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Nalo Hopkinson

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Brown girl in the ring

How a Caribbean-born writer reinvented a genre

Brown girl in the ring
She’s a brown girl in the ring
Brown girl in the ring
She looks like a little sugar plum.

– Traditional Caribbean children’s rhyme

Nalo HopkinsonWhen Nalo Hopkinson, Canada’s popular fantasy fiction writer, first learned that her favourite sci-fi novelist, Samuel R. Delany, was black, she cried. This was back in the early 1990s, when Hopkinson first considered embarking upon a writing career. She had read Delany’s novel Dhalgren and had been mightily impressed.

“Delany’s protagonist is a character who represents everything the mainstream world tells you is bad,” she told me recently. “He’s queer, poor, and coloured. Also, a man who in the Caribbean we would call mad. Yet, the novel valued his life.”

“So what was it that made you cry?” I asked. “Did Delany give you permission to write?”

“Not permission,” Hopkinson answered. “Company. My universe had doubled in size.”

Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica in 1960 and lived in several Caribbean countries and the United States before settling in Canada in 1975. She is the author of three stunningly original novels that have earned her a following of avid fans – and critical acclaim. Her second book, Midnight Robber, published in 2000, earned Hugo and Nebula nominations and was named a New York Times notable book of the year. Over the phone from Vancouver, where she is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, one can hear in her voice the dancing rhythms of her various island homes – and the source for the arresting music of her prose. Hopkinson’s Caribbean-flavoured fantasies – with their sing-song accents and ironic phrasings, their futuristic posturings and historical intent, attract and startle sci-fi readers. It is obvious that she has changed the rules of the game. Whereas conventional science fiction has tended to draw on classical European traditions, Hopkinson constructs her worlds from African culture.

“I often wonder what kind of metaphors for science fiction would emerge out of Caribbean and African folklore,” Hopkinson says. “For instance, in West African religious mythology, Aishu is the deity that wants to go everywhere and see everything. I thought Aishu was a perfect metaphor for AI – artificial intelligence – [so] I used it in my novel Midnight Robber.”

Brown Girl in the Ring, the title of Hopkinson’s first novel (published by Warner Books in the U.S. in 1998), is taken from the Caribbean vernacular. It refers to a popular circle game in which a group of girls form a circle while one of them dances in the centre.

In science fiction, a literature in which humans are traditionally white and aliens, by definition, are other, Hopkinson makes black women’s “otherness” normal. It may sound paradoxical, but as far as she is concerned sci-fi and fantasy are the only genres that realistically depict the lives of outsiders.

“I tend not to read what I would call ‘mimetic’ fiction or fiction that is imitating reality. In mimetic fiction the world is not reflecting me back to myself.… I grew up so depressed, I felt there was no room for me in the world. Reading mimetic fiction just feels to me like more depression.”

Hopkinson makes the significant point that people who are not reflected in the culture in which they live can become bitterly lonely. It is certainly one reason she feels compelled to write fantasy fiction. Another is her belief that science fiction suggests the possibility of a universal paradigm shift: “In a world that systematically tells me I’m not good enough,” says Hopkinson, “science fiction offers models for change. This is immensely hopeful.”

That is why Hopkinson’s novels, which feature oppressed black women attempting to survive difficult – sometimes dire – lives, are liberally speckled with joy. Her new book, The Salt Roads, which will be released in November by Warner (and distributed in Canada by H.B. Fenn), introduces three such characters: Mer, a respected slave on an 18th-century plantation in St. Domingue (Haiti); Jeanne Duval, the black mistress of the poet Baudelaire; and Meritet, a Nubian princess who becomes St. Mary of Egypt. All three figures are inhabited, in their different eras, by incarnations of Ezili, African goddess of love and sex. On the plantation, Mer endures a steady diet of cruelty and meagre rations. Even so, she adores Tipingee, the slavewoman who is her friend and her lover. While Tipingee and Mer enjoy passionate sex, Tipingee is still very much in love with her husband. A similar sexual triangle in the novel involves Baudelaire, his lover Jeanne, and Jeanne’s lesbian lover. Readers may be surprised at the novel’s explicit sex scenes. But Hopkinson is eager to demonstrate the full humanity of the slaves. She wants to show that they experienced love and sex, not just sadness and pain.

“In The Salt Roads, I wanted to show some kind of joy for these women,” Hopkinson says. “Duval actually died of syphilis. It ravaged her body. All her hair fell out. Still, I wanted to show her as somebody who loved and who needed to be loved.”

Hopkinson first read about the relationship between Duval and Baudelaire in a short story entitled “Black Venus,” by the writer Angela Carter. What scant evidence Hopkinson was able to gather about the woman’s life was culled from Baudelaire’s letters to his mother. She has managed to piece together an intriguing account of Duval, which led to an exploration of a little-known aspect of French history: the population of former slaves and their descendants in 19th-century Nantes.

One of Hopkinson’s goals in The Salt Roads is to alter the African experience through time and space. However, she is the first to admit that the presence of Ezili’s mystical spirit may not be enough to categorize the work as science fiction. Magic realism may be a more apt description.

“I think the novel will creak the genre a little,” she says. “Fantasy tends to happen outside the real world. You fall down a rabbit hole. Magic realism is right here. Things happen a little outside of the ordinary but it fits within a person’s ability to believe.”

For most readers, science fiction is like black licorice – you love it or you hate it. But Hopkinson writes the kind of stories that transcend literary boundaries. Her womanist perspective sits her squarely alongside Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Her anthropological leanings are as much Zora Neale Hurston as Ursula Le Guin. And her preoccupation with exile and the Caribbean powerfully evokes Jamaica Kincaid. Interestingly, Hopkinson says she has read very little in the way of African American literature.

Nor is she a particularly disciplined writer. “I get up every day and I turn on the computer. I mean to write, but I often don’t. Being my own secretary takes up much of my day. And besides, I hate to work. Only guilt and deadlines can motivate me to write.”

Still, Hopkinson has been relatively prolific since her first book was published (she’s written three novels and a collection of short fiction, and edited two story collections), and is as devoted to her genre as any sci-fi fan. But she continues to wonder when this increasingly significant genre will earn the respect she believes it deserves. For several years, Hopkinson has been searching for a graduate school that offers a master’s of fine arts in science fiction: “I have looked and looked,” she says, “and I couldn’t find a university in the world. Some of the schools even had clear proscriptions against science fiction. They say it is commercial and formulaic, that it is not considered literature.”

She finds the same kind of prejudice prevalent everywhere within the book industry. “Most of the respected literary journals will not review or publish science fiction,” she explains. “Most literary publishers will not publish it except perhaps if it’s euphemistically called something else. Many of the prestigious literary awards will not consider it. Many mainstream writers who occasionally write science fiction take pains to publicly distance themselves from the genre. Journalists think it’s appropriate to ask us questions such as whether we believe we’ve been abducted by aliens. This all negatively affects the writers and the field.” Hopkinson goes on to describe a respected and talented author of realistic fiction she knows who’s written a fantasy novel that his publisher refuses to accept for publication. “They do not want to ‘tarnish’ his reputation,” she says.

In the end, Hopkinson did complete a master’s in popular fiction from Seaton Hill in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. But unlike an MFA, it doesn’t enable her to teach at the university level.

Teaching provides a chief source of secondary income for Hopkinson, though it follows that science fiction writers tend to snag the less prestigious – and less lucrative – positions. Although Hopkinson says she currently earns enough income to support herself, her financial situation is tight. “My problem is cash flow,” she says. “And the fact that I have to pay for all those years of being broke. But I am fairly optimistic, since my income is going up.”

That may have something to do with the high expectations surrounding the new book. Donald Maass, Hopkinson’s New York agent, originally sold the book to Warner’s science fiction imprint, but it was passed on to the company’s main division because the Warner Aspect editor believed it had crossover appeal. On the eve of the book’s release, Hopkinson is now preparing for the biggest tour of her career. “The entire house has really thrown their support behind the book,” she says. “They are sending me to Halifax, Miami, Chicago, New York, and Washington – 10 cities altogether.”

Writing has a long history in Hopkinson’s family. Her father, Slade,was a professor of classical literature and an actor and poet of some renown. Her mother was a librarian. Their home was always filled with books. Hopkinson read whatever volume she came across, including Homer and Shakespeare. “I didn’t know it was supposed to be too hard for me,” she says. “If I came to a part I didn’t understand I just skipped over.” Hopkinson also read Gulliver’s Travels as a little girl, and never considered its social implications. “I could just read for the story,” she says, sounding vaguely nostalgic.

Her introduction to science fiction came when she was about eight. That’s when she discovered a pile of dusty Playboy magazines under the boarder’s bed. One of the first reputable magazines to print good science fiction, Playboy was where Hopkinson first read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

Another early influence was her father’s acting career. Slade Hopkinson worked alongside Nobel Prize laureate Derek Walcott at the region’s seminal Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Nalo’s parents were exceedingly strict and she and her younger brother were rarely allowed to play with other children. But they did look forward to the salons at which their father and his friends would perform, where “stories came alive,” she says.

Hopkinson also absorbed the biting vernacular humour of Miss Louise Bennett (“Miss Lou”), still considered Jamaica’s first lady of poetry. Some of her poems remain with Hopkinson today, like these lines from “Colonizin in Reverse”:

Wat a joyful news, mis Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in reverse…

What an islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old an young
Jus a pack dem bag and baggage
An turn history upside dung!…

What a devilment a Englan!
Dem face war an brave de worse,
But me wonderin how dem gwine stan
Colonizin in reverse.

With such a vital literary start it might seem that Hopkinson had no choice but to become a writer. But the idea penetrated only slowly, long after she settled in Canada, finished high school, and completed a degree in Russian and French. “I was not often aware of my thinking processes in those days,” she recalls. “Yes, I can remember reading some fantasy novels, and looking at the folklore, and thinking, yes, Caribbean people do have their own legends. And I can remember thinking, every so often, that particular sentence would sound better written another way. But these thoughts were fleeting. I would shut them down as soon as they came. Most of the time I was lonely.”

Now, in a way that surprises Hopkinson no less than anyone else, she is contributing to those legends herself, and her work has become the benchmark for a new school of fantasy writers. And for the foreseeable future, Nalo Hopkinson’s lonely days are gone.