identification, necessitates more intensive examination of these figures. For the metaphoric sex scene in ‘‘Bloodchild,’’ the question of destabilization vs. replication becomes whether the ‘‘pregnant man’’ and ‘‘impregnating woman’’ enable readers to reach beyond shock value to consider the scene a complication rather than a simple reversal of traditional gender types.

The image can be read as destabilizing primarily because neither character is clearly identifiable in terms of gender. When we look closely at the figure of the alien T’Gatoi, we see more than a reversal of gender roles. The Tlic’s insect-like reproductive cycle (which I will also discuss in terms of species) complicates the gender absolutes of human culture. Tlic eggs are fertilized by the shortlived male of the species, then implanted by the female in a host body, in the kind of reversed sexual act described above. The female raises the infants when they are old enough to exist outside the host. Thus, T’Gatoi can be seen metaphorically to fill all biological and social parenting roles—leaving the Tlic male a less clearly identifiable role—or to problematize the ease with which we ascribe gender roles in terms of parenting at all.

This destabilization of gynesis is limited, however, by an emphasis typical in Butler’s fiction: Biological roles necessarily lead to the construction of social roles. T’Gatoi is both the government official in charge of the Preserve (filing a dominant and more traditionally ‘‘masculine’’ role, in terms of metaphoric reference to human culture) and caretaker of the humans against other Tlic who wish to return humans to the status of domesticated animals (the role of caretaker illustrating a more traditionally ‘‘feminine’’ role). It may seem merely logical to assign T’Gatoi both ‘‘masculine’’ and ‘‘feminine’’ social roles and personality traits to echo the gender implications of her reproductive functions. However, the emphasis on this parallel within the story evokes a problematic biological essentialism, for the problematization of gender roles seen in the complexity of the reproductive cycle becomes reduced to a simpler and more limiting role reversal when paired with biological determinism. That is, the depiction of reproduction we see in the scene between T’Gatoi and Gan cannot help us to destabilize the construction of gender if social roles reinforce a view of (biological) sex as determinant of subjectivity. Female Tlic dominate in this alien culture; males fill a passive, primarily reproductive function. Through this reversal of traditional human gender roles under Western patriarchy, we see a biologically determined matriarchy whose hierarchical nature limits its effectiveness as a creative textual response to patriarchy. Ultimately, destabilizing social roles would be more effective if biology were not destiny in Tlic culture, regardless of whether it resulted in a patriarchy or a matriarchy.

Source: Elyce Rae Helford, ‘‘‘Would You Really Rather Die Than Bear My Young?’: The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’,’’ in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 259–71

Afterword to Bloodchild

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

It amazes me that some people have seen ‘‘Bloodchild’’ as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though. On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of-age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life.

On a third level, ‘‘Bloodchild’’ is my pregnant man story. I’ve always wanted to explore what it might be like for a man to be put in the most unlikely of all positions. Could I write a story in which a man chose to become pregnant not through some sort of misplaced competitiveness to prove that a man could do anything a woman could do, not because he was forced to, not even out of curiosity? I wanted to see whether I could write a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love—choosing pregnancy in spite of as well as because of surrounding difficulties.

Also, ‘‘Bloodchild’’ was my effort to ease an old fear of mine. I was going to travel to the Peruvian Amazon to do research for my Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago), and I worried about my possible reactions to some of the insect life of the area. In particular, I worried about the botfly—an insect with, what seemed to me then, horror-movie habits. There was no shortage of botflies in the part of Peru that I intended to visit.

The botfly lays its eggs in wounds left by the bites of other insects. I found the idea of a maggot living and growing under my skin, eating my flesh as it grew, to be so intolerable, so terrifying that I didn’t know how I could stand it if it happened to me. To make matters worse, all that I heard and read advised botfly victims not to try to get rid of their maggot passengers until they got back home to the United States and were able to go to a doctor—or until the fly finished the larval part of its growth cycle, crawled out of its host, and flew away.

The problem was to do what would seem to be the normal thing, to squeeze out the maggot and throw it away, was to invite infection. The maggot becomes literally attached to its host and leaves part of itself behind, broken off, if it’s squeezed or cut out. Of course, the part left behind dies and rots, causing infection. Lovely.

When I have to deal with something that disturbs me as much as the botfly did, I write about it. I sort out my problems by writing about them. In a high school classroom on November 22, 1963, I remember grabbing a notebook and beginning to write my response to news of John Kennedy’s assassination. Whether I write journal pages, an essay, a short story, or weave my problems into a novel, I find the writing helps me get through the trouble and get on with my life. Writing ‘‘Bloodchild’’ didn’t make me like botflies, but for a while, it made them seem more interesting than horrifying.

There’s one more thing I tried to do in ‘‘Bloodchild.’’ I tried to write a story about paying the rent—a story about an isolated colony of human beings on an inhabited, extrasolar world. At best, they would be a lifetime away from reinforcements. It wouldn’t be the British Empire in space, and it wouldn’t be Star Trek. Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um . . . their hosts. Chances are this would be an unusual accommodation. Who knows what we humans have that others might be willing to take in trade for a livable space on a world not our own?

Source: Octavia Butler, Afterword to ‘‘Bloodchild’’ in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1985, pp. 30-32.

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