Magic and Change, Octavia Butler and J. K. Rowling

Friends, I am in a bisected emotional space, feeling contentment and frustration, happiness and sadness, fear and hope, grief and delight. I can conjure many reasons for this state but more important, I think, than understanding is sitting with it, soaking in it, letting it be what it is.

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Intriguingly, the universe has given me (or I have given myself) a chiasmic (not a word but I’m going with it anyway) pair of books: The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling. One of these imagines a dystopian near future so plausible it keeps me up at night. The other imagines a dark guerrilla war happening in a magical world adjacent to our own. Both focus on how young people live and grow and suffer and survive and learn amidst terrible circumstances.

I mentioned back in the summer starting and stopping Butler’s sequel to The Parable of the Sower, one of the best and most challenging books I read last year. As with “Sower,” Butler wrote “Talents” in the 1990s but her vision of American society consuming itself due to the chaos of climate change and our unwillingness to adapt and change feels disturbingly prescient. In the summer I got as far into “Talents” as a dog-whistling presidential candidate whose slogan is, literally, “Make America great again” before saying, “Nope. I’m not up for this right now.”

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I also wrote a couple months ago about turning to the Harry Potter series as “bookish comfort food,” a means to continue reading even when energy—emotional and mental—felt low. And yet even as I know that in YA novels in general, and these in particular, the hero triumphs in the end, these latter HP volumes take seriously the effects of trauma and violence on youthful development. In “Half-Blood Prince,” Lord Voldemort no longer hides his return and instead wages a vicious shadow war on both the magical and muggle worlds. Harry and his friends return to school with renewed drive to contribute to his overthrow but also the cognitive dissonance of being young people doing young people things even as terror rages just outside the gates of Hogwarts. And Harry now knows and accepts that his destiny is to kill Voldemort or be killed in the attempt, a hard truth that he does not shy away from. Despite his designation as a “YA” protagonist, Harry shares quite a bit with Lauren Oya Olamina.

In “Talents,” Olamina has successfully established a thriving community centered around Earthseed, the religion she “discovered” based on the unavoidable, unassailable truth of change. “God is Change,” she declares, and while it cannot be avoided, it can be shaped: “Seize Change. / Use it. / Adapt and grow.” But Butler is not here to tell us pretty fairy tales and Change once again comes for Olamina and her family and community with implacable cruelty. Like Harry, Olamina does not flinch away from her perceived destiny to spread the truth of Earthseed, a philosophy for how humans can transition into a divergent but sustainable future.

Obviously, these are two very different books, set in very different worlds. Butler’s world is more chaotic, and more realistic in that chaos. Rowling’s world not only contains literal magic but the magical-thinking comfort of clearly delineated good and evil. But in reading them side-by-side I have found myself drawing more comfort than expected from the wisdom of Earthseed and more resolve from the clear-and-present danger of HP’s world. And both series ultimately rest on love as the solution to the problem, the answer to the question—love, that thing that is so simple and so messy, so natural and yet so hard.

“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” Ever since encountering these words of Butler’s, they have stuck with me as an essential truth. And since re-reading book five of Harry Potter I’ve also had these words rattling around in my head, spoken to Harry by Sirius Black: “[T]he world is not split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both dark and light inside us.” These very different quotes—one poetic, one direct, both simple, both a challenge and a promise—remind me that the world is complex and I have more agency within that complexity than I often think. For right now, both of these series are forming and informing my headspace, pensieves providing space to hold divergence and complexity.

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