Posted to the Ethnos Project by on February 28th, 2011

A reflection on colonization and cultural reclamation as seen through the lens of Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn

Imagine a fixed moment in time, suspended, frozen. It is the moment when a tadpole becomes a frog; that point of transformation at which the doors to the past are locked. The object of change can never return to its pre-transformation state. This change is not unfamiliar: the graduate cannot ungraduate, the rape victim cannot become unraped. Likewise, the colonized can never become uncolonized. The native, once infected with the imperial cancer of the colonizer, is indelibly branded with a new identity which can not be erased. Any attempt to remove this cancer – to reclaim or recreate the aboriginal values, authority, or history of the native state – would entail removing the flesh to which the cancer is attached. The flesh, or identity, of the colonized is an essential component of the past she seeks to reclaim. To sacrifice this identity would be antithetical to the survival of the colonized. How then, can the colonized free herself from the malignant power of the colonizer? How can the marginalized ex-native recover her lost cultural histories?

Such is the lot of Lilith Iyapo, the protagonist of Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn. Her colonizers are an alien species called the Oankali who are “traders” – beings who existence depends upon their ability to adapt their own kind with the genes of other creatures. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Lilith in captivity struggling to come to terms with her situation. As she learns about “being saved” by the Oankali (who collected a sampling of humans from Earth as it was being destroyed by nuclear war), she also learns the price she will have to pay for being saved. She is to become the means by which the Oankali continue to exist by birthing human-Oankali hybrids. Aside from death (which was offered as a choice by her host, Jdahya), her choices are limited: she can choose assimilation or revolt.

Albert Memmi posits that assimilation and revolt are the only real options the colonized has (120). The colonized, in an effort to relieve colonial oppression, may choose to adopt the colonizer’s standards: clothing, language, mannerisms, etc. In this way, the colonized attains a status which is not available to him otherwise. We see several instances of assimilation in Dawn. At one extreme there is Paul Titus, a male who has chosen to stay with the Oankali on the spaceship and live as an adopted member of his ‘family’. Paul was not allowed by his captors to fully realize himself as a human. He was cut off from human contact and was effectively reduced to a human pet. At the encounter between Lilith and Paul, he is driven by his lust to attempt raping her. Lilith shows us a more constructive form of selective assimilation through her acceptance of various genetic enhancements such as extra strength, an eidetic memory, the ability to interface with the ship to open doors, create walls and Awaken people from ‘sleep’.

However, assimilation offers only a symptomatic treatment. The colonized is not allowed to cure the real sickness: her undeniable difference. The other side of assimilation is an explicit rejection of native values; becoming one thing means leaving behind another. The colonized “in the throes of assimilation hides his past, his traditions, in fact all his origins which have become ignominious” (Memmi 122). But once he has left behind his old self, the colonized soon realizes the double bind of his actions: he can approach the colonizer’s camp, but never enter into it. The colonizer cannot fully accept the assimilated colonized. This would require relinquishing the very power which supports the colonial system. As Memmi notes: “To put it bluntly, the colonizer would be asked to put an end to himself” (127). However, Butler plays with this theme by creating colonizers who must put an end to themselves. The Oankali will not be the same as before either. The hybrid will be the genetic superior of both its parents. This element is particularly troublesome to Lilith. Does she create a new life form that serves as the beginning of the end for humanity knowing that her children would claim as their birthright the genetic enhancements she accepted for herself?

Trapped in the vacuous cycle of assimilation and rejection, some of the colonized resort to revolt. Memmi asks: “How can he [the colonized] emerge from this increasingly explosive circle except by rupture, explosion?” (128). Sartre echoes this sentiment in his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “Laying claim to and denying the human condition at the same time: the contradiction is explosive. For that matter it does explode, you know as well as I do; and we are living at the moment when the match is put to the fuse” (20). These views seem to suggest that revolt is less a choice than it is a mechanical response to the colonial situation, that the inevitably of revolt is endemic to colonization. And so we have Derrick attempting an escape through the food cabinet, Peter attacking his ooloi when they were alone, Curt inciting a vicious and violent offensive – a slowly escalating series of explosions.

In some ways, Butler gives these characters excuses other than simply the mechanisms of colonization. These characters are aggressive males who react out of haste, emasculation, xenophobia, and racism. Derrick, for example, is not portrayed as a heroic character for attempting his escape. Rather, he is impetuous and foolish. Peter is shown to be violent and cruel as in the scene where he attempts to help Gregory rape Allison. Curt shows signs of natural leadership, but after killing Joseph with an axe is seen by all as a sociopath. A simple reading of the text might lead someone to think that Butler was saying that only the foolish, violent, and mentally unstable would choose revolt as a solution to colonization. However, A closer reading reveals that Butler has located a response to colonization that lies somewhere between Memmi’s binary options.

Lilith, who is not satisfied with either assimilation or revolt offers a third strategy for dealing with her situation: Learn and run! Once the humans are trained to fend for themselves, the Oankali will return them to Earth (which the Oankali have been healing from effects of nuclear war). Lilith’s plan throughout the novel is to learn everything she can to ensure her survival and escape the first chance she gets when back on Earth. She shares this approach with those who have sided with her. Even when she is told, at the end of the novel, that she is pregnant with a daughter who will be neither fully human or Oankali, she commits to the idea of preaching her Learn and run! doctrine to the new batch of humans she’ll be teaching.

Escape would serve to extricate the colonized from the immediate influence of the colonizer, but the humans would always be on the run, forever defining themselves in relation to the Oankali. Is there another path to recovery available to the humans? Is there is a possibility of constructing a new identity which accepts the colonial past and integrates the pre-colonial state – a sort of meeting in the middle? The humans will, after all, be returned to Earth with their human memories intact. However, this ontological process betrays the possibility of true recovery because recovery can never be attained; the doors to the past are locked. The object of change can never return to its pre-transformation state. Even if the humans escaped the Oankali on Earth, they would still be eating the genetically modified plants, using the materials in ways they where taught by Lilith and the Oankali, using the tools given to them by their oppressors. Even escape is not escape. Since there is no going back, the colonized can only move forward aware of how the colonial experience is now a part of a cultural history which is not lost, but perpetually changing.

Perhaps there is another outcome for the humans who may escape. The lost cultural histories cannot be recovered in the sense that they will somehow erase the effects of the colonial experience and return to the colonized an unadultered native state. Their recovery would take the form of a reabsorbtion or reintroduction of native values into the lives of the ex-colonized. Memmi describes this transition as the point where “…exactly to the reverse of the colonialist accusation, the colonized, his culture, his country, everything that belongs to him, everything he represents, become perfectly positive elements” (138). The survival of humans as humans then depends on choosing wisely the aspects of their previous lives that will lend themselves to recovery – and not to the same end that befell the rest of humanity before the Oankali came.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E., Dawn. New York: Warner Books, 1987.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1968.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and The Colonized. Boston: Beacon, 1965.

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