The Words That Will Bring Us Through the Chaos

Octavia E. Butler's "Speech Sounds" got me through my father's death—now I turn to it in a time of national rebirth

Large sculptural quotation marks
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

I read Octavia E. Butler’s short story collection Bloodchild and Other Stories in the last year of my father’s life. He was in treatment for Stage IV colorectal cancer in Loma Linda, California—our home country of Malawi had only two oncologists at the time of his diagnosis in December 2016—and so I did a lot of reading on what effectively became my regular commute between Philadelphia, where I have lived for the last nine years, and Los Angeles, the nearest major airport to Loma Linda. The book was recommended to me by a friend from college when I’d gone to visit her in Michigan for her dissertation defense party, and I read the collection slowly over many flights to visit my father while he was in treatment, trips that became so frequent I quietly dubbed the route The Cancer Commute. 

The story that stuck with me the most, “Speech Sounds,” is set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles; the main character, Rye, has spent the last three years just surviving, but not much more than that. She lives alone, having lost her husband and three children to a disease that killed most of the population and left survivors either unable to speak or unable to read. Rye can still speak, and so she has lost her ability to read—but speaking is worse than useless, as she has no one else to talk to, and has learned over three years in the now-wasteland of Los Angeles that displaying her ability to speak would invite violently jealous aggression from others who could not. 

The Los Angeles of “Speech Sounds,” then, is in a near-total breakdown. When my family first moved back to our home country of Malawi from Canada after its troubled transition to democracy in 1994, there was a similar thread of breakdown that seemed to weave itself through everything. My new school had signs on the backs of its classroom doors with instructions for both fires and riots, and my new friends talked often about the violent unrest of the year before, when they’d had to hide in the school library as gunshots rang out in the neighborhood outside the school gates on a particularly violent day. Not wanting to appear soft in a new environment—in Canada the most unsettling thing to happen to anyone I’d known was a classmate having his bike stolen once—I stayed quiet through all of their recollections, and then asked my father some weeks later about what had happened before we’d returned to Malawi. 

My father’s assigned driver was rumored to have been a member of the former government’s paramilitary wing. After my father and two of my uncles were hijacked at gunpoint one night on their way home from a business trip, my father hired a bodyguard, too. They had been fortunate to survive their ordeal; three months later one of the guidance counselors at my school and her husband were also hijacked, but did not make it. My siblings and I never left the house after sunset: one of the few times I remember ever being allowed to go out at night in my adolescence was when I went to a school dance with a friend whose father owned the country’s best-known private security firm, and was personally in the car both to and from the school grounds. And if Dad had to drive by himself at night he always carried his gun with him. Thankfully he only had to use it once. 

Although I kept coming back to “Speech Sounds,” I really didn’t care for the main character, Rye. I think I found it annoying, grating even, that her existential baseline was so barely above survival, and that she seemed so hardened and cold, even if that orientation was understandable in the story’s context. In my own life while Dad was sick, though I often felt like I was barely going through the motions, I also tried to lean into joy when I could, whereas it seemed like Rye was almost allergic to it—assiduously protecting her solitude, insistently shirking the help of a man who could see she was in danger on the Washington Boulevard bus she’d attempted to board, until the looming threat of assault meant she had no choice but to allow him to protect her. 

Contrary to Rye, in that particular time of our family’s breakdown, I swung more energetically at life than I had before. I was in two friends’ weddings, as maid of honor in one and as the officiant of the other; I traveled for work events, I went to friends’ birthday dinners, I met colleagues for happy hours. It didn’t seem right that cancer, having already appropriated my father’s body and stolen our family’s future together, should also be able to obliterate the life I had spent years building into a castle of love and personal pride. And as clichéd as it sounds I look back on that time as a period of a life particularly well-lived, perhaps to the point of exhaustion or even past it, but with a determination I consider in retrospect to be admirable—no matter the disease’s chosen course, cancer would be insistently kept outside of the gates, unable to destroy the order I had so painstakingly constructed within. 

When states began instituting their formal stay-at-home orders in March, I found myself feeling concerned at how unconcerned I was. Not about COVID-19—it scared me then and scares me now. It was that folks around me seemed to be extraordinarily anxious about being in isolation, and I was not; I adapted immediately to it, with such ease that I realized this wasn’t quite new to me. With my parents being so protective of us in Malawi, my siblings and I were acculturated early to making our home our fortress; more recently, the final month of my father’s life in Loma Linda, October 2018, had effectively been its own quarantine, with our activities confined to our apartment building, the grocery store, and the hospital. 

My recollection of the importance of structure in chaos is what made going into isolation as easy as it was for me.

After nearly two years of building a life in Loma Linda around Dad’s illness, we had developed routines and structure that shepherded us through that time of cataclysm. My recollection of the importance of structure in chaos is what made going into isolation as easy as it was for me. I knew that routine was the difference between being able to get up and being emotionally flattened by the fearsome surrounding reality, and I quickly made an infinitely-habitable fortress of my Philadelphia apartment, which felt, at least in imagination, like it was keeping the danger outside at bay. I got up at the same time every day, showered and changed and brushed my teeth, ate the same food I always ate at the same time I always did, cleaned and laundered as I normally would have. I went shopping once a week at the local Giant Heirloom Market, and twice a month at the further away but still walkable Trader Joe’s; I went for daily walks, first in the evenings, then in the mornings as the weather became warmer. I took on volunteer work distributing lunch in my neighborhood with a Philly-area nonprofit, Mighty Writers, that teaches writing to pre-school through 12th grade students from underserved communities, and later accepted a teaching commission from them, to teach a virtual class on news literacy in the COVID-19 era. Even though I knew the disease was rattling at all of our gates, I really felt as though insistent routine would keep those gates firmly locked.

So when the protests against the killing of George Floyd began, I was oblivious in my apartment fortress to the violent unrest that rapidly followed; it was only when the curfew alert flashed across my phone screen that I realized that things must have become a lot more serious in Philly than I’d imagined. “Something must have popped off,” I murmured out loud, entirely to myself in my small one-bedroom apartment. And it very much had—a Google search revealed overturned police cruisers, smashed store fronts, burning cars, and violent clashes between cops and protesters. That night loud explosions were heard all over the city; the news the next day claimed that a cluster of ATMs had been blown up in a series of cash thefts, but the explosions have continued every night since, and those of us who live in the city think it must be something else.

Rye, too, kept assiduous order in her life, which is perhaps what took her so long to accept the help of the stranger just outside the Washington Boulevard bus. She has her routines—the house she stays in, the fresh food she grows, the canned food she forages for and stores. Her routines in her solitude are what have kept her alive, and she didn’t want to now have to think about potentially adding someone else into that mix. But the stranger—whom she privately calls Obsidian for the smooth black rock he shows her in lieu of a spoken name—is kind, and she realizes that she can either choose the risk of trusting him or the certainty of being assaulted by the other former bus passengers. For me, it wasn’t strangers I struggled to let in, but friends. During the lockdown, friends with cars offered to bring me groceries and I declined. When the city began to fall apart at the beginning of the protests and riots, two friends who lived outside the city separately called me to offer their places as temporary refuge, but I declined those offers, too. I would feel more disoriented at someone else’s house, even if far away from the chaos, than I then did in my apartment, and I needed the feeling of security more than I needed the actual certainty that I was far away from looming destruction. 

The hardness is her attempt to protect herself in a world where everything that used to protect her is gone.

In the first few months after Dad’s death I was like this too. Then, it wasn’t as much about needing to protect an established order; it was about protecting what little order I had left in my life since he’d left my life. I committed what little energy I had left after the whirlwind of the previous two years toward that project. I turned down all but the most meaningful invitations: I went to my friend Alex’s Passover Seder, but not drinks with an acquaintance who was briefly passing through the city; I went to my friend Jules’s wedding, but not for Saturday movie night at Josh and Lynn’s. I showed up at work, but barely did any, staring blankly at my screen for much of the day and taking walks often, occasionally going to cry in the tree-lined walkway around the corner from the office building. Keeping oriented and forward-facing was my full-time work back then; everything else felt like noise, like the fight that broke out on the Washington Boulevard bus that first brought Obsidian into Rye’s life. If Rye seemed cold at first encountering her in “Speech Sounds,” I finally came to understand that she was not so much cold as she was desperate not to fall apart; the coldness is merely her riot shield, the hardness is her attempt to protect herself in a world where everything that used to protect her is gone, as the person who most protected me in the world now was, too. 

The language of “Speech Sounds” is notably desolate and spare, skirting atop the surface of the action, saying only the most necessary words to convey meaning. But one gets the sense that even if she were able to safely speak in a way that others could understand, Rye still wouldn’t have the words for her particular grief: at her entire family lost, at her former self destroyed by the illness, at the world around her having disintegrated into a worst case scenario version of itself. Perhaps, in ceasing to speak, she is recreating the safety and security that was ripped from her when the virus first took hold three years before. Her silence protects her, in other words, and my memory of that final year with Dad—especially the last six months—feels similarly protectively silent.

By then, Dad’s exhaustion had begun to steal his mind from him. We could no longer talk the way we used to, long into the night, over a bowl of fresh fruit in the living room while watching an Al Jazeera documentary special, or in the kitchen over a cup of tea. He would instead sleep nearly all day, and when he wasn’t asleep he said very little, his sentences more and more clipped, his focus disappearing mid-thought. I found myself having to slow down my speech, make my voice slightly louder, sometimes explaining things multiple times, all of which felt searingly painful. My father had four degrees—five if you counted his intermediary masters on the way to gaining his Ph.D.—and part of the closeness in our relationship, complex as it was, had been the constant feeling of playing catch-up to the speed of his mind. It wasn’t so much that I was dismayed at having caught up to him—it was that he had started to leave the race, but not of his own will.

I learned to stop trying so hard to speak in a way that he could easily comprehend, and to just be glad to be silently in his company.

Cancer, between the disease itself and exhaustion of the treatment regimen, was effectively shorting out his body and his mind. By June of 2018—four months before he died—I learned to stop trying so hard to speak in a way that he could easily comprehend, and to just be glad to be silently in his company, whether he was awake or asleep. I’d queue up the various afternoon Judge shows he and my mother had come to enjoy hate-watching—“these people have nothing better to do than cause trouble for themselves?” he used to say on the increasingly rare occasions that he was awake at that time—and would have them on in the background while he slept. Occasionally I would also cook while watching those shows, either the lunch he’d missed while napping or else early dinner preparation; it was something I began to do a lot more in my final visits in those final months. Perhaps cooking for him was a way of telling him I loved him without me having to speak the words. Nonetheless I began to miss my father a long time before his body decided it had finally had enough, on the final Monday in October, just as the day’s last rays disappeared over the nearby San Bernardino mountains.

Whenever I was back home visiting my parents in Malawi, Dad always seemed to be several steps ahead of the latest threatened boit of chaos. Not just through his job and connections, but also because of his sharp instincts about the directions that any imminent winds of chaos might bend in. Whenever he spoke of approaching trouble—electricity and fuel shortages, a rash of violent robberies, death threats from the government after voicing his opinion too loudly again—he always made light of it, because he’d already assessed it and figured out what he was going to do with it by the time he vocalized his thoughts. The levity he applied to situations like that was not mere levity, but home policy: whatever was going on in the world outside our walls, it wouldn’t be allowed to destabilize us within them. I thus always understood danger in Malawi to be something that happened around us, but never directly to us. Now in this moment the U.S. I didn’t know whether to believe the danger was merely acting around me, or would soon be upon me. 

The atmosphere in Philadelphia was charged—charged with excitement, charged with anger, charged with nerves. What I did not expect, though, was to find my days charged with grief. I cried in the mornings, I cried listening to my favorite playlists, and had the class I teach on Tuesdays been a college class and not a class of teenagers with a Philadelphia non-profit, I would have canceled class that day, the first Tuesday after the protests began. I didn’t know where it was coming from. I am a Black woman in America, and to live in this body in this country is, on an existential level, to live inside an American-made cauldron of grief every day. I am used to that. And I was enraged at white America for it having had to take watching a man’s life be slowly choked out of him by the unrelenting knee of an agent of the law before they would believe that racial oppression in America didn’t end with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. But it wasn’t all of that that was making me cry. 

To live in this body in this country is, on an existential level, to live inside an American-made cauldron of grief every day.

Then I had a particularly vivid dream of my father, in the middle of that first week of nightly curfews and explosions. Nothing particularly special happened in the dream—he was going somewhere, and I was following him; he looked healthy, pre-cancer healthy, which I was happy about, as for a long time my dreams of him were only of him in his cancer-stricken body. He was happy in the dream, I remember that, and glad to see me, but we never made it to where we were going, because I woke up. And in that moment of waking, that drop of my heart when I realized he wasn’t really here, I simultaneously understood exactly why I was so wracked with grief as potent as those first weeks after he died—because for the first time since he died I felt palpably unsafe. I had to find out on my own the information my father would have once found out for me; attempt to rest assured in my own political threat analyses when I would have asked him for his; plan my own stockpiling, when he would have once just sent me a list without me even asking for it. In a time of real danger he wasn’t here to protect me against what might be coming.

For a brief moment in “Speech Sounds,” Rye begins to dream of a life for herself and Obsidian: “Now she did not have to go to Pasadena… Now she did not have to find out for certain whether she was as alone as she feared. Now she was not alone.” It was in these moments, with her guard down, that I liked her the most; every time I’ve re-read the story, especially in the early period after Dad died, I insistently liked her best in the parts where she admitted to herself that she didn’t want to tough life out by herself anymore. Maybe because it was what I needed to do for myself; even as I didn’t have much energy for people, I simultaneously secretly wished for my shell of grief to be not just embraced as so many friends did do, but to be shattered, to stop feeling as though I was walking in a universe parallel to the one everyone around me was in, everything that had held meaning to me suddenly feeling hollow, any language I had standing insufficient to the circumstance. 

But Rye’s reason to live turns out not to be Obsidian—he ends up being murdered, just moments after she had been fantasizing about their future together. Her reason to live turns out to be the two children of the unknown woman he was killed trying to protect—children Rye tries to leave behind at first, for fear of once again having hope snatched away from her just as quickly as it arrived. But she realizes she has to go back for them, as without an adult to protect them they would be unlikely to survive: “She would have to take the children home with her. She would not be able to live with any other decision.” In returning for the children—as well as the bodies of their mother and of Obsidian, so she can bury them in her backyard—Rye reconnects herself with core elements of her pre-illness world: caring for children, burying the dead. And it is critical that this moment occurs immediately after the moment where she nearly severs her connection to that same world, in considering leaving all four bodies, both living and dead, behind. Moving forward despite grief and loss is like that—eventually finding new things to care for, while simultaneously seeking to revive the parts of oneself thought to be lost to the immediate task of survival. The months immediately after Dad died were filled with such moments for me, too: fork-in-the-road moments in which I had to choose to lean into the life around me, or to reject it. I chose, in most cases, the actions that brought me back into the world of the living again, figuring my heart would catch up in time. Largely, it did.

As Rye begins to move the children’s mother toward her car, the dead woman’s daughter suddenly screams, “No!” In shock, Rye drops the body; she realizes the children can speak, and in that moment her blind faith that taking them home with her would be the only right thing to do crystalizes instantly into purpose. Importantly, though, her new understanding of her life’s meaning arrived after her decision to live. And perhaps my own instinctive understanding of how purpose in a life can often show up after the decision to just do something is what drove me to keep moving, too—whether trucking through my ongoing grief, or sorting through the chaos of this particular moment in history. Her reason for actively living, rather than merely surviving, arrived through Obsidian, but not directly from him; perhaps the hole that is left in us when someone we love leaves us is not a mortal wound, then, but a door. Rye doesn’t know if the children are immune to the disease or if it has simply run its course and any children born after its initial impact are unaffected. But she also doesn’t care—she simply wants to take care of them, to protect them and teach them what she knows. The last line of “Speech Sounds” is Rye telling the two kids she has taken home with her, “It’s okay for you to talk to me.” If we choose to walk through the door that loss creates, our lives might very well find new light.

In these protests it is not that people have finally spoken: most have been speaking for a long time, and some for their whole lives.

In the protests, the country heard the protesters’ grief. For a life forced brutally to its end by an agent of the state; for all the lives lost before whose worth had been so casually written off, the truths of their deaths overwritten. For all the lives still being lived, that have been silently consigned by the state to that same continuum of perceived worthlessness and ongoing historical disregard. I was too far away from any of the protests to be able to audibly hear them, yet they nonetheless felt loud, as booming as the explosion sounds displacing those early summer nights. But if the nighttime explosions rattled me, then the daytime protests rattled the country, and thus I was—even at my most scared—deeply glad. The images coming through my phone screen hour by hour felt apocalyptic (one of the students in my class later said he believed we were actually in the end times, living out the prophecy of the Book of Revelation) but a necessary apocalypse, an end to a world where a part of the population binds brutality with silence and the other part are commanded to comply. In these protests it is not that people have finally spoken: some of them have, certainly, but most have been speaking for a long time, and some for their whole lives. It is that this particular death—which happened in the eye of an unprecedented countrywide shutdown for which the entire country was brought to a standstill, and in that national silence was forced to finally see truth—shattered the comprehension barrier between speakers and their willfully unhearing audience. Finally, the audience heard the speakers; and finally, the audience began themselves to speak out, too. Thus grief brought comprehension, unsteady as it still feels, and even the possibility of hope, despite our remembrance of so many past hopes for real change shattered. Hope in the life of the nation we live in, hope in the newly-bound lives of the children and Rye.

At the end of the class that happened during the first week of the protests, one of my students asked me, “Do you think things are going to get better?” No, I wanted to say. It’s going to get a lot worse. Except I couldn’t; the average age in the class is 15, and as hopeless as I felt it felt wrong to bring them along in my hopelessness. They’re too young. Three of the students’ screens had the video cut; the other three stared at me expectantly, and I understood, staring back at them, that what I said in that moment mattered more than I’d ever meant it to when I had first accepted the class assignment six weeks prior. “It’s going to get complicated,” I said. “But with everything you have all told me in class I am really confident that you all are going to be a part of making it better, and together we will.” The student who had asked the question nodded a little and leaned back, and I took that to be as good a sign of approval as I would ever get.  And, in seeing their belief, I found myself—despite my own decided lack of hope—believing it too.

My father enjoyed the feeling of triumphing over chaos; to him, becoming derailed by unexpected circumstances wasn’t an acceptable human reality so much as it indicated a personal failure to appropriately adapt to one’s reality. But cancer was a chaos that none of us could triumph over despite our best routines and best battle strategies, and now I live in a world without him. Yet he is the one who taught me how to built fortresses amidst disorientation, how to pluck life’s solutions out of chaos; in those ways he never left, and in those ways he gave me the ability to turn on my own capacity for protection, and bring it to the students I have come to really care about. Rye will bury Obsidian and the toddlers’ mother in her backyard next to her husband and children, but as brief as his sojourn through her life was, he will not leave her either; thanks to his decision to protect her in the moment she badly needed it, she has now arrived in the children’s lives to do the same for them. He will always be there, guiding her protective hand. And though my father is now buried in the garden behind his parents’ house he will always be here too, gently pressing his own protective hand into the sunlight around my fortress, encouraging me to continue to speak. 

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