Acting with Disruptive Compassion at Empathetic Intersections in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Talents

Barry, Rebecca, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ross, Marlon, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia

This thesis project posits Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents as a call to revise existing definitions of empathy, and to pivot toward a Black feminist ethic of care as a model for enacting substantive interpersonal and community change. Recent scholarship, including work by Namwali Serpell, Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and adrienne maree brown, has reevaluated empathy as a sometimes exploitative and nonconsensual mode of relationality whose hegemonic forms have been leveled at claiming marginalized experiences for realms of colonialist imaginations. Butler’s grim presentation of Olamina’s “hyperempathy syndrome” in Talents supports this critique, illustrating the unconscionable damage done by rendering permeable the boundaries of bodily dignity and emotional privacy. I propose that Olamina’s radical spiritual movement of Earthseed moves instead toward an alternative mode of relation which understands “feeling-with” as an imperative for actionable care, a mode which I call “disruptive compassion” in its ability to counter existing power dynamics, and in its praxis of moving to relieve another’s distress while respecting and dignifying their boundaries. Olamina’s linguistic shift in Talents away from societal perceptions of hyperempathy as “delusion” and toward “sharing” is both strategically advantageous for survival and a paradigmatic shift toward relation grounded in care: one which decenters abstracted uniformity in favor of honoring the aliveness and unique specificity of the self. My reading of Butler’s final imperative is the radical suggestion that in any given relational encounter, you—the self—must be the one to change first.

MA (Master of Arts)
Octavia Butler, care, empathy, relationality, spirituality, change, Black feminist ethics
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