I had seen the prose version of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred on our shelves for quite a while now and it had slowly turned into one of the “I’ll get to it later” books (you can imagine just about how many books I have on that list). Well in the time it took me to not read the prose version, Damian Duffy and John Jennings came out with the graphic novel adaptation which I devoured over two afternoons.
The story follows Dana, an intelligent and brave black woman, and her husband Kevin (who is white). Dana and Kevin live in 1976 and are just moving into their new apartment when Dana is struck by a sudden and intense bout of dizziness. When the feeling subsides, she finds herself rescuing a little red-haired boy named Rufus from drowning. It is the early 1800s and Rufus is the white son of the slave owner Tom Weylin. Later Dana will be called every time Rufus finds himself in life threatening danger (which is quite often). What translates as several months or even years in the past ranges from a few minutes to a few weeks in 1976, adding to Dana’s increasingly paranoid state as she does not know when she will vanish. Dana finds out that Rufus Weylin is an ancestor of hers who had children with a slave named Alice, also one of Dana’s ancestors. As such, Dana is determined to make sure that no permanent harm comes to Rufus and that her existence in the past does not jeopardize her family tree. As Rufus grows older, Dana must contend with the fact that he is a slave owner’s son and that no matter how hard she tries; there are some things she just can’t change about history.
The duo behind this graphic novel is Damian Duffy, the adaptor, and John Jennings, the artist. Both Duffy and Jennings have long worked to promote the work of black artists and as Duffy explains in the blog posts on his website, Kindred is a project that has excited both of them for several years (he’s done an entire set of blog posts on the entire project and they make for a fascinating read at http://damianduffy.net/blog/).
Jennings’s art is rough and kinetic, each panel and figure reflecting the danger and uncertainty of the time while making the emotions of each character almost palpable in their depiction and simultaneously making sure they don’t lose their humanity. I imagine paragraphs in the prose version that may be spent developing Rufus’s character and his moral ambiguity are represented here in uncertain facial expressions and dialogues that convey Rufus and Dana’s hesitance around each other as they both are drawn to being friends while also being kept separate by the inescapable circumstances of pre-Civil War Maryland. Duffy and Jennings’s respect for their source material is evident as Kindred feels like a commendable standalone work, it does not require any prior knowledge of the novel making it justifiably a New York Times bestseller.
Butler’s original novel has had quite an impact on fans of science fiction, people of colour, and those who identify as both, as evidenced by Nnedi Okorafor’s introduction which helps us place the original text in terms of its importance. It gave black people a voice in a genre where they were unused to seeing themselves or their stories and allowed others to dream that they too could write like this while also highlighting a dark period in American history. That the story is sad and the ending inevitable goes without saying, it is impossible to imagine Dana escaping the past unscathed. However, this invitation to revisit the horrors of slavery and the terrible acts humans inflicted on each other is unfortunately as pertinent an issue today in Pakistan as it is in America and this graphic novel thus becomes one we must all pay attention to, regardless of where we find ourselves placed in the world.
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