The first time I read Octavia Butler was in college. My professor assigned a few readings out of Sheree Thomas’ canonical Dark Matter anthology and I scanned the table of contents looking for interesting titles. I chose Butler’s The Book of Martha, a story of a Black woman tasked by God to help save humanity.
Years later, after reading most of Butler’s entire collection, the short story is still my favorite.
Martha Bes is a writer living alone on Lake Washington. She’s just spent the night writing her latest novel and has headed toward the kitchen for a snack when she finds herself, quite simply, with God. He tasks her with “great work,” and tells her to be guided by the stories of Job, Jonah and Noah. The catch – there’s always a catch
in her stories – is that once she makes her decision that she will be cast down to the lowest of society even though, as Martha says, “I was born on the bottom of society.”
At the beginning of the story, God epitomizes the giant trope of traditional religious ideals – tall, long-bearded white man complete with white robe and huge throne. Her image of Him changes as she talks out her ideas though, harkening back to the religion of Earthseed Butler crafted nearly 15 years before. If God is change, then surely he should change based on what you’ve been prepared to see.
The most powerful aspect of divinity is not the ability to follow it, but the ability to see it within yourself. To remove the barriers we put up that separate us from our idea of omnipotence. The twist of this story – that I’m trying really hard not to give away for those who haven’t read it yet – reignites the writer and creator in me everytime I read it. As an artist and someone who crafts whole worlds with my art, reading through Martha’s process of figuring out how to help humanity and ultimately sacrificing her professional life for the greater good hit close to home. That is usually the first step we must take to achieve our life’s purpose, and it is never easy.
At a time when the ugliest parts of racism and white supremacy are showing up on everyone’s doorstep via social media and emotional proximity, taking Black women as victims without the fanfare of marches or widespread protest, The Book of Martha is a reassurance of power for Black women.
It is the reflection in the mirror of what can be accomplished within our own humanity and a lit pathway for us to live through our journeys, even if we are afraid. In Martha’s case, especially if we are afraid.
We all like a good story. I believe that no story is better than the one we are living right now. As a writer, I strive to tell everyone’s story because it is through stories that we heal ourselves.
Princess has been doing journalism since her senior year in high school. At the University of Texas at Arlington, she worked for The Shorthorn and became the first Black female editor in chief. She’s attended two National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association national conferences and has also written for Shades magazine.