This one was triggered by sad events. Death triggers memory, it is inevitable, and I found myself trying to think back on the details of my one and only - and now all the more treasured - encounter with Octavia Butler. I really was hoping that someday I'd have another chance to talk to her, because my memory of her is so full of warmth and light. I remember, there she was, this imposing black Valkyrie sitting there at a Science Fiction Museum Hall of Fame inauguration dinner last year, and although I had never met her before I knew who she must be - and that, in fact, is very much what I first said to her: "You must be..."
She sighed, with a small smile, and said something about how she MUST be, yeah. How many other black women writers existed in this genre...?
It made me squirm a little, because I probably said something that everyone said to her. It's a lonely thing, being the Only, or the First, or the Foremost. People see you and they go, oh, you must be... and you have to be. You have no choice in the matter.
But after that somewhat thorny thicket of a beginning, rdeck and I sat there talking with her for at least an hour - this was the infamous Charles Brown DIsappearing Chair incident, where he got up to go and get a drink and told me to mind his chair and I was so engrossed in talking with Octavia that I completely failed to notice when said chair,right next to me, was spirited away by somebody. She laughed, Octavia, and that remains the only audio I can actually remember from that event - that laugh. I have a good idea of what her voice sounded like, but it's not a real memory - I can't hear her talking. But I hear her laughing.
Laughter, funnily enough, is the only audio memory I have left of a much-loved gread-uncle whom, despite his extraodrinary size and bulk, my child self had somehow elected to dub Uncle Crumb. I remember him visually - his silver white hair, the kind of colour that glows in the dark with an angelic light, pure white and with this gentle wave in the front, the kind of hair that any woman would have murdered for; his incredible upper body strength, honed by the fact that he fought back from a near-complete paralysis of his lower limbs and therefore had to transfer EVERYthing to his arms which then acquired the strength and consistency of steel whipcord; the old-fashioned glasses in their black frames. But it is by the laugh that I remember him best and most lovingly, because he had an infectious gurgle completely unexpected from such a large man, and that has stuck in my brain. That defined him. The fact that he knew how to laugh. Audio clues are powerful My grandmother's voice is still with me, after nearly twenty years that she's been gone, calling me by the pet name she had for me. Certain songs take me back to a PRECISE time and place, practically throwing up a diorama of the occasion on which I first heard them.
Olfactory clues are powerful, too. There's a particular kind of glue that we used to use in pre-school and early primary school art and craft sessions when I was very little - it used to come in these little round pots, with a plastic "pocket" on the inside where a tiny plastic spatula lived which was supposed to be used for spreading that glue on crepe paper and the like. That smell, that particular glue, makes me feel five again. Instantly. WIthout a blink, nearly forty years of time are just... erased. By memory.
Powerful voodoo, that.
Other smells work the same way. I remember a scent of hyacinths that clung to the corridors of a very workaday matter-of-fact lab where I was working, oh, some twelve years ago now. The only problem with that particular scent at that particular time is that it was (this was the southern hemisphere) pretty near mid-winter and hyacinths were WAY out of season, but I went in and out of various laboratories demanding to know who had the hyacinths and getting a lot of strange looks... until I realised that hyacinths were always a flower I had associated with my gran, and it was my birthday that day. So I said, "Thanks for coming to wish me a happy birthday, Grandma." And the loving ghost who had reached out to touch me left, and took the scent of hyacinth with her.
Other senses. The feel of wet sand on the seashore under my hands, making a sandcastle. The taste of quince jelly. The frost-sparkled outlines of deer tracks in the snow.
And it all comes flooding back.
I never knew how much detail I remembered about Africa until I started writing the "Houses in Africa" book - and then, once I had triggered that memory switch, back it all came, down to individual conversations, down to tones and nuances of those conversations. Some of them had taken place when I was ten or eleven years old - I wrote the book when I was thirty two. It's a long time to retain that kind of detail.
But detail is what I remember. I can't remember phone numbers, or how to derive theorems from first principles, or the accurate structurure of DNA at the chemical level - but I can remember what I wore on my 16th birthday, how I felt when my first story was published, how it felt to have my heart broken, words of love, words of hurt, the laughter of family long dead, the dialogue from dozens of movies, the exact swells and quietudes of pieces of classical music which I can't identify by name or composer I only know I know them, remember them.
Memory can be that specific. It can be just a concept, too, and morph into other things - into regret, or nostalgia, or a grudge, or a dream.
I'm grateful I can remember the sound of Octavia Butler's laugh. We have her books. We have her words. We have her legacy. But I have her laughter. It's a treasure. And it's memory.